The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power

The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power

by Garry Wills

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From one of America's foremost historians, The Kennedy Imprisonment is the definitive historical and psychological analysis of the Kennedy clan. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Garry Wills reveals a family that enjoyed public adulation but provided fluctuating leadership, that experienced both unparalleled fame and odd failures, and whose basic values ensnared its men in their own myths of success and masculinity. In the end, Wills reveals that the the Kennedys' crippling conception of power touched every part of their public and private lives, including their relationships with women and world leaders. Sometimes gossipy, sometimes philosophical, The Kennedy Imprisonment is a book that is as true, insightful, and relevant as ever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618134434
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 11/14/2002
Edition description: 1ST MARINE
Pages: 332
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

GARRY WILLS, a distinguished historian and critic, is the author of numerous books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Saint Augustine, and the best-selling Why I Am a Catholic. A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, he has won many awards, among them two National Book Critics Circle Awards and the 1998 National Medal for the Humanities. He is a history professor emeritus at Northwestern University.

Date of Birth:

May 22, 1934

Place of Birth:

Atlanta, GA


St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Read an Excerpt


The Father

Like the other young men of his circle he thought chastity a dangerous state, and he seems early to have taken practical steps to avoid incurring the risks attendant on it.

— David Cecil, Young Melbourne

The term "imprisonment" came to mind as I watched Edward Kennedy shake hands with well-wishers at Boston's Pier Four — another stop in his marathon 1980 birthday party. In this ritual of giving himself, every gesture outward was inhibited, visibly checked. He moves, of course, in the stiff constraints of his back brace — at outdoor events, reporters wondered whether it was just the brace or if he wore a bulletproof vest. But there is more to his stiffness with people than medical complaint. That is most obvious when women approach him. With men, he can sometimes do the locker-room punch on the arm, clumsily hug an "old boy." But he subtly tenses when women come near, and puts his hand far out for primmest shaking. He has been burned too often by tabloid pictures of him merely walking near a pretty blonde. A kiss on the cheek may be quite continental, but that is a luxury denied him, now, in public. He lives within an invisible cage of his own forging, sealed in by his own actions outward, by the reputation of his former prowess. The ladies' man can barely shake a lady's hand, so crippled is he by his past.

An air of barely suppressed sexual exuberance was always part of Kennedy campaigns. The day after the Pier Four party, I went with Steve Neal of the Chicago Tribune to look at films of those old campaigns in the Kennedy Library. Even Bobby had been grabbed at by young women as if he were a rock star. The Charles Guggenheim documentary on his life has a touching moment when a girl reaches out to pat his hair, almost reverently, in the turmoil of shouts and handshakes. Of course, the "jumpers" of the 1960 campaign have entered legend. Murray Kempton wrote, of John Kennedy's motorcade:

John F. Kennedy treated southern Ohio yesterday as Don Giovanni used to treat Seville. His progress, as ever, was an epic in the history of the sexual instinct of the American female. Outside Dayton, a woman of advanced years but intact instinct sat with her dog. Kennedy passed; she waved; he waved back; in that moment of truth she clasped her dog and kissed his wet muzzle. Jack Kennedy is starting to enjoy these moments, and he is starting to enjoy them as a man of taste. He turns back now and goes on waving; the lingering hand gestures and the eye follows; its object is always a quietly pretty girl and the hand says that, if he did not have miles to go and promises to keep, he would like to walk with her where the mad river meets the still water.

For the youngest — in some ways the sexiest — Kennedy to run a sexless campaign in 1980 was a sharp but not a strange reversal. There is a kind of inevitability to it. I have said that Edward forged his own bars around him; but that is only partly true. Family tradition helped put them there. A very important and conscious part of the male Kennedy mystique is a pride in womanizing. Only Robert broke free of this — he had other demons. But, with that exception, what Montaigne wrote of some aristocratic families in his day was literally true of the Kennedys: "We know how some lament being consecreated to celibacy before the age of choice; but I have seen some truly lament their being consecrated to licentiousness before the age of choice. The parent's vice can be the cause...." The Kennedy boys were expected by their father to undertake a competitive discipline of lust; and he let them know that he was still in the competition himself. Here is the testimony of Mary Pitcairn, who dated John Kennedy, but later married Senator Kenneth Keating:

