In an arch and zesty book proposal making the rounds of New York publishers at summer's end, Washington personality Joan Braden details her intimate friendships with such notables as Robert F. Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller and Robert S. McNamara as she recounts the competing demands of career, marriage and motherhood.
Last week, however, as early reaction to the 80-page document began to filter back to her, Braden was calling the proposal "lousy" and "ridiculous" -- though not denying the accuracy of its contents.
Braden, the wife of newspaper columnist Tom Braden, said she would not "sell this book on the basis of this proposal," a free-form reminiscence strewn with the names of Washington and Hollywood celebrities and swollen with passages of often purple prose.
The book she wants to write, the 63-year-old Braden said, "is not an autobiography and it sure as hell is not a book about who I knew and what I did with them."
Be that as it may, the proposal that she says she has asked her literary agent to withdraw describes scenes in which Braden rebuffs the repeated amorous advances of Rockefeller and Kennedy, among others.
One passage of the proposal, for example, describes the "playfulness" of Rockefeller, her friend and mentor: "One evening, as I hurried to get ready for a business appointment, there was Nelson suddenly in the shower with me, wearing nothing more than a Puckish smile -- my God, we had never even kissed."
Braden worked closely with Washington novelist Les Whitten in writing and shaping the proposal. Last week she said she had instructed her literary agent, Audrey Adler Wolf of Washington, to drop Whitten as her collaborator on the book.
Reached for comment, Whitten contended otherwise. He said he had notified Wolf more than two months ago that he would finish the proposal but could not work with Braden on the book.
He also said Braden had approved "every word" of the proposal that Wolf circulated to publishers; Wolf said, "I would never send out a proposal an author hadn't approved."
Braden said late last week that she would go forward with the book and that her new collaborator would be her husband of 38 years, an author and syndicated columnist.
"If she wants me to try it, I will," Tom Braden said of his wife's new plan. "But I don't know if it's possible for a guy to write a book about his wife. Has anybody ever done that?" Asked how he would feel helping his wife describe her relationships with various eminent men, he said, "I knew these guys pretty well myself ... I don't know how you handle that, but I guess I'll have to try."
Although Wolf said a new proposal would be prepared for submission to publishers, the Bradens will not be starting from scratch. Interviews Whitten conducted with Joan Braden have yielded "500 pages of manuscript" already, Wolf said, consisting of the transcribed tapes of the interviews and Braden's "scrapbooks and diaries." She predicted that the Bradens could complete their work in short order, allowing publication by the end of next year.
Wolf said the publishers she approached had expressed "a lot of interest" in the book, and that when she has mentioned her floor price -- $100,000 -- "nobody's blinked." At this writing, nobody has bid on the book, either. What remains to be decided, and what the first proposal lacks, Wolf said, is "the general theme" of a book tracing Braden's experiences.
From her earliest days as a government clerk in postwar Washington, Indiana-born Joan Ridley cut a striking figure. In the 1950s, as the wife of then-CIA official Tom Braden and the mother of a growing brood of small children, Joan Braden landed the first of her jobs with powerful political figures -- as an assistant to Rockefeller when he was in the Eisenhower subcabinet. In 1960 she worked in John Kennedy's presidential campaign.
After a sojourn publishing a small California newspaper in the later 1950s and '60s, the Bradens returned to Washington with their full complement of eight children -- the inspiration for Tom Braden's 1975 book "Eight Is Enough," upon which the television series was based.
Their house in Chevy Chase, where goats, sheep and a boa constrictor also were sometime residents, became the site of gatherings that often included the city's most prominent figures. One of them, Henry Kissinger, hired Joan Braden in 1976 as consumer adviser to the State Department. The proposal records the painful consequence -- accusations from some quarters that she was benefiting from her social connections. Braden has worked since then for various philanthropies, and most recently as an executive of Robert Gray's public relations firm.
In a telephone interview from Beverly Hills, Calif., where she was visiting actor Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne (who figure in her tale), Braden expressed chagrin that the proposal, long and detailed by industry standards, already had achieved a private circulation among vacationing editors, publishers and various acquaintances.
She first learned that it had reached an unintended audience when her friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis called her. According to Braden, Onassis had heard rumors about a gruesome passage in the proposal describing the scene in the limousine moments after John F. Kennedy was shot, and was upset about what she had heard.
The proposal, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, addresses longstanding rumors about Braden's relationship with Nelson Rockefeller, who introduced her to her husband and remained a family friend and benefactor until his death in 1979.
"News stories to the contrary," the proposal says, "we were never lovers, therefore rumors that he was the father of one of my children are a lie. We never went beyond a few kisses, nor did he ever hold me except when we danced in his apartment to Louis Armstrong or other favorites."
The proposal contains a number of mildly risque' anecdotes about Rockefeller -- such as his habit of pressing $100 bills on her and suggesting she use the money to buy lingerie. "Instead, I bought pajamas," she writes.
In the proposal, Braden recalls a dinner party during Rockefeller's vice presidency when she detected "one of his hands under the tablecloth on my knee, the other, as I found out later, on another woman's (and he talking all the while with Joe Alsop about world politics). So what, I thought. So what if he jumped in the shower and wanted to buy me lingerie. So what."
In another, darker passage, Robert Kennedy is depicted baring to Braden his grief over the murder of his brother.
