The Kennedy Boys

R.W. Johnson

  • JFK: Life and Death of an American President. Vol. I: Reckless Youth by Nigel Hamilton
    Century, 898 pp, £20.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 7126 2571 2

‘The first thing he did,’ recounted one of JFK’s helpers in his first Congressional campaign of 1946, ‘was to get one of Dowd’s staff pregnant’ – Dowd being one of the army of functionaries hired by Joe Kennedy to ensure his son’s victory.

I went in one day ... and I found him humping this girl on one of the desks in his office. I said, ‘sorry,’ and left. Later, the girl told my wife she had missed her period, then learned she was expecting. I told Jack. ‘Oh shit!’ was all he said. He didn’t care a damn about the girl – it was just the inconvenience that bothered him. In that sense he was a pretty selfish guy.

This story sums up in a few lines all the major themes of Nigel Hamilton’s book – the over-whelming shadow of Joe Kennedy, Jacks’s unrelenting promiscuity, indeed his virtually psychopathic drive for sexual satisfaction, and the coldness and detachment which his otherwise pleasant character could never quite hide. Hamilton’s enterprise is, however, quite antipathetic to such summary. This first huge volume ends at the 1946 Election, with JFK’s entire political career still ahead. One may doubt whether Hamilton will really get all that remains into what his publishers promise will be ‘a second and final volume’: he has secured the full co-operation of Mrs Onassis, is exploiting the resources of the JFK Presidential Library, and his earlier biography of Montgomery turned into a three-volume affair. At the pace he’s struck in this careful, sometimes laborious tome, one suspects he might need four or even five volumes in the end.

American scholars evinced surprise, Hamilton tells us, when he first mooted the idea of the biography, pointing out that bookcases full of JFK books already existed. His rejoinder was that ‘no one had ever written a complete life, in the English tradition.’ It is unclear that a tradition of painstaking long-windedness is one to be proud of. The volume under review has many virtues – the research is very careful and its judgments are hard to fault. But the writing plods. It would doubtless have benefited from far more vigorous editing and would have been a better and tauter book had it been cut by at least a third. That said, there is undoubtedly a market for blockbusters about conventional, obvious heroes like Monty and JFK – the publisher’s confidence is apparent from the book’s price. And while it is virtually impossible to promise readers that they will learn much that is really new and of any public importance, such massive studies almost ineluctably move towards psychobiography, which has a fascination all its own.

The nearest thing to a revelation here is how bad a mother Rose Kennedy was. A generation of writers, led on by President-worship and the powerful encouragement of both Joe and Rose Kennedy, extolled the Kennedys senior as model parents, rearing America’s royal family: a whole line of princes, dashing, intelligent, well-groomed and unrelenting in the pursuit of excellence on every front. At the same time, more and more people began to realise that Joe Kennedy was a thoroughgoing monster – overbearing, coarse, bullying, dishonest, indeed utterly crooked, and a physical coward. Rose, however, had a better press, as the woman who somehow held her large family together while her husband philandered with an endless series of showgirls and starlets. Hamilton destroys this hypocritical myth once and for all: Rose and Joe were both extremely bad parents and the household they created an emotional wasteland for their compulsive, driven children, who survived only by developing an exceptional clannish loyalty to their many siblings. It was quite typical that Joe and Rose posed as perfect partners when Jack got elected President in 1960, by which time it was almost thirty years since they had shared a bedroom.

Rose had been emotionally crippled by a puritanical Catholic upbringing which had left her with a horror of anything ‘dirty’. Faced with a crude, sexually aggressive husband, she simply withdrew into her shell and refused sex save as a necessary means to procreation. In that sense one can sympathise with Joe’s philandering and the way he ultimately moved out into a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, where he could enjoy his showgirls – though he would doubtless have done what he liked even without the provocation of Rose’s prudery. After bearing three children, Rose could stand no more and, leaving her children, ran back to her parents – who, however, sternly reminded her of her Catholic marriage duties.

