The family naturally enough tried to avoid public exposure of Jack Kennedy’s miserable afflictions. Later, when he was a national figure, spinal pain and evident weakness would be attributed to the stress of the “heroic” PT boat episode in the Solomon Islands. Arthur Schlesinger’s summation, written no doubt with his best knowledge, gives the more or less official explanation for Kennedy’s infirmities. “The shock of the collision with the Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands had torn his back, already weakened by the football injury at Harvard a dozen years before.” On the matter of adrenal insufficiency, Schlesinger sees it as a minor form of the disease, “evidently induced by the physical strain of the long night of swimming and the subsequent malaria [PT boat incident], presented no serious problem.” Perhaps nothing presented a serious problem to the Kennedys who, as the melancholy scholarship and published insinuations insist, combined a flagrant rapacity with a mastery of concealment and the absolving pretext.
It took a good deal of maneuver and evasion for Kennedy to be accepted by the Navy and to serve in combat in World War II—this success for once in a cause most people would consider worthy. In the Navy he achieved the post of skipper of PT (patrol torpedo) 109 on duty in the South Pacific. In the summer of 1943 the boat was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer. Two of the men died and one was so badly burned by the explosion of the boat’s fuel it was not thought he could be saved. As the vessel sank, Kennedy and the survivors set out to swim to land, with Kennedy pulling along the burned man by making a tow-line with his life jacket. The swim took four hours. A half hour later, seeing that the spot was not useful for signaling a passing rescue boat, Kennedy undertook another long swim, which proved futile, and he was forced to return. John Hersey described the feat in an article in The New Yorker, a feat which was seldom mentioned by Kennedy himself, according to Schlesinger.
The number of PT boat pins floating around the White House would cast some doubt on that, but there is no doubt that old Joe was ignited by the heroic account and arranged for a Reader’s Digest condensation to fall like manna on the public. About the action itself, some thought it a disgrace of poor leadership that the boat should have been in a position to be attacked and sunk. One book claims that General MacArthur thought Kennedy should have been court-martialed, but later thought better of it, of the court-martial if not of the command of the vessel. Yet, hardly anyone denies the courage and endurance of Kennedy under the drastic challenge. “One of the authentic passages of heroism in the war”—Arthur Schlesinger.
Hamilton gives a full accounting of the naval training, service, the surrounding military scene in the Pacific. The gripping PT boat tale emerges; a difficult battle-front narration it is of surprise, panic, death for two, and extraordinary survival of the others. And then we find Jack indeed back home, a hero, if not of Silver Star quality, but with plenty of earned medals, “for the rescue if not for the action,” to decorate the Oval Office. And back home we are, unfortunately, in for other feats of endurance.
A letter to his father, and its presentation in the book:
“When I do get out of here you’ll find that you have a new permanent fixture around that Florida pool. I’ll just move from it to get into my sack.”
But the first sack he intended to get into was Inga’s.
Setting off “Inga’s sack” in a separate paragraph for dramatic effect at the end of a chapter is what might be called sleaze typography. In the case of the Kennedys, the atmosphere is so deeply infected with pollutants issuing from books and scandal sheets, perhaps we cannot expect a more reserved and stately command of locution from a Visiting Professor at the John W. McCormack Institute in Boston. Section headings in bold type of “Hot Screw” and “Tangling Tonsils with Inga”—we suppose they are meant to add a contemporary drollery to the old-fashioned practice of a three-volume biography.
As for Inga, yes, there is a lot of her and her archival place in history, which seems to rest upon the number of letters received and saved, the agitation she inspired in J. Edgar Hoover, and the historical analysis provided by her son. “If he [Kennedy] wanted to make love, you’d make love—now. They’d have fifteen minutes to get to a party, and she’d say she didn’t want to. He’d look at his watch and say we’ve got ten minutes, let’s go. There’s a certain amount of insensitiveness, an awful lot of self-centeredness.” Thus the bonny prince of libertines.
Inga Arvad, a Danish beauty, twice married, first to an Egyptian and later to a Danish film director. As a journalist for a Danish paper, she was sent to Germany and there met Hitler, who invited her to sit in his box during the 1936 Olympics. A photograph of the two turned up during her affair with Kennedy and was passed on to the FBI, who had already been “investigating” her when she was a student at the Columbia School of Journalism. The acquaintance with Kennedy came about from her friendship with Kathleen Kennedy when both were working for the Times-Herald, a Washington newspaper. The infatuation flourished rather longer than most owing to the hero’s being in naval training and later service in the Pacific. It was a cause for concern on the part of the founding father, as he is known, and in the end Jack sighed, a little, as a lover and obeyed as a son. And that was that.
