John Kennedy, with warts

Monday Book Reviews

February 01, 1993|By John F. Kelly

JFK: RECKLESS YOUTH. By Nigel Hamilton. Random House. 898 pages. $30.

NIGEL Hamilton strikes two major chords in "JFK: RecklesYouth," the first of three projected volumes on the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Once struck, they echo throughout this insightful biography that covers Kennedy's "rogue years," 1917 to 1946.

It's obvious, first, that Mr. Hamilton, a British scholar whose literary reputation rests on a three-volume study of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, has a great deal of admiration and affection for Jack Kennedy.

At the same time, it's clear he's dealing with a somewhat ambiguous, paradoxical figure.

While he celebrates JFK's abundant warmth, wit, intelligence and political savvy, he unsparingly exposes another side of him that is cold, cruel, ignorant, insensitive and unsophisticated.

It is also apparent that Mr. Hamilton has little regard for Kennedy's parents or his elder brother, Joe Jr., considered before his tragic death on a World War II bombing mission as the son most likely to fulfill his father's obsessive quest for political power. Mr. Hamilton refers to him as "snide, bullying, short-tempered . . . and slavishly anxious to do his father's bidding." He describes Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy as cold, remote and sexually repressed, traits sprinkled among her nine children (one of whom, Mr. Hamilton claims, used to cross herself before she had sex with her husband).

The author's deepest scorn, however, is reserved for Joseph P. Kennedy, a lecherous, larcenous, despotic bully who, while devoted to his children, provided them with little moral guidance. He stressed, rather, the importance of "winning at any cost."

Returning to these themes and using a variety of sources, including FBI files, more than 2,000 personal interviews and a treasure trove of hundreds of letters to and from JFK's closet friend, K. LeMoyne Billings, Mr. Hamilton constructs a warm, personal portrait of John Fitzgerald Kennedy that is not only among the best and most complete done thus far, but also one that should rank among the better presidential biographies of this century. The author's deepest scorn, however, is reserved for Joseph P. Kennedy.

(This is all the more remarkable in that the Kennedys have not cooperated with Mr. Hamilton, and the author and Kennedy children have been engaged in a bitter public dispute since the family first saw the biography three months ago.)

What strikes one is Kennedy's brilliance as a writer, as a thinker and as a political strategist. He was mature beyond his years, with a sure grasp of world affairs even as a 21-year-old Harvard student. He had a stunning ability to see both sides of an argument, and he adhered to the English ideal of "never permitting political opinions to interfere with personal relationships." It was that insight, Mr. Hamilton writes, "that would provide Jack Kennedy with the key to the future, encouraging him to embark on one of the most extraordinary political voyages of the 20th century."

Little in Jack Kennedy's early years hinted at such future greatness. By the time he was born in May 1917, his parents had already settled into a cold, loveless marriage that left the Kennedy children emotionally scarred.

Joe had begun "the financial larceny on a vast and unseen scale" that created the Kennedy fortune, and Rose had retreated into a pattern of periodic trips abroad, obligatory sex and a distant family "management" program that produced plenty of darned socks and sewn buttons for her offspring but precious little affection.

Sickly, wounded by his mother's neglect, Jack became the Kennedy clan's "bookworm," "the intellectual," "the family wit." Still, he was an indifferent student. His grades at Choate, a private boys' school in Connecticut and "the battleground of his adolescent ego," were poor. They improved at Harvard, where he majored in government, and his senior honors thesis later became a best-selling book, "Why England Slept." Rarely, however, did academic life interfere with his active social and sexual life. Jack Kennedy was carefree and fun-loving and as popular with men as he was with women.

Mr. Hamilton writes with great detail and sensitivity about

Kennedy's naval service during World War II, including his gallant command of a PT boat in the Solomons, his brush with death when his boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and his wartime romance with Inga Arvad, an attractive Danish journalist whom the FBI suspected -- with no real evidence -- of being a German spy. The woman clearly was "the greatest love of Jack's life," Mr. Hamilton writes. Yet, confronted with his father's disapproval, Kennedy eventually gave her up. She was, he callously told his father, "just something I picked up on the road."

It's difficult to find much to criticize about this biography, which ends after Jack Kennedy's successful campaign for Congress in 1946. The Kennedy children have protested Mr. Hamilton's description of them as "abused," probably with some justification. His portrayal of Rose and Joe Kennedy as unfeeling, uncaring parents seems unduly harsh.

Beyond that and an occasional indulgence in cliches -- "something was rotten in the state of Denmark," "Jack was boiling with rage" -- this is, all things considered, an awesome beginning.

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.

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