Southern People

Dick, Bill, David & SusanSee, I hadn’t been thinking about Richard Nixon at all, as I usually don’t.

I had been scouring through literally thousands of old photos searching for several great shots I’d taken of my pet black hen sitting in the grass next to a Golden Retriever resting beside a young deer– all gathered in the shade of my trailer-office parked in Parkfield, Calif., (right smack astride the San Andreas fault)—so I could send them off to a fellow Animalarian in East Hampton, N.Y.

I’d been looking and not finding to the point of becoming obsessed enough to go through a file drawer packed with old notebooks and  hundreds of contact sheets. Maybe the Parkfield shots fell in there somehow.

Naturally I paused to peruse this and that until I came upon the brown job envelope marked Julie and David Marriage. Hey, I remember that. Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower. Working with Stanley Tretick. Chatting with Richard Nixon and taking pictures of him with the kids. And I remember the unexpected impression of him which, now that I’m thinking about it, has lingered from that day to this. I also recall all the things Stanley and I laughed about later.

You’ve seen Stanley Tretick’s work. Many of the most familiar images of the Kennedys were taken by Stanley, one of the most memorable being the LOOK magazine shot of little John Kennedy Jr. crawling from under President Kennedy’s desk.  In the highest echelons of international photojournalism, he was a pro’s pro.  He was also fun to work with on magazine stories, and we shared some mighty adventures.

Stanley had started his professional life as a Marine combat photographer in the Pacific, next he was with United Press and then became one of the top photographers for LOOK. Though I was the youngest editor at LOOK, almost 20 years younger than Stanley, we made a great  writer-photographer team, further solidified by the fact that my father had been a WWII Marine and they might well have met on some island.

Dick, Bill, David & SusanOur latest assignment was to do a story on the upcoming nuptial of Richard Nixon’s daughter Julie and President Eisenhower’s grandson, David. This was in December of 1967, and we were to convene with “the kids,” as we called them, at The Dakota in New York City, where Nixon, then a private citizen, had a posh apartment.

Prior to this, Stanley and I had produced two of the three stories we would eventually do on President Lyndon B Johnson and his family and his dog. Stanley had also introduced me to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, whom I interviewed and later called upon a few times concerning issues of the day. On top of this, on the very day we went to The Dakota, the latest issue of LOOK hit the stands with a story we had done on everything leading up to the Broadway premier of British playwright Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Stanley and I shared a similar sort of semi-benign attitude about politicians. I never had the standard disdain for politicians as a class, believing them to be, in general, not very much worse than anybody else. (This was probably also true of my great-great grandfather, William McKendree Gwin, who, along with John C. Freemont, was one of the first two U.S. Senators from the new state of California.)

Just by way of offering you some necessary perspective on this, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I was reared in the presence of politicians, starting at age 7, and practically by a politician—at least he always claimed, in reference to me, ”Hell,  I raised him.”

Fact is, I grew up next door to the Georgia Governor’s mansion when it was in Ansley Park. One of my main childhood friends was then-Gov. Herman Talmadge’s son Gene, and I spent nearly as much time in the mansion as in my parents’ house.

I’ve always remembered something I overheard Gov. Talmadge telling some fawning patronage-seeker. He spit a wad of tobacco juice into his chairside cuspidor and declared, “You know, it’s awful hard to keep a sense of perspective in this job when you got people comin’ to you 24 hours a day tellin’ you you ought to be nominated for the first vacancy in the Holy Trinity.”

This might be considered an occupational hazard for politicos. Some succumb to the lures of grandiosity and some don’t. Among those that do, there’s probably no better case-in-point than Newt Gingrich, an egomaniacal phony of the first order. Newt was two years behind me at Emory, and I recall even then he was generally regarded as a pretentious nerd.

Nixon, to me, was never as bad as that, but I took a strong visceral dislike to him from the time he got the vice-presidential nomination in 1952, when I was 10. I was further repelled when I watched the driveling self-servingness and false contrition of his famous “Checkers Speech,” which saved his ass from being kicked off the GOP ticket. In addition, during that ’52 campaign I was invited to put on a nice suit and come up to the mansion to meet Adlai Stevenson. So my partisan allegiances were, and are, well rooted.

We arrived, Stanley Tretick and I, at The Dakota at the appointed hour and were buzzed up to the Nixon pad, where Julie and David met us at the door with big smiles, already enthusiastic about  having their romantic story arrayed before a mass audience.

After an exchange of pleasantries, Stanley began scouting out the scene for photo purposes at just about the same time that Richard Nixon appeared from his bedroom down the hall. He was wearing dark slacks and a sort of beige jacket and immediately asked Stanley, whom he obviously knew, if he could get into some of the pictures.

Stanley gave a slight squint, assessing his attire, and said, “No, I’m afraid not. Your jacket doesn’t really offer enough contrast.”

