Two scenes set the stage for our story, both taking place in 1962.
Paul “Red” Fay Jr. had been an ensign on Lieutenant John F. Kennedy’s doomed PT boat in the Second World War. Years later, the two men were sailing near the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, but now Fay’s former lieutenant was president of the United States and commander in chief of the armed forces of the most powerful nation on earth.
Fay and the president had recently read an advance copy of a book titled Seven Days in May, a white-knuckle political novel that tells the story of a right-wing military conspiracy to overthrow the president of the United States in response to his forging a nuclear peace treaty with the Soviet Union.
“Could it happen here?,” Fay asked Kennedy.
“It’s possible,” Kennedy said. He described a scenario in which a strategic blunder could trigger an overzealous military-industrial complex to take action against a sitting president. “But it won’t happen on my watch,” he added.
Seven Days in May came up again around the time that James Meredith, a young Black air-force veteran, was attempting to enroll and thus integrate the all-white University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) at Oxford. The president and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were closely monitoring the explosive situation, as Meredith’s life was continuously in danger. A defrocked Marine Corps general named Edwin Walker was pouring gasoline on the fire, riling up students on campus by telling them that integration was “a plot of the anti-Christ.”
“Imagine that son of a bitch having been commander of a division!,” Kennedy—who had accepted Walker’s resignation—said to a group of advisers anxiously gathered in the Oval Office.
“Mr. President,” one of the men asked, “have you read Seven Days in May?”
“Yeah. I have.” Silence filled the room.
“What Would Happen If … ”
Fletcher Knebel, 50, and Charles W. Bailey II, 32, were newspapermen writing for Cowles Publications. Bailey worked for the Minneapolis Tribune before becoming its bureau chief in Washington, D.C. Knebel wrote for another Cowles publication, Look magazine, in addition to writing a syndicated daily column, “Potomac Fever,” which satirized national politics and was admired by those in power. President Kennedy called him “Washington’s most widely read and widely plagiarized” commentator.
“I was a reporter in Washington for some twenty-seven years,” Knebel recalled for a Kennedy Library oral history. He described how he’d started following Kennedy when he was a young congressman, recognizing that “with the money and the flashiness and the beautiful wife … he was magazine copy. Also, I felt strongly that he was going someplace, so I just began hanging around his office.”
Knebel said he got the idea for Seven Days in May while interviewing General Curtis LeMay, a onetime air-force chief of staff, who went off the record to accuse the president of cowardice in his management of the Bay of Pigs. “He upbraided President Kennedy for calling off an air strike against Cuba, implying that the Kennedy team was ‘too weak’ to cope with a harsh world.”
“Could it happen here?,” Fay asked Kennedy. “It’s possible,” Kennedy said.
The Bay of Pigs was the first disaster of the Kennedy administration, soon followed by the Cuban missile crisis, which terrified most Americans and popularized home bomb shelters. Kennedy’s thwarted attempt to invade Cuba was spurred on by pressure to show his toughness against the Communists. The invading soldiers—mostly Cuban exiles—were killed or captured on the beach just after landing.
Kennedy felt he’d been given a bum steer by the generals and spies who had urged him to undertake the attempted invasion, which ended in a humiliating defeat. He tended to distrust the old guard anyway—generals such as Walker and LeMay who wore all that fruit salad on their chests. He had the enlisted man’s healthy distrust of the brass. (Additionally, the Bay of Pigs irreparably soured Kennedy on the C.I.A., which he wanted to “splinter … in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.”)
Knebel’s son, Jack, recalled, “My father told me that he had interviewed Curtis LeMay…. He was a ‘bomb them back to the Stone Age’ kind of guy. The Bay of Pigs had happened not long before, and LeMay … made it clear he didn’t think this young man [Kennedy] was up to the job.”
Knebel later said, “Walking to my parked car [one] night after work, I passed the White House, its great portico chandelier ablaze with light. I got thinking about the nature of our political system. There sat a young president who had just suffered a severe reverse, a man currently being ridiculed by generals and admirals … Why didn’t the military attempt to seize power in America? Coups were common elsewhere in the world.… What would happen if a cabal of top generals and admirals plotted to overthrow the elected civilian government of the United States? By the time I got home, the idea obsessed me. I slept but little that night … burning with the idea.”
The next day, Knebel went into the Cowles Publications office and said to his young colleague, Bailey, “I’ve got our new book. It’s going to be fiction.”
“Oh, come off it,” Bailey answered. “What do we know about fiction? That’s not going to work.” He went into his office but quickly came back and said, “Okay, what is it?”
And off they went.
