At the end of this narrative, certain guilty people go free. You may even feel I’m one of them. Some will pay, while others will not, enjoying the unearned happy remainders of their lives. And any reader inclined to dismiss everything ahead as a conspiracy theory might keep in mind that conspiracy—like robbery and rape, murder and treason—is a real crime on the books. History, I’m afraid, is a mystery story without a satisfying resolution.
The sullen sky seemed to know something we didn’t. Fog lingered over a wind-riled sea under a gray ceiling while a mist kept spitting at us like a cobra too bored to strike. Gun-metal breakers shooting white sparks rolled in like dares or maybe warnings.
It was a lousy day at Malibu Beach, so of course Bob Kennedy was helping his ten-year-old son Michael build a sandcastle while twelve-year-old David swam against the tide—like Mr. Toad, going nowhere in particular—and nine-year-old Mary and eleven-year-old Courtney laughed and danced in the relentless surf.
U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy wore an unlikely loud pair of Hawaiian swim trunks and a nubby short-sleeve shirt as light blue as his eyes. I had on borrowed red swim trunks and my own Navy blue polo, the patriotic complement of my pale Irish complexion undone by a tan realized lazing around the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel on better days.
I was, and for that matter still am, Nathan Heller, president and founder of the
A-1 Detective Agency out of Chicago, putting time in at our Los Angeles branch. In such instances the Pink Palace (as the Beverly Hills Hotel was known) provided me with a bungalow, a perk for the A-1 handling their security. I’d come out this afternoon to this private stretch of sand at my friend Bob’s request. None of us called him Bobby, by the way. Not even Ethel, who was in the beach house playing Scrabble with two other kids of theirs, sixteen-year-old Kathleen and fifteen-year-old Joe. Normally all of them would be frolicking in the California sun, only of course there wasn’t any. The wife and older siblings had shown enough sense to come in out of the chill wind off the ocean, away from fog drifting over the water like the smoke of a distant fire.
Bob Kennedy was forty-two and I was a year younger than Cary Grant, a fit 185 pounds with my reddish brown hair graying only at the temples. Bob was fit too, five ten and slender, wiry in that way that keeps you going. But he’d been campaigning his ass off and had admitted to me he’d damn near collapsed after doing 1,200 miles in twelve hours—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Watts, San Diego and back to L.A.
"Ethel and I slept till ten today," he’d admitted.
I was here filling in. Ex-FBI man Bill Barry had come down with Montezuma’s Revenge after the Cesar Chavez swing, and tonight at the Ambassador Hotel I would mostly be at Ethel’s side when her husband was braving crowds. I was already wishing I hadn’t said yes and the frosty breakers rolling in and the spitting wind had nothing to do with it.
Bob had called last night.
I said, "Bill was in charge of security, right?"
That familiar nasal high-pitched voice came back with, "Uh, right. That’s right."
"How many people does he have working for him?"
"What does that mean, none?"
"Bill’s all the security I need."
"Oh, that’s crazy. I can bring half a dozen guys along and—"
"No. The hotel took on extra guards. They have something like seventeen men in uniform lined up."
"Okay. How much LAPD presence?"
"Does that mean the same thing as the other ‘none’?"
"It does. Nate, police presence sends the wrong message. Anyway, I, ah, am not on the best of terms with Chief Reddin."
"Oh, He’ll be there, pursuant to availability."
That caustic sense of humor often caught me off guard, and before I could muster a comeback, he said quickly, "Come out and have lunch with us around noon and we’ll talk more."
He’d already told me he was staying at film director John Frankenheimer’s. My name would be left at the guard shack where you entered the Malibu Colony. Well, at least the director of Seven Days in May maintained some security.
The two girls in their swim caps and one-piece swimsuits were splashing each other and laughing and now and then their joyful yelps would escalate into little girlish screams.
Bob tousled Michael’s hair and left him in charge of castle building, then joined me on our towel-spread patch of beach.
"That’s the one consolation if I lose," he said.
That famous boyish face had deep lines now and the blond-tinged brown hair had gray highlights.
"What consolation is that?"
"Spending more time with my kids."
"You really think you might lose?"
He shrugged a little. "Touch and go. And if I do win, there’ll be a world of bitterness to overcome."
"McCarthy you mean."
Bob nodded. "Already a lot of resentment from Gene and, uh, his young supporters."
"Tell me about it," I said. "My son is campaigning for him."
"Good for him. How old is Sam now?"
"Twenty-two. Another year of college and he’ll be draft fodder."
Bob’s mouth tightened. "Not if I can help it."