She returned home to a marriage which she experienced as a calvary of humiliation and a family life which she stoically endured. From time to time Joe would, alley-cat like, return home to impregnate her again – the last time with Teddy, her ninth child. It was the last time they ever slept together. The upbringing of her nine children Rose turned into a devout management exercise, devoid of any real warmth. She devised a card-index system to keep track of her children’s illnesses and vital statistics, noting their weight monthly, and went around the house with little notes pinned to her dress to remind her of this or that priority with this or that child. When she was there she held daily inspection parades to check for frayed garments or lost buttons, but most of all she simply wasn’t there, escaping from home for the greater part of every day and leaving the children in the charge of an endless succession of governesses – and of one another. Even the sickly Jack, unable to put on weight and forever getting ill, couldn’t attract much maternal attention – on one occasion he lay in hospital for a month without a single visit from his mother, though Rose Kennedy had found the time to make 17 foreign trips in the previous four years.

Later, when asked if he’d had a happy childhood, Jack said yes, but that Joe Jr, his elder brother, had been something of a bully. That Jack should have voiced even that much criticism is very striking, for all the Kennedy children had a fierce family loyalty drummed into them, the patriarchal and tribal loyalty of the Irish Catholic ghetto. Jack refused ever to criticise his mother, though he undoubtedly resented her. The nearest he came was to say, no, he didn’t get his love of history from her, for in truth he got little from her at all. Even less did he criticise his father, for all that he saw a different woman on his arm each time he met him: Jack gave his father the unswerving deference Joe Kennedy assumed as his right from all his children. The only Kennedy with the guts to stand up to his father seems to have been Bobby. When Jack ran for the Senate in 1952, his father’s ham-fisted interventions seemed likely to lose him the race but Jack confessed it quite beyond him to tell his father to desist. Bobby was sent for and shunted his father out of the campaign. Bobby was also the only Kennedy boy not given to compulsive philandering: he once refused to have his photo taken with Jack and Teddy in the Oval Office because he so disapproved of their goat-like behaviour.

Competition with Joe Jr dominated Jack’s childhood. Both boys were starved of maternal affection: most of Rose’s available attention was focused on Jack’s disturbed sister, Rosemary. Ultimately her father, as if losing patience with her (some thought he had sexually abused her early on and wished to cover up the fact) ordered her to be lobotomised. She spent the rest of her days as a human vegetable. In the cruelly simple world of children poor Rosemary’s condition probably mattered less to Jack and Joe Jr than the fact of their own frantic competition for the mother’s love they would never really get. The two boys fought like cat and dog and Joe, the elder and stronger, invariably whacked the lightweight and sickly Jack. Joe was all too much his father’s son – hard-driving, ruthless, a bully, concerned only with ‘the bottom line’ – and Jack’s greater intellectualism and subtlety doubtless derived from a conscious retreat from the more macho realms in which Joe Jr would always be the winner. Even so, when their school sent home results showing that Jack had a higher IQ than Joe, Rose’s response was to lodge a protest with the school, so sure was she that Joe was better at everything.

The key to John Kennedy’s character lay essentially in acute maternal deprivation – and in the contrast between his cold, prudish mother and his overwhelming, earthy father. His mother could not bear to kiss or even touch her children (except to beat them), left them alone for long periods and seems not to have loved them at all except as a matter of duty. His father, though even more absent, intervened powerfully, indeed grossly: glorying in his own never-ending string of conquests; regaling his sons with intimate boasts about such subjects as Gloria Swanson’s genitalia; groping the young woman friends his daughters brought to the house, while at the same time setting private detectives to shadow his daughters to ensure no men took liberties with them. The young Kennedy boys were left with a pathological need for the feminine love and warmth they had never really got from their mother – and a paternal role model which encouraged them in the rapacious pursuit of sex-object women.