Their book proposal landed on the desk of Evan Thomas, the editor of Harper & Row, which was the Kennedy family’s preferred publisher. (Thomas was also the father of Evan Thomas III, the noted journalist and biographer.) The only question was whether two veteran reporters knew how to write their way in and out of a work of fiction. After meeting one night with Knebel and Bailey and their assigned editor, Walter I. Bradbury, at the University Club in Manhattan, Bradbury said, “I have a gut feeling about this book. Cross your fingers, but it could be a big one.”
It was even bigger.
Rod Serling and the Bay of Pigs
The book—cleverly set just over a decade in the future as a grim harbinger—quickly resonated with a public already existentially alarmed by the Cuban missile crisis, and it soared to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for nearly a year. The rights were sold in more than 30 countries. (The U.K.’s movie-tie-in paperback hilariously advertised a competition offering a lucky winning couple a paid “holiday of a lifetime!” to D.C.—despite the fact that the bleak thriller the readers would have just finished was hardly a “Greetings from Washington” postcard.)
Knebel recalled being in the book department of the Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago and being staggered by copies of Seven Days in May covering “the counters and shelves, and stacked in pyramids” on the floor. In Washington, the book became a popular subject at Georgetown dinner parties. Bailey gave Fletch a silver cigarette box to celebrate the success of Seven Days in May—a reference to their novel’s deus ex machina, a cigarette case containing a handwritten confession from the only invited officer to decline participation in the planned overthrow of the president, which survives a plane crash and puts a kibosh on the coup.
Prior to the book’s becoming the No. 1 best-seller in the country, the circulated manuscript had generated ample hype. Kirk Douglas was among those absorbed by the seemingly prescient speculative nail-biter. He brought the galleys to director John Frankenheimer, who was in full-on workhorse mode in 1962. In the same year, he had filmed and released the coming-of-age drama All Fall Down, while simultaneously in post-production on Birdman of Alcatraz and pre-production on The Manchurian Candidate, which became one of the key films of the decade. Frankenheimer found the manuscript so electrifying that he bought the film rights with his own money. Made before the creatively neutering process whereby studios test their films with focus groups, Seven Days in May prompted this proud comment from its director: “‘A camel is a horse made by a committee’—this movie is a horse because it was made by me.”
The book—cleverly set just over a decade in the future as a grim harbinger—quickly resonated with a public already existentially alarmed by the Cuban missile crisis.
Tapped to adapt the hot material into a screenplay was Frankenheimer’s frequent collaborator Rod Serling, whose sci-fi/anthology/smash TV series, The Twilight Zone, was coming to a close. (Frankenheimer and Serling had worked together on a dozen or so TV dramas, mostly Playhouse 90 teleplays.) Thanks to Douglas’s involvement, they attached his good friend and regular co-star Burt Lancaster (recently recovered from a severe case of hepatitis), who had previously starred in both Frankenheimer’s The Young Savages (1961) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
Douglas played protagonist U.S.M.C. colonel “Jiggs” Casey, the boy-scout director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The outspoken liberal Lancaster was allowed the meatier role of its villainous chairman, four-star air-force general James Mattoon Scott (a composite of Über-hawks Generals LeMay and MacArthur), whose planned coup d’état is uncovered by Jiggs.
Fredric March played President Jordan Lyman, the commander in chief sinking in the polls during the middle of his first term, with a public paranoid after his signing of the nuclear-disarmament treaty with the Soviets. Edmond O’Brien delivered a positively bottled-in-bond performance as Foghorn Leghorn–esque, seersucker-wearing Georgia senator Ray Clark, the president’s closest ally, whose bourbon sweats seem almost filmed in Smell-O-Vision.
(O’Brien received an Oscar nomination for his work.) Ava Gardner played fading beauty Eleanor Holbrook, whose extramarital fling with Scott is mined for potential kompromat (a subplot based on Washington gossip that Eisenhower did not run against Truman in 1948 because incriminating love letters between him and his English mistress, Kay Summersby, had been used as blackmail by the president).
The film departs from the source material in its opening, which wastes no time in dropping us with propulsive force right in front of the White House during an ominous right-wing protest of President Lyman’s treaty. Friction with counter-protesters erupts, and suddenly the audience is right in the middle of an all-out mêlée. There weren’t really stuntmen in D.C. at the time, so the chief stunt coordinator hired people from nearby gymnasiums—including a local motorcycle club—to participate in the simulated brawl. At a certain point, however, the riot became unsimulated—and in true guerrilla-filmmaking fashion the director himself jumped into the frame to combat some of the genuinely violent hecklers, which can be seen on-screen.
