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John F. Kennedy
By Alan Brinkley
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Alan Brinkley
All rights reserved.
The Irish Prince
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born into an Irish American world that his family helped change forever. For generations, Americans of Irish descent had faced almost insuperable boundaries to their aspirations. Until the first decades of the twentieth century, most Irish Americans lived in insular communities and were largely excluded from many professions. They attended Catholic schools and — for those who chose to enter politics — ran for office in Irish wards and won votes from mostly Irish voters. Rarely did they attract support from outside their own communities. But the two families who gave birth to the first Irish American president broke new ground.
One of John Kennedy's grandfathers, John F. Fitzgerald, was himself a politician who crossed the boundaries that had limited Irish American ambitions. He was a charming, garrulous, energetic man who graduated from Boston College, enrolled briefly at Harvard Medical School, and was elected to Congress in 1894. Twelve years later, he became the first Irish American mayor of Boston, serving three terms between 1906 and 1914. For years, he remained one of the best-known political figures in the city. (He lived long enough to see his grandson elected to Congress, and he predicted that he would become president.) Fitzgerald's wife and second cousin, Mary Josephine Hannon, gave birth to six children. The eldest of them was Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, born in 1890.
The future president's other grandfather was Patrick J. Kennedy, who left school at fourteen to support his large and struggling family. But despite his scant education and his impoverished beginnings, he saved his earnings and bought a small string of taverns and bars. Later he opened a liquor importing company and later still bought substantial interests in a coal company and a bank — enterprises that made him a wealthy and substantial figure in the Irish American community. His wife, Mary Hickey, was herself the daughter of a prosperous tavern owner. She had four children — among them Joseph P. Kennedy, born in 1888.
Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph Kennedy were exceptional young people within this enclosed world. Rose's eminent political family made her something of a celebrity at a young age. She attended elite Catholic schools and took an extensive tour of Europe. By the age of eighteen she had abandoned her early hopes to attend Wellesley College to join her father's political life.
Joe Kennedy, although from a less eminent family than Rose's, was more ambitious — and more successful — than almost anyone else in the Irish community. He attended the prestigious Boston Latin School, graduated from Harvard, and moved into banking. By the age of twenty-five, he was the president of Columbia Trust, a modest bank in which his father had once invested. Joe quickly doubled its accounts.
Rose and Joe had become attracted to each other as early as 1906, when she was sixteen and he eighteen. Rose's father had another suitor in mind for his daughter — a wealthy contractor and friend of the family — and Fitzgerald tried for years to keep her apart from Joe. But Rose found Joe a much more compelling figure than her father's choice, and she wore him down. They were married in 1914, and they broke with tradition by moving to a house in Brookline, then an almost entirely Protestant community. Their first son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., was born in 1915. Two years later, on May 29, 1917, their second son — John Fitzgerald Kennedy — was born.
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Life in the Kennedy family was dominated by Joe's social ambitions and his spectacular financial success. His marriage to the mayor's daughter was only one of many steps that would lead him and his children well beyond the Irish world in which they were born. Joe was smart, ambitious, and often ruthless — determined not only to accumulate wealth but also to gain power. Banking, he believed, was the key to the kind of success he sought. "I saw, even in my limited dealings, that sooner or later, the source of business was traced to the banks," he wrote later. Banking, he claimed, "could lead a man anywhere, as it played an important part in every business."
It was not just power and wealth he sought. He could have had a prosperous career as the most eminent Irish banker in the city, but he aspired to rise higher. He wanted to move into the great world of finance — a world dominated by old Yankee families in Boston and New York. World War I interrupted his plans. He left the bank and became a manager of war production at the Bethlehem steel yards in Quincy, Massachusetts. When the army tried to draft him, the Bethlehem executives fought to keep him, calling him indispensable. His success in a world of Yankee businessmen helped draw him into larger and larger worlds. "The key to Kennedy's spectacular financial success," one of his colleagues later said, "was his anticipation of the future ... his vision of what lay down the road, a vision that was always there, sustaining him and guiding him — that vision was simply phenomenal." In the heady days of the stock market boom in the 1920s, he joined a Brahmin brokerage house, where he expanded his connections in the financial world and became one of the canniest and most successful investors of his era. By 1927, he had relocated his family to Riverdale, just north of Manhattan, where he could be closer to Wall Street. Even before the family's move, he had accumulated over $2 million, which was only the beginning of his extraordinary rise.
