In a “Talk of the Town” piece from this week’s New Yorker, Richard Rayner writes that beloved historian Stephen Ambrose essentially lied about the access he was given to President Eisenhower:
Is it possible that Ambrose met with Eisenhower outside office hours? [Son] John Eisenhower [said] that such meetings never happened: “Oh, God, no. Never. Never. Never.” John Eisenhower, who is now eighty-seven, liked Ambrose, and he recalled, too, Ambrose’s fondness for embellishment and his tendency to sacrifice fact to narrative panache.
Ambrose’s lifelong story, Rayner writes, was that his life was changed by the thousands of hours he spent with the president, and it seems that story was a myth. One told by a storyteller. I’m not surprised, nor am I worried about whatever troubles with authenticity I might uncover were I to read his two-volume biography of Eisenhower that Rayner says “is still regarded as the standard.” Here’s Ambrose in his own words, talking to the Times when plagiarism scandals came to light:
“I tell stories,” Mr. Ambrose said. “I don’t discuss my documents. I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take? I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation.”
Maybe it’s just that these days what readers want are dissertations and not stories.