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RFK: A Candid Biography of Robert F. Kennedy

RFK: A Candid Biography of Robert F. Kennedy

by C. David Heymann

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With the assassination of his brother, Robert Kennedy inherited the hopes and aspirations of a bereft nation adopting his brother's political legacy in what became a personal quest for vindication and redemption. A highly successful and controversial political player in his own right, RFK was on the verge of gaining the Democratic Presidential nomination in the last


With the assassination of his brother, Robert Kennedy inherited the hopes and aspirations of a bereft nation adopting his brother's political legacy in what became a personal quest for vindication and redemption. A highly successful and controversial political player in his own right, RFK was on the verge of gaining the Democratic Presidential nomination in the last year of his life. His assassination in 1968 at the age of 43 felled a man who had come to represent the impossible hopes and ideals of a just political system. But who was this complex man? In this definitive work, master researcher and bestselling author of celebrity biographies C. David Heymann has exposed Kennedy's inner contradictions, the machinations of his political career, his private liaisons, his enemies, and his lovers. The book is filled with major revelations, including new details about: RFK's relationship with Jackie Kennedy after JFK's death; his sexual involvement with various movie stars; what really happened with Marilyn Monroe; and his dealings with J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Hoffa, and various notorious Mafia figures. Heymann spent over five years researching this book, interviewing over a thousand friends, family members, foes, political aides, and former employees of RFK, and gathering never-before-released documents from the FBI, the CIA, and Scotland Yard, among others. The result is a fascinating portrait of an American icon whose life embraced triumph and tragedy, deception and intrigue, power and passion.

Editorial Reviews

The reading public seems to have an insatiable appetite for behind-the-scenes looks at America's first family, the Kennedys. In RFK: A Candid Biography of Robert F. Kennedy, C. David Heymann dishes just the sort of dirt that Kennedyphiles seem to crave. The author of Liz, A Woman Named Jackie, and Poor Little Rich Girl (all three New York Times bestsellers) now focuses on RFK's political and personal interactions with his brother Jack; his many romances, from his affair with Mary Jo Kopechne -- who would die a year later at Chappaquiddick -- to his involvement with such Hollywood stars as Kim Novak, Lee Remick, Candice Bergen, and Jayne Mansfield; the enmity between Bobby and Frank Sinatra; and much more.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.88(d)

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Chapter One


The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, like many other Irish immigrant families, fled their homeland in desperation, leaving behind the tyrannical oppression of English landlords and the mass starvation caused by a potato blight. In the famine years, 1845-55, more than a million Irish bought twenty-dollar tickets to clamber aboard rickety freighters--"coffin ships"--for the six-week crossing to Boston. In one year alone, more than thirty thousand of the one hundred thousand who attempted the exodus perished en route.

    Once in America, the survivors were confronted by a new kind of oppression: racial and religious prejudice on the part of Yankees. Irish job seekers in Boston were greeted by window signs that read "Americans Only" and "Irish Need Not Apply." In 1882 a Boston newspaper ran a cartoon deriding a disheveled Irish ditchdigger laying city sewer pipe while others of his nationality ineptly carried hods, tamped stones and troweled bricks. The womenfolk of these despised laborers were ridiculed by the cartoonist as taking in the neighborhood wash and toiling in sweatshops for minimal pay.

    Shut out of the professions and the mainstream of "polite" society, Irish Americans--their numbers swelling rapidly in their waterfront "Riviera" slums--kept predominantly to themselves and improved their principal skill, politics. From 1885 they ruled Boston without serious opposition for seventy-five years. One of the city's mayors was an archetypal politician named John Francis Fitzgerald. Others of Irish heritage began to achieve success in thefang-and-claw world of commerce, among them Patrick Joseph Kennedy.

    Together, "Honey Fitz" and "P. J.," as they came to be known, created a clan that was to fulfill all of the immigrant dreams--and then some--that the Irish had brought to these distant shores.

