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Several months after his inauguration, in 1961, Jack Kennedy was relaxing at the family compound in Hyannis Port with his friend and distant in-law, Gore Vidal. “You know,” Jack said, “I’m getting awfully tired of reading how my father bought me the election. I think of all the things I did—I was the one out there.”
“Well,” Vidal responded, “he certainly made a big contribution. What do you think drove him?”
Jack paused, looked out to sea for a moment and then said with finality, “Vanity.”
Vanity. It was vanity and, of course, much more. There is no question Joe Kennedy loved his children, yet much of his energy as a father went into pushing them to heights he himself wished to reach. He had once entertained notions that he would run for president; in 1940, before Franklin Roosevelt announced his candidacy for a third term, Kennedy, then the ambassador to Great Britain, was often mentioned in the papers as one of the half-dozen men likely to win the Democratic nomination. Yet if Joe Kennedy was vain, he was also practical, and he came to realize there was no way America was ready to elect a Catholic president. That would have to wait for another generation.
From 1915 until 1944, his dynastic imperative was focused on his eldest son, Joe junior, who, like the heir to a throne, was raised from birth with the awareness that the kingdom was to be his, accepting his role and secure in it, shouldering the mantle without question.
Shaken as never before, Joe wrote to Jack’s doctor: “During the darkest days I felt nothing else mattered except his recovery.”
Jack, the second son, grew up in the shadow of his easier-to-“harness” older brother, unsure of his place in the family and seeking to create a unique niche for himself. Another major factor was to affect the future president’s relationship with his father: from the age of two, Jack Kennedy was cursed with a series of illnesses, and it was his father who would come through for him during these crises, finding doctors, seeking out new treatments, sitting at the boy’s bedside. Rose Kennedy was an aloof and often absent mother, a woman who rarely touched her children, let alone hugged them; Joe was the family hugger, the supplier of unconditional love, but toward Jack, in large part because of his health, Joe also showed a softness and empathy that he rarely revealed to anyone else.
To understand the man Jack Kennedy would grow up to be necessitates looking behind the smiles in photographs of a large, happy family and examining the complex interrelationship between father and mother and their two eldest sons. The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, in Boston, the keeper of the Joseph P. Kennedy papers, has only just finished releasing the complete files of hundreds of letters that various family members, so often separated, wrote to one another over the years; taken together, they belie any attempt to summarize the Kennedys in simple, familiar catchphrases. Joe especially emerges as a complex, dominating figure. At his best, he was a remarkably caring father, always willing to set aside his work when his sons needed him. But this millionaire many times over had an insatiable need not just to succeed but to best. He was a man laced with his own prejudices and hatreds, yet was quick to blame any resistance he met on bias against Irish Catholics. He wove that resentment into a web around his family, permeating his children’s consciousnesses with an us-against-them mentality that added a tribal quality to the already interdependent siblings. It was the eldest, as leader of that tribe, who bore the brunt of Joe’s worldview and ambitions.
Jack Kennedy, for the first 27 years of his life, was given the best his father had to offer while being sheltered from his laser-beam focus. He used the second-son position as an observation post to study and reflect, not just perform and respond, and that, along with his illnesses, resulted in Jack’s being given freer range to question, investigate, fail, think, and be. In the process, he grew into a genuinely learned, complicated, and introspective person (and eventually into a president who, in his greatest test, during the Cuban missile crisis, had the seasoned confidence to reject the hawkish and vociferous advice of his generals). While he had spent his earliest years trying to be his father’s son, he would end up very much his own man.
Joseph P. Kennedy was a Harvard graduate and president of a small local bank in 1914 when, at the age of 26, he married Rose Fitzgerald, the celebrated eldest daughter of Boston’s mayor. The couple’s first son, Joseph Patrick Jr., was born nine months and 18 days after their wedding, and a second son, John Fitzgerald, named after Rose’s father, was born 22 months later. They had a lovely home in the Protestant suburb of Brookline, with a live-in maid, a cook, and a new, black Ford in the driveway. They were a golden couple, with the world—at least the Irish Catholic world— at their feet. But in early 1920 two crises dovetailed, altering that outwardly perfect marriage.
The first came when Rose Kennedy decided she just couldn’t take life with Joe anymore. Did she get wind of one particular actress who had turned her husband’s head, or had she simply grown miserable in the role of suburban matron after years of being fêted as the socially prominent daughter of a big-city mayor? Whatever the specific catalyst, after six years of marriage and two months before the birth of their fourth child, she packed her bags and went home to her parents, leaving her children with the help. At first, everyone acted as if nothing were amiss. But finally, after three long weeks, her father came into her room and confronted her. “Go back where you belong,” he told her sternly. Feeling betrayed by the two men she trusted most, Rose turned to the Church for solace and then returned to Brookline, trying at first not to be resentful and focusing instead on her growing family, which she now called “my enterprise.”
Yet, try as she might, Rose supervised her children more than she nurtured them, and she began dealing with her disappointment in her marriage by leaving for extended periods. If Joe and the rest of the family accepted Rose’s trips, one child dared to object. “You’re a great mother to go away and leave your children all alone,” the almost six-year-old Jack is reported to have said to Rose’s face as she was preparing to depart on a six-week tour of the western states. She gave him a frozen look in response, and he learned the hard way that his tears resulted only in his mother’s withdrawing further from him.
Joe, who was often in New York or Hollywood seeing after his business interests, made a point of staying close to home when Rose was away. As the couple reconciled themselves to what was becoming an uneasy truce of a marriage, Joe began turning his attention to his children; one of the secrets of Kennedy’s success in life was his remarkable ability to be absolutely present in whatever he was undertaking at the moment, be it in business or with the family. He visited the boys’ school and met with their teachers, arranged the children’s visits with their grandparents, and took them all out to dinner on the cook’s night off. He was on top of their schedules, their school reports, their study habits—a remarkably engaged father for a man of his class and era.
