The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga
A Question of Character: The Life of John F. Kennedy
The Founding Father
The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power
The price of public life is the exposure of the follies, or worse, the disgraces of private life. Nothing new here—rumors, palace gossip, scandals whispered by the disaffected and the competitive, each sometimes adding false transgressions to a mountain of genuine turpitude. Macauley writes of the “libellers” who, not content with a rich, damaging dossier on Napoleon, were in the habit of publishing “how he poisoned a girl with arsenic, when he was in military school—how he hired a grenadier to shoot Dessaix at Marengo—how he filled St. Cloud with all the pollutions of Capri.” Still, nothing in previous history equals the powers available today, available and tempting to scandal: the discrediting accusation, the compromising revelation sent out without hesitation to the public—all in the friendliest way clanging and banging reputations like cans in the weekly shopping basket. And to this our times have added the playful hidden camera and the amusing bug on the bedside telephone.
Noting the large number of possibly loquacious deponents the public person is associated with for a long or a short time, one might expect a measure of prudence or caution. Instead these unprotected celebrities, when inclined to indiscretions of one sort or another, act as if they were anonymous citizens out having a good time. “Topless,” a recent offering by a member of the British royal family, would not be remarkable if it were among a dour little group of nudists basking on a rock in some forgotten cove. There is a certain charm in imagining that the Duchess and her friend thought they were just two like any other. But, of course, people like others only for purposes of the occasion, since one would not wish to be anonymous for very long. Even the tireless Casanova, noting insufficient respect from one of his multiple partners, might rise up and say: Madame, do not forget to whom you are speaking.
The Kennedys: surely there is a note of tragic kingship in the calamities they have suffered. The death in World War II of the oldest son, the death of a daughter, Kathleen, in an airplane crash, the assassination of John, while President of the United States, and the assassination of Robert, perhaps to be a future president. That was then, long ago it seems; the present historical condition of the family is in many ways dismal indeed, with the males covered by bruises and welts as they are worked over in book after book, in atrocious items marketed as novels and memoirs, and in the jackal-like researches of the celebrity industry. The dead President left his mark on the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis, Civil Rights, the Peace Corps—capital letter affairs for historians and commentators who have not failed to accept the challenge. For the entertainment of the public, there was the grand new White House style. The hospitality to the arts both sacred and profane, that is to music, the invitations for talented Americans and foreigners, along with attention to clothes and decoration, came from Jacqueline Kennedy, who is supposed to have said some place that the only music Jack liked was “Hail to the Chief.”
In the midst of all this, the relaxation that came to the publishing world began after the death of the President to show him as a voluptuary so extreme as to be almost humdrum, which is the way these obsessions may proceed, ever and wherever on to the next bout. With a prodigal intrepidity he attached himself to a possible spy, to gangsters and their molls, as some still call them, to many others here and there. And nightly the surviving family can hear the ghostly rumblings on the battlements as the tomb of Marilyn Monroe “wherein we saw thee quietly inurned, hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws to cast thee up again.” It must be said that some of the Kennedy men have been extraordinarily cooperative in the ruin of the family reputation, falling even into matters of criminal concern.
The Kennedy bibliography would seem to be of a sufficiency in regard to biography, statecraft, and “revelation.” About his work A Thousand Days (and almost a thousand pages about a thousand days), Arthur Schlesinger writes that his book is a “personal memoir by one who served in the White House during the Kennedy years.” He goes on in his preface to imagine someone, “perhaps a very young man,” immersing “himself in the flood of papers in the Kennedy Library” and writing a fuller account of the Kennedy administration. There is such a book, newly published, JFK: Reckless Youth, the first of three volumes by Nigel Hamilton, an Englishman and author of an admired official biography of Field Marshal Montgomery. Hamilton meets one hope of Arthur Schlesinger’s—he has been granted every privilege as the John F. Kennedy Scholar and Visiting Professor at the John W. McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts.
Reckless Youth is some eight hundred pages long and with much more to follow. Everything considered, some doubt about the usefulness of the project can be entertained. However, necessity, gap, lack do not always play a part in contemporary biography. Indeed, redundancy is the rule on the celebrated and even for those of a more narrow appeal such as poets, novelists, painters, and composers. Looked upon as a project, as something to do, the writing of a biography is not an unnatural attraction. After the interminable interviews, with sometimes pleasant travels here and there and new acquaintances picked up from the address book of the subject, after the shuffling of old newspaper interviews to which you have been directed by previous commentators, after the weaving of other books into one’s own narration—after all that, tedious as it may be, the thing actually can be done. Industry rather than special talent is the clue.
