A roman à clef is a French word that loosely defines a novel as a work of fiction based on real events and characters. It is not a precise definition, especially if it is based on contemporary events since present time blends into historical time at an ever-accelerating pace and distorts any attempt at authenticity.
Case in point is my novel The Henderson Equation, written 39 years ago and, yes indeed, based on actual events and characters who were alive at the time. In some ways, it is a cautionary tale for novelists and filmmakers who often label their films as “based on a true story.”
The core idea for The Henderson Equation was that a newspaper in the nation’s capital had been instrumental in bringing down a president. The newspaper was run by a woman who took over the reigns of the paper after the suicide of her husband who had run the paper until a mental collapse forced him to resign. The editor was a charming, aggressive guy who, smitten by the power of his journalistic achievement in destroying the President, was convinced that his paper could now help create a President that met its particular specifications.
It was, indeed, a spin on Watergate and the Washington Post whose daily front page hammering of the ill-fated break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee eventually led to the forced the resignation of Richard Nixon not long after he won his second term presidency in a landslide. It was the watershed moment for journalists, inspiring thousands of eager beaver young wannabes to embark on careers aimed at exposing political corruption and, as history can attest, shattering the existing order.
If you lived in the Washington area, as I did, and knew many of the players in this strange saga, the Watergate story was pounded into your consciousness on a daily basis. You could not escape it and it did indeed lead to one of the most significant political events of the twentieth century. For me, it was rich fodder for an imaginative novelistic take on the aftermath. It made celebrities out of its significant players and still invades the human consciousness after 46 years.
Now, even the aftermath has an aftermath as confirmed with the release of the movie The Post, based on the autobiography of the iconic Katharine Graham and produced by the skilled hands of acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg with Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradley, the heroine and hero of the Watergate saga.
The movie, with its “freedom of the press above all” cache, was clearly a Watergate preview although it dealt primarily with the brouhaha over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a classified document prepared by Daniel Ellsberg which the government at the time wanted to be squelched.
The document revealed that government officials had acknowledged that the Vietnam war was unwinnable while hyping the idea that victory was around the corner. One can intuit from the movie’s success and its add-on ending indicating the break-in incident at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee that yet another Watergate remake is on the horizon. While the Pentagon Papers was a significant freedom of the press issue, it pales beside the “real” story which still lives on in the public imagination as “Watergate”.
In writing what became The Henderson Equation my fired-up fictional imagination did create characters based on hearsay knowledge of the people involved, none of whom I had up to then engaged with personally. I was familiar with them only through the intense coverage of the Watergate story and my own interactions with the Post and a number of its ad reps and reporters through my ownership of an Advertising and PR Agency in Washington that did significant business with the Washington Post – I did have a passing knowledge of its history.
I knew that Katharine Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, a multi-millionaire and former head of the Federal Reserve and the World Bank, had bought the paper in a bankruptcy auction in 1933 and poured millions into it. He had appointed Kay’s husband, his son-in-law, Phil Graham, as publisher and after the paper became successful he gave shares of it to employees. Kay spent her early life rearing her four children until Phil’s mental illness and suicide shattered her world and pushed her into the role of Publisher of the Washington Post.
I had been a consultant to the Republican National Committee as well and had run a number of political campaigns as part of the business of my agency.
In those roles, I was deeply involved in the political gossip of the times and was privy to the behind the scenes goings on at the Post, later embellished through the founding of the Dossier Magazine by my wife and son, which covered the Capital’s so-called “society” doings and its interaction with the revolving door of the movers and shakers who ran America.
Perhaps another motivation for writing The Henderson Equation was my own experience with newspapering and journalism. My first job after college was as a copy boy for the New York Daily News, a job that taught me a great deal about the wonders of the old-fashioned ink-stained world of newspapering.
That experience found its way into The Henderson Equation as well. My next job was as News Editor, and then Editor-in-Chief of the largest weekly in Long Island where with two in staff I wrote and produced a minimum 56-page paper weekly which included writing my own immodest and ego-bloated column based on how I saw the world at age twenty-two.
Drafted in the Army during the Korean War I was, after basic, assigned to be the only Washington correspondent for Armed Forces Press Service in the Pentagon. I filed bylined stories that appeared throughout the world in every newspaper published on every base and ship of the Armed Forces. Taken together, these experiences booted me in the direction of writing a novel about a newspaper.
It was no accident to choose the Washington Post whose coverage of Watergate gave me the hook of inspiration to fantasize about the characters who ran the Post, now the hotshot model of fearless journalism. After all, I did have a passing gossipy knowledge of the principal players and the useful experience of my salad days.
Another coincidental bit of information that I had acquired was through a client of mine who owned a private airline service that somehow was connected to the Washington Post through a rental arrangement.
My clients revealed how they had flown Phil Graham back to Washington in a straightjacket from one or more of his breakdowns, offering another gossipy tidbit that he had left his wife Katharine for a teenage sweetheart. True or false, it was the kind of information that a fiction writer salivates over, especially in this case.
I don’t remember how this factoid entered the conversation, but I suspect it was sometime after one of the Capital’s newspapers had reported that Phil Graham had committed suicide by shotgun after he had been conditionally released from a mental institution and brought to what might have been a family-owned second home in Virginia’s Hunt Country for rehab. According to the story, he quite obviously found a loaded shotgun and killed himself. For a fiction writer, whether the facts reported were true or false, the idea was worthy of a good plot point.
While the book made clear the event was declared an accident, one might deduce from the circumstances that leaving a loaded gun around the house when a mentally unstable outpatient from a mental hospital was one of the occupants could raise questions of implication.