Hamilton has not yet, in his projected work, reached the astonishing moment, or moments, with Judith Exner Campbell. Her story, or My Story, is a most unfortunate one. To pass from Frank Sinatra to Jack Kennedy to Sam Giancana, the Mafia boss, is to experience an erotic pummeling that would qualify her for recuperative nights in a shelter. Her distinction is to have “served” in the White House, in whatever closet or do-not-disturb room that could be commandeered for the occasion. In this she was not alone, but she was there. It is interesting to speculate about the more or less universal consent nowadays to impugn oneself in order to provide a revelation about another. On the afternoon interview shows you can see a handsome young woman, now married and with children, telling of her rape by her father, who is sitting there calmly, wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows.
Judith Exner said that harassment by the FBI led her to tell her story in print. And there is always the spur of a little money to be picked up, since there is seldom any financial equity between the “servant,” sexual or otherwise, and the master. On the other hand, self-validation plays a part, an insistence that one has really existed, a confounding of the sudden and complete erasure the powerful voluptuary likes to exercise at will. Her book did not appear until 1977 and thus was not able to surprise the President, who had been able to count on an unwritten contract between the press and the political celebrity not to print scurrility for the fun of it. Perhaps that was a time of greater civility and perhaps not. But it is gone forever.
The living Senator Kennedy, no guardian of his reputation, has just now after Chappaquiddick and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, and much else, to see the Kennedy headshot that inevitably decorates these books on the cover of something called The Senator, written by a “gofer” who became a personal assistant. Indeed, another “shattered I dol” affair, somewhat gratuitous in that respect, but not without its novelty. Girls, girls, girls, three chicks in a hot tub, cocaine, a wearying round of injudicious revelry.
With Jack and Teddy we are not reading of sexual advances, a mere faltering and bumbling hope that can ruin a fellow nowadays, but of an advancing throng of eager females, a gleeful army ever to be the practical and theoretical discomfort of feminists. We seem to have monarchal privilege in a late resuscitation, even if the engagements are on the unremarkable side. Not one of the women has a secure place in palace history, with the exception of Marilyn Monroe, who may be thought of as our “Sweet little Nell Gwynn of Drury Lane,” mistress of Charles II.
Here and there, it is claimed that Bobby Kennedy, more or less temperate in the service of the family vice, fell under the sway of the “goddess,” only to find that she was also in the imperial mode and not so easy to dispose of. A seditious pest she could be, on the telephone at late hours, thinking of marriage itself to the President or to Bobby, then father of seven. In some accounts of the night of Monroe’s death, we are to imagine Bobby rushing through the dark night from San Francisco to Los Angeles, as if on the ship The Black Pirate, to find the comatose body, take it off in an ambulance, then back to the house to be laid out nude with the pink, or perhaps white, telephone hanging, to be later discovered. So they say…or, no, perhaps he merely paid a visit to tell her “It was all over” and later in the grip of night the abandoned fairy princess reached for her pills. All in the grave, a three-act tragedy, not quite classical—farce sprouting on the frozen ground.
The elder Kennedy in Hamilton’s words: “failed shipyard manager, failed Hollywood producer, failed diplomat, failed politician—but brilliantly successful Wall Street swindler,…without whom John Fitzgerald Kennedy could never have reached the White House.” It is not altogether easy for those who have lived through the two past decades in American finance and who know of the previous “robber barons” and their interesting accumulations, to summon the proper moral indignation about Joe’s ruthless dealings. At the Boston brokerage he entered soon after college, an early strike itself for an Irishman, he “learned the technique that would, several years later, enable him to save the New York Yellow Cab Company and earn himself a further fortune. Known as stock pooling, it relied on a conspiracy between traders who artificially bidded up a stock and then dumped it once the market had been duped into raising the price.”
It is common for citizens to forgive shady fortunes as they more or less settle down into a conversion to houses, servants, motor cars, clothes, travel, and spoiled children who may not make a dime of their own, but who may, if they have a taste for it, enter public life or philanthropy. The elder Kennedy does not appear a pariah by force of acquisition and ambition so much as by extravagant investment in infidelities. His open alliance with Gloria Swanson included a rape, described, yes, with considerable descriptive fluency in her autobiography. Swanson visited Hyannis, and sailed for Europe with both Joe and Rose, circumstances that some believe passed on the father’s conquering spirit to the sons. Whether there is a little philandering curl on the male gene is not known. Or perhaps it was just the claim of environmental example. Or the exceptional handsomeness of the sons that, like beauty in women, may set a fast pace.
