Young Jack Kennedy

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When, some years ago, Nigel Hamilton, the English biographer of Field Marshal Montgomery, told an American friend he hoped one day to write about John F. Kennedy, the friend protested that there were already far too many books about Kennedy and his family. Hamilton agreed, but he also added that “no one had ever written a complete life, in the English tradition.”

Having read the resulting volume, JFK: Reckless Youth (Random House), meant to be the first of three, I am not sure just what he meant. The Brits may have pioneered the multi-volume biography of statesmen, but they have long since been crowded out of the franchise, as a visit to the heavily laden biography shelves of any American bookstore will demonstrate. Hamilton manages to get his subject all the way to Congress in 928 pages, roughly the pace set by a good many American biographers of politicians far less important than John Kennedy.

Only in its curiously dismissive tone toward the Irish does the book seem especially English. “Noted for gregariousness, sentimentality, and willingness to undertake hard labor,” Hamilton writes of the desperate men and women who fled the potato famine for a better life in Boston, “the Irish did not, in the main, make great entrepreneurs.” British understatement is nowhere to be found. Hamilton argues that Joseph and Rose Kennedy, much praised in their day as model parents, were anything but admirable, but he prosecutes his case with such unrelenting vehemence that after a time the reader begins to sympathize with the accused. Joe Kennedy, according to Hamilton, was a “Boston-Irish braggart”; “a foul-mouthed, controlling, frightening, evil-eye his children could not escape”; “bigoted, almost psychotic … ignoble”; a “sniveling,” “cowardly,” #8220;swindling” “despot” whose whole life Hamilton summarizes as “odious.” Hamilton’s Rose Kennedy is little better, a sort of maternal monster—“the Ice Maiden of Abbottsford Road,” “cold, unmotherly,” “severe,” “distant,” “sanctimonious,” “trite,” crippled by an “Irish-Catholic mindset,” guilty of a “vengeful piety” toward her children, determined that they all be as unhappy in their marriages as she had been in hers, and so self-involved that when she learns of her second son’s assassination, she can think “only of what she should wear at the funeral …”

Nor are overripeness and overkill JFK’s only flaws. Hamilton is also overeager to credit simple gossip, provided it furthers his case. Thus, anonymous interviewees are allowed to comment upon events they could not possibly have observed firsthand. According to one nameless informant, for example, one of Kennedy’s sisters, “to the consternation of her husband … guiltily crossed herself before submitting to normal marital sex,” while another observer is permitted to suggest without a shred of substantiation that the reason Joe Kennedy had his retarded daughter, Rosemary, lobotomized was to cover up his having sexually molested her.

Still, Hamilton has done prodigies of work—more than two thousand interviews, according to his publishers—and the young Jack Kennedy who emerges from his pages is convincingly shown to have been both more substantive and more troubled than we thought.

Hamilton shows that many of Kennedy’s strengths, including his independence of mind, his self-deprecating wit, his distrust of emotionalism and refusal ever to complain, were evident early in boyhood. So were some of his besetting weaknesses—his unwillingness to try too hard for fear of being seen to fail, his over-reliance on charm and consuming need for admiration, his lifelong pursuit of women and in-grown distrust of emotional attachment to them. These qualities, Hamilton suggests, good and bad, were largely developed in spite of his parents rather than because of them, as a shield against the demands of his overbearing father or in angry reaction to the apparent uninterest of his strangely oblivious mother, who managed seventeen shopping trips to Europe over the course of just four years but, when her second son was hospitalized for a month at boarding school, could not manage even once to make it north to Connecticut from Palm Beach.

Hamilton is good on the astonishingly precarious state of his hero’s health. From earliest boyhood Kennedy seems always to have been ill or just recovering from illness, subject to a host of ailments still largely undefined: mysterious fevers that yellowed his skin and kept him in bed for months; excruciating lower-back pain that rarely left him and made him walk, a friend remembered, “like a limping monkey”; a blood disease that his physicians believed for a time might be leukemia; agonizing stomach and bowel pain whose cause no amount of humiliating examinations was ever able to explain—and all this before the malaria and further injury to his back incurred in the South Pacific or the diagnosis of Addison’s disease that followed it.