John Francis Fitzgerald was born in Boston's overpopulated North End, not far from the old North Church, on February 11, 1863. The fourth son of Irish immigrants Thomas and Roseanna Cox Fitzgerald, he worked in his father's grocery store while attending Eliot Grammar School. At age fifteen (about the time his mother died during her thirteenth pregnancy), he earned a scholarship to the prestigious Boston Latin School, from which he graduated in 1884 to enroll directly in Harvard Medical School, a practice then prevalent only among the area's most brilliant Brahmin students. John's dream of becoming a doctor was not to be realized, however, for at the end of his first year of medical school his father died. In order to keep the family together, John quit school and went to work, hiring a housekeeper to look after his younger siblings. He took a job as assistant to Democratic ward boss Matthew Kenny, which afforded an invaluable education in the inner workings of Boston politics. John subsequently became a chief clerk in the customhouse and won office as city councilman in 1892. Later that year he was elected to the state senate, where one of his colleagues was P. J. Kennedy, whose son Joe would eventually marry Fitzgerald's daughter Rose.

    In 1889, John married Mary Josephine Hannon, his second cousin, and the couple had six children. By now nicknamed "Honey Fitz"--for the syrupy sweetness of his blarney--John was elected to the Congress in 1894 and served until the summer of 1900. After a five-year hiatus from elective office--spent as publisher of a small Boston Catholic weekly--he ran for the post of mayor of Boston.

    "The people, not the bosses, must rule," John Fitzgerald's campaign posters proclaimed. He won the election and took office January 1, 1906. Defeated for reelection two years later, he soon found himself testifying before a grand jury investigating reports of corruption in his administration. Yet, campaigning under the slogan "Manhood Against Money," and frequently breaking into his theme song, "Sweet Adeline," Honey Fitz was returned to the mayoralty in 1910, by the slim margin of fourteen hundred votes.

    At the end of his second term as Boston's chief executive, Fitzgerald's political career was over. Thereafter, until his death in 1950, he spent the majority of his time with his family. One of the highlights of his later years was to see his grandson Jack elected to Congress, a triumph he celebrated by jumping on a table and leading the singing of a medley of Irish ballads. Next to him on the same table, singing just as proudly and just as loudly, stood another grandson, Jack's younger brother Robert Francis Kennedy.

The Boston political formula was a simple one--judiciously distributed food, clothing and shelter--and it held the key to victory in the fierce Yankee-Irish scraps at the turn of the century. Employing this formula by assiduously tending to the needs of his fellow Irish, Patrick Joseph "P. J." Kennedy began his career as a saloonkeeper but elevated himself to become a bank president and a member of the state legislature.

    Born in Boston on January 8, 1858, P. J. (like Honey Fitz) was the offspring of Irish immigrants. His father, Patrick Sr., died when his infant son was less than a year old. Bridget Murphy Kennedy, P. J.'s mother, helped support the family by becoming a clerk in, and later co-owner of, a small notions shop. Financial need forced young Kennedy to quit school at age fourteen and procure a job as a packer on the Boston docks. Somehow, he managed to save enough of his earnings to acquire a tavern in Boston's Haymarket Square, where business was so prosperous that he invested the profits in two additional saloons. In 1887, on Thanksgiving Day, he married Mary Augusta Hickey, with whom he had four children, one of whom died in infancy.

    Well-to-do from his three saloons, P. J. Kennedy entered the political arena. From 1885 to 1891 he served in the state house of representatives, in 1892 he won a seat in the state senate, and on three occasions he represented Massachusetts as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He served Boston as both fire commissioner and commissioner of wines and spirits, in addition to working behind the scenes as a district boss for the city's powerful Democratic machine. During his public-service years, he continued to tend to his private holdings, expanding his revenue by investing heavily in real estate. In 1895 he helped organize the Columbia Trust Company, the bank of which he was to become president (in time to be followed in the same position by his son Joe).

    After the death of his wife in 1923, P. J. moved in with his daughter Margaret and her husband, businessman Charles Burke. Kennedy died of liver disease in May 1929, while his only son happened to be in California producing a film starring his mistress, Gloria Swanson. It was the old man's grandson, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., who attended the funeral in Joe's place, along with honorary pallbearer, in-law John F. Fitzgerald.

A hotshot first baseman for Boston Latin School, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, P. J.'s boy, found the going a bit rougher once he matriculated at Harvard and failed to make the varsity. Nevertheless, he won his baseball letter. Popular legend has it that his influential father threatened to withhold a theater franchise from the Harvard team captain unless Joe played in the Yale game. Off the ball field, young Kennedy's searing ambition led him to the world of high finance.

    Graduating from Harvard with a B.A. in 1912, Joe entered the business world with five thousand dollars earned by owning and driving a sight-seeing bus during his summers at college. After eighteen months as a bank examiner for Massachusetts, the impatient would-be financier increased his stake with borrowed money in order to buy stock in Columbia Trust, the bank which his father had helped found. In 1914, Joe was elected president of the bank. He was only twenty-five, the youngest bank president in the nation.

    On October 7 of the same year, following an on-again, off-again seven-year courtship, twenty-six-year-old Joe Kennedy married Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Honey Fitz's twenty-four-year-old daughter, the bell of Irish society in Boston. Sensing a decided moral defect in young Joe, Honey Fitz initially opposed the marriage, condoning it in the end only because of his friendship with the groom's father. Despite Joe Kennedy's declarations of devotion to his bride, the marriage proved difficult from the start--on at least two early occasions, Rose left her husband and returned briefly to her father's side. Before long, the couple settled for what can at best be termed an arrangement rather than a marriage.

    By early 1915, having overextended his finances by investing in an array of small businesses, Joe Kennedy had gone deeply into debt. Gambling on his own brains and luck, he borrowed money from a New York bank and bought a small but sturdy green-frame house at 83 Beals Street in Brookline, a largely affluent suburb of Boston. There, despite their icy relationship, Joe and Rose set about their duty as Catholics: Joe Jr., Rosemary and Jack (their first three children) were all born in the house. Joe Kennedy, Sr., repaid his loan by procuring a lucrative position at a shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. Overseeing the urgent production of World War I submarines and battleships, Joe also supervised the construction of housing for shipyard personnel. And, with his uncanny eye for a dollar, he found time to organize, operate, and profit from an onsite cafeteria.

    In the early 1940s, long after amassing his fortune, Joe Kennedy told his two oldest sons, Joe Jr. and Jack, that "bit businessmen are the most overrated men in the country.... And here I am, a boy from East Boston, and I took 'em. So don't let 'em impress you."

    The remark, like Joseph Patrick Kennedy himself, was full of pride, self-promotion and not a little of the same blarney that had marked Honey Fitz, his famous father-in-law. But the advice was purposeful, for Joe Kennedy believed that the training of his children superseded all other endeavors. Even more diligently than he accumulated great wealth, he poured into his sons everything that he learned and wished for himself.

    The first Irish mayor of Boston had been elected three years before Joe's birth in 1888. But, as Richard Whalen wrote in his biography of Kennedy, The Founding Father, "it soon was clear that the Yankee would not be easily overcome. He had, as it were, simply retired from the antechamber and double-locked the doors beyond, which, by reason of their peculiar construction could not be forced. For Joseph Patrick Kennedy, life would center on the search for the key."

    From the first, Joe Kennedy understood that the avenue to the key lay in power--in political and social position--and not in money. But if the building of a fortune was subsidiary to that end, it was clearly not incidental to it. It was, in fact, the best and only way of attaining what he desired for his offspring.

    Joe Kennedy's business acumen led him after the war into a variety of enterprises, including real estate and the stock market. However, his first major financial success came only in the late 1920s--in the nascent motion picture industry, through which he also achieved his first public notoriety. He acquired two movie studios and a mistress, Gloria Swanson. After personally producing several films, he then merged the companies with the Radio Corporation of America and cashed in his stock, harvesting a $5 million profit in less than three years.

    In the stock market, he similarly showed great savvy. One of the few speculators to anticipate the crash of 1929, he managed to bail out in time while others continued to invest furiously until the collapse. In the frenzied maneuvering that followed, Kennedy grew wealthier still through his role in a "pool," a consortium of profiteers who manipulated a given stock's price via calculated rumors and trading. A short time later, as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he enforced federal regulations against the very practices in which he had engaged.

    Nor were fine points of law an obstacle for Joe Kennedy when opportunity arose from another national trauma. During Prohibition, he became the United States "distributor" for several British distillers, purchasing and importing thousands of cases of spirits under "medicinal" licenses issued in Washington, where his riches were beginning to buy the power he so ardently sought. A local police official also helped to ensure the operation's success: Sheriff Homer Large of Palm Beach, Florida, allowed Kennedy to safeguard his liquor supply by stowing it in a prison in the affluent resort town, where the rising tycoon had earlier acquired an expansive oceanfront property.

    The moment Repeal took effect in 1933, Joe Kennedy seized the opportunity and sold his vast inventory of alcohol--for millions more than he had originally paid for it. Interrogated by the press regarding the legality of the transaction, he responded: "What do you expect? I'm a capitalist."