Joe's remarkable success created problems for Rose. She wanted an ordered and respectable domesticity. But Joe was not much of a partner in the home — traveling constantly, working late, and always looking for new connections and new opportunities. That left Rose alone in a large and complicated home. By the early 1930s, there were nine children: Joe Jr., Jack, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Pat, Bobby, Jean, and Ted. It was a loud, boisterous, and at times chaotic household that never lived up to Rose's hopes — perhaps in part because Rose herself was either pregnant or recovering from pregnancy for the first seventeen years of her marriage. After the family moved to Riverdale, they retained a foothold in Massachusetts. Joe purchased a large property in Hyannis Port that became the family's most enduring home. The celebrated pictures of the Kennedy family in later years — sailing off the coast of Cape Cod, playing touch football on the lawn — were a reminder of decades of outdoor activity and competitive sports. Long before the Kennedys became politically active, the family had already become among the most famous Irish American families in America — a result of Joe's enormous and conspicuous wealth, and also because of the attractive image of the Kennedy tribe.
But the attractive, even idyllic, images of this apparently golden family disguised its share of troubles. Rose remained overwhelmed by her large family, particularly after their first daughter, Rosemary, was diagnosed as mildly retarded. Rose had few friends and few activities in New York beyond taking care of her growing family. She distanced herself from her husband sexually except for procreation and traveled extensively around America and Europe to escape the pressures of home. Her absence dismayed her children (and especially Jack). Joe Sr. was still mostly away, traveling on business and expanding his business empire — including an investment in the movie industry. He also maintained an extramarital sexual life — most conspicuously with the actress Gloria Swanson. The children grew up supervised for long periods by servants and relatives.
Rosemary aside, Jack had the most difficult life of the family. He was under the shadow of his older brother, Joe Jr., who was the recipient of his father's greatest hopes. Jack developed a competitive relationship with his older brother, who almost always won whatever contests they waged. But a more important part of his youth — and indeed of much of his life — was the long history of illness that began shortly after birth. He was restless and fitful even as a baby, had trouble digesting milk, and suffered frequent stomachaches. By the time he was three, he had experienced scarlet fever, causing his mother "frantic terror" and leading his father to spend hours praying (uncharacteristically) in the Catholic Church, which he rarely attended. This frightening illness was followed by other debilitating diseases (chicken pox, ear infections, and undiagnosed stomach, intestinal, and other ailments that made it difficult for him to eat and sometimes left him so weak that he could hardly stand). Sickness plagued him into adolescence and beyond, baffling his doctors, his family, and Jack himself. For months at a time, he was gaunt, pale, and weak. Multiple and often mistaken diagnoses added to his ordeal. Treatment for one problem created problems elsewhere, and there was no definitive explanation of what ailed him. Jack liked to joke about his frequent illnesses, and he tried to disguise the pain and fear that he often felt. But there were also periods of near despair, especially when he was in hospitals for weeks, submitting to endless tests, and still failing to get any answers to what his problems were.
His illnesses inevitably affected his schooling. Shortly after the family's move to New York, Jack was enrolled in the Riverdale Country School. But at the age of thirteen, with his grades an undistinguished C+ average, his parents decided he should go to boarding school. Rose Kennedy was especially eager to get the boys out of the house because she felt so overwhelmed by her many children. Jack expected to follow Joe Jr. to Choate, the distinguished boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, but Rose — on her own — decided in the fall of 1930 to send him instead to Canterbury, a Catholic school for boys in New Milford, Connecticut. He suffered there not only from his chronic ailments but also from homesickness. He complained to his family about the "whole lot of religion" and the isolation of the school. ("The only time you can get out of here is to see the Harvard-Yale and Army-Yale [games].") Much of the time he was in the local hospital, and he spent the last months of the academic year at home, with tutors.
The following fall, he enrolled at Choate, which he found more tolerable because his brother Joe was already there. Jack remained a lackluster student. He was constantly reprimanded by his teachers and the headmaster, who considered him "one of the most undependable boys" in his grade. He lacked "application." He was "careless" with his work. He was notoriously "casual and disorderly" in a school committed to order. He insisted that he was "trying to be a more socially minded person." Everyone agreed that he was intelligent, but that made his scholarly "mediocrity" all the more damning. Inattention was only one of his problems, for he fell victim soon again to his puzzling and often debilitating illnesses. At one point, according to his lifelong friend Lem Billings, he "came very close to dying." He was in and out of the infirmary and local hospitals, trying to lead a normal life, and struggling to keep up with his work. Through it all, he forced himself to remain cheerful, funny, and almost irresistibly charming. "I've never known anyone in my life with such a wonderful humor — the ability to make one laugh and have a good time," Billings once wrote. "Jack didn't like to be too serious," the Choate headmaster said long after Jack left the school. "He had a delightful sense of humor always ... He was a very likeable person, very lovable."
