Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott
In an piece that ran in the Irish Echo two years ago, Bobby Kennedy biographer Larry Tye referred to a chilly day in May 1968 when the young senator’s “healing magic was on graphic display,” as his presidential campaign motorcade rode through the divided city of Gary, Ind.
“The reaction was equally enthusiastic in each half of the city,” Tye said.
“It wasn’t just that he was the only politician in the nation back then who was embraced on both sides of the railroad tracks.
“Only Bobby was willing to tell each side not merely what it wanted to hear, but what it needed to know.
“That campaign of half a century ago was unlike any waged before, by a Kennedy, or any other candidate, and it came when America was riven much like it is today,” he wrote.
“Now JFK’s messianic younger brother was offering fresh dreams.
“He imagined a country split less between right and left, or black and white, than between good and bad,” wrote the former a medical and environmental reporter at the Globe, who now runs a Boston-based fellowship program for health journalists.
“The Bobby Kennedy of 1968 was a builder of bridges – between islands of blacks, browns, and blue-collar whites; between terrified parents and estranged youths; and between the establishment he’d grown up in and the New Politics he heralded.”
More recently as today’s 50th anniversary of the assassination approached, Tye told the Echo that his biography focuses on Bobby’s “inspired transformation from cold warrior to liberal icon. That change wasn’t a flip-flop, but a too-short lifetime of experiencing and growing and reacting. It’s interesting because he is, and because his change mirrored the country’s as it moved from the self-satisfied Era of Eisenhower to the tumultuous 1960s.”
The reviews were enthusiastic when the book was published in hardcover in 2016. Historian David Nasaw, whose own 2012 work “The Patriarch” is the definitive account of Bobby’s father’s life, wrote in the New York Times: “We are in Larry Tye’s debt for bringing back to life the young presidential candidate who … for a brief moment, almost half a century ago, instilled hope for the future in angry, fearful Americans.”
“A multilayered, inspiring portrait of RFK,” said Joe Scarborough in the Washington Post, adding that Tye provides “readers and historians [with] their most in-depth look at an extraordinary figure whose transformational story shaped America.”
“A compelling story of how idealism can be cultivated and liberalism learned,” commented the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Tye does an exemplary job of capturing not just the chronology of Bobby’s life, but also the sense of him as a person.”
Date of birth: Dec. 31, 1954
Place of birth: Haverhill, Mass.
Spouse: Lisa Frusztajer
Children: Alec, 23, and Marina, 25
Residence: Cotuit, Mass. (on Cape Cod, near Hyannis Port)
Published works: “Father of Spin,” “Homelands,” “Rising from the Rails,” “Satchel,” “Shock” (co-authored with Kitty Dukakis), “Superman” and “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.”
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
I am up at 4 a.m. writing, and by noontime have put in what for most would be a full day. I take a break, and sometimes a nap, from noon to 2, then go back at it until 5 p.m. or so. I do this because, after a year or more of researching topics I am fascinated by, I can’t wait to put it down on paper.
Ideally, I am doing that writing at my desk on Cape Cod, looking out at what seems like a forest, and during my breaks swimming in a nearby kettle pond or the nearer ocean. The water is a soothing distraction as well as a place to get clarity on what I need to rethink and rewrite.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read, in the genre where you aspire to write and generally, to see what good research and writing looks and sounds like. And stick with it. It doesn’t matter how many No’s you get from agents or publishers, but what you learn from that and how you eventually find the person who believes in you and your writing.
Last thing: Writing books isn’t easy. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I was a hard-working journalist for 20 years. But getting that hardcover version of your hard work, and seeing told the story you couldn’t not tell, is as good as it gets work-wise.
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
“Our Souls at Night” and “Eventide” by Kent Haruf; “Eunice” by Eileen McNamara.
What book are you currently reading?
“Child of My Heart” by Alice McDermott.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
“Praying for Sheetrock” by Melissa Fay Greene.
Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.
“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
David Halberstam, whom I did meet but never got to know
What book changed your life?
“The Power Broker” by Robert Caro. It showed me that a great bio uses the story of its subject to tell a bigger story, in this case the political and physical shaping of urban America.
I have tried to use each book of mine to do something similar. Satchel, for instance, was the biography of two American icons: Satchel Paige (the greatest pitcher ever to throw a baseball) and Jim Crow (our shorthand reference to the statutes that segregated America by race).
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
Dublin, and especially the Briscoe homes and families I got to know when I was telling their story in my book on the Jewish diaspora. They were extraordinary in sharing their stories of Ireland’s tiny and fantastic Jewish community.
I revisited Ireland, in my research although sadly not in person, when I was researching the Kennedy clan that gave us the brilliant Bobby.
You’re Irish if…
You love its literature and nature and people as much as I have come to, via my visits and my Irish-American pals.