Still, he too was often absent for months at a time. The tradition of everyone sitting down together for dinner is a famous part of the family legend; yet in reality it was rare for everyone to be at home at the same time. When Joe was at the head of the table, there was lively interaction; he’d ask questions about activities and current events, urging the children to make their opinions known. When Rose held the role of authority figure, she tended to drill facts and lecture on behavior. And when neither parent was at home, it was Joe junior who took the place of honor, learning to carve the meat at an early age and taking easily to the task of calling the other children on their dirty hands or unacceptable manners.
Shaken as never before, Joe wrote to Jack’s doctor: “During the darkest days I felt nothing else mattered except his recovery.”
In February 1920, within weeks of Rose’s return to Brookline, the couple faced a second crisis, one that shook Joe more deeply than his wife’s absence. As Rose was at home giving birth to their daughter Kathleen, two-year-old Jack’s temperature spiked and he developed a bright-red rash—scarlet fever. His condition quickly worsened, and Joe, with the help of the current mayor, Andrew Peters, successfully fought to have Jack admitted to the Boston City Hospital, already overfilled with children suffering from the near epidemic of the very contagious disease.
For the next two months Jack was isolated in a sterile hospital room, sometimes improving, often worse. His rash did not subside, and his temperature went up and down unpredictably; the family genuinely feared they would lose him. The illness had a profound effect on Joe, who not only cut his work time in half but also—and uncharacteristically—began going to church every morning. His afternoons were spent at the hospital, where he sat at Jack’s bedside wearing the requisite disinfected gown. Joe was humbled by the experience, made vulnerable in a way he had never considered possible. As he wrote Jack’s doctor after his son was finally well again, “I had never experienced any very serious sickness in my family previous to this case of Jack’s, and I little realized what an effect such a happening could possibly have on me. During the darkest days I felt that nothing else mattered except his recovery.”
As horrific as the scarlet fever had been, it would be the first in a series of illnesses that marred Jack’s childhood. Rose was slowly coming to terms with the mental handicaps of her eldest daughter, Rosemary, the couple’s third child, and that seemed to be as much maternal adversity as she could handle. But one task Rose did keep for herself—and she was very proud of it—was maintaining a card file in which she methodically recorded every malady each child suffered. By the time Jack was 11, he had a series of cards documenting the fact that, in addition to the scarlet fever, he had had the mumps, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, German measles, and multiple cases of bronchitis. Rose also recorded the monthly weigh-in (at five P.M., before supper), and Jack’s failure to gain weight was a source of concern as well. He weighed only 79 pounds, in stark contrast to his healthy, even occasionally “pudgy” older brother.
By 1930 the Kennedys were the parents of eight children. Their ninth, Teddy, named after Joe’s loyal aide Eddie Moore, was born in 1932 after an unprecedented four-year gap in childbearing for Rose. (During that time Joe had told his mistress Gloria Swanson that he was “loyal” to her.)
Joe was now a multi-millionaire with a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, a five-acre estate in Bronxville, New York, and a summer home in Hyannis Port; he would soon add an oceanfront home in Palm Beach, Florida. With his almost innate ability to foresee the money to be made in the stock market in the teens and the film business in the 20s (and few if any scruples to tether him), Kennedy had accumulated a fortune. With the world now in the depths of the Depression, he foresaw power shifting to government. Fearing Communism, Kennedy saw Franklin Roosevelt as the man to save capitalism (to say nothing of Joe’s own fortune) and backed his presidential candidacy with time, money, and contacts. Joe was rewarded by being named the first chairman of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, and later chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission. He now based himself in Washington while the family remained in Bronxville.
It was during this period, as his oldest sons entered their teens, that Joe’s molding of them began in earnest. He may have been quieter than his father-in-law, Mayor Fitzgerald, who had announced to the press at Joe junior’s birth that the baby would grow up to be president, but Joe senior took the mission most seriously. As Joe senior’s friend the New York Timesreporter Arthur Krock later recalled, “Mr. Kennedy had thought of his son, Joe, as the political leader in the next generation. He was convinced it would be Joe.” (Jack, on the other hand, was described by his father as “a very frail boy [who] had various troubles.”) Joe junior was strong and healthy, an intensely competitive athlete, and a good and disciplined student. His friends spoke of him as a young man with little pretense who laughed at pomposity in all its forms, yet before he even entered college he told select friends that he was going to be “the first Catholic president of the United States.” From a boy known for his occasionally caustic sense of humor, this particular statement was delivered without a hint of irony or doubt.
Joe senior deferred to Rose on the question of which—inevitably parochial—schools their five daughters would attend, and Bobby was still a pre-schooler, but Joe had taken a controlling hand in the education of his eldest son, keen on securing his destiny. His choice in the fall of 1929 as Joe junior turned 14 was the boarding school Choate, a Wasp bastion where the boy could receive a solid academic education, be exposed to a wide range of sports, and mingle with the sons of the powers that be. As Joe would later admonish Bobby, “The contacts you [make] from boyhood on are the things that are important to you.”
Jack was eager to attend Choate as well, but Rose viewed the school in Wallingford, Connecticut, as an alien, Protestant institution, and she exerted her maternal influence to send him, at the age of 13, to the Canterbury School, in New Milford, Connecticut, where a Roman Catholic priest was in charge.