Living in the shadow of his older brother was difficult. Joe excelled in athletics, discipline, and leadership. Jack could not compete. He did not like Choate very much more than he had liked Canterbury, and he often described it as a prison. But he made his way through his school years with garrulous charm and wit. It was not surprising that his jokes were often dark, because his health continued to deteriorate. He spent weeks at the Mayo Clinic, where he submitted to what seemed endless, humiliating tests. But as usual in his letters to Billings he treated it all as a joke. "I'm still eating peas and corn for food and I had an enema given by a beautiful blonde," he wrote. "That, my sweet, is the height of cheap thrills."
Partly to compensate for his inability to thrive in sports or academics, he developed a new sexual prowess that lasted through the rest of his life. Like his father, he treated sex as a kind of sport — casual, frequent, mostly unconnected to affection or romance. Most of his trysts were one-night stands, and he sometimes forgot the names of his sexual partners. The constricted world of Choate did not make sexual activity easy, but he found ways to get around the boundaries of the school in the same way he got around his illnesses.
Jack's disaffection — his illnesses, his poor academic performance, and his disdain for the stuffy traditions of the school — led him to join a group of similarly alienated students to form "the Muckers Club." (Mucker was a term coined by the faculty to describe rebellious students with little respect for the "Choate culture." Jack's father, somewhat in sympathy with his son, later noted that if he had organized the club, its name would not have begun with an M.) The Muckers composed and sang vaguely obscene songs, sometimes about teachers. They organized pranks that mocked the staid habits of the school. The headmaster called them "a colossally selfish, pleasure loving, unperceptive group" and nearly expelled the entire group. Rose Kennedy, horrified by Jack's rebelliousness, liked to believe that this confrontation with the headmaster was a turning point in his life — that he had learned to respect authority and to live by the norms of the school. But Jack was far from tamed. He avoided the more dangerous behavior that had created trouble for the Muckers, but he could not resist a final challenge to the Choate establishment by launching a successful campaign for the title of "Most Likely to Succeed," using his popularity to defeat the more obvious candidates.
* * *
Jack's path to college was as rocky as his path through prep school had been. He enrolled at Harvard for the fall of 1935, then withdrew before the term began to go to England to spend a year at the London School of Economics. But the onset of another mysterious illness, and his disappointment with the LSE, drew him back to America, where — weeks after the term had begun — he enrolled at Princeton, primarily because Lem Billings and other friends were already there. His enthusiasm for Princeton soon cooled. He found it provincial and oppressive — with its Protestantism, its small-town environs, and its eating-club culture that did not often welcome Catholics. "I think he was a little disenchanted with the country-club atmosphere of Princeton," one of his friends later wrote.
Before he finished his first term, he was rushed to Boston and was hospitalized with yet another apparently undiagnosable illness. After weeks of invasive and humiliating tests — "the most harrowing experience of all my storm-tossed career," he wrote to Billings — he was diagnosed with leukemia. "Took a peek at my chart yesterday and could see that they were mentally measuring me for a coffin," he reported. But he refused to take the diagnosis seriously. He was vindicated when the doctors finally admitted that they had been in error. He spent the rest of his aborted academic year trying to restore himself to health — through vacations at Palm Beach, a few Teddy Roosevelt–like months on a ranch in Arizona, and a libidinous week in Los Angeles. In the summer of 1936, he was accepted again to Harvard. "To be a 'Harvard Man' is an enviable distinction," he wrote on his application. The Admissions Committee said of him, "Jack has rather superior mental ability, without the deep interest in his studies ... He can be relied upon to do enough to pass." His father wrote the dean saying much the same: "Jack has a very brilliant mind for the things he is interested in, but is careless and lacks application in those in which he is not interested. This is, of course, a bad fault."
He was happier at Harvard than he had been at any of his former schools. Although he left behind his closest friend, Lem Billings, he found new friends at Harvard — many of them through his older brother. Joe Jr. was, as usual, serious, ambitious, and hot-tempered, always striving to attract the admiration of his father. His greatest ambition was to win a Harvard football letter, a goal he never achieved. Jack was more easygoing. In better health than he had been in some time, he tried out for football himself but never expected to remain on the team. He was also an avid swimmer and boxer. As at Choate, he was a popular figure among his contemporaries — witty, lively, irreverent, and highly social. He was a more serious student in his first year at Harvard than he had been at Choate or Princeton. His mediocre grades obscured his avid reading, especially during his frequent hospital stays. (He remained a fervent reader, especially of history, throughout his life.)
Excerpted from John F. Kennedy by Alan Brinkley. Copyright © 2012 Alan Brinkley. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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