Simon & Schuster keeps its fabulist on bookshelves

C. David Heymann's impact on the historical record

C. David Heymann got his books published by a string of respected publishers, which was quite a feat given his well-documented history of fabrications, falsehoods, plagiarism, and highly questionable reporting dating to 1983.

That’s when a lawsuit led to Heymann’s first major book being pulled from shelves, and David Cay Johnston exposed it as a fraud on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Random House pulped the book and sold the rights back to Heymann, who rewrote the book and cashed in with a TV movie. He would go on to write several books for respected houses like Penguin and Simon & Schuster. (Media consolidation brings things full circle: Random House, via its merger with Penguin, now again owns the rights to some Heymann books.)

Heymann rehabilitated his reputation with publishers, primarily by selling lots of books, despite continued questions about his integrity. And that allowed his fabrications to spread through the historical record, via other books and media outlets.

Despite Johnston’s recent Newsweek cover story presenting scads of evidence that Heymann flat out made up significant parts of his books, and my report that his former girlfriend and research assistant, along with a dead source’s son, says he fabricated, CBS-owned Simon & Schuster is standing by the late author. It refuses to answer questions about Heymann’s work, much less to recall his books from stores. This isn’t just an issue of Simon & Schuster’s credibility, it’s about how false information spreads because others rely on its credibility.

Even the most rigorous of researchers have been duped, as the investigations by San Diego attorney Donna Morel, who sparked the Newsweek story, have shown.

Take The New Yorker, legendary for its finicky factcheckers. Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a write-around profile of Caroline Kennedy that appeared in 2009, using Heymann’s 2008 book, American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy, as a source at least four times, including for quotes from George Plimpton and a London art dealer Alan Jellinek. The former died in 2003 2005, and Newsweek reported that Heymann’s own archives contain a recording of Plimpton refusing to talk to him. Jellinek, the London art dealer, meanwhile, almost certainly doesn’t exist. There’s no trace of him online or in British records.

Then there’s Andy Warhol, who died in 1987. The New Yorker attributed a Warhol quote to Heymann’s book, which didn’t come out until 20 years after the artist’s death. Morel says Heymann’s files contain no evidence of a Warhol interview. After questions from Morel, The New Yorker last week updated its piece to say that, “C. David Heymann’s ‘American Legacy’ (2007) was the source of this and the subsequent quotes from Alan Jellinek and George Plimpton. Serious questions have been raised about the credibility of this account.”

Former Newsweek editor at large Evan Thomas cited Heymann several times in his well-received Robert Kennedy: His Life, published in 2000 2002. In one passage, Thomas writes that Kennedy friend Lem Billings “took Bobby to lose his virginity at a Harlem whorehouse, the same one, Billings later claimed, where Jack had lost his virginity some years before. Bobby reported to Billings that the experience ‘wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t fabulous either.’ Joe Sr. reimbursed Billings for the cost.” Thomas attributes this in source notes to a Heymann interview with Billings.

There’s little chance that interview happened. Billings died in 1981—17 years before Heymann’s book came out.

“If there are any more editions of my RFK book, I am going to take out some stuff I got from Heymann—a made-up story of RFK riding with NY cops and quotes from Lawford and Billings from bogus interviews,” Thomas says.

Which is ironic, since Thomas’ publisher is Simon & Schuster. Asked whether Heymann’s books should be pulled, he says, “I don’t want to speak for Simon & Schuster.”

Neither does Simon & Schuster. It declined to comment for this story.

In 2007, NPR ran an online excerpt of American Legacy that contained passages almost certainly made up by Heymann. After Morel contacted them last month, NPR issued two editor’s notes pointing to the “serious questions” about Heymann’s work and noting that it could find no evidence of at least one source quoted in the excerpt. It would be better off pulling the whole thing.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews cited Heymann in his 2011 book, Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America, though he appears to have got off lucky: the cited material is from someone else’s previously reported quote that Heymann used.

In 2002, the leftist historian Howard Zinn called Heymann’s Poor Little Rich Girl, the book that caused Heymann’s first scandal in 1983, “the best source” on the life of Barbara Hutton. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato cited him in a book last year. Other biographers, including Anthony Summers and Ralph G. Martin, have cited Heymann over the years.

Heymann will continue to be sourced and his dubious or false information will continue to spread as long as Simon & Schuster fails to address the fact that one of its authors was a serial fabulist.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,