During the Easter vacation of 1931, Joe was resting in Palm Beach when Jack arrived, thinner than ever after spending much of the second semester in the Canterbury infirmary suffering from colds, hives, and various abdominal pains. He returned to school and almost immediately was rushed to the local hospital for an appendectomy. Soon after, family friend Kay Halle went with Joe to the hospital to visit Jack; it was the first time she had met the son. Thirty-five years later she said she still had a vivid memory of this “very pale” boy who was “so surrounded by books I could hardly see him. I was very impressed because at this point this very young child was reading The World Crisis by Winston Churchill.”
A passion for books, especially history— and time to indulge that passion—was a silver lining of Jack’s illnesses. Books opened up the world and fed his curiosity, as well as preventing him from dwelling on his often baffling ailments. As Jacqueline Kennedy told Theodore H. White in an interview for Lifemagazine a week after her husband’s assassination, “You must think of this little boy, sick so much of the time, reading history, reading the Knights of the Round Table, reading Marlborough. For Jack, history was full of heroes.” (White’s notes show that Jackie summed up Jack’s childhood with the phrase “this lonely sick boy and his mother didn’t love him,” a comment White prudently chose not to publish.)
Joe eventually decided that Jack could transfer to Choate, where his brother could help keep an eye on him. Both boys wrote their parents regularly, Joe junior every Sunday and Jack more intermittently. Joe junior knew what his parents wanted to hear; he detailed his good grades to both, but his letters to his mother reported on his church attendance, while he regaled his father with tales of football games. Jack wrote to his mother of what he needed, his weight, and then offered thanks for whatever she had sent, including a birthday cake. To his father, he promised to improve his behavior, noted the occasional good grade, and told humorous and self-deprecating stories designed more to entertain than to inform. Tellingly, few letters were written to the parents together; most were either “Dear Dad” or “Dear Mother,” sent to different locations.
Joe and Jack overlapped at Choate for two years, but Jack was in the infirmary too often for comfort and unable to participate in sports for any length of time. For his part, Joe junior graduated in the spring of 1933 and was awarded the Harvard Trophy as the senior best combining “scholarship and sportsmanship.”
Jackie Kennedy summed up her husband’s childhood with the phrase “this lonely sick boy and his mother didn’t love him.”
Joe senior couldn’t have been prouder and decided his eldest son would benefit from a year abroad between prep school and college. The boy was sent to the University of London to “get an appreciation of tremendous problems facing the world,” under the formal tutelage of socialist professor Harold Laski. A Jewish leftist may have seemed a strange choice of mentor for Joe junior, given the fact his father was a capitalist and an anti-Semite, but Joe senior wanted his son exposed to all ways of thinking so as to hone his own. (At the time, the father also had several prominent Jewish friends, including then professor Felix Frankfurter and the financier Bernard Baruch.) Joe junior’s year of intellectual challenge included a trip to Moscow and Socratic sessions where Laski posed questions to him that ended with “What will you do about this when you are president?” It was an elite training ground, and if Joe junior returned home a bit more liberal than his father, his devout Catholicism remained intact. He made his first trip to the Continent to see the Pope, and dutifully reported to his mother that he had “climbed the holy stairs [of St. Peter’s] on my knees.”
That spring, Jack had practically begged his father to be taken along to London with his older brother, but in spite of his being urged by his father to lift his grades so “we can have a nice, peaceful summer,” Jack’s Latin marks were so low he had to stay home with a daily tutor at Hyannis Port. His father assured him there would be other summers.
Back at Choate, his friends saw Jack as the personification of fun, always ready with a witty remark and taking nothing, including his schoolwork, too seriously. Joe’s notes to his son that fall were generally encouraging and occasionally exasperated. He expressed his concern regularly to the headmaster, George St. John, explaining his second son in ways that show he saw Jack with clear, if controlling, eyes:
The work he wants to do he does exceptionally well, but he seems to lack entirely a sense of responsibility, and that to my way of thinking must be developed in him very quickly, or else I am fearful of the result. The happy go lucky manner with a degree of indifference that he shows towards the things that he has no interest in does not portend well for his future development…. He has too many fundamentally good qualities not to feel that once he got on the right track he would be a really worthwhile citizen.
The headmaster assured Joe that “the longer I live and work with him, and the more I talk with [Jack], the more confidence I have in him. I would be willing to bet anything that within two years you will be as proud of Jack as you are now of Joe.” St. John also noted perceptively that “Jack has a clever, individualistic mind. It is a harder mind to put in harness than Joe’s.” (Always the diplomat with Joe senior, the headmaster concluded more bluntly to a neutral observer, “I couldn’t see how two boys from the same family could be so different.”)
If Joe was tempted to come down hard on his second son, Jack’s continued unexplained illnesses, including severe stomach cramping, gave his father pause. As soon as school was over, Joe sent Jack to the Mayo Clinic, in Minnesota, for tests, which turned into a monthlong ordeal of enemas, plastic tubes, and generally humiliating and debilitating procedures. Almost six feet tall and weighing 145 pounds when he was admitted, Jack lost 8 pounds in the first two weeks. Joe called regularly, each time hoping they had found the “cause,” but as Jack wrote LeMoyne “Lem” Billings, his roommate at Choate, father and son spent 20 minutes on the phone with each other “trying to hedge around the fact that we didn’t know” what was wrong. The best the Mayo doctors could conclude was that Jack was an “allergic type of boy” with evidence of a blood infection and slight anemia.