Sam, my only child, was a senior taking Business Administration at USC. He still lived at home in Bel Air with my ex-wife and her film director husband, who was no John Frankenheimer but did all right. When I was in town, Sam would bunk in with me at my Pink Palace bungalow. We’d go to movies, concerts, sporting events; he’d let his old man buy him good meals. We got along well.
"Fuck you, Dad!" he’d said this morning.
I had just told him about my call from Bob. That I’d be working security for the RFK campaign tonight.
Sam was a good-looking kid, by which I mean he resembled me, excluding his shoulder-length hair and mustache (and McCarthy for President t-shirt and bell-bottom jeans). I suppose twenty-two wasn’t really a kid, but when you’re a year younger than Cary Grant, it seems like it. We rarely argued and hadn’t talked politics beyond both being against the war in Vietnam, neither of us wanting him to go off and die in a rice paddy.
I hadn’t discouraged his work for the McCarthy campaign. And when Bob announced his candidacy, late in the game, I didn’t reveal how I felt about the two Democratic candidates... that I considered RFK way more electable than that aloof cold fish Eugene McCarthy. Richard Nixon, who had been batting away all comers in the Republican primaries, was a tough, seasoned candidate who’d be hard to beat, though his lack of charisma would be a boon to a Kennedy running against him.
We were in the living room of my pink-stucco bungalow, a modest little number with rounded beige and brown furniture, vaulted ceiling, fireplace, and sliding glass doors onto a patio. I was on the couch and my son stood ranting and raving before me.
"Haven’t we had enough of these goddamn Kennedys? Eugene McCarthy puts his career on the line, takes on a sitting president and shows America that evil S.O.B. LBJ is vulnerable! Your Bobby sees what Senator McCarthy has pulled off and decides to just, just...horn right in!"
"I’m not going to argue with you, son."
"Of course not, because you know damn well that Bobby Kennedy doesn’t have a single solitary idea, much less a plan, on how to get us out of the goddamn Vietnam quagmire!"
I sighed. "McCarthy can’t beat Nixon, Sam. Hell, he can’t beat Hubert Humphrey for the nomination. But Bob could beat ’em both."
Sam was pacing now. "How long ago was it your ‘Bob’ was saying he’d back Johnson, despite all the anti-Vietnam talk? He’s a phony, Dad. A goddamn fucking phony. Just another politician. Another Kennedy."
The last thing I wanted in the world was for my son to go to Vietnam. But sometimes I thought the military wouldn’t be such a bad experience for him.
Of course, he’d have to live through it.
"This isn’t worth us working ourselves into a lather," I said. "Bob is an old friend, and he’s in a jam with his security guy dropping out. This is just a job, a favor really, for a friend."
His chin crinkled; he looked like a baby with a mustache. "Are you going to vote for McCarthy if he gets the nomination?"
"Are you going to vote for Humphrey if he gets it?"
His eyebrows rose and hid in his hair. "Fuck no! Why even vote in that case?"
"Oh, I don’t know. To save your spoiled ass?"
He threw his hands up in sullen surrender. "I’ll get my things. You’re heading back to Chicago tomorrow, right? I’m going back home now. Good fucking bye."
I could have told him what I believed would happen, which Bob Kennedy surely already knew. Even if Bob won delegate-rich California, that left New York, where many resented the way he’d put his presidential bid above his senatorial duties. Bob did not have a lock on the convention by any means, but even if the Kennedy magic and emotion didn’t sway the delegates to him, he could almost certainly squeeze the vice presidency out of Humphrey and move that old liberal away from Johnson’s war policy and onto the RFK anti-war view.
The presidency would be Bob’s, though maybe not till 1976—a year that had a ring to it. But what did I know about politics, except that aldermen could be bribed?
Sitting next to me on the beach with his knees up, Bob said casually, "I’m thinking of offering McCarthy secretary of state."
"Gene or Joe?"
Bob’s laugh was short but explosive. "A dead secretary of state would be easier to handle."
Even now Bob took heat over his time as a counsel on McCarthy’s infamous investigative committee; but he’d always stayed loyal to Tailgunner Joe, who was a longtime friend of the Kennedy family. Less well-known was that Bob had gathered the facts that guaranteed McCarthy’s censure by the Senate."With everything at stake," I said, "you seem pretty cool-headed to me."
"There’s a reason for that."
He was looking at the sea or maybe his kids or both. "Much as I dislike campaigning, it’s going well. I get a good feeling from the people—finally they’re not wishing I were Jack...or imagining I am him. I think I’m finally out of my brother’s shadow. Making it on my own."
"You are, Bob. You really are."
