Joe McGinniss

I NEVER DECIDED WHAT TO MAKE of Joe McGinniss, who lost his life to prostate cancer a week ago. When I was a journalism student in the 1970s, we all read and admired The Selling of the President, which remains a well-regarded book that led the way to a new sort of political reporting. After that I read and admired his book on Alaska, Going to Extremes, which remains on my bookshelf 35 years later. Then came Fatal Vision, which I won't judge because I have never read it. But all that I have read about that book made me wonder about McGinniss and his methods. Janet Malcolm made clear in The Journalist and the Murderer that she thought he had shamefully conned Jeffrey MacDonald, who in 1979 had been convicted of murdering his wife and children in a sensational case. I doubt there exists an American journalist more than 40 years old who is not familiar with the first sentence of Malcolm's book:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.

Ever since the Malcolm book appeared, that sentence has been treated as if it were unparalleled in its troubling insight, profundity, and brave truth. It is none of those things. What it is—and I have felt this from the day I first read it—is arrogant, self-righteous bullshit. 

After Malcolm's book, I pretty much lost track of and interest in McGinniss. Not because of what Malcolm had written about him; other writers got my attention and McGinniss didn't seem to be doing much interesting work anymore. Then about 10 years ago a comment appeared on scribble, scribble, scribble, my previous blog. I had written a magazine profile of Barclay Tagg, the horse trainer who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Funny Cide. After the story appeared in print, I linked to it from my blog. McGinniss had come across the profile while reporting for his 2004 book, The Big Horse, and on my blog he now wrote a short note, calling it a superb piece of work. I wasn't entirely convinced this was the real Joe McGinniss, the big-time journalist and not some optometrist in Philadelphia who happened to have the same name. So I sent a thank you note to the email address listed on the comment and waited to see what would happen next.

Yes, I soon learned, it was the famous Joe McGinniss, and he praised the story all over again. Then he set up a telephone conversation between me and one of the biggest book editors in New York, And he said I ought to be writing for The New Yorker. And he said he'd give my name to some other major magazine editors. And he quoted the Barclay Tagg profile in his book, calling it "splendid." And he inscribed a copy of the The Big Horse, which he sent me, "To Dale Keiger—Hoping that soon you can sign a book for me."

There ensued an email correspondence that tended to focus on horse racing and soccer. McGinniss had fallen in love with soccer, which resulted in The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, a book I like a great deal. He sent me a copy of that one, too. We traded notes about the Italian league, the World Cup, the English Premier League. It was a nice correspondence, and of course encouraging to have a journalist of McGinniss' fame and success address me as a peer.

Then it just stopped. I have no idea why. Notes from him ceased. Notes from me went unanswered. I finally stopped writing. Then, a couple of years ago, after I noted on Facebook that the Premier League's Manchester City football club would be fielding a new Major League Soccer team in New York City, I got a cryptic comment from him: "Follow the money." So he was following me on Facebook. But that was the last word from him until he died.

McGinniss was capable of great reporting and graceful prose. He also was capable of dubious stunts like renting the house next door to Sarah Palin while reporting his last book, The Rogue. I once had a friend who writes for The New Yorker tell me she was never quite sure what to think of him, and I can only agree. But he didn't have to reach out to say those nice things to me, and I'll always be grateful for that. A book project of my own subsequently fell apart, but I didn't lost faith in my abilities, in part because of his encouragement. When he died, like my friend I still didn't know what to make of him. But I was saddened.