Irish, Roman Catholic, Bostonian, men of Harvard. So peculiar is the Kennedy family configuration that genuine identification with all except Harvard can appear to need inspection. Joe was a graduate of Harvard, as were his sons, and, on the other side, “Honey Fitz” had been admitted to Harvard Medical School before he was required to withdraw on the death of his father. Both came by way of the public Boston Latin School, although the Kennedy sons went to boarding schools, such as Choate in Connecticut. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book on the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families, among Joe’s classmates at Harvard were Vincent Astor, “heir to the greatest fortune in America”; Herman Schwab, son of the Bethlehem Steel magnate; and Edward Atkins, “whose father was the Atkins of Westinghouse Electric.” These young men, along with others of their sort, were “Gold Coasters,” that is, members of the top clubs. Joe Kennedy was in the trough along with the great majority of Harvard students, but this did not deter a sense of awe for the club men, mixed with resentment, as is so often the case when awe arises from mere positioning in the scheme of things.
We are led to believe from most accounts that both Joe and Rose Kennedy felt the sting of Boston class snobbery. This was especially vivid and humiliating when they rented a large beach house in Cohasset, a community south of Boston, then “the private preserve of old Boston families.” Membership in the Cohasset Country Club was sought, and after a waiting period, denied, even though at least one member of the committee liked Joe’s “cut and attitude.” The restrained and traditional manners of the Boston aristocracy, after the great minds had left the scene, displayed a structured and repetitive and treasured provinciality that allowed for the host of benign eccentricities for which they were known. A distinguished, rich old gentleman in his eighties, walking of a morning from his house on Beacon Street to the office on State Street—that kind of thing. Social acquaintance with such persons could hardly have been stimulating for Joe, whose eccentricities were of another order.
In some ways, the Kennedys seem to have drunk a glass of bleaching powder. They do not display a talent for colloquialism, turn of phrase, story-telling, imitations, the delights of blarney that enlivened the kitchens of the fine Boston houses, if not the drawing rooms. With the men humor and imagination are replaced by horseplay and boyish joshing. The outhouse brilliance of Lyndon Johnson when he needs a metaphor does not decorate, so far as we can read, the style of the naughty Kennedys. And who can imagine one of them saying, as Clinton did about the hamburgers and fries on the campaign trail: “I’m becoming as fat as a wood tick.” With Jack Kennedy the rhetorical annals have to settle for Ich bin ein Berliner and “Ask not what your country can do…”—suitable prime minister famous quotations and delivered in the eloquent Boston broad-A accent that was part of the effectiveness and charm of the Kennedy sons. Even old “Lev” Saltonstall, not to mention Henry Cabot Lodge, was no match in production of the Boston style.
In 1926 the father moved the family from the small hub of the universe to the large hub, that is from Boston to New York, a move that left scarcely a scratch on the impermeable Boston fingerprints of the tribe, even though at the time Bobby was only one year old and Teddy had not been born. They moved to a house in Riverdale and then on to Bronxville, in Westchester, but twenty years later Jack ran for Congress in Honey Fitz’s old Boston and mostly Irish district. He set himself up in the Hotel Bellevue, across from the State House, to face the slogans of the opposition: “Congress seat for sale—No experience necessary—Applicant must live in New York or Palm Beach—Only millionaires need apply.” He won the office, after canvassing the Holy Name Society, the Gold Star Mothers, and by the strong appeal of his handsome brothers and sisters, by Rose, as a certified Catholic mother, and by the money and the shrewd instincts of the father, who set himself up in the Ritz Hotel, since he was not on the ballot although conspicuous in attendance.
Garry Wills, in The Kennedy Imprisonment, a brilliantly reflective and disillusioned, or illusionless, book, views the “Irishness” of the Kennedys as, for them, a handicap from which all their efforts were to escape. He points out that none of them married Irish and discounts the role of the many Irish cronies, as just that, not equals. But to America, the Kennedys are Irish and if Jack was named the first “Irish Brahmin” that was a description meant to define an elevation not a loss of their Irish heritage. Doris Kearns Goodwin sees the triumph in the congressional race as a happy appreciation on the part of the Irish poor for the spectacular rise in riches and power of one of their own.
Are Joe Sr. and Jack and Edward Kennedy Roman Catholics? Only a rich imagination can bring them to the confessional, seeking absolution under the command to go and sin no more. Of course these secular blades married within the Church and their political and religious ceremonies partook of the presence and the blessing of Cardinal O’Connell and Cardinal Cushing, dramatic Boston clerics. Certainly Jack ran for the presidency as a perceived Catholic whose religion mattered greatly in all the calculations and anxieties of the race. Anyone who lived outside the large cities at the time had the opportunity to hear the folk express a fear of having to kiss the Pope’s ring, a minor curiosity of the faith that had somehow made a major impression. Concern about the candidate’s religious fervor proved grandly misplaced. Garry Wills quotes a line from Murray Kempton written in 1961: We have yet again been denied our first Catholic president.