His eyes turned shyly my way. "Nate, I, uh...know we’ve had our differences. The, uh, Marilyn situation in particular. All the Castro nonsense. My judgment wasn’t always...well, I appreciate you putting that behind us. Still my friend. Helping me out."
"Don’t work so hard," I said. "I already stopped and voted on my way here."
That Bugs Bunny grin. "Ah. But how did you vote?"
I allowed him half a grin in return. "That’s between me and my conscience. Of course you know what my conscience is."
A nod brought his hunk of hair in front along with it. "That gun you carry. An ancient nine millimeter Browning, isn’t it?"
His look said he remembered the weapon’s significance: my father killed himself with it when I disappointed him by joining the Chicago PD and dancing the Outfit’s tune for a time.
"I think your father would be proud," he said, "of how you turned out."
"Not sure you’re right. But your father surely must be pleased."
"Hard to tell. Hard to tell."
The old boy’s ability to speak had been impaired since his stroke almost ten years before.
Bob’s eyes went to the sea again. "But, uh, about that conscience of yours. The artillery I mean."
"What about it?"
"You still carry it?"
"I don’t want you doing that tonight."
My laugh was reflexive. "Well, surely Bill Barry’s been packing all this time."
"No." The voice was firm, the blue eyes on me now, ice cold and unblinking. "I haven’t allowed it and he’s honored my request."
"Well, I’m not about to!"
His chin neared his chest. "Look, there’s no way to protect a candidate on the stump. No way in hell. And if I’m lucky enough to be elected, there’ll be no bubble-top bulletproof limo like Lyndon’s using. What kind of country is that to live in? Where the President is afraid to go out among the people?"
I was shaking my head, astounded. "Jesus, Bob, what kind of morbid horseshit is that?"
He stared past me with a small ghastly smile. "Each day every man and woman lives a game of Russian roulette. Car wrecks, plane crashes, choke on a fucking fish bone. Bad X-rays, heart attacks and liver failure. I’m pretty sure there’ll be an attempt on my life sooner or later, not so much for political reasons but just plain crazy madness. Plenty of that to go around.
I guess I must have been goggling at him. "If you think somebody’s going to take a shot at you—"
The blue eyes tightened. "I won’t have everyday people getting caught in my crossfire. Not for discussion, Nate. If you want out, I’ll understand."
The girlish cries from the water’s edge turned suddenly into screams, shrill and frightened and punctuated with Mary’s "Daddy! Daddy!" while Courtney called out, frantic, "David’s in trouble!"And the boy was too far out there, floundering, much too far, and Bob sprang to his bare feet and accidentally caused a wall of the sandcastle to crumble as he flew across the beach and ran splashing into the water and dove into the crashing waves.
The undertow had the child. His sisters were dancing in the surf again, but a wholly different dance now, fists tight and shaking. I got to my feet feeling as helpless as the young girls. So much tragedy had visited this family! Dread spread through me like poison.
I staggered to the edge of the beach where surf lapped, as if there might be something I could do. There was: the two children hugged me, sobbing, and I hugged back. Terrible moments passed, the waves roiling as if digesting a meal.
Then Bob and the boy popped up, the father having hold of his son, and wearing a vast smile in the churning tide. Both were on their feet by the time they reached the edge of the surf, the child coughing up water, the man bracing him, a scarlet red smear across Bob’s forehead from a cut over one eye. Both bore skinned patches here and there from where they’d gone down to the pebbly bottom in the water just deep enough to drown.
I was there to help but Bob smiled and waved me off, his arm around the boy as the little party trooped back toward the starkly modern white house, boxy shapes spread along as if spilled there, their many picture windows on the ocean like silent witnesses.
The interior of the Frankenheimer beach house was all pale yellow-painted brick walls enlivened by striking modern art, bright colors jumping. The living room and dining room were separated by framed panels of glass that added up to a wall. From the stereo came the Mamas and the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, the Association, adding a soft-rock soundtrack. During the buffet lunch, the film director’s lovely brunette wife, actress Evans Evans, circulated slowly in a hippie print dress, making all their guests feel important, which they probably were.
Bob was buttonholed by several apparent political advisors I didn’t recognize as well as two Teds I did—his brother Edward Kennedy, who I’d never met, and Theodore White, the Presidential historian I’d seen on TV. The kids were on the patio with a college boy who’d been hired to look after them. The children, bored with eating, were fussing over David and his Band-Aid badges of courage.
Ethel, who I’d been told was pregnant but didn’t look it in her white sleeveless almost-mini dress, approached me with a smile, bearing a small plate of appetizers that didn’t seem touched. Her words didn’t go with her smile: "I suppose Bob told you not to carry a gun."
She shook her head. "I wish you wouldn’t listen to him. He’s getting more and more death threats. I’m getting worried."