The result was not merely philandering on a grand scale by all the Kennedy boys save Bobby, but a peculiarly incomplete attitude to the women pursued. ‘Jack had no respect for women, no respect at all,’ his friend, Vic Francis, admitted. ‘He needed to make conquests, for his own self-esteem – but he had no respect for women, and would not put on any airs or pretensions for them.’ Jack had, indeed, no patience with women who made demands or difficulties. ‘Fuck these women and let’s get some others,’ he wrote to his closest friend, Lem Billings, after one such encounter. Billings – whose correspondence is one of Hamilton’s major sources – was Jack’s tireless companion in all manner of escapades: there was much charging around in cars with and after women, often while escaping traffic cops. ‘Jack drove pretty fast,’ Billings remembers.

You couldn’t get arrested too many times without having trouble with your licence. One night we were riding along. I remember a cop was coming up behind us – another ticket would have cost Jack his licence. While the car was still moving, we changed places, which is a very tough operation to do. If you ever try it, you’ll find out how really tough it is. After we changed places, we suddenly realised that he had on a white coat and I had on a dark coat. There was much scrambling to get those coats changed.

They succeeded – Billings got the speeding fine – but as one reads of escapades like this, one realises that Chappaquiddick was not just Teddy’s bad luck, any more than the more recent rape case involving one of the Kennedy scions was specific to him. Given the way young Kennedy males behaved – were brought up to behave – there was bound to be a rape case and a Chappaquiddick sooner or later: the only question was which Kennedy would be involved.

Jack’s dependence on womanising was quite pathological in its intensity. (In later years, when, as President, he was visiting Harold Macmillan, he was to confide helplessly to the older man that he just had to have women all the time, like a heroin addict needing his fix.) Yet he avoided embraces, hated to be touched and was obsessed with the need for cleanliness, often taking five showers a day. He was heedless of the niceties in his hunt for women, willing to tolerate all manner of sycophants and hangers-on as friends, and quite tight with his money, but he was not entirely a cold fish. People loved to be with him because he was fun, more fun than almost anyone. And while his sidekick, Billings, in the 32 years of their friendship, never saw Jack shed a tear or show affection or much emotion of any kind, he was emphatic that Jack had the strongest sense of loyalty of anyone he knew. If it was established that someone was his friend, he would show him unswerving loyalty come hell or high water – and he prized loyalty in friends over any amount of brilliance or profundity.

In this Jack was probably influenced, as in so much else, by his father, who would draw his extended family around him and insisted that it stick together as one clan rather than separate out into nuclear families. The embattled spirit of the ghetto Irish was no doubt what made this clannishness so fierce. The whole family revolved round the monstrous father, for whatever else there was no doubting his huge authority and the fact that he loved his children with a rare passion. He exerted a magnetism which his colder wife described as ‘an almost physical emanation of energy and power and mental quickness and forthrightness’. His material success and political power were such that he was able even to call the Pope in aid. His virulent pro-Nazism and anti-semitism were not uncongenial to Pius XII, to whom he sent an appalled young Jack to hear a certain amount of pro-Fascist rambling, and later, Teddy, to receive his First Communion.

So long a shadow did Joe Sr cast that at times Hamilton’s book reads more like a biography of him than of Jack: we are led at length through his career as US Ambassador to Britain, his powerful influence over Neville Chamberlain, his Presidential ambitions, and so on. Joe Jr was in every sense his father’s son – a tireless physical bruiser, a skirt-chaser, a rich, crude, combative bully, and an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis who believed that every national movement needed an enemy and that while it was rough on the Jews to be cast in that role, the overall worthwhileness of Nazism made that a price worth paying. One of the conventions of Kennedyland is that Joe’s premature death was the tragedy which ultimately propelled Jack to the White House, the destiny originally settled on Joe. In fact, it is difficult to feel that the death of such a horrible young man was particularly tragic; and had Joe lived, the whole Kennedy saga would never have taken place, for his political career would surely have collapsed in ignominy as his unfortunate statements about Nazis and Jews came to light.

