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Twice-Told Tale

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys

by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon and Schuster, 932 pp., $22.95

Columbia Point, that spit of land—once a dump—extending out into Dorchester Bay, contains an old sewage pumping station, the new overextended brick bulk of Boston’s University of Massachusetts, an ill-considered public housing project now in the process of demolition, and at the point’s very tip the Kennedy Museum and Library. Seen from the mid-distance of the Fitzgerald Expressway the museum’s confluence of gleaming white cubes and curves and dark glass set against the background of Boston Harbor is haunting. If one did not know what it was, one would want to stop to find out.

On a snow-littered spring morning I stand in the museum’s atrium, its skeletal eight stories soaring up like a glass cathedral, encompassed on three sides by the sea. Ahead of me, almost at my feet, Boston Harbor with its islands, one of the world’s loveliest approaches. Across the bay to the left the South Boston three-decker houses, masked by distance, intriguing as a toy town. Herring gulls, cormorants, a freighter moving out behind Spectacle Island, under the great arch of the sky. Here the pull of the Kennedy saga becomes almost tangible. The myth is here too, artfully contrived. As I walk through the museum my mind keeps going back to the mausoleum in Red Square, the echoing stairways, the empty passages, and finally at the core the wax simulacre of the man who shook the world. Here at Columbia Point the stairway, the passages with pointing arrows, and at the core a re-creation of the White House Oval Office just as it was on that fateful November 22, 1963.

Beyond the myth one fixes on the dynastic tragedy of the Kennedys, tragedy in the ineluctable sense. Fate: the father in his blinkered inexorable quest for power, for the royal equivalent. The hubris of power attained. Nemesis: four children of great promise to die violently. And at the drama’s close a spent old man, bereft of movement, bereft of speech, waiting for the end. The tale is, indeed, as Doris Goodwin writes, one “repeated in three generations, of great achievements followed by decline and failure—self-inflicted or at the hands of a merciless fate.”

Tourists trek to the museum as if it were a shrine. The legend persists. Boylston Street, which runs from Harvard Square to the stadium, has just become JFK Street. There is even an annual Kennedy picture calendar. Books proliferate. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys is one of the longest, its 932 pages stopping short at Jack Kennedy’s inauguration. An immediate best seller, it may well prove to be the most widely read of the Kennedy books. According to Doris Goodwin it took her ten years to write. Minutely researched, with sources unavailable to earlier biographers, her book is a labor of love. And that is its flaw. During the years Mrs. Goodwin was working on it, Peter Collier and David Horowitz were finishing their own book on the Kennedys.1 Shortly after they began their researches they learned of this other multigenerational biography already underway. They thought it no hindrance, for the Kennedy landscape seemed wide enough to encompass both books. But when they turned to the Kennedy family for cooperation they were turned down. The predetermined choice, they discovered, was Doris Kearns Goodwin. “You’ve got to understand their reasoning,” Jean Kennedy’s son Stevie Smith told a friend who had intervened on behalf of Collier and Horowitz. “They think of this historian [Mrs. Goodwin] as one of their pocket-people, whom they feel they can count on.”

Richard Goodwin, a brilliant young lawyer—first in his class at Harvard Law School—was a speech writer and strategist in Jack’s 1960 presidential campaign. He gave the name Mongoose to the secret anti-Castro operations organized after the Bay of Pigs. In 1968 he was one of those who urged Ted Kennedy to make a bid for the presidential nomination, and a year later, after Ted’s mishap at the Chappaquiddick bridge when the young woman with him was drowned, Goodwin was among those sent for to help concoct Ted’s television apologia. He married Doris Kearns in 1975, and, according to her, he “conceived the idea for this book a decade ago.”

The Goodwins and the Kennedys remained close. When in 1979 Ted finally declared himself a candidate, Mrs. Goodwin traveled with him at times to help with his speeches. While writing her book she spent a week at Palm Beach talking with Rose Kennedy. As a friend of the family she was invited to Caroline’s wedding.

That bizarre Boston politico Clem Norton—the original of Edwin O’Connor’s Hennessey in The Last Hurrah—advised a historian of one of the more sensational Massachusetts cases: “Don’t get too close.” It is a dilemma that confronts biographers such as Mrs. Goodwin. If one holds oneself apart, one is kept from access to many sources. If one gets too close one is inhibited, sometimes unconsciously, in what one can say. Well aware of this, Mrs. Goodwin makes her own disclaimer. “As the years grew,” she writes, “I felt an overriding responsibility to the book and to the craft of an honest historian, and that helped me to be as honest as I could.”

In the Kennedy Library Mrs. Goodwin discovered over 150 cartons of assorted Kennedy documents that had been moved from the attic of the Hyannis Port house. To these papers Ted Kennedy gave her unrestricted access. Within thousands of manila envelopes were letters, diaries, scrapbooks, notes, newspaper clippings, dance cards, photographs, memos, canceled checks, tax returns. To read and catalog this haphazard collection took her the better part of three years. Most of what she uncovered had never been seen by researchers and scholars. This in itself gives her book a unique status.

Yet I am somehow reminded of a brief by a skilled and conscientious lawyer that deals with awkward facts by placing the most elastic interpretation on them. What, one asks, does The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys add to the books already written about this dynastic family? I think that more than anything else it expands the background of known events and episodes by filling in with unknown, often telling, and sometimes poignant details. For example, Mrs. Goodwin gives the first full account of the Kennedy’s retarded daughter Rosemary and her medical treatment.

