Kennedys continue to be a popular topic

Family: Several books being released this season are keeping legacy alive.

October 23, 2001|By Aileen Jacobson | Aileen Jacobson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Meanwhile in Massachusetts Jack Kennedy dreamed Walking the shore by the Cape Cod Sea Of all the things he was going to be.

Thus begins a poem that Jacqueline Kennedy wrote in October 1953, 10 years before her husband died and 15 years before she added Onassis to her name.

He would find love He would never find peace For he must go seeking The Golden Fleece

All of the things he was going to be

All of the things in the wind and the sea.

That's the ending of the poem about Jack Kennedy's dreams, the final offering of a new book that came to stores this month and is already a bestseller. The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, selected and introduced by her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, contains poems mostly by others, from Robert Frost to Edna St. Vincent Millay, that Jackie Kennedy loved and shared with her children. The slim volume is part of a set of Kennedy-related books: At least nine are debuting between now and Nov. 12.

In part, the publications are proof that Kennedy dreams are still the stuff of America's dreams. And that neither Jack nor Jackie nor their families, it seems, will ever find peace from the probing of biographers and examiners.

"The modern presidency seems to begin with Kennedy," said Geoffrey Perrett, author of Jack, a Life Like No Other, which goes on sale today. "He was something completely new. He was the first to go beyond politics and represent the entire culture." Perrett also has written biographies of Dwight Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant and Douglas MacArthur.

Based on Kennedy's diaries and other sources, Perrett's detailed narrative chronicles Jack's interest in poetry, even during prep school days at Choate, and tells how Jack stopped Jackie on the threshold of their new home in Hyannis after their honeymoon to say he had something important to tell her: "This is my favorite poem." He recited the Alan Seeger verses that begin, "I have a rendezvous with Death. ..." The poem didn't make Jackie's best-loved list, or at least not Caroline's book.

The public's fascination with the Kennedys extends to the entire family, said Laurence Leamer, author of The Kennedy Men, 1901-1963.

"It's the most awesome personal and political history of our time. Tragedy, power, sheer emotional power - some of these themes are even more valuable now after Sept. 11," said Leamer, whose nine books include the best-seller The Kennedy Women.

The fascination with Jackie continues because "she was the most beautiful, mysterious, talented first lady in history - except maybe Dolley Madison," said Letitia Baldridge, former White House social secretary, who has just written A Lady First: My Life in the Kennedy White House and the American Embassies of Paris and Rome.

Jan Pottker includes juicy material in her Janet & Jackie: The Story of a Mother and Her Daughter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Pottker reports that at Jackie's wedding to Aristotle Onassis, her mother, Janet Lee Auchincloss, followed her up the aisle, whispering, "You don't have to go through with this. It's not too late."

Although coincidence apparently plays a large part in the current cluster of books, one reason some of them are emerging now is that many new sources became available during the 1990s. Government documents were declassified, taped interviews were released because either the interviewees or the subjects died, and surviving observers of and participants in the Kennedy administration have reached an age where, as Leamer, who got many CIA people to talk to him, put it, it's "speak now or never speak."

Some of the writers came to their projects by quirkier routes.

Barbara Leaming, author of Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years, said that while doing some unrelated research on Anna Freud in the Library of Congress, she came across a letter from a psychologist written in the 1970s that mentioned he was treating Jacqueline Kennedy.

"It was a simple letter, saying she [Kennedy] was making excellent progress. There was something about the letter that made her into a flesh-and-blood human being."

She didn't use the letter in her book, but did find a wealth of letters, diaries and other material that became available as people died.

Like many of the current books, Leaming's emphasizes Jackie's intelligence and involvement, rather than just her style and fashion sense. "She came in as equipped as her husband, and she hadn't gotten the credit. We've trivialized what her role was," said Leaming.

"Many people admire Jackie's "clothes and her style, but these are only starting points. ... They didn't make her who she really was," said Caroline, who appeared recently at a New York book store to promote her book. What her mother believed in, she said, were "literature and the power of words." The book's poems, she said, "show what really mattered to her."

Aileen Jacobson is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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