Jack had just turned 17 and he had already spent a year of his life in hospitals, clinics, and infirmaries. In addition to what doctors eventually labeled a pre-ulcerous stomach and spastic colon, Jack’s back had become a source of pain that would plague him for the rest of his life. Joe certainly appreciated the severity of Jack’s suffering and wondered in letters to his son if it would be “best for you to lay off for a year and try and put yourself in condition,” assuring him “the only consideration I have in the whole matter is your happiness.” But Joe had another worry: that Jack not be allowed to think of himself as sickly. “I constantly have in mind not letting him become a hypochondriac,” Joe wrote one of Jack’s doctors when he was suffering from an unexplained intestinal problem. “I want him to think he is a well boy, with just a little upset.” To some extent this may have worked, for Jack always projected an aura that everything was fine and maintained a year-round suntan to at least look healthy. Still, his closest friends knew better. “Jack Kennedy all during his life had few days when he wasn’t in pain or sick in some way,” remembered Lem Billings, yet “I seldom ever heard him complain.”
Always secure in the fact that he was the star of the family, Joe junior had suddenly found himself trumped by his brother.
What is shocking in reading over medical reports from the various hospitals and clinics where Jack was tested so often throughout his life is that his doctors never seemed to look at their patient’s whole medical history, let alone his whole body. For instance, while doctors at the Mayo Clinic found he was allergic to milk, months later at the Lahey Clinic, in Boston, he was put on a heavy-cream diet which he followed for years under the illusion that it was adding pounds to his slight frame. And while his back problems were thought to have been triggered by injuries and he was subjected to several unsuccessful surgeries, it wasn’t until 1955, when he went to see Dr. Janet Travell, who would become his White House physician, that he learned he had been born with his left side slightly smaller than his right, and that years of compensating had taken its toll on his lower spine. (Later he would also be diagnosed with Addison’s disease, and while he subsequently suffered from reactions to cortisone and other drugs, Dr. Travell believed those were moderated so successfully that Kennedy was healthier than he had ever been when he was assassinated.)
When Jack returned to Choate in the fall of 1934, feeling better than he had in a while (no one could explain the upswing either), his attitudes had clearly begun to be shaped by his experiences. The failures of medical “experts” lowered Jack’s opinion of all authority, and his severe illnesses were already inculcating the idea that he might as well enjoy today to the fullest because who knew what the next crisis might hold.
Jack was not to be “harnessed,” and when he was feeling well he studied hard occasionally and played hard often, resisting the school’s strict rules. He vented his creative energy in organizing a group of a dozen students who called themselves “the Muckers,” turning the word the headmaster used to describe troublemakers or slackers into a badge of honor. According to one of the Muckers, their antics were totally harmless by today’s standards: they gathered together nightly in the room Jack and Lem Billings shared, perhaps “sneaking out to get a milk shake.” Hardly earth-shattering, yet when St. John discovered Jack’s “leadership activities” he immediately wired Joe to come to Wallingford as soon as possible. Joe put aside his business as the head of the S.E.C. and arrived in Connecticut the following Sunday.
In the headmaster’s office, father and son listened to St. John recount the error of Jack’s ways. Joe was vehement in his “complete” support of the school, agreeing that Jack was motivated by “conceit and childishness.” Jack was on very thin ice.
But after the meeting had been going on in this vein for some time, St. John left the room for a few minutes to take a phone call. To Jack’s surprise, Joe leaned in and whispered that if it had been his group the name would have started with another letter and “you can be sure it wouldn’t have started with the letter M!”
The relief Jack felt must have been palpable, and in that moment Joe conveyed to his son several precepts at once: that he was proud of Jack’s leadership, and that his true disgrace was in getting caught. One had to toe the line publicly and appear to behave—after all, as Joe often said, “It’s not what you are that counts, but what people think you are.” But the most significant lesson of the day was that his support of his son was unconditional. Jack knew his father was disappointed—that was evident—but when push came to shove his father would always be there.
Following the meeting, Joe agreed with St. John that they should send for Dr. Prescott Lecky, a psychologist from Columbia University, to talk to Jack. The boy evidently found the session intriguing enough that he asked to see Lecky a second time. The psychologist discovered Jack to be “a very able boy, but definitely in a trap psychologically.” He concluded that “a good deal of his trouble is due to comparison with an older brother.” Jack had told him, “I am the boy that doesn’t get things done. If my brother were not so efficient, it would be easier for me to be efficient. He does it so much better than I do.” In order not to be compared to his brother, Lecky observed, Jack “withdraws from the race.” The psychologist also noted that because Jack was the son who had the reputation for “thoughtlessness, sloppiness and inefficiency,” he found comfort in that role.
In their conversations, Jack agreed with the psychologist when he pointed out that if Jack continued on his current path he might never “amount to anything,” and Lecky found that encouraging. And Jack, in wanting to see the doctor twice and clearly engaging in the sessions, had shown a willingness and a desire to be self-reflective rarely seen in the public Kennedy-family persona.
Joe reported to the headmaster that he had spoken with Jack on the phone after his visits with Lecky and “he seemed to be in much better shape. However, I am always looking forward to the day that he will truly exercise his real ability.” Rose’s reaction to the psychologist’s report goes unrecorded; she certainly didn’t let up on her remonstrances about her son’s “sloppiness” in her instructive and rather formal letters to him. And after receiving a note from the headmaster’s wife informing her that Jack had been in the infirmary for three weeks, her response was to question his diet and medicines. In the four years Jack was at Choate, his mother would go to Europe more than half a dozen times, but she never once visited Connecticut.
Jack’s grades improved and, in spite of continuing to be in and out of the infirmary to the point where, fearing leukemia, doctors took his blood count every week, he graduated from Choate 64th out of 112 students. One of the hallmarks of senior year was the awarding of titles to each student by popular vote; organizing and trading votes for the election, Jack outdistanced all others as “most likely to succeed.” At least he had that designation to bring home to his father.