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy: a mother and indeed a Roman Catholic. Hamilton’s biography is briskly denying to the old matriarch. On the one hand she is seen to display an inane and helpless humility in relation to her husband’s religious and marital misdemeanors. On the other hand she is fiercely scolded for her own misdemeanors in almost every capacity that brings her name to the page. Her attention to religion is a “vengeful piety” that would have “a crushing effect upon her daughters.” Poor Rose made too many trips abroad, seventeen in four years; a lot of her energy was expended on clothes and personal appearance, perhaps understandable since photographs indicate that it is her Fitzgerald handsome head, not Joe’s, that provided the family “good looks.” “She is a management executive rather than a mother, giving orders to the staff and regimenting the children,” and in another flourish: “Anderson’s Ice Maiden, concealing her frozen heart beneath an exterior of courage and self-control.”
It is common to lay the sons’ licentiousness to the hearty paternal example. In Hamilton, the details of the practice are believed to issue from the arctic curse of the mother. About Jack Kennedy, a commenting analysis from a friend: “Rose Kennedy was a cold, unmotherly, and distant woman whose main contribution to Jack’s character was his strangely split psyche, leaving him emotionally crippled in his relations with women; a young man who disliked people embracing him, who showered compulsively—often five times a day—and yet perpetually craved the most symbolic and intimate of all touching: sexual union.” So we are not to settle for the Kennedy men as driven by caprice and will, but as formed by a conjunction of paternal and maternal infirmity—a sort of Mendelian double dose.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s very interesting research on Rose can lead one to believe that it was her fate to have a strong spiritual inclination awkwardly struggling to survive. The year Rose and her sister spent in a very strict convent in Blumenthal, Holland, created in her a wish for practice that went beyond a mere cradle-Catholic adherence. The convent was cold, isolated, and rigorous, with the day beginning at six in the morning, silence at meals, and a required four-day retreat of complete silence. At the convent, Rose elected to compete for the honor of Child of Mary. The goals were “to embrace a commitment for life, a deep personal resolve to attend Mass…every day; to say the Rosary regularly; to make an annual retreat…to renew one’s religion daily so that it becomes inseparable from one’s life.”
Rose was accepted as a Child of Mary and henceforth maintained a strong sense of vocation. In old age she could say: “As I look back now to that long distant experience, I look back with thankfulness to God for having granted me the occasion for shaping a lasting covenant with Him.” If Rose is to blame for a large measure of the “emotional blockage” in Jack’s life, perhaps we are to view it as a crippling Catholic guilt. But a leavening of guilt, Catholic or otherwise, would surely have been an addition to the interior landscape of the President. Instead his pagan exuberance was undiminished by his high worldly calling and evidence fails to show a strain of moral ruefulness.
The thousand days of Jack Kennedy were also the thousand days of Jacqueline Kennedy. For a politician it is hard to imagine a more felicitous union. The presidential couple appeared as beautiful, dreamlike, and enviable as movie stars—the icons who set the standard for public adulation. The Reagans, actual creatures of Hollywood, achieved a statistical popularity that was almost entirely ideological, a strange curve in the American mind as it wandered down the road of History. Nancy Reagan, working out at the glamour bar like a determined little acrobat, remained in her way a suburban apotheosis of image, a rich suburb of course but not outside the hopes of a considerable part of the public. Jackie Kennedy was, instead, mystery and distance, offering little scope for emulation, a spectacular footnote in the annals of democratic divinity. She is remembered for a sort of quality magnificence, a step beyond Dolly Madison’s famed table settings. And she made what is currently called a personal statement by rounding up White House evenings with guests such as Pablo Casals and André Malraux, celebrities with no hint of the frontier.
The marriage leaves the darkest puzzle unanswered: the brusque denial of courtesy on the part of the President to the consort who brought such a useful and perhaps poetical acclaim to the term of office. It is possible he thought he did it all alone.
In spite of scandal there remains affection for the Kennedys. Even the battered Teddy can still appeal to liberal Democrats for his legislative tenacity. For the memory of Robert Kennedy the feeling of loss has increased through the years. He began as a tough and vindictive operator too friendly to the black shadow of J. Edgar Hoover and wire taps on Martin Luther King, too impatient with the civil rights movement when it moved in ways neither he nor the President was prepared to understand as acceptable politics, but as he lived on after Jack’s assassination, it is felt that he made a transcending journey, an emotional awakening that went beyond ballot-box strategy, at least in its origin. This transformation attached him to a ragtag, unexpected constituency—the grape pickers of California, blacks in the inner cities, and to many among the raucous and agnostic roving bands that brought down Lyndon Johnson. He too was assassinated and his funeral had a pop, or populist, quality, with Andy Williams singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the coffin in a railroad train which made its way through the modern shanty glades of the road from New York to Washington. The two Kennedys died by unconscionable violence. Perhaps there was nothing to it, no clear political scenario. Just two celebrity murders, like that of John Lennon?
Sour Grapes March 4, 1993