An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

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by Robert Dallek
     
 

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Everywhere acclaimed for its compelling narrative, its fresh insights, and its dispassionate appraisal of John F. Kennedy's presidency, this #1 national bestseller is the first full-scale single-volume biography of JFK to be written by a historian in nearly four decades. Drawing on previously unavailable material and never-before-opened archives, An Unfinished Life…  See more details below

Overview

Everywhere acclaimed for its compelling narrative, its fresh insights, and its dispassionate appraisal of John F. Kennedy's presidency, this #1 national bestseller is the first full-scale single-volume biography of JFK to be written by a historian in nearly four decades. Drawing on previously unavailable material and never-before-opened archives, An Unfinished Life is packed with revelations large and small - about JFK's health, his love affairs, RFK's appointment as Attorney General, what Joseph Kennedy did to help his son win the White House, and the path JFK would have taken in the Vietnam entanglement had he survived. Robert Dallek succeeds as no other biographer has done in striking a critical balance - never shying away from JFK's weaknesses, brilliantly exploring his strengths - as he offers up a vivid portrait of a bold, brave, complex, heroic, human Kennedy.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
It's hard to believe that someone could find anything new to say about John F. Kennedy, but Dallek succeeds in this riveting and well-documented biography. Despite plentiful revelations about Kennedy's private life, the book is very much a political biography, which keenly explores Kennedy's grasp of modern political campaigning. (The account of how the Kennedy machine managed the issue of his Catholicism in the 1960 West Virginia primary is particularly telling.) But he wasn't always sure what to do with power once he had it. His ideas on domestic policy were surprisingly conventional, and his foreign policy seems jingoistic. Kennedy, however, had the ability to change his mind -- no small accomplishment for a President -- and by the time he died he was a considerably more sophisticated leader. One need not accept Dallek's fanciful, if familiar, conclusion -- that, had Kennedy lived, he might have pulled the United States out of Vietnam -- to think that J.F.K.' s political career was a work in progress that was arrested too soon.
NY Times Sunday Book Review
But all in all, this is a most important new study of a presidency that still feels far closer than it is, and continues to rebuke successive occupants of the Oval Office for the smallness of their dreams. It is thorough, unflinching and balanced -- all qualities Kennedy would have admired, even if some of the revelations hurt. Clearly he had a higher pain threshold than most of us. The Camelot fortress may tremble at the revelation that J.F.K. suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis and other common ailments. But making Kennedy mortal again is another way of bringing him back to life, and this book will certainly enhance his reputation. It revives the man without worrying too much about the legend, and as he once said at a Yale commencement, ''The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie … but the myth.'' — Ted Widmer
The Washington Post
… scholars and the wider public alike will appreciate Dallek's vivid portrait of John Kennedy and the engrossing history he has written of Kennedy's presidency. — Allen J. Matusow
Douglas Brinkley
...sets the historical record straight...pitch-perfect prose...hands-down the best biography of JFK...a truly remarkable achievement.—author of The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House and Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans
People Magazine
Dallek...fashions a balanced but fast-paced tale of sex and power...Camelor confidential shines..."
Time
That Dallek has no ax to grind or myth to explode gives his portrait, after all these years, a certain stability and completeness, and therefore, with all the contradictions, a likeness to life.
The New York Times
An Unfinished Life is no salacious exposé. Mr. Dallek, a professor of history at Boston University and the author of several well-respected scholarly books, including a two-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, instead offers an impressively judicious and balanced account of Kennedy's life and presidency. — David J. Garrow
