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.

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