December 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 8
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.
Kennedy’s wartime role before, during, and after the sinking of PT-109, blown out of proportion by some early biographers, then minimized by his posthumous detractors, is shown here to have been almost everything the campaign literature with which his proud father flooded the electorate said it was. His miserable health could have kept him from the fighting altogether; he had to falsify his medical records just to get into the Navy, then did so again because he was determined to see combat. Without radar on a moonless night, no one could have foreseen the sudden advent of the Japanese destroyer that sliced Kennedy’s boat in two, Hamilton argues, and in the grueling days that followed, when his incompetent superiors had given Kennedy and his crew up for dead, it was his stubborn courage that kept them all alive until they could be rescued.
Hamilton concentrates so closely on his star that most of Jack’s eight siblings are little more than walk-ons, but Joe, Jr., often portrayed as the most likely politician in the family and certainly the first choice for prominence of his doting father, is seen here as far slower and more conventional—“heavier”—than Jack, alarmingly admiring of Nazi Germany when he should have been old enough to know better, without much wit or charm, and too much in awe of the father who harbored such extravagant hopes for him.
One of the most persistent myths about John Kennedy has been that he somehow fell into politics at his father’s direction and was only a reluctant stand-in for his dead brother. Hamilton provides concrete evidence that in fact he harbored presidential hopes for himself well before his brother’s death.
That, and a good deal more, is revealed in the most compelling part of Hamilton’s book, his richly detailed account of Kennedy’s relationship with the Danish-born newspaperwoman Inga Arvad. Far from the lurid tale tabloid biographers have made of it— JFK’S AFFAIR WITH NAZI SPY —theirs was a remarkable romance. Arvad was no spy, but, because she was beautiful and married, had once interviewed Hitler, and was carrying on a landestine romance with a naval intelligence officer, J. Edgar Hoover set his gumshoes on her trail. Their romance was doomed from the first—she was four years older than her smitten ensign, his father was dead set against marriage, the FBI recorded their telephone calls and bugged their hotel bedrooms—but clearly Arvad provided Kennedy with an almost maternal understanding as well as ardor, and he reciprocated by confessing to her doubts and dreams he otherwise kept entirely to himself.
In 1941 and 1942 Kennedy seems to have mused aloud to her of heading West after the war to run a ranch, out from under his father’s watchful eye, perhaps with Arvad at his side. But he also talked to her of going into politics and running for President one day, and she was shrewd enough not only to take him seriously but to see that this ambition would eventually overshadow his wish for tranquillity. “Put a match to the smoldering ambition and you will go like wild fire,” Arvad told him. “It is all against the ranch out West, but it is the unequaled highway to the White House. And if you can find something you can really believe in, then my dear you [will have] caught the biggest fish in the ocean. You can pull it aboard, but don’t rush it, there is still time.”
But John Kennedy could never count on there still being time. For him, life had always to be seized now, because it might end at any moment.
Hamilton believes that what he accurately calls “Jack’s lifelong need not simply to flirt with women but compulsively to lie with them—obsessively, manically, to the point of sexual addiction”—was primarily an unconscious reaction to his mother’s eerie aloofness. There was also always the gaudy example set by his perennially randy father, who thought nothing of flaunting his mistresses at the family table. But surely the main impulse, pushing him on toward action of every kind, including sexual conquest, was the central fact of his sickly boyhood—the constant, if rarely acknowledged, terror that he was fated to die long before his time.
“If anything happens to me,” Kennedy wrote Arvad at twenty-six, just after he was rescued in the Pacific, “I have this knowledge that if I had lived to be a hundred, I could only have improved the quantity of my life, not the quality. This sounds gloomy as hell … I’ll cut it. … You are the only person I’d say it to anyway.” We shall have to wait for Hamilton’s second and third volumes to see if Kennedy ever revealed so much about himself to anyone again, but the reader senses that it would be just as true of him the day he set out for Dallas, two decades later.