These days, the world—at least the part of it paying heed to Hersh's The Dark Side of Camelot, the sensational portrait of JFK published Nov. 10—does seem a bit hard on the fiery Washingtonian. With 350,000 copies of his book in print and a $1 million advance from publisher Little, Brown (owned by PEOPLE'S parent company, Time Warner) Hersh is fielding attacks from critics who charge that his "scoops" on Kennedy's unsavory behavior are anything but and that his book is a mélange of recycled gossip and biased reporting. Ironically, though he is now stumping the country to talk about Kennedy's recklessness, Hersh is being grilled about his own. "Hersh had so much credibility, and he squandered it all on this book," says Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans. "One can only assume he did it for money."
Hersh's missteps, it seems, have fueled the fire. Gone is the book's centerpiece—a now notorious chapter based on about 350 documents allegedly proving that JFK agreed to pay $100,000 for Marilyn Monroe's silence about her supposed affair with the President and his supposed links to Sam Giancana and other mobsters. Brought to Hersh's attention in 1994 by Lawrence Cusack, a Manhattan paralegal who told him that his father had been a lawyer for JFK, the papers proved to be clever forgeries. After struggling to prove them authentic, Hersh conceded that he had been duped and withdrew the chapter six months before the book hit the stores. ABC's 20/20 explored the hoax in September. (Hersh had received an additional $190,000 to help ABC coproduce a still unaired documentary.)
The take on Kennedy that survives, however, is plenty titillating. Hersh serves up long-standing rumors, many of which are unsubstantiated, critics say: that Mob support helped JFK steal the 1960 election; that he was briefly married in 1947 to Palm Beach socialite Durie Malcolm; and that he had a history of venereal disease, to name some of the more sensational charges. Add scenes that show JFK cavorting with prostitutes and selecting Lyndon Johnson (who allegedly knew about his escapades) as his running mate because he feared blackmail, and the picture turns dark indeed.
Too dark for many: Former TIME Washington bureau chief Hugh Sidey terms it "abysmal," and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a special assistant to Kennedy during his White House years, brands Hersh "the most gullible investigative reporter I've ever encountered." But some of those who have competed against Hersh are less judgmental. "He's a mixture of firecrackers and adrenaline," says Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward (who has not read Hersh's book). "I've known him to be incredibly aggressive, resourceful and careful." Even JFK lover Judith Exner says, "Sy is not a monster—he's really an old-time reporter."
Born in Chicago to Isadore, a dry cleaner, and Dorothy, a homemaker (both deceased), Hersh is the twin brother of Alan, now a physicist in Woodland Hills, Calif., and younger brother to 65-year-old twins Marcia, a Fort Lee, N.J., psychotherapist, and Phyllis, a Highland Park, Ill., homemaker. A middling student at the University of Chicago, he found his calling in 1960 when he took a job as a copy-boy at the City News Bureau of Chicago. One of his first tasks, he told Vanity Fair, was to inform the family of a girl reported killed in a plane crash that she was dead. Two hours later he had to call the family back to report that the girl was, in fact, alive. "After that," Hersh said, "everything was easy."
In 1964 the young reporter wed Elizabeth Klein, now a psychiatrist, who became mother to Matthew, 30 and a law student; Melissa, 27, who is studying social work; and Joshua, 16, a high school student in Washington. After stints at UPI and AP, he landed on the journalistic map in 1969 when, acting on a tip about a court martial at Fort Benning, Ga., he tracked down Lt. William L. Calley Jr. and sold an exclusive interview with him to a small news service. Once the My Lai story broke, "I was vilified," he remembers. "Every GI that had three beers at the enlisted club would call me up and tell me what they were going to do with my private parts."
The threats, it seems, suited Hersh on some level; in books and in articles for The New York Times, he went on to attack institutions from the CIA to Henry Kissinger. And when he wasn't uncovering malfeasance—or trying to—he was beating the bejesus out of others at tennis. "Sy can be a wild, rude, crude person in getting a story. He's the same way on the tennis court," reports an ex-colleague who asks to remain anonymous.
Kennedy apparently didn't capture Hersh's attention until 1993. Looking for his next hit, and nursing a longtime envy of Woodward (whose bestselling exposés have made him rich), Hersh accepted the lucrative contract for the JFK book. "If I were the mother of a son who died in Vietnam, I would want to know the character of the man who got the war started," he says today. "We're dealing with character here."
Precisely, say Hersh's defenders—and his critics. "Sometimes I think they make me, the messenger, more of a story than they make the story," Hersh allows. But, he adds gamely, "it's always better to have controversy—the positive doesn't interest me either, so I understand it."
JULIA CAMPBELL and J. JENNINGS MOSS in New York City, JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington and JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles