Prep school grads drift toward untimely ends in this underwhelming biographical elegy. Business journalist Cohan (The Last Tycoons) profiles four classmates who attended the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., with him in the 1970s and died by their early 40s: Will Daniel, a social worker who was run over by a taxi while walking drunk; Harry Bull, a CEO who drowned with his daughters in a boating accident; Jack Berman, the most sympathetic figure, a lawyer who was killed in a mass shooting; and, most spectacularly, Camelot heir John F. Kennedy Junior, who crashed his plane into the Atlantic, killing himself and his wife and sister-in-law. But there’s little distinction in their stories as Cohan relates them: pot-smoking, wavering grades, and indulgent schoolmasters at Andover; assists from family wealth; no startling successes or noble failures. Cohan’s attempts at pathos fall flat (“Daniel grappled his entire life with how to handle the fame and adulation that came from being the grandchild of ”), and his theme of youthful promise snuffed out rings hollow, especially in the gossipy Kennedy section, which reveals a profound lack of promise—Kennedy repeated 12th grade—fulfilled by lasting underachievement. The result is an uninvolving study of privileged men felled more by bad judgment than tragic fate. (July)
"An engaging, unsettling book....An intensely humane work by a skillful writer of nonfiction narrative who knows how to make you forgive even as he damns." - Evan Thomas, The Washington Post
“Four Friends is a tender, bracing meditation on ends and beginnings, large dreams and larger misfortunes, outsized promise and unfathomable loss. It is also an indelible portrait of a time and place, at once masterfully researched and deeply personal. Cohan writes with a reporter’s acuity and a memoirist’s subtlety; if he can’t explain the inexplicable, he does deliver us, gracefully and unsparingly, right to its doorstep.” – Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Great Improvisation
“Deeply moving, Four Friends explores the idea of fate and shattered promise with intelligence and heart. It will haunt you and make you think.” – Susan Orlean, New York Times bestselling author of The Library Book
"I read this book captivated throughout, and often moved. In Cohan's elegant telling, it's more than four tragic endings. This is a contemplation of the twisting course of any life; how early hopes age; and how few of us become quite what was expected. An excellent book." – Tom Rachman, New York Times bestselling author of The Imperfectionists and The Italian Teacher
“Four Friends is a wrenching, beautifully woven story about fate, friendship and the shattered dreams of once-golden privileged men. I couldn’t put it down”. – Jonathan Alter, New York Times bestselling author of The Center Holds
"Combining a friend's heartfelt sense of loss with the meticulous precision of a seasoned reporter, William Cohan has created a fascinating, often harrowing examination of what happens when promise succumbs to tragedy. A book that continues to resonate long after you've finished the last page." - Nathaniel Philbrick, National Book Award-winning author of In the Heart of the Sea and In the Hurricane's Eye
“William Cohan has written a beautiful and heartbreaking book about friendship and privilege, in a corner of American life that suddenly feels very far away.” - Malcolm Gladwell, New York Times bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Blink
"This luminous book from the superb Bill Cohan is an elegant, poignant, arresting story, showing us two descendants of American Presidents and two of their classmates close up at a legendary boarding school and how their lives later ended with sudden accident and violence. In Cohan’s masterly rendering, some of the scenes in this volume recall the John Knowles classic 'A Separate Peace.' This is an unforgettable book about friendship, privilege, character, ambition and the unpredictability of human life.” - Michael Beschloss, New York Times bestselling author of Presidents of War
"[R]aises profound, important questions about the demands of manhood and the pressures, expectations, and obligations of privilege." - The National Book Review
A memoir/biography about four of the author's Andover classmates, each of whom died an early, violent death.
Cohan (Why Wall Street Matters, 2017, etc.), a New York Times columnist, Vanity Fair special correspondent, and CNBC on-air contributor, returns with a very personal, occasionally grim text. In addition to the stories of his classmates, he also provides information about the history of Andover, the only "American high school [that] has produced two presidents of the United States." The four friends were Jack Berman, Will Daniel, Harry Bull, and John F. Kennedy Jr. (Guess who receives the lion's share of the pages?) The author's approach is consistent: He sketches the person's background, focusing on the Andover years (he alludes occasionally to his own contacts with each), and then leads us through the post-Andover life. One was gunned down in a mass shooting in a law firm; a taxi struck and killed another; the third drowned—with his two young daughters—while sailing on Lake Michigan; the fourth, as most readers will remember, perished in a plane crash on the way to Martha's Vineyard. Cohan is frank about the struggles each figure faced in his life, from substance abuse to marital difficulties to psychological issues. Although the author mentions the many advantages all four men enjoyed—easy access to money, higher education, and employment—he keeps our attention on the human side of their lives. He reminds us of Kennedy's famous little-boy salute at his father's funeral procession in 1963, his stunning good looks (a "Sexiest Man Alive" for People), his now-and-then academic struggles (he twice failed the bar exam), his sometimes-raucous marriage, and his involvement in the creation of the defunct George magazine. Though portions of the narrative are undeniably moving and poignant, some readers may grow weary of the privilege on display.
An emotionally intense reminder—though not always intentionally so—that even privilege must kneel before fate.
The titular friends who serve as the subject of this latest from Cohan (The Last Tycoons) are linked by two experiences: their years at Phillips Andover Academy, MA, and the tragedy of early death. Make no mistake, the promise in the lives described was heavily aided by their privileged circumstances and the social advantages gained through attendance at Andover. Only Jack Berman, the son of Holocaust survivors, met success solely on his own efforts and determination. Cohan is adept at relating how a combination of family background and attending one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country helped shape the lives of these four men, including John F. Kennedy Jr. and Harry Bull, heir to a prominent Chicago family. Perhaps the most engaging alum here is William Daniel, grandson of President Harry Truman. Choosing a career in social work over finance, Daniel is portrayed as one who genuinely cares about economic disparities inherent in the United States, risking his family's reputation to improve them. VERDICT Cohan is a masterful biographer, even if the occasional slip into armchair cultural anthropologist misses the mark. His detailed research spans newspaper accounts and school records to weave a full narrative of privilege and tragedy.—Bart Everts, Rutgers Univ.-Camden Lib., NJ