The scene started filming at nine A.M. on a Saturday morning, but production was threatened with a shutdown if not wrapped by three P.M., as five busloads of real-life miners were set to picket the White House that afternoon. Frankenheimer had some D.C.-cop friends at the time and called in a favor to have the police detour the miners on a wild-goose chase around the city until the difficult shoot was fully captured on film.
So eager was Kennedy to see the film made as a forewarning to his generals that he communicated to the production via his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, that he wanted to lend a hand in any way he could. Tragically, just three months before the film’s release the president was assassinated in Dallas—one of the most mystery-laden, obsessed-over events in history. To make things truly strange, some months before, in April 1963, someone had fired a shot at the Dallas home of J.F.K.’s right-wing-agitator nemesis, General Walker. That someone was discovered later by the Warren Commission to be Kennedy’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Seven Days in May was released in February 1964 to impressive reviews and respectable box office—though Frankenheimer’s Lancaster-starring follow-up, The Train, debuted in Europe that autumn and yielded much stronger ticket sales overall. Four years later, Bobby Kennedy spent the day of June 4, 1968, at Frankenheimer’s house in Malibu. Frankenheimer had been writing and directing all of the campaign television appearances for R.F.K., who scored huge that day by winning both the California and South Dakota primaries in his bid to succeed president Lyndon B. Johnson—J.F.K.’s vice president, who had been sworn in after the assassination.
Frankenheimer drove Bobby to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where late that night, after addressing his buoyantly victorious supporters, he was shot three times by Sirhan Sirhan with a .22-caliber revolver. R.F.K.’s death triggered a deep depression in Frankenheimer. In 1975 the United States Senate’s Church Committee shed light on, among other unspeakably evil acts, the C.I.A.’s Operation MKULTRA, a covert mind-control program which involved illegal experiments with LSD on unwitting subjects in order to create “Manchurian Candidate”–style assassins. It’s hard to imagine a film director whose cinematic crystal ball was as eerily well tuned as Frankenheimer’s was in the 60s.
In the following couple of alcohol-compromised decades, Frankenheimer continued to craft some fine cinema, such as the surprisingly worthy sequel French Connection II (1975) and the underrated Elmore Leonard adaptation 52 Pick-Up (1986), though his finger was clearly less on the pulse. At 68 years old, however, a cleaned-up Frankenheimer released Ronin (1998)—one of the tightest and most muscular action films of the decade. Adeptly directed with an energy somewhere between Jean-Pierre Melville and William Friedkin, his penultimate feature packed an all-star cast (Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, et al.) and some of the greatest car-chase scenes ever captured on film. Ignoring his ill-advised follow-up, Reindeer Games (2000), Ronin acts as a de facto masterpiece-coda to one of cinema’s great practitioners. In 2002, Frankenheimer died of a stroke at age 72.
Charles Bailey’s daughter, Victoria, remembers those years in D.C. when “as a little girl, if we went to pick Pop up at the office … you’d walk into the National Press Building, and every door on every floor was a Washington bureau for a newspaper somewhere else in the country. He’d started as a police reporter. I mean, everybody started as a police reporter in the 50s.” Regarding the January 6 assault on Congress, arguably Trump’s coup attempt, Victoria gratefully notes that, unlike in her father’s novel, “the military were the good guys. I think the more we find out about what went on, I think the military were on our side in the Trump years.”
Not long after the publication of Seven Days in May, Bailey and Knebel dissolved their writing partnership amicably, and in 1991 Bailey wrote one more novel, The Land Was Ours, a multi-generational saga centered on a Midwestern newspaper. He died at the age of 82 from complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Knebel would go on to write several more novels, including Night at Camp David, about a president who shows signs of mental illness and agrees to relinquish his office. (Perhaps not surprisingly, it was brought back into print during Trump’s presidency.) Suffering from lung cancer and heart disease, and as a member of the Hemlock Society, he took his own life in 1993 through an overdose of sleeping pills. Jack recalled, “He didn’t want to go through multiple surgeries and great expense and pain.” Fletch used the silver cigarette case his co-author had given him decades earlier—which had saved the day in their best-seller—not to house smokes but rather to store the handful of pills that he would take to end his life.
Although Seven Days in May had given Knebel a new career as a book author (he eventually wrote 14 more, mostly novels), his son says, “He was always a newspaperman. When I was applying to college, they wanted to know what your parents did, and I wrote my father was a journalist. He saw that and said, ‘Cross that out. I’m a newspaperman.’”
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. He is the co-author of several books, including A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
Spike Carter is a writer and filmmaker. His next project is a documentary about Eric Roberts