"My heart wrenched from complicated tugs of emotion," the proposal reads. "He had never seemed more vulnerable. When he asked me to go upstairs, I went. On the bed, we kissed. Then he got up to take off his tie. But I could not go through with it. He was hurt, silent and angry. I watched his straight back under the streetlights as he walked toward his car. Why hadn't I done it? ... Tom would have understood, even if Ethel would not have."
As she was read passages from the proposal last week, Braden expressed embarrassment and pique. "Oh, my God!" she said. And: "I would never say that!" And: "I crossed all that out!" But she did not deny the accuracy of the anecdotes.
Braden explained that in her haste to leave on a trip to Italy in mid-July, she had been inattentive to the contents of the proposal she and Whitten were preparing. "It was badly written, through no fault of Les Whitten," she said. "Much as I like him, we do not understand each other ...
"I don't want to blame anybody for this," she said. "It was my stupidity. I have certainly learned about the publishing business." Tom Braden concurred: "She shouldn't have let the proposal go unless she subscribed to every word of it."
In the book she intends to write, Joan Braden said, she hopes "to get across something that might be helpful to people." In the interview, she described its message as follows:
"Marriage, I feel, is the most important institution there is. That being true, both women and men are going to have to face up to the fact that we live in a different world now. Men and women are going to have to share responsibility. Men are going to have to understand and not be jealous and not be infringing if the woman has lunch or dinner or whatever with another man. If you have love, truth and trust with a man, and a man has love, truth and trust with you, you can lead a full life. Maybe there should be more Tom Bradens."
In the book proposal, Braden concedes that she told The Washington Post three years ago that her relationship with former defense secretary and World Bank president Robert McNamara was "romantic" -- but insists it was never "romantic" while his wife Margaret was still living.
In the proposal, Braden details her travels to exotic corners of the world in McNamara's company, explaining that he finds in her "a woman with whom he has nothing to fear."
"Obviously after 10 years I care a great deal about him," she said. "But I make an enormous distinction between 'love' and 'in love,' and the only man I've ever been 'in love' with is Tom."
The proposal begins with a frank assertion that the marriage vow is "an obligation to be respected, not worshipped, revered not idolized," yet only once in 80 pages does it describe an extramarital liaison of a physical sort. The other party is described only as "a man known to even casual readers of newspapers or infrequent watchers of TV over the past three decades" who "slipped into my bedroom when I was asleep (as was his wife in the same house). He broke a vial of, I think, amyl nitrate -- a 'popper' -- beneath my nose and made love to me. The drug had weakened a reserve in me built up, and maintained, over thirty years. The next day, I cannot honestly say I was annoyed."
Braden said in the interview that this incident indicates "that sometimes things happen that you couldn't possibly guess at." She also said that "it proves that I do not sleep with men." At another point, Braden said, "If I were going to write a book on affairs, it would be one page long."
One editor in New York who has read the proposal described it as "a little coy." He went on to say that "it doesn't have to be smutty, but ... you can't leave readers with the feeling of 'Wait a minute -- that's just not the way it could have happened.' "
Although Braden's close calls with ardent politicians dominate the proposal, a broad variety of anecdotes is related for the benefit of interested publishers:
President Kennedy "compulsively rose from his supper with Jackie and me to call the CIA after I disagreed with him about the Cuban missile crisis."
Jacqueline Kennedy, as first lady, was "finicky about who kissed her and when," and was furious when Leonard Bernstein, though sensitive to her tastes, forgot himself one evening and embraced her in full view of TV cameras.
At a party in the early 1960s, Robert Kennedy and Joan Braden were deep in conversation when Pat Lawford interrupted them to introduce "a very blond girl, braless and in black lace," who turned out to be Marilyn Monroe. "Bobby did not rise," according to Braden, "but looked up and said,'Hi,' and went on talking with me."
President Kennedy, remarking on Braden's evident pregnancy -- her eighth -- walked her to the door of the White House and said, "You really ought to have Tom tied." When the child was born, according to another passage in the proposal, Robert Kennedy, the father of seven children at the time, sent the Bradens a telegram that said, "Congratulations ... I surrender."
At a party at the home of a California millionaire, Braden says, she "snorted cocaine through a $100 bill" and smoked marijuana "so I could recognize the signs if any of our children used it."
Of Henry Kissinger, the Braden proposal asserts that "reputedly he had many beautiful women. I was never one of them. But my God, he is brilliant. Nelson and I often talked of what his brain must be like, what it must look like."
Tom Braden "encourages" her to travel with Robert McNamara. "He never asks me what goes on. I feel much the same about him. If he were going to Paris with a 30-year-old brainless beauty, I would not like it, not a bit. But if it were a woman of substance, say an Anne Armstrong or a Sandra Day O'Connor, whether he went to bed with her or not, I would not try to stop him ..."
According to the proposal, Kirk Douglas once "laughingly" suggested to Braden that she write a book called "The Men in My Life." When she started the book project, Braden writes, "I went back to him and reminded him of what he had said. He reiterated that I should make it a kiss and tell book, that it would sell better that way ... But I will confine myself to anecdotes that we can tell freely."
The tentative title for Braden's book is "Enough Rope," after a Dorothy Parker story of the same name, suggesting the need for flexibility in any marriage. As for the other image the title brings to mind, Wolf, the literary agent, said, "She hasn't hung herself."