Mr. Kennedy always called up the girls Jack was taking out and asked them to dinner. He came down and took me to the Carleton Hotel — then the fanciest dining room in Washington. He was very charming. He wanted to know his children's friends. He was very curious about my personal life. He really wanted to know. He asked a lot of personal questions — extraordinarily personal questions. And then — I'll never forget this — he told me a lot about Gloria Swanson, how wonderful she was and how he kept in touch with her. When he brought me home, he called her up from my apartment. She was at the Plaza Hotel in New York. He said, "I'm going to call her up and make a date for tomorrow night," or something. Which he did.

Gloria Swanson has described the way Joseph Kennedy flaunted her presence on a ship to Europe, even though Rose Kennedy was traveling with them. According to Mary Pitcairn, he was similarly uninhibited in the home he shared with Rose:

He did something that I heard he did to everyone. After dinner he would take you home and kiss you goodnight as though he were a young so-and-so. One night I was visiting Eunice at the Cape and he came into my bedroom to kiss me goodnight! I was in my nightgown, ready for bed. Eunice was in her bedroom. We had an adjoining bath. The doors were open. He said, "I've come to say goodnight," and kissed me. Really kissed me. It was so silly. I remember thinking, "How embarrassing for Eunice!" ... I think all this confused Jack. He was a sensitive man and I think it confused him. What kind of object is a woman? To be treated as his father treated them? And his father's behavior that way was blatant. There was always a young, blond beautiful secretary around.

I have been quoting from The Search for JFK by Joan and L. Clay Blair, Jr. (1976). The Blairs tried to interview all of John Kennedy's early friends, male and female. The attributes most frequently mentioned in this mass of interviews are John Kennedy's intelligence, his womanizing (often connected with his father's), his bad back and bad stomach, and his habit of expecting others to pay for things because he never carried cash.

The father's "skirt chasing" was notorious. He not only pursued his own sons' "dates," but the dates of those sons' friends. Edward McLaughlin, John's Navy friend, was engaged to Elizabeth Drake, whom he later married. Mrs. McLaughlin remembers how Kennedy's father took her to dinner:

He asked me how much I thought Eddie would make when he started working. I said I didn't know but that he hoped to be a lawyer. Mr. Kennedy said he paid his butler more than Ed would ever make. He said I was wasting my time with Ed. I was a nice-looking girl and I could do better than that. I couldn't even eat I was so nervous. And I began to see the handwriting on the wall. I got out of there as fast as I could. I didn't think I'd ever hear from him again, but I did. He called again. And I — foolish me — went again, twice more I think. It was a challenge in a way. I thought I could handle this guy. Nothing was going to happen. But each time he got tougher to fend off. The third time, I really had a rough time getting out of his apartment. I literally ran out. And then I'd see him down at the Cape and he'd be perfectly charming. I've had other girls tell me almost identical stories. He was just that kind of guy.

When the young Charlotte McDonnell went to visit Kathleen Kennedy at her father's Waldorf Towers suite, Kennedy pretended to Will Hays, the movie censor, that she was his "girl in the bedroom":

I was about sixteen at the time and pretty shook up. I could not imagine my father walking in to the room and saying, "Hey, would you believe it? Will Hays thought I had a girl in the bedroom." When you're sixteen years old and you've been born and bred in the convent and you've got a very strict father who never deviated from any line, morally or ethically — it did shake me up. But Kick and Jack didn't seem to care. I think maybe they were so used to it. ... They just didn't seem to have the same, for lack of a better word, moral values. Although that is not really the proper word. Respect for women.

When the Blairs asked, "Was that also true of Jack?" she answered, "Yes."

Far from covering up his affairs, Joseph Kennedy tried to claim more of them than there were — even when it might hurt his business ventures (shocking Will Hays was not the best way to get motion pictures approved). He obviously thought this was part of his charm; and three of his four boys must have agreed, since they tried to emulate his "conquests."

