Joe McGinniss, news-making author of 'Fatal Vision,' 'Selling of the President,' dies at 71

The Associated Press

FILE - In this July 29, 1993 file photo, author Joe McGinniss is shown in New York. McGinniss, the adventurous and news-making author and reporter who skewered the marketing of Richard Nixon in "The Selling of the President 1968" and tracked his personal journey from sympathizer to scourge of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald in the blockbuster "Fatal Vision," died Monday, March 10, 2014, at age 71. McGinniss, who announced in 2013 that he had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, died from complications related to his disease. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)

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"The Selling of the President" was published in 1969, spent months on The New York Times' best-seller list and made McGinniss an eager media star. He quit the Inquirer and followed more personal interests. He wrote a novel, "The Dream Team," and the idiosyncratic "Heroes," a memoir that told of the breakup of his first marriage and romance with his eventual second wife, Nancy Doherty, and his failed quest for role models, among them author William Styron and Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.

In 1979, he was a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when an argument without end was born: McGinniss was approached by MacDonald, a fellow California resident, about a possible book on the 1970 killings for which the physician and former Green Beret was being charged.

In the early hours of Feb. 17, 1970, MacDonald's pregnant wife and two small children were stabbed and beaten to death at the family's home in Fort Bragg, N.C. The date, location and identities of the victims are virtually the only facts of the case not in dispute.

MacDonald, who sustained a punctured lung and minor injuries, had insisted that the house was overrun by a gang of drug-crazed hippies that chanted slogans such as "Acid is groovy" and spelled "PIG" in blood on a bedroom wall, a murderous rampage seemingly inspired by the then-recent Charles Manson killings.

But investigators suspected otherwise, believing that MacDonald killed his family and arranged the apartment to make it appear others had committed the crime. MacDonald was initially cleared of charges, then indicted, then finally brought to trial in 1979. He was found guilty and sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

"Fatal Vision," published in 1983, became one of the most widely read and contested true crime books. McGinniss wrote not just of the case but of his own conclusions. He had at first found MacDonald charming and sincere but came to believe he was a sociopath who'd committed the killings while in a frenzied state brought on by diet pills.

McGinniss' findings weren't welcomed by MacDonald or by some fellow journalists. MacDonald sued in 1987, alleging McGinniss had tricked him by pretending to believe in his innocence, and he received an out-of-court settlement of $325,000. New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm cited McGinniss as a prime case of the reporter as a "kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

McGinniss wrote in his defense: "The attempt to manipulate through 'cons and lies' was — it seems clear to me now in retrospect — something Jeffrey MacDonald engaged in with me. Appearance of the book was forceful proof he had not succeeded."

While MacDonald remained in prison, insisting on his innocence, the case was revisited in books, essays and opinion pieces. Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost defended MacDonald in "Fatal Justice," published in 1997. Filmmaker Errol Morris, a MacDonald backer, came out with the book "A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald" in 2012.

McGinniss hoped to have the last word with the e-book "Final Vision."

"Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of the murders of his wife and two young daughters in 1979," McGinniss said in 2012. "In all the years since, every court that has considered the case — including the United States Supreme Court — has upheld that verdict in every respect. MacDonald is guilty not simply beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any doubt."

McGinniss, who had been working on a book about his illness, wrote openly about his personal and professional follies and setbacks, whether cheating on his first wife or helping himself to the gourmet crabmeat in Styron's kitchen. He struggled financially at times and battled depression and alcohol abuse. A 1993 biography of Sen. Kennedy, "The Last Brother," was widely ridiculed for including invented dialogue.

None of his latter books approached the popularity of "Fatal Vision" or such other crime works as "Cruel Doubt" and "Blind Faith." He returned a $1 million advance to write a book on the O.J. Simpson murder trial, expressing disgust that the former football star had been acquitted.