    True to that calling, Kennedy plowed his "bootlegging" profits and other liquid assets into a new series of ventures, including several Manhattan-based apartment buildings and town houses (one of which he kept for his family's use), office buildings in Boston, the Merchandise Mart emporium in Chicago, as well as Florida's Hialeah Race Track (of which he became a major stockholder). In addition, he purchased another spacious dwelling, the family compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, where he retained the main cottage and built separate residences for each of his children. Before he was done, Joseph P. Kennedy's personal fortune was estimated to be worth in excess of $500 million, a not inconsiderable sum for this grandson of indigent Irish immigrants.

    For all his wealth and burgeoning influence, Joe Kennedy remained shockingly parsimonious. Judge James Knott, former director of the Palm Beach Historical Society, considered the Kennedy patriarch "incredibly frugal. I don't mean frugal in a strict financial sense, though that, too. He used his fortune only to enhance the family's power base. But beyond this, he was ungiving in a general way--he never entered wholeheartedly into the social life of Palm Beach, or any of the other communities where he lived. He didn't have public vivacity or wonderful anecdotes he wanted to share. He was just a businessman, very successful and clever, but without social aspirations or habits of any kind. His only discernible cause was the enhancement of his own family's interest."

Joe Kennedy did embrace another cause: adultery. He had always been an ardent womanizer, but his dalliances grew so embarrassing to both sides of his family that one day his father-in-law took him aside and advised him to be more discreet. Honey Fitz, whose doubts about Joe began when the young man was still courting his daughter, was incensed at the shame Joe's behavior was inflicting on Rose; curiously, the aging politician insisted only that his son-in-law be more judicious in feeding his craving, not that he curb it altogether.

    Joe ignored Honey Fitz's admonition; indeed, his tireless pursuit of women became more notorious with time. The best known of his sexual adventures involved movie queen Gloria Swanson, whom he met at a Hollywood party in the fall of 1927 when the star was at the height of her fame. He seduced her in the privacy of his Palm Beach estate while his wife sat in another room and Swanson's husband, the Marquis Henri de la Falaise, was off deep-sea fishing for the day. He took the actress in the manner of "a roped horse, rough, arduous, racing to be free," she wrote in her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. "After a hasty climax he lay beside me stroking my hair." Somehow, she sensed, "the strange man owned me."

    The affair continued for three years, during which time Kennedy formed a movie company, Gloria Productions, that produced Swanson's first talkie. He acted as her financial counselor, installed and maintained her in a private bungalow on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, gave her costly presents (which she later learned he had secretly charged to her expense account), and introduced her to his children. He even brought her along when he and his wife traveled to Europe by ocean liner. Gloria subsequently took Rose shopping, introducing the Bostonian to the first couturiers in Paris. "If [Mrs. Kennedy] resented me," wrote Swanson, "she never gave any indication of it." In short, Gloria must have asked herself whether Rose had the makings of a fool or a saint, or was simply a better actress than she (Swanson) happened to be.

    Throughout their romance, Gloria Swanson feared becoming pregnant. Brazen enough to believe he could withstand further scandal, Kennedy wanted a child by her--in his pleadings he declared himself "faithful" to her, offering as proof of that fidelity the entire year the fecund Rose had gone without conceiving. Such "tender" feelings did not, however, prevent him from dumping Swanson when he met Nancy Carroll, also an actress, who bore a striking resemblance to the woman she replaced.

    Swanson and Carroll were just two of many. As Palm Beach art dealer George Vigouroux noted, "There were hundreds of women in Joe's life. He thought nothing of inviting a date home for dinner. This was the model that served to nourish the voracious appetites of his four sons."

    "Joe Kennedy was vulgar," recounted Doris Lilly, who once "had the misfortune of dating Joe. He was the horniest, most disgusting man I ever knew. One night he took me out to El Morocco in New York. Then he escorted me back to my hotel. It was a hot, humid summer night. He wanted to come up to my room. When I told him I was tired, he grabbed me by the shoulders and forced his tongue down my throat. I gagged. I then hurried to my room by myself and proceeded to vomit."