One must remember that however one interprets events in the novel, it is pure fiction, based on nothing more than vague hearsay and the author’s imaginary inspiration. It does not even deserve the appellation “roman à clef” or the absurdity of filmmakers labeling their distortions as “based on a true story.” Nevertheless, it has become an accepted definition of authorial imaginary embellishment no matter how far it wanders from actuality.
Washington has always been awash with juicy gossip passing itself off as “absolute truth.”
To a novelist, Washington represents a never-ending cornucopia of intriguing material, chicanery, ambition, sexuality, corruption, greed, egomania, harassment on every level, power games, and every aspect of human folly and evil and that’s only for starters. Of course, there is idealism, patriotism, charity, honesty, heroism, decency and goodness in Washington, but storytelling content feasts on venality and conflict and most exciting fictional yarns are laced with such diabolical character traits.
Another client of mine was Bobby Baker, for whom my firm opened the once notorious Carousel Motel in Ocean City. Bobby, who like most of the players of that long lost time, died recently, but he was a protégé of Lyndon Johnson and a storehouse of inside knowledge of the extracurricular lives of our politicians which would make the current revelations of forced intimacy read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
A novel, even with a plot premise taken from so-called real events, is a potpourri of bits and pieces remembered, embellished and filtered through the author’s imagination. That said, let us fast forward to the main point of this tome, the dangers inherent in basing one’s fiction on characters still living in the real-time “roman à clef” world concocted by novelists.
My wife and I would often go for a week’s stay at Rancho La Puerta, a spa in Tecate, Mexico. We learned about the spa from a reporter my wife had assigned to cover the spa when she was editor-in-chief of the Washington Dossier, a magazine that my son, wife and I had conceived and founded that covered the activities of the Washington social world, a kind of local Town and Country. It had taken hold as a must-read for the so-called elite who ran America, perhaps an exaggeration but not that far from the truth.
Sometime in the eighties, almost within weeks of the publication of The Henderson Equation, we decided to go to Rancho La Puerta during the holiday time from Christmas to New Year’s.
The novel, by the way, was hardly a best-seller and the gossip grapevine assured me that it would not be reviewed by any big city newspaper, especially the Washington Post, since it was, in effect, an attack on the state of journalism in the aftermath of the Watergate story. This was long before “fake news” became a political hot button and long before Twitter, Facebook, cell phones and social networking changed the traditional media forever.
In those years even Rancho La Puerta was wonderfully primitive and attracted a bevy of interesting people. On our first Christmas to New Year’s, we met, of all people, Katharine Graham and her buddy Meg Greenfield who was in charge of editorials for the Post.
Kay, as she was called, was gregarious and charming and enjoyed mixing with those of us of lesser notoriety. In my mind then and perhaps correctly envisaged, she was the most powerful woman in the world, having been at the head of a newspaper that arguably caused the downfall of the head of the most powerful country on earth.
The manner of her speech was so distinctively wasp upper class, which seemed forbidding at first, but was quickly dissipated by her charm and sincerity.
We were both tennis players which provided the entre to our bonding. I loved being with her. My wife was taken with her as well and we shared meals, hikes, and conversation at the round tables in the semi-outdoor dining hall. I adored her and was so proud to be her pal even if it was during this brief stay at Rancho La Puerta.
I did, of course, tell her that I was a novelist but, for obvious reasons, deliberately left out any mention of my new novel. As the publisher of the Post, she received the latest edition every day and she surely was in contact with her editor and others in management on a daily basis. One day, I had the temerity to ask where she got the paper she was holding in her hands. She laughed, then kissed the paper, an obvious gesture of her feelings for it. I have a vague recollection of attending an exercise class with her son Bill who apparently lived on the West Coast which might have been another reason for her coming to Rancho which was a few miles over the border to San Diego.
Toward the end of our stay, I met her poolside for a chat and quite suddenly I was shocked to learn that she apparently had discovered that I was the author of The Henderson Equation. Her opening remark to me was: “I did not kill Phil” which stunned me and what followed was the most intense revelation of the inner life of this fantastic woman. I literally shook and had to swallow to catch my breath as she poured out some inner anxieties that lay beneath her public demeanor.
At first, I tried to assuage her, pointing out that such an accusation was never my intention. I remember trying, perhaps ineptly to defend myself, and emphasizing that my novel was fiction and had nothing to do with the reality of her life. Frankly, I don’t remember every facet of that conversation, except that I did make a lame defense by pointing out that she was regarded as the most powerful woman in the world, having brought down a sitting President. She took umbrage at that remark and in one phrase she showed me the innate strength of her personality.
“The son of a bitch brought himself down,” she said, which, of course, might never have happened if her newspaper hadn’t relentlessly pursued him. But it was the opening remark that still chills me to this day.
We didn’t exactly part bosom pals, but when I met her on occasion back in Washington, she was always gracious and courteous but it was obvious that the bonding mechanism had shattered, regrettably.
I don’t know that there is a lesson here for novelists. Ideas shout out at us from media stories, interactions with people, past events public and private, and a myriad of coincidental, ironic and mysterious connections that light up a writer’s inspirational lamp. Inevitably the stories we create come out of so-called real events involving real people. By that standard, every novel ever written is a roman à clef.
As for irony, during my stretch as an ad man, I would name various communities and apartment projects in the Washington area and market them to the public. I named Watergate. Who knew?
Another irony with a more somber tale is that the same day that The Post movie opened a small obituary in the New York Times revealed that Kay’s son Bill had died. A follow-up story declared that he had committed suicide.