I have seen it written and heard it said that Joseph — or John or Edward — Kennedy showed an Irish Catholic approach to women, idolizing the wife at home, but recognizing the human frailty caused by original sin, hoping for forgiveness in the confessional. But, as we shall see, the father rarely stressed his own Irish background; and the family line, picked up in a number of the Blairs' interviews, was that the father had an "English" attitude toward women — which meant, they thought, a continental or sophisticated air. Joseph Kennedy was so little Irish that he wanted to ape the English, and his children became intense anglophiles. In calling his attitude "English," they were putting what they considered the best light on it.

Irish Catholics in America have been, if anything, puritanical about sex, and Kennedy wanted people to know he had escaped that particular form of ethnic narrowness; that he was a man of the world, making his own rules, getting what he wanted, ready to indulge without guilt the one sensual pleasure that interested him. His bad stomach forbade drinking, smoking, or fancy foods; he was too restless to enjoy leisure; the arts were nonexistent to him. That left women, where he tried to exhibit a connoisseur's taste and a conquistador's prowess. Here he not only indulged himself; the family indulged him too. The sons seemed to take a borrowed pride in their father's "manliness," and imitated it. Even the daughters put the best face on his philandering. Some of those who told the Blairs that the father's attitude was "English" picked up that designation from Kathleen Kennedy, who became the Marchioness of Hartington. Before her marriage to the Marquis, Kathleen wrote her brother Jack in the Navy: "I can't really understand why I like Englishmen so much, as they treat one in quite an offhand manner and aren't really as nice to their women as Americans, but I suppose it's just that sort of treatment that women really like. That's your technique isn't it?"

Montaigne said that some aristocrats not only claim a license themselves but arrange a similar freedom for their sons: "It is the fashion in our country to put sons in the best homes where, as pages, they may be trained to noble manners. And it is called a discourtesy for anyone to refuse a gentleman his wishes." But if Joseph Kennedy thought sexual freedom an aristocratic trait, he was giving aristocracy a new definition from the jazz age. After his rejection by the brahmins of Boston, he oriented his world around New York and Hollywood, around the sports and journalism and cinema stars of the roaring twenties. A starlet would have disgraced the better Boston families; but Kennedy displayed his actresses as so many decorations, as signs that he was looking to new centers of power and of popular acclaim. The Boston gentry were exclusive. He would be expansive, open and racy. He was steering his family down the course that made them staples of the tabloids. As he told Gloria Swanson: "The Cabots and the Lodges wouldn't be caught dead at the pictures, or let their children go. And that's why their servants know more about what's going on in the world than they do. The working class gets smarter every day, thanks to radio and pictures. It's the snooty Back Bay bankers who are missing the boat."

The father's fascination with starlets, sports heroes, and worldly jounalists was passed on to his sons. Even Robert Kennedy, the most reflective of them, the nonwomanizer, had the family interest in entertainers and athletes — in Rafer Johnson and Andy Williams and Marilyn Monroe. He would ultimately alert his brother against Frank Sinatra's circle — but only after their sister Patricia had married into that circle.

The journalist to whom Joseph Kennedy was closest, over the years, was Arthur Krock of the New York Times, a voice of the American journalistic establishment, politically very conservative, but "liberal" in his moral views. The two cemented their joint purposes with a male camaraderie of conquest — exactly the relationship John Kennedy would later have with Newsweek's Ben Bradlee. Krock inadvertently occasioned John Kennedy's first serious trouble over sex. The New York Times man tried to find journalistic jobs for his beautiful protégées; Frank Waldrop, editor of the Washington Times-Herald in 1941, remembers that when Krock called him and said, "I've got another one for you," Waldrop answered, "What are you, our staff procurer?" The "one" Krock had got was Inga Arvad, a European beauty contest winner who had Nazi connections. Arvad later told her son, "Krock was a skirt-chaser." Women were passed around in the Krock–Kennedy circles; but so was news of them — the FBI soon had tape recordings of Arvad in bed with a naval intelligence officer, John Kennedy. That ended the future President's intelligence days in Washington, and almost ended his military service altogether. Only his father's intervention with James Forrestal, then Undersecretary of the Navy, kept John Kennedy in uniform after this, his first assignment. He later omitted this first tour of duty from his Navy biography.