Boston Globe, 5/25/03
Dallek is a master of the biographical craft.
The Los Angeles Times
There have now been three generations of Kennedy books. First came the Camelot wave of biographies romanticizing JFK. Then came the debunking backlash that lacked proportion and emphasized sex over substance. The third wave, beginning with Richard Reeves' 1993 biography, Profile of Power, began to provide serious scholarship, new information and a more detached perspective. An Unfinished Life adds even more shadings, details and intimacy to the portrait. It gets to the bone and shows us the pain. Johnny, we know ye better now, thanks to this thoughtful and truthful biography. — Jack Newfield
Publishers Weekly
McGonagle's commanding voice and sober approach fit well with this scholarly, fascinating look at the life of an American icon. Dallek (Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973) plumbs several pertinent family papers for fresh revelations on Kennedy's health and liaisons, and ably outlines his upbringing, family history and path to the presidency. McGonagle is an experienced actor, and he keeps the reading at an even pace while rarely straying from a restrained, dignified tone. His impersonation of the Kennedys' famous Boston accents is only passable, and the occasional snippets of swelling music, complete with majestic trumpet calls, will strike some as over-the-top. But these are minor imperfections in an otherwise excellent recording. This audio abridgment is a worthy substitute for those interested in a stimulating new look at Kennedy's life, but who may not have the time to tackle the book's nearly 1,000 pages. Simultaneous release with the Little, Brown hardcover (Forecasts, May 12). (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Dallek has done here for Kennedy what he did for Lyndon Johnson (Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant). He has written the most accessible, balanced, and scholarly biography yet of JFK. Given access to more records about Kennedy than any previous biographer, he concludes that the Addison's disease and chronic back pain Kennedy endured most of his life resulted from steroid injections he received for a variety of childhood illnesses. The outstanding feature of the book is that Dallek praises and faults Kennedy without the emotionalism that detracted from many earlier biographies. Kennedy is criticized for his well-documented womanizing and for taking a political instead of a principled stand on civil rights while President because he didn't want to risk losing the considerable support of Southern Democrats. Kennedy, once reelected in 1964, would have removed American troops from Vietnam, suggests the author, a theme also advanced by Howard Jones in Death of a Generation. Dallek acknowledges that this is not the final account of Kennedy; as more documents become available, new interpretations and different conclusions will be forthcoming. For now and the immediate future, it is the Kennedy biography against which others will be measured. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Jack Newfield
Comprehensive, judicious, evenhanded, original. An Unfinished Life has the sober judgment and nuanced accuracy that make it ring true in all the controversial and tricky parts.
Los Angeles Times
Ted Widmer
An intimate portrait indeed . . . unexpected and important. . . . This is nothing if not a profile in courage.
New York Times Book Review
Steve Dougherty
Neither debunking nor further mythologizing, Dallek fashions a balanced but fast-paced tale of sex and power that scribes from Shakespeare to Jacqueline Susann would have killed for.
People
Los Angeles Times
"Comprehensive, judicious, evenhanded, original. An Unfinished Life has the sober judgment and nuanced accuracy that make it ring true in all the controversial and tricky parts."
New York Times Book Review
"An intimate portrait indeed . . . unexpected and important. . . . This is nothing if not a profile in courage."
David Herbert Donald
"One of the most engrossing biographies I have ever read. . . . An Unfinished Life is nothing less than a masterpiece."
Steve Dougherty - People Magazine
"Neither debunking nor further mythologizing, Dallek fashions a balanced but fast-paced tale of sex and power that scribes from Shakespeare to Jacqueline Susann would have killed for."
People
"Neither debunking nor further mythologizing, Dallek fashions a balanced but fast-paced tale of sex and power that scribes from Shakespeare to Jacqueline Susann would have killed for."