Though Joe’s primary focus was on Joe junior, who was now at Harvard, he hardly let Jack off the hook. Joe’s plan for Jack after graduation from Choate was similar to that for his eldest son: go to London and study under Laski. But shortly after Jack’s arrival overseas another onset of hives and a spiking temperature got him a return trip home. His father recounted what happened next to the dean of freshmen at Harvard when his son entered the college, the following year:
Jack was graduated year before last from Choate … and I intended to enter him in the University of London as I did his older brother, Joe. I took him abroad last year but he had a reccurrence [sic] of a blood condition and I brought him home to be near his doctors. He entered Princeton University where he stayed for about two months. His condition got no better and I sent him to the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. After a period of two months there, I sent him South [Palm Beach] and then to Arizona. He seems to have recovered now and is in very good health.
I intended … I took him … I sent him … Here was Jack at the age of 19 and everything he did was, at least as his father presented it, at his father’s command.
John Kenneth Galbraith was at Harvard at the same time as both Kennedy boys and remembers Joe junior as “slender and handsome, with a heavy shock of hair and a serious, slightly humorless manner. He was much interested in politics and public affairs and was every faculty member’s favorite.” Galbraith is quick to point out that professors weren’t taken with Joe just because of his father’s importance; two of President Roosevelt’s sons were also at Harvard and provoked no particular faculty interest as they “were not thought to be sufficiently serious.”
When Jack arrived, Galbraith immediately noted stark differences between the brothers: “Unlike Joe, [Jack] was gregarious, given to varied amusements, much devoted to social life and affectionately and diversely to women.”
That was putting it mildly. According to Ralph Horton Jr., another Mucker, Jack “first got laid” at the age of 17 at “a whorehouse up in Harlem.” He was preoccupied with sexual conquests from then on—emulating, consciously or not, his father. From an early age Jack had to have been aware of Joe’s bifurcated life: a wife at home and other women everywhere else. (The Kennedy children considered it normal that their parents slept not just in separate rooms at home but also in different hotels when they were both in New York.) As Jack grew to manhood, Joe’s letters began to express pride in his son’s conquests, such as when Joe reports running into a “beautiful blonde” in Manhattan who asked to be remembered to Jack. Jack’s own correspondence often contains locker-room boasts as well as self-deprecating laments of near misses: he reports to his father that during a short visit to Palm Beach there were “three girls to every man—so I did better than usual.” If Jack would distance himself politically from his father in later life, they would always agree that sex for sex’s sake was not only perfectly acceptable but desirable. (While Joe junior’s biographer records that the oldest son appreciated “the pleasures of the flesh,” he was hardly in the same league as his father and brother.)
One of Jack’s more serious relationships was with the Washington Times-Heraldreporter Inga Arvad, and she had several opportunities to observe the father-son dynamic up close. She told her own son that “she thought old Joe was awfully hard—a really mean man. He could be very charming when she and Jack were with him … but if Jack left the room he’d try to hop in the sack with her. She thought it was a totally amoral situation, that there was something incestuous about the whole family.” Numerous female visitors to the Kennedy homes testified to Joe’s making moves on them while watching movies in the family theater, or even coming into their bedrooms at night and kissing them full on the lips. Jack and his siblings warned friends that their father “prowls at night.”
Jack did well enough his freshman year at Harvard to be rewarded with a trip to Europe in the summer of 1937, but in stark contrast to Joe junior’s structured year overseas, Jack took off with Lem Billings for an “Innocents Abroad” summer, almost entirely unassisted by his father. Arrangements were made to ship a brand-new Ford convertible from America for the trip, but the two young men proceeded to stay in youth hostels and 60-cents-a-day hotels. On the road, they stopped at cathedrals and went to every museum of importance as well as smaller, provincial ones. But, perhaps most importantly, they engaged in conversations with locals along the way, picking up hitchhikers “so we could compare their lives with ours.” Just as he continued to be a voracious reader, Jack hungrily sought out opportunities both formal and informal to sate his curiosity about the world.
When Joe junior went to Munich in 1934, the then 18-year-old had written his father a three-page letter on his “findings” that today sends shivers down one’s spine. He reported that “Hitler is building a spirit in his men that would be envied in any country…. This spirit would very quickly be turned into a war spirit, but Hitler has things well under control. The only danger would be if something happened to Hitler, and one of his crazy ministers came into power, which at this time does not seem likely.” Seeking to explain the Nazis’ political success, Joe junior noted that Hitler “saw the need of a common enemy…. Someone, by whose riddance, the Germans would feel that they had cast out the cause of their predicament. It was excellent psychology and it was too bad that it had to be done to the Jews.” He added, “It is extremely sad, that noted professors, scientists, artists, etc. should have to suffer, but as you can see, it would be practically impossible to throw out only a part of them, from both the practical and psychological point of view.”
Where Joe junior had attempted to emulate his father’s cold-eyed analysis of the political situation (what they would have called “objective”), Jack, visiting Germany three years later, was viscerally offended by the arrogance of the Nazis and skeptical of the Third Reich. As he was leaving Munich, Jack noted in his diary, “Had a talk with the [hotel] proprietor who is quite a Hitler fan. There is no doubt about it that these dictators are more popular in the country than outside due to their effective propaganda,” which, he added, “seems to be [Hitler’s] strongest point.” Instead of cementing his political beliefs, the trip resulted in Jack’s asking even more questions, and he reported to his father that one of the few things he was sure of was “the almost complete ignorance [of] 95% of the people in the U.S.” about the situation in Europe.
At the end of the summer, Jack and Lem had a few days to spend in London before they returned to the States. Jack had bought a dog for his current amour but had to turn around and sell it when his face puffed out and his skin became covered with a rash—at least one allergy was confirmed and isolated.
