JFK's newest biographer

Nigel Hamilton defends book and lauds its subject

December 27, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

McLean, Va. -- On a table in Nigel Hamilton's living room are recent issues of Newsweek and Time, each with a full-page review of his new book. "JFK: Reckless Youth." Another table holds a copy of the newest People, which contains a sympathetic profile of the British-born biographer. Next to it is the New York Daily News from Nov. 24, a huge front-page headline screaming out, "JFK'S WILD OATS." A headline beneath it, in only slightly smaller type, continues: "Brlt's Hard-Hitting Kennedy Book Stirs Up a Storm."

"The funny thing is." Nlgel Hamilton was saying. "two months ago, hardly anyone in this country knew who the hell I was. In October, I couldn't even get the foreign rights to the book sold at the Frankfurt [Germanyl Book Fair. which is the biggest book fair in the world. Now there are a quarter of a million copies in print in this country alone, and foreign publishers are queuing up for the rights."

Since "Reckless Youth," his exhaustive and often lurid chronicle of Kennedy's early life, was published by Random House last month, it's been a whole new world for this 48-year-old. self-admittedly "very shy Englishman." A bookish academic whose literary reputation heretofore had rested primarily on the strength of a three-volume biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Nigel Hamilton is getting the full treatment from the American media machine.

"I got a call from 'Entertainment Tonight' asking me about Kennedy's gonorrhea." he says with a bemused look. "I told them it was only three lines in a 900-page book, for God's sake. What about all his love affairs?' people ask. Well, it's true, but there is a lot more to the book, just as there was a whole lot more to John F. Kennedy."

"Reckless Youth," to be sure, is chock-full of juicy tidbits, especially regarding Kennedy's family life. His father. Joseph P. Kennedy. is characterized as amoral and ruthless, an unchecked philanderer and unreasonably demanding father. Rose Kennedy, Mr. Hamilton writes, "was a cold, unmotherly and distant woman whose main contribution to Jack's character was his strangely split psyche, leaving him emotionally crippled in his relations with women.

Serious and scholarly

But Mr. Hamilton insists that from the beginning he was interested in a serious and scholarly biography, and that anyway he has come to consider JFK "a real hero." And, indeed, he's gotten some great reviews of "Reckless Youth," the first book in a projected three-volume work. Historian Roger Morris wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "By turns poignant and horrifying. but always awe-inspiring, the first volume gives us back a lost history, and provides JFK himself with an almost familial compassion he never really had in America's most famous and fiercely political family."

Dissenters included Newsweek, which called "Reckless Youth" "an implacably nasty piece of work." But the toughest review perhaps was turned in by the Kennedy family itself.

The four surviving siblings of John F. Kennedy - Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and sisters Jean Kennedy Smith, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Patricia Kennedy Lawford - took the unusual step of writing a piece harshly criticizing the book in the Dec. 3 New York Times. It began: "As children of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. we categorically reject the misjudgments, mlscharacterizatlons, insinuations and outright falsehoods about our family relationships portrayed in the book 'JFK: Reckless Youth' and repeated by many reviewers." It added: "The most offensive passages in this reckless biography are also the most false. After deeply immersing himself in our brother's early years, the author has grossly distorted the essence of our family relationships."

The object of this outrage says he's heard this before. "I have been pretty much slandered and libeled for the past year, and that was even before publication." he tells an interviewer. "I had to learn that everything in America is political."

In appearance, Mr. Hamilton looks the typical English academic: glasses, beard, well-modulated Oxbridge accent (he studied history at Cambridge). He is nearly always low-key, circumspect and painstakingly thorough in conversation, given to 10-minute answers when five minutes would do. ("If you've been looking for brief, concise answers to your questions." he says halfway through an interview in a self-deprecating aside, "I'm afraid I've disappointed you.")

To research the first volume of his Kennedy biography, he lived in the Boston area for four years; he moved to McLean, Va., in September to facilitate Washington-related research on the second volume, which is to cover the time from Kennedy's being elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 to his election as president 14 years later.

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