Mr. Hamilton’s biography moves through the Fitzgerald and Kennedy “Boston Beginnings,” through boarding school, Harvard, service in World War II and the PT boat affair, on to Kennedy’s election to Congress in 1946. There is much in these years that casts a blur on the gloss of the young knight and much that arouses sympathy for his suffering in drastic illnesses and his brave, and bravura, efforts to endure.
However, the biographer does a curious thing in his brief prologue. Here, with a somewhat suspicious impatience, he rushes to alert the reader to the belittlements ahead, a sort of coming attractions preview. In a flash-forward to the funeral, he lets drop, as it were, the President’s venereal and Addison’s disease, at that moment being covered up by the naval doctors at Bethesda. This along with a very arresting aside: the night before Kennedy’s funeral Jackie Kennedy “had a call from the wife of the columnist Joe Alsop, in whose house her husband had committed his first adultery as the president of the United States, on the night of his inauguration.” It’s hard to know how to name a compositional strategy that introduces such a startling fact by an irrelevant phone call made long after. The provenance of the disclosure is a little murky, like so much of the scandal where possibility and actuality meet without a pause. Schlesinger’s account of the night in A Thousand Days runs: “At a quarter to four in the morning the President-elect returned to his house in Georgetown from a supper given him downtown by his father after the Gala.” However….
About the funeral, certain to make a strenuous claim on the biographer’s art at the end of his very long enterprise, we have a bit of not so strenuous forewarning. Thus, the widow: “She had never possessed nor shown the meanest [sic] interest in politics, her husband’s career, but despite the fact that her new Greek friend—and future husband—was staying as her personal guest in the White House, she now displayed a version of mourning that would have become Electra.” The concluding phrase, taken from Eugene O’Neill’s play, apparently came easily to hand, if not being a deft classical allusion for the circumstances of this American tragedy. Now, thirty years on, from all we are told by honest research and also by flamboyant exploitation of Kennedy’s life, we might want to say that nothing became him so much as his funeral.
The early years, reckless among other things, seem to have had the promise and the defects of the Kennedy who became President when he was forty-three years old. On both sides the family was political from the beginning, political in the Boston-Irish tradition. There was a certain barroom, ward-heeler bonhomie in the group’s practice, along with some spectacular diversions by Boston Mayor Curley, but in the end the pols smarted up and conducted themselves in a manner not so different from the Lodges, the Saltonstalls, and the rest. Old John Fitzgerald had served in the state and national legislature and been mayor of Boston. In this career he was sometimes opposed by Patrick Kennedy, the father of Joseph Kennedy, who would become ambassador to England under President Roosevelt and who himself thought of running for the presidency, an ambition forestalled by his egregious errors in the estimation of Hitler and the intentions of the Nazis. Except for the fortune made by Joseph Kennedy, virtually nothing engaged the men of the family apart from politics.
Jack can be thought of as having an ancestral obligation, like Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger, if that is not too high-flown a conjunction. For his son’s political debut, the father is said to have spent perhaps more than three hundred thousand dollars. He said, “With the money I spent, I could have elected my chauffeur.”
JFK: Reckless Youth—what does it add? It certainly adds pages, in an unconscionable number, of trivia, of parsing and repeating, filling in and filling out the accounts, themselves not quite sparse, available before. One thing it generously supplies is a large selection of letters between the young Kennedy and his boarding school friend “Lem” Billings, letters that even a pedant in the library stacks might wish had perished in a dormitory wastebasket. Many of them are “smutty,” cold and careless in their obsession with “getting laid.” On the other hand they outline a young man’s, or a young person’s, defiance of suffering in illnesses that arrived with a savage and pitiable monotony. Gonorrhea just after college, with recurrent urinary and prostate distress as a result; from youth extreme lower back pains later requiring at times the use of crutches, spinal operations in Boston and New York; and the cloud above it all, Addison’s disease, an adrenal insufficiency finally diagnosed in 1947 after years of painful testing in the Mayo Clinic and the Lahey Clinic in Boston; after diagnosis treated with cortisone and other medication throughout his life. The mere listing cannot give the true measure of the long suffering. Robert Kennedy said about his brother, “At least one half of the days he spent on this earth, were days of intense physical pain.”