By the time he returned to Harvard for his sophomore year, Jack was feeling well again. It was time to apply for membership in one of the college’s eight top-tier, or “final,” clubs. Fewer than 10 percent of the student body were chosen and both his father and brother had failed to be admitted to this highest echelon of college social life. Joe senior, quite rightly in this case, blamed the snub on the fact they were Irish Catholic. But Jack, who probably cared a lot less about which club he joined than his father did, knew how important status was to him, so he gladly went along when two of his loyal friends (both of them popular, athletic, and Protestant) got together and decided to apply to the exclusive Spee Club; the friends had made it clear, though, they would accept admittance only if Jack was allowed in as well. The plan worked, and from that moment until he graduated almost every letter Jack wrote to his father was on Spee Club stationery.
If Joe senior had created a world that was an oyster for his sons, the shell fell wide open in February 1938 when their father was sworn in as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. An Irish Catholic in London as America’s highest representative—Joe Kennedy had longed for this, had turned down the post of secretary of commerce holding out for it, and was finally rewarded with the appointment. (Roosevelt, well aware that Kennedy had raised serious money for his presidential campaigns, is reported by one intimate to have muttered that “any obligation that he had to Kennedy was paid for.”)
At the beginning of his tenure, Joe was a hugely popular curiosity, and he (and Rose) basked in the glory of it all. With his seemingly native gift for public relations that had been burnished to a high gloss in Hollywood, Joe made sure the newspapers and newsreel cameras were there to record almost every public activity of his unusually large and photogenic family. And there was Joe junior at his father’s side, acting as his secretary just as the sons of John Adams, an earlier ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, had done before him. For Jack, it was back to Harvard, but he got his turn in London the following spring when, after making the dean’s list, he arranged to take the semester off and begin research for what would be his senior thesis, on contemporary British policy.
Joe junior continued to be based at the London embassy, but Jack’s “assignment” was to travel to France, Poland, Germany, as well as Russia, Palestine, and the Balkans, often staying at the American Embassies and writing reports on conditions as he found them. While his father had personally designed most of this trip, Jack also had time on his own to hone his social skills, sharpen his analytical abilities, and fine-tune his sense of his place in the world. He spent some time in Cannes, where he enjoyed the socializing to the fullest, but with Europe on the verge of war, he made a valuable humanitarian contribution as well, as Fanny Holtzmann, an esteemed New York lawyer who was also in London and traveling on the Continent that summer, would report to friends upon her return to the States.
Holtzmann had already suffered run-ins with Joe senior over his failure to pay one of her Hollywood clients (Joe had called her “Jew girl” in a burst of anger), so she was not at all surprised to hear that he had let it be known she was to receive no favors from the embassy. Attempting to help Europe’s primarily Jewish refugees jump the various hurdles that stood in the way of securing travel visas to America, Holtzmann was taken aback one day when she entered the London embassy’s visa department to find both Joe junior and Jack “helping a crowd of bewildered East European refugees fill out applications.” When she asked Jack what he was doing there, he responded, “What else can a fellow do, Miss Holtzmann?” Later, at the Warsaw embassy, she met them again, and realized the two young men had been up all night, working to process applications during the regular staff’s off-hours.
In London, Jack gave Holtzmann an idea that would save hundreds of lives. As they both were filling out paperwork, Fanny complained out loud about the challenge of getting around all the technicalities of obtaining long-term visas. With a wink Jack suggested, “Why not give them all temporary visas to attend the World’s Fair in New York? It’s running out of customers.” With Hitler’s invasion of Poland only weeks away, Fanny used that ruse at several American Embassies and secured hundreds of three-month tourist visas that were processed without question or delay. Holtzmann might have always had her problems with Joe senior, but she left impressed with Jack’s quickness and his clear resistance to authority, even when it was represented by his own father. Not that he and Joe junior didn’t have other qualities to recommend them: Fanny later told friends, “I have seen good-looking men in my time—on Hollywood sets, in the theatre and elsewhere—but those brothers!”
Jack flew back to New York on a Pan Am Clipper in late September and threw himself into writing his senior thesis on British policy entitled “Appeasement at Munich.” To anyone reading through the hundreds of scrawled and revised pages in the files at the Kennedy Library, there is no question Jack wrote it himself, but thanks to his father he did have extraordinary help: through the mail and diplomatic pouch, information flowed from London to Cambridge as Jack requested books, pamphlets, and newspapers from his father’s assistants.
When the thesis was finished, at least one of Jack’s professors suggested publishing it, and Arthur Krock seconded the idea, but Jack wrote his father, with all due filial respect, “Whatever I do … will depend on what you think is the best thing.”
Joe, who had published two books under his own name and used them brilliantly to promote himself, endorsed the idea wholeheartedly and even arranged for his friend Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life, to write the preface. With a new title, Why England Slept, to contrast with (and ride the coattails of) Winston Churchill’s best-seller While England Slept,Jack received an advance of $250 ($225 after his agent, Gertrude Algase, pocketed her commission). At the age of 23, he had earned his first significant paycheck.
In addressing the conditions that had allowed Hitler to go unchecked in amassing his now formidable military force, Why England Slept did not excuse the isolationist views of its author’s father, yet once it was published no one was more supportive than Joe. He wrote his son that he “couldn’t be more pleased” with the “marvelous start” he had made in the publishing world. Jack was proud of his accomplishment, but couldn’t be sure if it was his own work or his father’s that merited the attention and praise. When his friend Charles Spalding asked him how the book was selling, Jack shrugged and said, “Oh, they’re going great, Dad’s taking care of that.” Indeed, it has long been assumed that Joe bought copies of the book in bulk, helping to push it up the best-seller lists.