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780759528284
Publisher:
Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
05/01/2003
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
162,216
File size:
6 MB

Read an Excerpt

An Unfinished Life


By Robert Dallek

Warner Books

Copyright © 2003 Robert Dallek
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0316172383


Chapter One

Beginnings

George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach to life: ... "I dream things that never were-and I say: Why not?"

-John F. Kennedy before the Irish Parliament, June 28, 1963

IN AUGUST 1947, John F. Kennedy traveled to Ireland. The trip was notable for several reasons. Kennedy was first and foremost a "good New Englander," an American-so said the Irish ambassador to the United States-who had all but lost his connection to the old country. Indeed, recalling how often Jack Kennedy had visited England in the 1930s and early 1940s without going to Ireland, the ambassador archly described Kennedy as "an English American." "Many people made much of his Irish ancestry," one of Kennedy's English friends said. But he was "a European ... more English than Irish." Now, at long last, he was going home. That was not, however, how his father saw it. For Joseph Patrick Kennedy, whose drive for social acceptance shadowed most of what he did, being described as an "Irishman" was cause for private rage. "Goddamn it!" he once sputtered after a Boston newspaper identified him that way. "I was born in this country! My children were born in this country! What the hell does someone have to do to become an American?"

But his son had if not formed a deep emotional attachment, at least taken his cue from his mother's father, John F. Fitzgerald. "There seems to be some disagreement as to whether my grandfather Fitzgerald came from Wexford, Limerick or Tipperary," Kennedy would later recall. "And it is even more confusing as to where my great[-]grandmother came from-because her son-who was the Mayor of Boston-used to claim his mother came from whichever Irish county had the most votes in the audience he was addressing at that particular time." And indeed, when the twenty-nine-year-old had first run for Congress the year before, Irish Americans in his district had been hesitant to support Kennedy because of his lack of ethnic identification, let alone pride.

Officially, Kennedy was on a fact-finding mission to study the potential workings of the Marshall Plan in a Europe still reeling from the devastation wrought by the Second World War. Unofficially, it was a chance to relax with Kathleen Kennedy Hartington, Jack's favorite younger sister, who was even more "English American" than he was. Though her husband, William Cavendish Hartington, who was in line to become the next duke of Devonshire, had died in the war, Kathleen had stayed in England, where the Devonshires treated her with fond regard. They gave her free run of their several great estates, including Lismore Castle in southern Ireland's County Waterford, a twelfth-century mansion once owned by Sir Walter Raleigh. Kathleen called it the "most perfect place" in the world.

Kathleen asked Jack to join her for a vacation at Lismore, where she promised to bring him together with former Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden; Pamela Churchill, the divorced wife of Winston's son, Randolph; and other prominent English social and political lions. "Anthony Eden arrives today," Kathleen wrote an American friend, "so by the end of the week he and Jack will have fixed up the state of the world."

Like Kathleen, Jack Kennedy had been schooled to move comfortably in privileged circles. Jack and Kathleen did not think of themselves as anything but American aristocrats. Wit, charm, and intelligence added to the cachet he carried as a congressman and the son of one of America's wealthiest entrepreneurs who himself was a former ambassador to Britain.

Yet those who met John Kennedy for the first time in 1947 found little assurance in his appearance. Though having passed his thirtieth birthday in the spring, he looked like "a college boy," or at best a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in political science. He contributed to the impression with his casual attire, appearing sometimes on the House floor in khaki pants and a rumpled seersucker jacket with a shirttail dangling below his coat or in the House cafeteria line in sweater and sneakers. At six feet and only 140 pounds, his slender body, gaunt and freckled face, and full head of tousled brown hair made him seem younger than his thirty years. Even when he dressed in formal suits, which was not often, it did not make him look older or like a congressman. "He wore the most godawful suits," Mary Davis, his secretary, said. "Horrible looking, hanging from his frame." Unlike so many members of the House who self-consciously dressed the part, Kennedy reflected his sense of entitlement in his informal dress. But it did not encourage an impression of maturity, and it was difficult for most colleagues to take him seriously. He initially struck veteran congressmen as the son of a famous family who had inherited his office rather than earned it. Sometimes he didn't impress them at all. "Well, how do you like that?" he asked his congressional office staff one morning. "Some people got into the elevator and asked me for the fourth floor." During his first week in the House, a veteran congressman who mistook him for a page demanded a copy of a bill until Jack informed the astonished member that they were colleagues.

Nevertheless, he offended almost no one. Although he conveyed a certain coolness or self-control, his radiant smile and genuine openness made him immediately likable. "The effect he has on women voters was almost naughty," New York Times columnist James Reston later wrote. "Every woman either wants to mother him or marry him." Another columnist saw something in his appearance that suggested "to the suggestible that he is lost, stolen or strayed-a prince in exile, perhaps, or a very wealthy orphan."

