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Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss dies at 71

Author Joe McGinniss in a 1993 photo.

The writer of The Selling of a President was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer last year

Whether insisting on the guilt of a murder suspect after seemingly befriending him or moving next door to Sarah Palin’s house for a most unauthorized biography, McGinniss was unique in his determination to get the most inside information, in how publicly he burned bridges with his subjects and how memorably he placed himself in the narrative. McGinniss, the adventurous and news-making author and reporter who skewered the marketing of Richard Nixon in The Selling of the President in 1968 and tracked his personal journey from sympathizer to scourge of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald in the blockbuster Fatal Vision, died on Monday at age 71.

McGinniss, who announced last year that he had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, died from complications related to his disease. His attorney and longtime friend Dennis Holahan said he died at a hospital in Worcester. Optimistic almost to the end, he had for months posted regular updates on Facebook and Twitter, commenting on everything from foreign policy to his health.

The tall, talkative McGinniss had early dreams of becoming a sports reporter and wrote books about soccer, horse racing and travel. But he was best known for two works that became touchstones in their respective genres — campaign books and true crime. In both cases, he had become fascinated by the difference between public image and private reality.

McGinniss was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1968 when an advertising man told him he was joining Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. Intrigued that candidates had advertising teams, McGinniss was inspired to write a book and tried to get access to Humphrey. The Democrat turned him down, but, according to McGinniss, Nixon aide Leonard Garment allowed him in, one of the last times the ever-suspicious Nixon would permit a journalist so much time around him.

Having lost the 1960 election in part because of his pale, sweaty appearance during his first debate with John F. Kennedy and aware of his reputation as a partisan willing to play dirty, Nixon had restricted his public outings and presented himself as a new and more mature candidate.

McGinniss was far from the only writer to notice Nixon’s reinvention, but few offered such raw and unflattering details. The Selling of the President was a sneering rebuttal to Theodore H. White’s stately Making of the President campaign books. It revealed Nixon aides, including Roger Ailes, disparaging vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, drafting memos on how to fix Nixon’s “cold” image and debating which black man — only one would be permitted — was right for participating in a televised panel discussion.

The Selling of the President was published in 1969, spent months on The New York Times’ best-seller list and made McGinniss an eager media star. He quit the Inquirer and followed more personal interests. He wrote a novel, The Dream Team, and the idiosyncratic Heroes, a memoir that told of the breakup of his first marriage and romance with his eventual second wife, Nancy Doherty, and his failed quest for role models.

In 1979, he was a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when an argument without end was born: McGinniss was approached by MacDonald, a fellow California resident, about a possible book on the 1970 killings for which the physician and former Green Beret was being charged.

In February 1970, MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two small children were stabbed and beaten to death at the family’s home in Fort Bragg. The date, location and identities of the victims are virtually the only facts of the case not in dispute. MacDonald was initially cleared of charges, then indicted, then finally brought to trial in 1979. He was found guilty and sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

Fatal Vision, published in 1983, became one of the most widely read and contested true crime books. McGinniss wrote not just of the case but of his own conclusions. He had at first found MacDonald charming and sincere but came to believe he was a sociopath who’d committed the killings while in a frenzied state brought on by diet pills.

McGinniss’ findings weren’t welcomed by MacDonald or by some fellow journalists. MacDonald sued in 1987, alleging McGinniss had tricked him by pretending to believe in his innocence, and he received an out-of-court settlement of US$325,000.

While MacDonald remained in prison, insisting on his innocence, the case was revisited in books, essays and opinion pieces. McGinniss hoped to have the last word with the e-book Final Vision.

McGinniss, who had been working on a book about his illness, wrote openly about his personal and professional follies and setbacks, whether cheating on his first wife or helping himself to the gourmet crabmeat in Styron’s kitchen. He struggled financially at times and battled depression and alcohol abuse. A 1993 biography of Senator Kennedy, The Last Brother, was widely ridiculed for including invented dialogue. None of his latter books approached the popularity of Fatal Vision or such other crime works as Cruel Doubt and Blind Faith.” He returned a US$1 million advance to write a book on the O.J. Simpson murder trial, expressing disgust that the former football star had been acquitted.

But by the 21st century he had cleaned himself up. He was an enthusiastic commentator on Facebook, posting regular updates about his health and current events. And he was back in the news, if not on the best-seller lists, with a biography of Palin, The Rogue, which failed to sell many copies despite allegations of drug use and a premarital fling Palin had with basketball star Glen Rice.

— Herald with AP

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