It seems clear in retrospect that John Kennedy was not jeopardizing his country when he persisted in seeing Inga Arvad (even after his dismissal from intelligence work because of her); but he was certainly jeopardizing his career — which was his father's only concern. Inga Arvad's son remembers: "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 she left the room he'd come down on Jack about her and if Jack left the room, he'd try to hop in the sack with her. He did that one weekend at the Cape, she said. She thought it was a totally amoral situation, that there was something incestuous about the whole family."

Krock had earlier helped initiate the Kennedy boys into intrigues, even when the father was giving them a rare warning. Joseph Jr. had struck up a shipboard romance with a movie actress, and was too open about it. His father wanted this son to be President; so he imposed a curfew on Joe, and on John who shared a cabin with him. But once the father had checked the boys in for the night, they escaped out a sealed servant door. In his Memoirs, Krock pretends he deduced this from the boys' presence at later carousals; but in the oral history at the Kennedy Library, where he speaks more frankly, he admits he opened the door for them. Despite that cruise's specific injunction, the father radiated a "boys will be boys" ethic around his sons. As Montaigne says, aristocratic pretensions can train one to licentiousness.

Joseph Kennedy's new breed of boys being boys made a questionable aristocracy. Norman Mailer did not quite get the point when he described the situation. In his famous 1960 essay for Esquire, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," Mailer rejoiced that America's "beggars of glamor" were to be given a new kind of political heroism: "America's politics would now be also America's favorite movie. ... America believed in athletes, rum-runners, aviators; even lovers, by the time Valentino died." Now it would believe in Kennedys, who — thanks to the father — had a bit of rum-running dash and Valentino glitter to them.

In 1938, Ambassador Kennedy watched the King and Queen of England arrive at Ascot for the Gold Cup races. His wife wrote of that day: "When Joe first saw the royal procession, he commented, 'Well, if that's just not just like Hollywood.'" Kennedy's career in the movies was comparatively short; but it was not a mere incident in his life. He was dazzled by Hollywood, and loved to use its glitter on others. As a movie producer, he had early copies of films to show his family and visitors — something he managed to do long after he had left the business. Even when entertaining the royal couple in London, he showed them early releases of American films. At Hyannis Port there was a movie every night during the summer, which awed the children's visiting friends.

Only John seems to have inherited his father's consuming interest in the movies, in the myths and gossip of Hollywood. As President he even called the set where Advise and Consent was being filmed, to learn when he could get an early print. He watched films constantly in the White House. And he was as interested in the actors' private lives as in their screen performances. The adoring Kenneth O'Donnell admits: "His fondness for Frank Sinatra, which perplexed a lot of people, was simply based on the fact that Sinatra told him a lot of inside gossip about celebrities and their romances in Hollywood." Not only was Sinatra the President's private Rona Barrett — he was also one of the President's favorite topics of conversation. Judith Campbell (later Mrs. Exner), who had been recommended to Kennedy because "she looks like Elizabeth Taylor" (in 1960, the subject of most movie gossip), says Kennedy's conversations in the White House returned again and again to Frank Sinatra's affairs.


Excerpted from "The Kennedy Imprisonment"
by .
Copyright © 1981 Garry Wills.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction to the Mariner Editionxi
Prologue: Brothers3
Part 1Sex
1.The Father15
2.The President27
3.Sisters and Wives39
4.The Prisoner of Sex51
Part 2Family
7.Honorary Kennedys84
9.The Prisoner of Family111
Part 3Image
10.Creating the Kennedys127
12.The Prisoner of Image151
Part 4Charisma
13.Counterinsurgency at Home163
14.Enjoy! Enjoy!175
17.The Prisoner of Charisma207
Part 5Power
18.Bulldog! Bulldog!219
19.The Midas Touch232
23.Charismatic Nation275
24.The Prisoner of Power286
Epilogue: Brotherhood297

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