A visit to New Ross, a market town on the banks of the Barrow River fifty miles east of Lismore, filled some of Jack's time in Ireland. Kathleen, who spent the day playing golf with her guests, did not join him. Instead, Pamela Churchill, whom Jack asked "rather quietly, rather apologetically," went along. They drove for five hours in Kathleen's huge American station wagon over rutted roads along Ireland's scenic southeastern coast before reaching the outskirts of the town.

New Ross was not casually chosen. As they approached, with only a letter from his aunt Loretta, his father's sister, to guide him, Jack stopped to ask directions to the Kennedy house. ("Which Kennedys will it be that you'll be wanting?" the man replied.) Jack tried a little white farmhouse on the edge of the village with a front yard full of chickens and geese. A lady surrounded by six kids, "looking just like all the Kennedys," greeted him with suspicion. After sending for her husband, who was in the fields, the family invited Jack and Pamela for tea in their thatched-roof cottage with a dirt floor. Though Pamela was impressed with the family's s imple dignity, she compared the visit to a scene from Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road.

Jack believed that he had discovered his third cousins and seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly. Asking if he could do anything for them, the cousins proposed that he "drive the children around the village in the station wagon," which he did to their pleasure and his. For her part, Pamela clearly did not understand "the magic of the afternoon." Neither did Kathleen, who was angry when Jack returned late for dinner. "Did they have a bathroom?" she asked snidely.

The successful striving of her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents- the unceasing ambition of the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys-had catapulted the family into another realm, an ocean and a century apart from the relatives left behind in Ireland. In America anything was possible-the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys were living proof. For most of the family, these Kennedys of New Ross were something foreign, something best ignored or forgotten. But not for Jack.

JACK HAD ONLY RUDIMENTARY KNOWLEDGE about his distant ancestors. He knew that his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy had come to East Boston during the great potato famines of the late 1840s, worked as a cooper making wagon staves and whiskey barrels, married Bridget Murphy, and fathered three daughters and a son before he died of cholera in 1858 when only thirty-five.

Jack also knew that his great-grandfather on his mother's side, Thomas Fitzgerald, had clung to his farm in Ireland until 1854, when the famine drove him to America as well. Initially settling in Acton, twenty-five miles west of Boston, his impoverishment as a farmer forced him to take up life in Boston's North End Irish ghetto, a crowded slum of wooden tenements. One contemporary described it as a "dreary, dismal" desolate world in which all was "mean, nasty, inefficient [and] forbidding," except for the Catholic Church, which provided spiritual comfort and physical beauty.

In 1857 Thomas married Rosanna Cox, with whom he had twelve children-nine of whom reached maturity, an amazing survival rate in a time when infant mortality was a common event. Thomas, who lived until 1885, surviving Rosanna by six years, prospered first as a street peddler of household wares and then in a grocery business, which doubled as a North End tavern in the evenings. Income from tenements he bought and rented to Irish laborers made his family comfortable and opened the way to greater success for his offspring.

The limits of Jack's knowledge about his Irish relatives was partly the result of his parents' upward mobility and their eagerness to replace their "Irishness" with an American identity. Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jack's mother, took pains to instill American values in the children, ignoring their Irish roots and taking them to the storied landmarks of the country's Revolutionary past around Boston. This attitude differed little from that of other ethnic groups, who tried to meet the demands of being an American by forgetting about their Old World past, but in stratified Boston it took on special meaning. Rose and Joe were understandably eager to insulate the family from the continual snubs that Irish Americans suffered at the hands of local Brahmins, well-off Protestant Americans whose roots went back to the earliest years of the Republic. Although Rose and Joe enjoyed privileged lives, their tangible sense of being outsiders in their native land remained a social reality they struggled to overcome.