Joe’s position as ambassador was becoming tenuous. While his outspoken isolationism had a constituency at home, it was earning him enmity from Roosevelt and making him an unpopular figure in wartime Britain; those views, along with Roosevelt’s decision to run for an unprecedented third term in 1940, would prove to be the final nail in Joe’s own ambitions for the presidency. When Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister in May of 1940, Joe began itching to return to America, assuming that Roosevelt was keeping him on in Britain only to prevent him from roiling the political fray back home. When Joe finally arrived home to resign in late October, he announced his support of Roosevelt’s re-election on national radio, but 11 days later he gave a pessimistic interview about the war which he later claimed he thought was off the record. The resulting headlines declaring that Kennedy believed, as one paper put it, DEMOCRACY ALL DONE IN BRITAIN, MAYBE HERE finished Joe’s own public career for good. Initially devastated, he adjusted by turning more than ever to his sons. As he wrote a friend, “I find myself much more interested in what young Joe is going to do than what am I going to do with the rest of my life.”
Now 52, Joe never demanded that his sons agree with him on everything, but he did expect them to be able to defend their positions. Even at his busiest, Joe made time to write frequent and lengthy letters to his oldest sons detailing his meetings, activities, and reactions because he wanted them to understand his own thinking; in the process, he treated them as the close friends of his they were becoming. Still, it was clearly easier for Jack to counter Joe senior’s beliefs than it was for Joe junior, who tended toward knee-jerk support of his father, in this period parroting the ambassador’s complaints that America’s Jewish newspaper columnists were undermining him and misinterpreting his beliefs.
If Jack was growing increasingly comfortable distancing himself from his father’s views while remaining secure in his love, he seems to have also made a peace of sorts with his mother. With the Kennedy children scattered to the winds, abroad or in various boarding schools, Rose took to dictating weekly letters recounting their various activities that she sent to them en masse. She often used the opportunity to point out the errors of various offspring’s ways, including what she considered spendthrift habits. Where the other children responded with their usual respect, often beginning their letters “Dearest Mother,” Jack indicated his affection—and resigned acceptance—with cheeky humor, as when he responded to one missive by writing, “I enjoy your round-robin letters. I’m saving them to publish—that style of yours will net us millions. With all this talk about inflation and where is our money going—when I think of your potential earning power … its [sic] enough to make a man get down on his knees and thank God for the Dorchester High Latin School which gave you that very sound grammatical basis which shines through every slightly mixed metaphor and each somewhat split infinitive.”
After graduating from Harvard in June of 1940, Jack found himself at loose ends— unlike his brother, who had entered Harvard Law School. Jack was coming to terms with their different roles in life: Joe junior was to be the active participant while he himself would be the astute observer. Thinking he might want to be a reporter or a writer of some sort—he did, after all, have a best-seller under his belt—Jack headed to California that fall to audit graduate classes at Stanford. But after only a few months he withdrew, meeting his father when he landed in San Francisco that November and traveling with him to visit William Randolph Hearst at his Northern California home in Wyntoon, where the two older men commiserated about what they saw as the country’s rush to war. Father and son then headed to Hollywood, where Joe met with studio heads and Jack socialized, taking advantage of the opportunities to meet attractive young actresses. (On an earlier trip to the movie capital, he had signed his letters to Lem Billings “The extra’s delight.”)
That same fall, Joe junior was in his second year at law school when he wrote his father about what had to be a very difficult decision on his part: with the nation gearing up for war, he had decided to enlist for active duty in the Navy Air Corps. While acknowledging that joining the Naval Reserve would have allowed him to finish law school relatively uninterrupted, Joe junior wrote that he assumed his brother’s poor health would prevent Jack from serving, and added that, “with your stand on the war … people will wonder what the devil I am doing back at school with everyone else working for national defense.” He didn’t think there would be much danger in the air corps, and if there was, “it doesn’t bother me very much.” And then he reached out, with almost heartbreaking dutifulness, to reassure his father regarding what he saw as Joe senior’s ultimate concern: “It seems that Jack is perfectly capable to do everything, if by chance anything happened to me.”
Yet within months Jack, too, was trying to enlist. He had been among the first to receive a draft notice, and the ambassador’s son had made the national newsreels because of it, but a college friend who happened to see the report in a local theater just assumed, as did his brother and most other friends, that Jack would never actually serve, because of his near-constant illnesses. Yet the father who had reorganized his own life so he could avoid the draft in the First World War, and was frantic before he was awarded a deferment, yielded to Jack’s fervent desire and helped pull strings to get him accepted in the service. It took two physical exams before Jack was commissioned as an ensign in the navy in September of 1941 and assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence, in Washington, D.C.
Miserable at desk jobs, chafing to see action once the U.S. entered the war, Jack fought his way into active service despite a back that now riddled him with pain and necessitated a stint at Lahey Clinic and another week at the Mayo Clinic. He was made a lieutenant and in March of 1943 was sent to the Solomon Islands to command one of the newly instituted P.T. boats. Jack’s letters from the Pacific are laced with sardonic humor as he describes the heat, dirt, and primitive conditions, the nights spent in the dark on the P.T. boat patrolling the islands. With a sense of expendability in the face of the family mission that mirrored his brother’s, but which he expressed with mordant wit rather than earnestness, Jack observed, as Rose recounted in one of the group letters, “it would be good for Joe’s political career if he [Jack] died for the grand old flag,” but that he hoped it wouldn’t be “absolutely necessary.”
Then, in early August of 1943, Joe senior received word that Jack was missing in action. His P.T. boat, with a total of 13 men on board, had not returned from patrol, and a funeral service had already been held on the islands for them. Joe kept the news from Rose and the rest of the family, and Arthur Krock remembered thinking Joe’s reaction “was perfectly extraordinary. Mr. Kennedy took that with remarkable stoicism,” but when, a week later, “he found that his son, Jack, was alive … his relief was very evident.”
