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‘Let documents be your guide’ to investigative writing

From FBI files to the intimacy of family letters, Thomas Maier reveals how he investigates history to find new stories.

ICIJ member Thomas Maier is an award-winning investigative journalist at Newsday. He has written five books, including Masters of Sex – the basis for the Showtime series – and the newly-published When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys, of which his publisher, Random House’s Crown, says “never before has there been a sweeping study of the complex and long-standing relationship that existed between these two families—and the profound effects of that association on history.”

What sparked your interest in this particular topic?

Thomas MaierAmerica in our times has been the focus of all my biographies, including this one about the Anglo-American “special relationship” between the Churchills and the Kennedys. Generally, I choose individuals or families who I hope will fascinate readers but also provide a deeper understanding about the times we live in and what they mean.

After finishing Masters of Sex—with its detailing of the intricate personal lives of Masters and Johnson—I wanted to write a big historical saga, the sort that you might find in Tolstoy (or for the TV crowd, George R. R. Martin) with family dynasties, wars, wealth, passion, and politics. Joseph P. Kennedy and Winston Churchill were born into a world vastly different than that of their sons, and what’s more, the Kennedy and Churchill families were instrumental in changing it on both sides of the Atlantic.

As an investigative historian, I seek out new information that other historians have yet to uncover. In When Lions Roar, there are ground-breaking disclosures about the many overlapping relationships between the families and friends of British prime minister Winston Churchill and U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Some of the best stories hide in plain sight for years. I was surprised to realize no one had ever put together all these connections into a larger dramatic narrative.

How did you go about writing this book, and what sort of research was involved?

For more than 30 years, I’ve worked as an investigative reporter so this work has taught me to let documents be my guide to history. I have accumulated files that overflow with letters, diary notes, financial statements, old photos, and transcripts of oral histories.

For this book, I put together a writing outline in my computer that totaled some 230,000 words—about the size of the finished text. Yes, investigative reporters tend to turn over every rock in researching a story, but this training has proved invaluable in seeking out new information about two families as extraordinarily well-known as the Churchills and the Kennedys.

That was certainly the case in finding and examining the documents that reveal the previously unknown aspects of the liquor deal involving the Kennedys, the Churchills, and President Roosevelt’s son. What my book shows for the first time is that Winston Churchill obtained a lucrative amount of stock in two U.S. companies associated with Joseph P. Kennedy in an apparent “pay to play” arrangement, around the same time Kennedy received British approval to ship Scotch whiskey and other liquor to America as Prohibition was ending. A 1933 London trip by Kennedy and James Roosevelt, the son of FDR, helped secure the liquor contracts and involved a meeting with the financially troubled Churchill at his estate, Chartwell Manor. Using previously unreleased documents, my book shows how both Kennedy and Churchill benefitted from this arrangement and how President Roosevelt became alarmed when he learned that his son James was involved in this secret deal.

In another example from my research, FBI records showed Churchill favored dropping the atom bomb on Soviet Union in the early days of Cold War. Shortly after World War II ended with devastating atomic bomb explosions in Japan that killed more than 100,000 people, the former British Prime Minister suggested, privately, that the U.S. strike first against the Soviet Union before the Communist-run government developed the nuclear weapon. According to these FBI records, Churchill urged Sen. Styles Bridges, a conservative Republican active in foreign affairs, to push for a preemptive and devastating A-bomb attack on Moscow, a recent ally during the war.

Many documents about the Kennedys and Churchills have become available only in the past decade or so, and this book benefitted greatly from these new revelations.

When Lions Roar book coverWhy do you think this book is important, and what surprises can readers expect?

In large measure, When Lions Roar re-writes history. The conventional wisdom portrays the Churchills and Kennedys as antagonists due to their opposed views on Allied engagement in World War II. For many months, British prime minister Winston Churchill attempted to enlist the U.S. in his battle against Hitler, while U.S. ambassador Joe Kennedy in London tried to keep isolationist America out of the conflict for fear of seeing his young sons killed.

For reasons that I explain in the book, the friendly connections in the mid-1930s between the two families weren’t known beyond a handful of associates, mainly to avoid potential political embarrassment and scandal. In my book, I describe the very important relationships that both families, and generations, had with press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, wealthy financier Bernard Baruch, writer Clare Boothe Luce, Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, and the little-known Kay Halle, and a slew of other significant figures of the 20th century.

The stage for this drama is played out over two wars, several presidential campaigns, and across the White House, Parliament, and the inner sanctum of the Vatican. Add to that fateful battles in the South Pacific, North Africa, and the D-Day shores of Normandy and you have a sense of the terrain.

However, the small, intimate discoveries about the two families found in their personal letters were often the most memorable to me. For instance, people don’t know much about JFK’s 1958 visit with Winston Churchill aboard Aristotle Onassis’s yacht in the Mediterranean—a meeting that would be the first time Ari met Jackie Kennedy. I think readers will be surprised to learn JFK’s sister Kick was best friends with Pamela Churchill, the prime minister’s daughter-in-law, who was nearly killed in the same fatal plane crash that took Kick’s life in 1948. I certainly didn’t know much about the World War II spy case that haunted the Kennedys for years afterward or Winston Churchill’s provocative view about atomic warfare at the start of the Cold War.

Though rancor still existed between the two families because of World War II, it slowly dissipated as JFK became president in 1960, assuming many of the global challenges that Churchill had tried to manage with the fading British Empire. I found a surprising amount of friendly interaction between this next generation—Winston’s son Randolph and Jackie and Bobby Kennedy—though it was generally kept out of the public eye, not unlike the families’ initial relationship. I was also surprised when I learned Bobby Kennedy wanted Randolph Churchill, the prime minister’s son, to become JFK’s biographer after Randolph finished writing a biography of his father. When Lions Roar explains how Randolph became friends with Jackie after JFK’s assassination, and how Randolph gave a gift to JFK Jr., the deceased president’s son, that would connect the two dynasties forever in history.

Churchill, the atom bomb, and the Iron Curtain – an excerpt from Thomas Maier’s When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys

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