The Boston in which Joe and Rose grew up was self-consciously "American." It was the breeding ground for the values and spirit that had given birth to the nation and the center of America's most famous university where so many of the country's most influential leaders had been educated. Snobbery or class consciousness was as much a part of the city's landscape as Boston Common. Coming from the wrong side of the tracks in most American cities was no fixed impediment to individual success. But in Boston, where "the Lowells speak only to the Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God," rising above one's station was an enterprise for only the most ambitious.

What vivid sense of family history there was began with Jack's two grandfathers-Patrick Joseph Kennedy and John F. Fitzgerald, both impressively successful men who achieved local fame and gave their children the wherewithal to enjoy comfortable llives. Patrick Joseph Kennedy was born in 1858, the year his father died. In an era when no public support program came to the aid of a widow with four children, Bridget Murphy Kennedy, Patrick's mother, supported the family as a saleswoman and shopkeeper. At age fourteen, P.J., as he was called, left school to work on the Boston docks as a stevedore to help support his mother and three older sisters. In the 1880s, with money he had saved from his modest earnings, he launched a business career by buying a saloon in Haymarket Square. In time, he bought a second establishment by the docks. To capitalize on the social drinking of upper-class Boston, P.J. purchased a third bar in an upscale hotel, the Maverick House.

With his handlebar mustache, white apron, and red sleeve garters, the stocky, blue-eyed, red-haired P.J. cut a handsome figure behind the bar of his taverns. By all accounts, he was a good listener who gained the regard and even affection of his patrons. Before he was thirty, his growing prosperity allowed him to buy a whiskey-importing business, P. J. Kennedy and Company, that made him a leading figure in Boston's liquor trade.

Likable, always ready to help less fortunate fellow Irishmen with a little cash and some sensible advice, P.J. enjoyed the approval and respect of most folks in East Boston, a mixed Boston neighborhood of upscale Irish and Protestant elite. Beginning in 1884, he converted his popularity into five consecutive one-year terms in the Massachusetts Lower House, followed by three two-year terms in the state senate. Establishing himself as one of Boston's principal Democratic leaders, he was invited to give one of the seconding speeches for Grover Cleveland at the party's 1888 national convention in St. Louis.

But campaigning, speech making, and legislative maneuvering were less appealing to him than the behind-the-scenes machinations that characterized so much of Boston politics in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. After leaving the senate in 1895, P.J. spent his political career in various appointive offices-elections commissioner and fire commissioner-as the backroom boss of Boston's Ward Two, and as a member of his party's unofficial Board of Strategy. At board meetings over sumptuous lunches in room eight of the Quincy House hotel near Scollay Square, P.J. and three other power brokers from Charlestown and the South and North Ends chose candidates for local and statewide offices and distributed patronage.

There was time for family, too. In 1887 P.J. married Mary Augusta Hickey, a member of an affluent "lace curtain" Irish family from the upscale suburb of Brockton. The daughter of a successful businessman and the sister of a police lieutenant, a physician with a Harvard medical degree, and a funeral home director, Hickey had solidified Kennedy's move into the newly emerging Irish middle class, or as legendary Boston mayor James Michael Curley mockingly called them, "cut glass" Irish or FIFs ("First Irish Families"). By the time he died in 1929, P.J. had indeed joined the ranks of the cut-glass set, holding an interest in a coal company and a substantial amount of stock in a bank, the Columbia Trust Company. His wealth afforded his family of one son, Joseph Patrick, and two daughters an attractive home on Jeffries Point in East Boston.

John F. Fitzgerald was better known in Boston than P.J. and had a greater influence on Jack's life. Born in 1863, John F. was the fourth of twelve children.

Continues...


Excerpted from An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek Copyright © 2003 by Robert Dallek
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Robert Dallek is one of the most highly regarded historians in America today and the author of more than a dozen books, including his two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant, and Nixon and Kissinger. Currently a faculty member at Stanford University's prestigious Washington program, he has also taught at Boston University, Columbia University, UCLA and Oxford.

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