    Joe Kennedy's longest-lasting affair--nearly seven years--involved a statuesque blonde showgirl named Day Elliot, who happened to be a friend of Doris Lilly. Assigning pseudonyms to both Joe and Day, Doris Lilly portrayed their liaison in a January 1963 article for Cosmopolitan magazine. Expanding on the article in an interview with this author, Lilly remarked: "Joe Kennedy bought her a duplex in a town house on Beekman Place, which is where all the wealthy men `kept' their mistresses. It was popular in those days because there wasn't much street traffic and few pedestrians. He also gave her a lot of jewelry and other gifts, including a Goya print and several etchings by Rembrandt. They went on vacations together. On one occasion he chartered a yacht and they sailed to Bimini, where they stayed at the Bahamian Club and gambled. In New York, they would sometimes taxi down to Chinatown and after eating take in a grade-C western at a Times Square movie theater.

    "She absolutely fell in love with him. Although he saw other women, she refused to date other men. They frequently saw one another in company with his friends--nobody mentioned the fact that he was married to another woman."

    Although relatively civil toward Day Elliot, Joe Kennedy's treatment of women was generally egocentric, callous and, at times, amazingly crude. Literary agent Marianne Strong recalled an incident involving Kennedy and two teenage models he took to dinner at New York's La Caravelle: "My late husband and I knew that Joe Kennedy frequented this restaurant, was even rumored to be part-owner, so it came as no surprise to find him seated next to us. He had these two beautiful and slim girls on either side, and it soon became clear that he was pleasuring one of them under the table. He had his hand in her panties and a hard, ugly smirk on his face. And while he was doing that, he was eating dinner with his other hand.

    "My husband summoned the maitre d'. `We didn't come here to be entertained,' he said. `May we please have another table.'

    "The hapless maitre d' couldn't find an empty table anywhere in the restaurant. We could therefore either stay and keep our mouths shut or leave. We stayed and endured the remainder of Joe Kennedy's pornographic performance."

Doris Lilly concurred with the notion--shared by most who knew the family--that Rose Kennedy didn't care how many girlfriends her husband had, because she had her children. Lilly reasoned that Joe and Rose had intimate relations only for the purpose of procreation; once the family was complete, she maintained, the couple no longer engaged each other sexually.

    Palm Beach socialite Mary Sanford, for years Rose Kennedy's closest friend and confidante, offered a conflicting point of view. "Rose was gravely wounded by Joe's constant philandering," she said. "Whenever he stepped out on her, she would break down and cry. Then she'd drag herself to a cocktail party and shamelessly flirt with every man in the room.

    "She eventually took her revolt a step further. In 1930 she met and began an affair with investment broker Earl E. T. Smith, who was then married to Consuelo Vanderbilt. Conveniently, Earl eventually acquired the estate next door to the Kennedys' on North Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach. He was very tall--about six feet five inches--and very handsome. A playboy extraordinaire, he was a dozen years younger than Rose. From 1957 to 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power, he served as American ambassador to Cuba. Later he became mayor of Palm Beach.

    "The fling lasted several months, but to the best of my knowledge only a handful of people knew about it. Two who found out may have been Jack and Bobby. By strange coincidence, the late president later became involved with Florence Pritchett, Earl Smith's much younger second wife--they were married in 1948. Presumably, Flo learned of the assignation with Rose and transmitted the information to Jack who, in turn, no doubt informed Bobby. That, I surmise, is precisely where the buck stopped."

    "I'm not the kiss-and-tell type," asserted Earl Smith when probed about the affair. "Let's just say that Rose Kennedy and I were great friends at one point."

    During the middle stages of John F. Kennedy's thousand days in office, Hugh Sidey--then Washington correspondent for Time magazine--sent his editors in New York a memorandum detailing the administration's sumptuousness and sensuality. "One weekend when JFK and his staff were in Palm Beach," the dispatch related, "even the President's ... mother, Rose Kennedy, was part of the high life," attending a party with an escort that Sidey had overheard being referred to as "her gigolo."

    Rose Kennedy apparently went to the party in question with none other than Earl E. T. Smith, although their secret affair had long ended and Smith, wealthy and prominent in his own right, could never accurately be called a gigolo.

    Time never published the story. Within days of the memo's submission, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy summoned Sidey to his office, where a copy of the report sat on his desk. Someone in the administration had intercepted it and turned it over to Bobby. "If you ever run this in Time," warned the president's brother, "we'll sue your ass for slander and libel." The nation's chief law-enforcement official then proceeded to dismiss the journalist with a flick of his hand.

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