“Well, I’ll go change it then,” said Nixon, immediately retiring back to his bedroom.

Some minutes later he returned with a properly dark jacket and  asked, almost deferentially, “Is this all right?” To which Stanley said, “Yeah, that’ll do fine.”

After a little shuffling around, we all progressed into the library, adjacent to the living room. I could not help but pay close attention to this man I had disliked for so long, expecting the worst from him, but he was surprisingly accommodating, even a bit on the shy side — which seemed odd since this was, after all, his own dwelling place.

I remember thinking that while Lyndon Johnson’s demeanor, even when he wasn’t speaking (and possibly even when he was asleep), was outright overwhelming; and while Bobby Kennedy constantly seemed to radiate the intensity of a slightly muted blowtorch, Richard Nixon, here in the flesh, was remarkably unprepossessing.

In the library was a coffee table with a couch behind it and a window behind the couch that overlooked Central Park. Stanley thought the best thing to do was have Nixon sit on the couch with Julie and David on each side.

So as Stanley moved about the room snapping shots, I stood back a bit from the coffee table and asked questions and joked and chatted with them, making it appear as if they were actively engaged in something.

The most curious thing to me was how Nixon gave every indication of desiring to be convivial and wanting to talk about various topics that arose, but he couldn’t quite manage it. I would ask what he thought about various interesting items that were in the news of the day or big developments on the front pages of The New York Times, and he had to admit that he hadn’t seen these things and seemed a little embarrassed by not being able to pursue a more or less normal conversation, lapsing into awkward pauses. At one point, out of the blue, he interjected how proud he was to have David as a prospective son-in-law and patted him on the knee– eliciting a big Eisenhower-style grin—and noted that Camp David had been named for David.

On the coffee table, as I had noticed earlier, was a magazine lying face down. I had previously looked at the cover and laid it back down, mildly shocked. It was Ramparts magazine, the radical New Leftist publication of that time, reflecting what was then the most far-out end of Sixties political sensibilities. What on earth was this doing here? On the cover of this particular issue were four hands, shot from the wrist up, each holding a burning draft card.

I don’t know if Stanley had seen this, but at one point he said, “Mr. Nixon, why don’t you pick up that magazine and look as if you’re all looking at it together?” Obviously Nixon didn’t know what the magazine was either, but he dutifully picked up Ramparts and opened it up as we continued talking while Stanley kept shooting what now looked like Nixon happily reading this outrageous left-wing anti-war thing to the kids.

By this point, I must say, Richard Nixon had won me over with his awkwardness, his apparent lack of the natural social gifts of most politicians. It seems to me now to have been what it must have felt like for Englishmen to try to carry on a conversation with George VI with his painful stammer, wanting to fill in absent words or complete the other person’s sentences without making them feel bad.

After a bit over an hour we called it a wrap and made plans with Julie and David for our next meeting. Nixon thanked us for coming and thanked Stanley for all the pictures he had taken. And he and I shook hands rather warmly, standing about 18 inches apart, looking into his un-shifty eyes, and I thanked him for letting us
come to his place and assured him he would like the story, and he said he knew he would. I wished him well and Mrs. Nixon, too (who had chosen to stay in her room this whole time). And I honestly felt a little something at that moment. Empathy. For him. I couldn’t quite believe it.

On the way down the elevator I asked Stanley if this was the way Nixon always acted, and he said he just wasn’t much for small talk or things not related to politics. I said we can’t possibly fail to use that Ramparts shot. “Yeah,” laughed Stanley, “once that hits the stands he’ll have lots of ‘splainin’ to do.”

Our next convergence with our story subjects was a couple of weeks later at the main ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. This was a big fancy-dress debutante party marking the “coming-out” of, among others, David’s sister, whose name, I seem to recall, was Barbara Eisenhower. Richard Nixon was there, too, dressed in a tux. He greeted us, but he was more in his onstage “public mode” at the time. Even so, he emanated a faint sense of unease and of feeling vaguely out of place. Again he evoked my empathy.

It was a few more weeks after that, in January of 1968, that Nixon, as expected, formally announced his candidacy for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. I really don’t remember, if I ever knew, whether that had anything to do with the fact that the LOOK editorial board decided not to pursue our Julie and David story. In any case, they killed it, I stashed all my notes and Stanley’s contact sheets into a job envelope, we both went on to other things and I hardly ever thought of it again.

Almost five months later, on June 5, 1968, Stanley Tretick was with  Sen. Robert Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he was shot three times, once in the head, by Sirhan Sirhan. Stanley even accompanied Kennedy in the ambulance that took him to the hospital. And three days later he served as one of his pallbearers.

Bobby’s body lay in repose for two days in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Madison Avenue, right next door to the LOOK building, separated by a narrow one-way street. During that time there was a steady stream of mourners stretching half a mile down Madison.

