His then-current book was Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax. He stated that more people died on that last half-day of the Great War, for no particular strategic purpose, than died on D-Day (June 6, 1944) in World War II.
Persico talked about the process of researching and writing his books, which I found instructive in writing this blog.
While working on My Enemy, My Brother: Men and Days of Gettysburg (1996), he sought to pin down who fired the first shot in this pivotal Civil War battle. He believed he’d finally found the answer. He brought this to a gentleman at the Gettysburg Memorial who had provided invaluable assistance. The gentleman replied, “That’s one version.”
Persico interviewed Charles Collingsworth, one of “Murrow’s Boys” for Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (1988). At one point Collingsworth asked him to shut off the tape recorder, which Persico did. Collingsworth then told of Murrow’s affair with Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill (later Pamela Harriman), which almost wrecked Murrow’s marriage. Persico decided that Collingsworth wanted him to have the story, but didn’t want people to know that the information came from the now late newsman. Persico used the information in the book.
As a speechwriter for the former New York State Governor and US Vice-President, Persico had unusual access to Nelson Rockefeller. The author was waiting for Rocky to finish a lengthy meeting with black housing leaders. Finally, the exhausted official collapsed into a chair, looking haggard, and exclaimed, “Amos ‘n’ Andy got it right.” (For those of you too young to understand the reference, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a controversial radio and television program in the 1940s and 1950s.) Persico wrote this comment down at the time. He put it in the first draft of his book The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller, then took it out, then put it back in, ultimately leaving it out. He decided that the then-governor lashed out in frustration that was out of character, and would provide a distorted view of the man.
In that same book, he had to deal with how Rocky died. He was with a 22-year old assistant that Persico knew. Not to mention it would have made it “look like the book was authorized by the Rockefeller Foundation.” He told the tale succinctly, never mentioning the woman’s name (nor did he mention Megan Marshack by name in his talk.)
Persico co-authored Colin Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey. He believes his most important jobs were to keep in what was interesting to a broad audience and to delete what was not. In Powell’s case, the general wanted to put in a few sentences about his two tours of Vietnam. Persico found this not practical, given its import in American life. Conversely, Powell was a policy wonk, very proud of a report he had made. Persico argued that the audience would not be as interested in this story as he was, and the story was excised.
I enjoyed the talk, though I was troubled briefly that he thought I was there ONLY because I was on the Friends board. I do wish that more folks were present. It WAS a lovely Saturday afternoon outside, though, and that is tough competition in a spring that has been unseasonably cool and wet.
Joseph Persico died on August 30, 2014. He would have been 85 today.
This was an edited version of my post of May 27, 2005.