Jack was saved from the grossness of his father and elder brother not by any sense of morality – he never omitted to pray on his knees at night while also seeming to be wholly amoral – but simply by his sense of taste and style. As Joseph Alsop noted, there was something English about JFK, not just because he spent so much of his time there and took to country-house society as to the manner born, but in the very way his emotions worked. He was ‘terrifically snobbish’ and

terribly old-fashioned ... a sort of English grandee kind of snobbishness. It was a kind of snobbery of style ... He liked people to be good-looking and hated people who let themselves go. He was snobbish about courage, and snobbish about experience. He didn’t want us to be ordinary and routine and kind of suburban ... He wanted experience to be intense ... To my way of thinking he really wasn’t like an American.

The one time that Jack’s life might have changed completely was as a result of his affair with Inga Arvad, the twice-married former Miss Denmark, a dancer, actress and experienced journalist, a woman older than Jack and fully a match for him. He found in her a companion and lover who roused him to a unique passion and commitment, not only because she made all other women seem vapid and boring but, perhaps, because she also held out a promise of quasi-maternal fulfilment. Thanks to the machinations of Joe Sr and Edgar Hoover, as fine a pair of monsters as one can imagine, Inga was branded (unjustly) a Nazi sympathiser and possible spy. She was endlessly hounded and harassed, until her relationship with Jack was finally smashed. Jack pined for years, corresponding at length with Inga long after it had all become hopeless. It was one thing to show intelligence and real heroism in the war, as he did: another to persevere with Inga and risk a break with his father. One has the feeling that after Inga Jack never saw any woman, Jackie included, as more than a necessary appendage.

The death of Joe Jr very nearly killed Joe Sr with grief and bitterness – his old associate, FDR, became ‘that crippled son of a bitch who killed my son Joe’ – and the burden on Jack became implicit but total. The only public occasion on which Jack was seen to show emotion was when he gave a speech on Armistice Day, 1946. He was sailing along fine until he came to the phrase ‘No greater love has a man than he who gives up his life for his brother.’ Jack broke down completely at this and, for the only time in his life, was unable to finish his speech. Many years later, Bobby was to come close to a similar breakdown while speaking about his dead brother, Jack. With Joe gone, Jack’s political career became a necessity, an inevitability: Hamilton’s book ends with his easy election to Congress, wafted in not only by his own considerable political talents but on huge wads of his tat father’s money. ‘We’re going to sell Jack like soap flakes,’ his father boasted, though later he wrily acknowledged that ‘with the money I spent, I could have elected my chauffeur.’

One is left pondering what it is we do to boy children. It’s not easy to be a man, not just in the way that it’s also not easy to be a woman, but because, whatever progress towards sexual equality we make, a man has expectations to fulfil – of initiative, drive, ambition, a willingness to take on the world – which are, it seems to me, simply harsher, tougher, more inescapable than the challenges women face. In sex, as in life, a woman can be passive and get away with it: a man has to be active, has, irreducibly, to have an erection. There’s no escaping, no hiding from the male imperatives. Women, rightly enough, dislike it of men that they sometimes glory in these imperatives, perhaps less often ask why they need to work up such Dutch courage, realise what frightening burdens those imperatives can be.

Mediterranean societies, famously, worship the male spirit, treasure and pamper the young males, systematically go for overkill in their nurturing of those who must propagate the line. One needs to ask whether such habits of behaviour do not grow out of a primitive but still sound consciousness of just how fragile the male ego can be, how much bolstering it may require, and how necessary to society it is to avoid the accidental neutering or inflection of male sexuality. The Kennedy boys were subjected to the very opposite of Mediterranean male spoiling – and yet all this did was to encourage a degree of uncontrolled male sexual machismo which would make many an Italian blench. It seems peculiar now that this strange, cruel and hopelessly abnormal family should have produced one boy, Joe, who wanted to run for President, and three more who actually did. The lesson seems to be that if your mother doesn’t love you right you will spend your life running after echoes of her, after women in general, after ways of proving yourself, running all the way to the White House.