Two of Jack’s men had died when a Japanese destroyer cut their boat in half, and from all accounts more lives would have been lost had it not been for Jack’s leadership and his fortitude in swimming for hours while pulling one of his injured men (and doing considerable damage to his already vulnerable back). Eventually Jack and his crew reached a small island, where they survived for five days before meeting up with helpful locals. They were finally rescued after Jack carved an S.O.S. in a coconut and the islanders delivered it to the U.S. base by canoe. Now a war hero, Jack returned home at the end of the year (though his first stop Stateside was the Mayo Clinic, where his back and stomach problems continued to defy easy diagnosis or therapy). Even Rose was uncharacteristically demonstrative, at least in the pages of her diary, when her second son finally arrived in Palm Beach: “What joy to see him—to feel his coat & to press his arms … to look at his bronze tired face which is thin & drawn.”
The fate of his boys hung heavily on Joe every day they were gone, but in early June of 1944 he could, at last, breathe a sigh of relief. Jack was back—now being safely poked and prodded in the Chelsea Naval Hospital in Massachusetts and not to be assigned overseas again; and on June 12, Joe junior wrote from the base in England where he was stationed as a bomber pilot that “it looks like I am going to be on my way home in about ten days.” He could have been released before June 6, D-day, but, as he said, “I am delighted that I stayed for the invasion.” All of his crew were heading home, and while he mentioned the possibility of getting another crew, he said he planned to spend a few days with his sister Kathleen in London and then return home himself by the end of the month.
Just as Joe’s letters from school had told his parents what they wanted to hear, so too did his letters from the war. But the navy, for all the restraints it imposed, had ironically given Joe a respite from the immediate pressure of needing to perform for Joe senior and Rose. While his letters made reference to weekends off and weeklong leaves, he rarely detailed how he was spending his time. In fact, he had found a woman he loved, Pat Wilson, but she was not only Anglican but divorced, remarried, and a mother of three young children. Joe and Pat had met through friends and by the early summer of 1944 were spending every possible moment together. Like his brother, Joe had had affairs with married women, inherently protecting himself from the ultimate commitment of marriage. Yet it seems this time love had caught up with him, and every night he was restricted to his base his friends saw him calling Pat from the phone booth, “pumping in coins” and talking “in intimate tones.” Still, seeing his mother’s reactions to Kathleen’s marriage—Rose had been coldly rejecting when her daughter wed a British aristocrat who was also Anglican—and knowing well his father’s plans for him wouldn’t have room for a twice-divorced mother of three, Joe had to realize that when he returned home his relationship with Pat would be at an end.
Joe junior had grown closer to his sister as they shared their “romantic predicaments,” and she saw that his pride in Jack’s achievements was tempered by doubts about his own. Always secure in the fact that he was the star of the family, Joe had suddenly found himself trumped by his younger brother. For Jack to come in ahead on any level was unthinkable, yet here he was, a best-selling author and a decorated war hero. The least Joe could do was stay on in Europe.
In Hyannis Port, Joe senior waited through the rest of June and July, “expecting to hear the telephone ring any time and to hear that you were in Norfolk,” where troops back from Europe disembarked, but it wasn’t until August that he received a letter from his eldest saying he had stayed on for just one more mission, “something different” with “practically no danger.” Upon reading the letter on August 9, 1944, Joe immediately responded, “I can quite understand how you feel about staying there … but don’t force your luck too much.”
But Joe junior did force his luck. He had been in harm’s way for more than a year, had flown more than 35 missions, and could have returned home with honor. Yet he had now volunteered to fly an experimental plane, gutted of everything but room for pilot, co-pilot, and 10 tons of TNT that would literally turn the plane into a bomb; Joe’s mission was to lock onto a German target and bail out, but before reaching its destination the plane exploded in midair.
On Sunday afternoon, August 13, Rose and the younger children were downstairs when two priests arrived on the porch of the Hyannis Port house asking to see Joe Kennedy. He had already retired for his nap, and Rose asked them to wait, but when they told her Joe junior was missing in action, she went upstairs to wake her husband and break the news to him. Joe assembled the children and told them “Be brave.” But this time, Rose was the one to be publicly strong; Joe stayed in his room, listening to somber music hour after hour, going days without talking to anyone and eating so little his wife feared for his health.
In the Chelsea Naval Hospital, Jack tried to cope with the devastating news. One thing was clear: as he told his friend Red Fay, “Now the burden falls on me.”
The burden, of course, was his father’s mandate that his eldest enter public service. On the face of it, there was little to recommend Jack as the replacement except for his last name and his birth order. Still, of the two brothers Jack had been the one to demonstrate real political gifts: He had, after all, generated such friendships that he was able to enter the highest echelon of Harvard clubs. He had also shown unexpected mettle, writing, albeit with extraordinary support, a best-selling book and surviving horrendous war experiences that had tested his physical, emotional, and spiritual strength. For a younger brother who had supposedly been unable to compete with, let alone best, his sterling older brother, Jack had put together a string of impressive accomplishments, taking advantage of what he realized was an elite position, both in the world and within his own family, and using it to travel, to challenge himself, and to grow. Whether he was physically capable of living up to his father’s expectations and running for president, he did not know, but there was never a doubt he would step into the role.
The story goes that Joe dramatically called Jack in to announce their revised mutual plans. As Jack told a reporter several years later, “It was like being drafted. My father wanted his oldest son in politics. ‘Wanted’ isn’t the right word. He demanded it. You know my father.”
mon feb 20 7pm cSt mgy REmbr… G is, as G can only BE. GOOD