Last week Newsweek published a story by David Cay Johnston with a striking headline: “C. David Heymann’s Lies About JFK and Jackie, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.” Having long been concerned with the publication of false information about public people, the story caught my attention. C. David Heymann, as his New York Times obituary noted, was a “biographer of the rich and famous,” who died in May of 2012 at 67 years of age from heart failure after collapsing in the lobby of his New York City apartment building. David Heymann remains relevant because his books continue to sell—they are even recommended for students—and his last book was published posthumously.
In fact, Heymann was a fraud, and his biographies of high profile people are filled with sensationalized falsehoods and flat-out lies. Newsweek’s account seeks to pound a few nails into his coffin, but try as it might, it can’t manage to drive a stake through the heart of his body of work. Rather, Heymann’s vicious and malicious gossip-mongering lives on; his big-money trash-for-cash scam from which he profited handsomely while alive is now providing residuals for his estate.
David Cay Johnston, who has been tracking and reporting Heymann’s frauds for decades, writes in the Newsweek account: “For 30 years, I watched with astonishment and then bemusement as major publishers gave Heymann big advances, and respected media outlets—The New Yorker, The New York Times, People, Vanity Fair, USA Today and NPR—praised and promoted his books.” While others have largely ignored this ongoing literary fraud, based on the Newsweek piece and his Twitter account—@DavidCayJ—it appears David Cay Johnston is now pressing Heymann’s publishers to explain why they continue to promote his fraudulent works.
David Cay Johnston knows what is going on here: it is all about making money at the expense of the reputations of both living and dead celebrities. Under the current law, it is easy to do. Because Johnston did not address the remarkably dysfunctional body of American First Amendment law that provides a safe harbor for scoundrels like Heymann, as well as his facilitators and benefactors, I thought it should be mentioned.
Clemens Claude Oscar Heymann
Almost everything about bestselling author David Heymann and his work is phony. His true name was Clemens Claude Oscar Heymann. The consistent dishonesty of his work reveals he was a man who knew no shame, and his persistent slandering and misquoting shows him a person without conscience.
Long-time Heymann nemesis David Cay Johnston is a seasoned investigative journalist and author, not to mention a Pulitzer Prize winner (2001). He has been on Heymann’s cases since he busted Heymann for literary fraud on the front page of the Los Angeles Times with his first celebrity biography in 1983, Poor The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton. Johnston reported on Heymann’s Hutton book after it was withdrawn by the publisher. That happened because our legal system at that time still provided some remedies for dealing with such false stories. In that instance, Heymann claimed, among countless other false statements, that Hutton’s Beverly Hills doctor, Edward Kantor, had over-prescribed drugs for her as early as 1943. Kantor had threatened legal action given that he was only 14 years old in 1943 and had yet to even attend medical school, so Random House recalled the book for which $100,000 had already been paid for the film rights.
Heymann claimed he was so humiliated over the PoorLittle Rich Girl incident that he attempted suicide yet had a second thought and simply left the country instead, joining the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. (Not even his surviving third wife appears to believe that fanciful contention.) After Heymann cleaned up some of the more conspicuous falsehoods in Poor Little Rich Girl, he found another publisher to issue it in time for the 1987 made-for-TV movie with Farrah Fawcett playing Barbara Hutton. Undoubtedly he profited nicely on his bogus story.
Soon after, he was back in the USA and back in business: A Woman Named Jackie (1989) reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list; Liz: An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor (1995), another bestseller; The Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club: Power, Passion, and Politics in the Nation’s Capital (2003), which was a more moderate commercial success, as was American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy(2007). But he was back on the bestseller list with Bobby and Jackie: A Love Story (2009) in falsely claiming an affair between them. His posthumous work, Joe and Marilyn: Legends in Love (2012), probably did not earn back the advance paid by the publisher but did save his estate from having to pay it back.
David Cay Johnston, who had examined these works, found them so “riddled with errors and fabrications,” it “would fill a book” to catalogue and explain them. He provides a brief but pointed summary in his Newsweek account. I am familiar with two of Heymann’s fraudulent works: Liz: An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor (1995), for I knew her attorney, and The Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club: Power, Passion, and Politics in the Nation’s Capital, because I know a couple of his targets. Elizabeth Taylor filed a lawsuit to block publication of the unauthorized fictitious and slanderous account of her life, only to have the case tossed out of court. Several of those who were the focus of The Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club as well as persons falsely or inaccurately quoted as sources for Heymann, considered legal action but on the advice of counsel—and the futility of succeeding despite spending a lot of time and money—took no action. Rather they hoped that by not giving the book attention it would sell fewer copies—and that appears to have worked. In fact, today there is no effective remedy (in most cases) for dealing with fabulists and slanderers.
Getting Away With False and Defamatory Statements
Only a few centuries ago, the likes of a David Heymann could be dealt by physically: Arrange to have them attacked or do it yourself, including challenging them to a duel. For the good of all, this less-than-civilized solution gave way to civil and criminal causes of action where courts provided a remedy to deal with persons like Heymann. At the time our Constitution was adopted (1788), along with its First Amendment (1791), and then for the next 175 years, false and defamatory statements were handled regularly and with dispatch by state laws that would have made it impossible for a David Heymann to operate.
Everything started to change in 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court sought to protect northern newspapers that were writing articles about southern injustice during the Civil Rights Movement. Southern officials started suing for defamation, and southern juries, who did not want their way of life changed, were giving out large damages awards that could have put the northern newspapers out of business. The situation came to a head when the Commissioner of Public Safety in Montgomery Alabama, L. B. Sullivan, filed an action against the New York Times in an Alabama court regarding a slightly inaccurate full-page advertisement he considered improperly criticized his supervision of the police department, thus in his view, libelous. Notwithstanding the fact Sullivan was unmentioned in the advertisement, an Alabama court awarded him $500,000 (between three and four million in today’s dollars).
When the U.S. Supreme Court resolved this landmark case in 1964, New York Times v. Sullivan made all state defamation (and related) laws subject to the U.S. Constitution. It federalized this entire body of law, and thus began a process where high-profile people would soon lose a legal remedy to deal with false and defamatory statements. Examination of that law is beyond the scope of today’s column. Suffice it to say the Supreme Court has for decades incorrectly believed that high-profile people have access to the media, so they can correct the record in the “marketplace” of public opinion. This is simply untrue. Rather, the High Court has created a safe harbor for scoundrels like Clemens Claude Oscar Heymann and their publishers, who simply look the other way when confronted with the bogus nature of their work.
Today, the First Amendment is totally out of balance in protecting false and defamatory speech at the expense of reputation and truth. This has created endless cesspools of misinformation about public people that have become increasingly accessible through the Internet. Not only does such information distort history, resulting in misunderstanding of both past and present, but it causes no small amount of harm to persons without any remedy. Sooner or later, persons who are not provided a legal remedy will find their own remedies, which will not be for the greater good.
In short, in the name of free speech, our First Amendment today fosters false and defamatory speech. The fact that David Cay Johnston had pointed out to David Heymann’s publisher(s) that they were promoting lies for students to read shows that the marketplace of public opinion does not self-correct. The lies live on, particularly when they are making someone money.