On the day of the funeral Mass itself, Saturday, June 8, a special team of LOOK editors who had known Kennedy, plus the full contingent of production people, assembled to put together a special issue entitled RFK, featuring a moving cover photo of Bobby at the podium with tears in his eyes addressing the 1964 Democratic National Convention about his brother.

We did this with the speed and efficiency of a pit crew at the Daytona 500. Occasionally I would take a break from the two stories I contributed to gaze down at the Cathedral while the Mass was going on, and at the point in the service when that mighty  pipe organ in St. Patrick’s opened up full blast, the windows in the LOOK building rattled. You could put your hand flat on the glass and your whole hand would literally tremble, and tears would well up in your eyes.

On the day that Richard Nixon was inaugurated in January of 1969, almost exactly a year since I’d last seen him—and after a campaign in which he’d trotted out all the usual Republican boilerplate doctrine straight out of McKinley’s tomb—I was in Africa, covering the Biafran War with the great Al Clayton. (Al’s photographs of  the combat, suffering and starvation went on to win a prestigious Overseas Press Club Award.)

All of the foreign journalists there, particularly the Brits, shook their heads in mildly bemused wonderment, and I could scarcely believe myself that this man I had met, this sort of person, had actually become president, albeit by a mere fraction of 1 percent.

From that point on, as the ongoing horrorshow of the Nixon administration began to unfold, along with his venomous and vengeful attitude toward the press, I amused myself by slipping some critical comment into every piece I wrote, no matter what the subject was—though I must say I never made any personal reference to Nixon himself.

A typical anti-administration remark that I rather liked appeared in an epic-length piece about the South that I did with Al Clayton (“THE AMERICAN SOUTH: Rise of a New Confederacy,” LOOK, 11-17-70). Al and I traveled for months throughout the South in an old Ford pick-up with a gun rack and a “Wallace For President” bumper sticker. We happened to be not far from the Atlanta area when we heard about the grand re-dedication of the carving on the side of Stone Mountain, featuring Lester Maddox and VP Spiro Agnew, so we decided to go there. Here was my take on that scene:

The crowd erupts. He’s arrived at last—“SPEEERO!”—come today to dedicate the largest Confederate Memorial on the Planet Earth carved right here on the side of Stone Mountain, not far from Atlanta .

“This is a  Greeeeat day for Jaw-juh,” Governor Maddox intones as Spiro Agnew steps to the fore. Spiro is elegant, confident, groomed, with his hair all combed straight back tight upon his skull, so slicked down, in fact, that he emanates a mildly squnched sensation, like a bad forceps delivery. But he goes on to bare the good word. “Probably at no time since the War Between the States, “ says he, “have the people been so bitterly divided.”

The editors got a lotta angry calls from the administration about that one. That was in November of 1970. It was also about the same time that Nixon decided to cripple the magazines that were tops on his enemies list, particularly LOOK and Life, with a graduated increase in postage rates to a level that would eventually be unsustainable.

And he achieved his goal, the rascal. LOOK folded in October 1971 and Life, as the weekly we all knew, ceased publication 13 months later. At the time, LOOK had 8.2 million subscribers and a per-issue readership of about 43 million. Life had a little less than that. But it was postage, not any lack of subscribers, that did in those big, heavy magazines—and others as well.

In the years since, it has increasingly occurred to me that it might very well have been the forceps joke that was the final straw to the Nixon people and that brought us all down, all those publications, all those jobs. I’m sorry, friends, I just couldn’t help myself.

Stanley Tretick and I remained in touch for years thereafter. We often talked hopefully about story ideas and book projects to do together. As it happened, he died of a stoke in July of 1999, at age 77, two days after John Kennedy, Jr.’s small plane plunged into the ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

Before coming upon the Julie and David file a little over a week ago, I had not, until now, written a word about any of this, not a bit of it, since these events took place over 40 years ago — nor even looked at the black-and-white frames, each slightly larger than a postage stamp, on the contact sheets. My friend, the ace illustrator John Findley, produced the enlargements.

I had simply been looking for some shots of a deer, dog and chicken lying in the grass together to send to my pig website partner, Helen Bransford, who lives in East Hampton on Long Island, probably the ritziest address on the East Coast, with her three pet pigs. That’s all I was interested in, certainly not Nixon. My head unexpectedly erupted with these long-filed memories, and they all just came out in a rush right before your eyes. Aren’t you lucky. Aren’t you glad you happened to be here.

William Hedgepeth

William Hedgepeth

William Hedgepeth is a former senior editor and Southeastern bureau chief for LOOK magazine and a former editor at LIFE, Saturday Review, and other national and international publications. A longtime political campaign consultant, he has written for television and films in Hollywood and has authored several books, one of which, "The Hog Book," has just been reissued by the UGA Press. He is married to journalist Carol Carter, also a contributor to "Like the Dew," and lives in the forests of North Georgia with a loyal army of animals.