"He’s stubborn about it."
A weight of the world sigh was followed by a quick angry grimace. "He’s so darn fatalistic. Just resigned to accept what comes. Yesterday—in Chinatown, in San Francisco, in a convertible, as usual? A string of firecrackers went off and I thought they were shots and practically jumped out of my skin. I ducked down to the floor, just frozen. Bob? He just kept smiling and shaking hands. Barely flinched."
She shook her head, laughed a little, and was gone. That may have been the worst laugh I ever heard.
A row of televisions had been brought in, and guests huddled around the screens after lunch to keep tabs on the sporadic network coverage; exit polls were coming in and the news was promising. Bob was not among the watchers.
I found him out by the circular pool, stretched between two deck chairs, napping. He looked like hell, a cut over his eye from the drowning rescue, as unshaven as a beachcomber. He was in another polo and baggy shorts and sandal-shod bare feet.
An easy mellow voice said, "Not the best image for our favorite candidate."
I glanced to my right. John Frankenheimer—in a crisp pale yellow linen shirt, sleeves rolled up, and fresh chinos—might have been one of his own leading men. He stood a good three inches taller than my six feet, his black hair only lightly touched with white at the temples, his heavy eyebrows as dark as Groucho’s only not funny. We’d met but that’s all. He motioned me over to a wrought-iron patio set with an umbrella. I brought along a rum and Coke; he carried a martini like an afterthought.
"At least he cleans up good," I said.
"He does. And takes direction." He took a sip. "Or anyway he does now."
"What do you mean he does now?"
His shrug was slow and expressive. "A while back, his guy Pierre Salinger flew me from California to Gary, Indiana, where Bob was speaking. To shoot a campaign spot. And I’m not cheap."
"I believe you."
"Bob said he only had ten minutes to give me, and I said then why fly me out from California? The result was awful—the camera caught his hostility. Later he called me at my hotel and asked if we could try again. I said we could if he gave me an hour and a half to show him how not to project cold arrogance. He took that on the chin, and I went over and did the spot fresh, and we’ve been friendly ever since."
"He’ll need makeup for that cut."
He studied his slumbering subject. "I’ll give it to him. Saved his son, I hear. He is one remarkable guy. Ever hear about how he taught himself to swim? Jumped off a boat in Nantucket Sound and took his chances." Chuckled to himself. "Then when Bob and Ethel honeymooned in Hawaii, he saved some guy from drowning."
"He should’ve been a lifeguard."
"This country could use saving."
I sipped. "You’re following the campaign with a camera crew, I understand?"
He nodded. "Yes, for a documentary but also to grab footage for more campaign spots. He’ll need both to beat Tricky Dick. You’ve known Bob a long time, I take it."
"We go back to the Rackets Committee. And before."
That seemed to confuse him. "You worked for the government, back then?"
"Not directly. I have a private investigation agency in Chicago. We have a branch here. The A-1."
And that seemed to amuse him. "Oh, I know who you are. ‘Private Eye to the Stars.’ How many stories has Life magazine done about you, anyway?"
"Too many and not enough."
His laugh was a single ha. "Too many, because it’s like James Bond. Him being a spy is an oxymoron."
"Or just a moron. And not enough, because publicity is good for business. Do I have to tell a film director that?"
He gestured with an open hand. "Necessary evil."
I leaned in. "John...your film The Manchurian Candidate? Stupid question, but...do you think that could happen in real life?"
His smile came slowly and then one corner of it twitched.
"Yeah," he said. "I do."
Bob was coming around.
"Star needs makeup," Frankenheimer said, getting to his feet. "And better wardrobe."
I needed to find a bathroom to put on my Botany 500 for tonight. I’d have to leave my nine millimeter Browning at the Ambassador desk to be locked in their safe. When I emerged I found Bob looking similarly spiffy in a blue pin-striped suit and white shirt. Frankenheimer was in the process of expertly daubing stage makeup on the candidate’s scraped, bruised forehead.
In the background, Ethel was giving orders to that college kid to deliver her children to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where they rated two bungalows to my measly one. We would be driven by Frankenheimer to the Ambassador and Ethel, not ready yet, would follow in another vehicle.
The film director’s car turned out to be a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. Even though I had made Life a couple of times, this would be my first ride in one. Frankenheimer, who’d seemed so cool before, betrayed himself otherwise on the Santa Monica Freeway with his bat-out-of-hell driving. When he accidentally raced right by the Vermont off-ramp and got snarled up in the Harbor Freeway exchange, he swore at himself and pounded the wheel.
"Take it easy, John," Bob said from the backseat. "Life is too short."