The Fitzgerald chronicle, chiefly of Rose Kennedy’s father John Fitzgerald—known more familiarly as Honey Fitz—occupies the first and fresher third of Mrs. Goodwin’s book. About him, Mrs. Goodwin tends at times to lapse into the idiom of a Horatio Alger story:

At the age of fourteen, Johnny was full of the most unshakeable self-confidence. He was a sturdy youth, courageous and defiant, a bright boy with a bright face, a ruddy complexion and clear blue eyes. He had a curious, receptive mind and was forever asking questions with an intense desire for an intelligent reply. The world seemed an exciting place where something interesting was always happening to him.

From newsboy to ward heeler to boss of his native North End, that was Johnny’s progression. In the days before the welfare state, ward bosses, as Mrs. Goodwin points out, formed a shadow government. One of the best of them, Martin Lomasney, known as the Ward Eight Mahatma, explained their function:

Is somebody out of a job? We do our best to place him and not necessarily on the public payroll. Does the family run in arrears with the landlord or the butcher? We lend a helping hand. Do the kids need shoes or clothing, or the mother a doctor? We do what we can, and since, as the world is run, such things must be done, we keep old friends and make new ones.2

Fitzgerald made the North End his fief where even the dead rose annually from their graves to vote for him. Fitzblarney or the North End Napoleon, he was sometimes called until he got the name Honey Fitz through singing “Sweet Adeline” at public and private events, open-air rallies, everywhere in fact except at funerals.

Twice elected mayor, he was one of the most flamboyant characters yet to appear on the Boston political scene. The city in those pre–World War days had never seen anything like his whirlwind campaigns. He invented the motor cavalcade, speeding from rally to rally with flaring torches in a fire-engine-red touring car and followed by what he called his lancers. In his two terms as mayor he built a city hall annex, schools, a zoo, an aquarium, parks, municipal buildings, a multitude of public lavatories. And from whatever was built, he took his cut. “Burglars in the House,” John Cutler called his chapter on the mayor’s first term in “Honey Fitz“, perhaps the best account of Boston’s ward and city politics of that era.

In his first term Honey Fitz is estimated to have attended 1,200 dinners, 1,500 dances, 200 picnics, 1,000 meetings, made 3,000 speeches, and danced with 500 girls. He was, in the lingo of the day, a skirt chaser. On one of his tours north of Boston he happened on Elizabeth “Toodles” Ryan, an overbosomed hostess and entertainer at the Ferncroft Inn, in Mrs. Goodwin’s words, “a triumphantly beautiful woman,” and about the age of his daughter Rose. From that happening they grew intimate. They were spotted together so often in places like the Edwardian Woodcock Hotel that it gave rise among local pols to the jingle,

A whiskey glass
And Toodle’s ass
Made a horse’s ass
Of Honey Fitz.

After Honey Fitz announced that he would run for a third term, his upstart rival, the rising James Michael Curley, let it be known that he would shortly give three public lectures, the first on “Graft in Ancient Times versus Graft in Modern Times,” the second on “Great Lovers from Cleopatra to Toodles.” Before Curley could deliver his second lecture, Honey Fitz withdrew from the race “because of ill health.” Mrs. Goodwin holds that Honey Fitz’s encounter with Toodles was innocent enough, or almost so, a casual meeting on a convivial evening, a few kisses openly exchanged. Nothing more. She does not mention the jingle and she accepts the alibi of Honey Fitz’s illness. Without the Toodles threat, the resourceful Curley could probably have beaten Honey Fitz in any case.

But from then on Honey Fitz’s career slowly declined. He never held office again. He did live long enough to see Curley dead and to clamber on a table to sing “Sweet Adeline” after his grandson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been elected to Congress. That Honey Fitz, if he had not been undercut by the Toodles scandal, had the potential of becoming a national political figure, as Mrs. Goodwin claims, is simply not so. Essentially he was a mountebank, a shrewd, obstreperous local politician. “Sweet Adeline” was not only his theme song but his swan song.

If the story of Honey Fitz seems to come from an off-color version of Horatio Alger, Joseph Kennedy’s was straight out of Balzac. I picture him as a student crossing on the penny ferry each morning from East Boston on his way to the Boston Latin School, a young Rastignac viewing the city with its gold-domed State House as a rich hive from which he was resolved one day to extract the honey. He was a mediocre student—in fact he had to repeat a year—but he was captain of the baseball team and colonel of the school cadets, the latter appointment, although Mrs. Goodwin does not say so, arranged by his father, the boss of East Boston and one of the four Boston bosses known as mayor makers. Golden threads ran from the political bosses to more proper Bostonian offices and banks and stores and industries. Favors demanded. Favors returned. When Joe was at Harvard his father’s long arm reached out again to see that he, as a part-time substitute in his senior year, received his baseball letter, awarded only to those who played in the Yale game. A few days before the game a stranger approached the Harvard captain to let him know that if he wanted the license he had applied for to run a movie theater, he had better see to it that Kennedy got his letter. Substitute Joe was sent into the game in the last inning.

  1. 1

    The Kennedys (Summit Books, 1984).

  2. 2

    See John Cutler’s “Honey Fitz”: Three Steps to the White House (Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), p. 46.

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