How JFK and Jackie reignited their love
The death of their son Patrick was the catalyst for a more loving and caring relationship, writes Donal Lynch
The late, great (Iraq war support aside) Christopher Hitchens once wrote that JFK had already had "more than enough ink". As we finally approach the 50th anniversary of the president's death – which itself feels like it has gone on for 50 years – there remains more ink to be spilled and one final seam of Kennedy history that has yet to be fully mined: the death of a philanderer. It came shortly before his actual death and at the time it seemed as unlikely as the shooting which later claimed his life: womanising seemed to be the engine that drove JFK's power and lore. He famously told anyone who would listen that he needed to have sex once a day or he would get a headache.
Yet another book about his exploits with White House interns was published last week. His dalliance with Marilyn Monroe was, of course, among the great 20th-century legends. Jackie seemed to be the original long-suffering wife. When she suffered her first stillborn child in 1956, JFK was on a yacht in the Mediterranean, reluctant to return home quickly to his devastated wife. With his cold detachment, he said he saw no pressing reason to rush back – after all, he reasoned, the baby was already lost.
He relented only when his advisers warned the shrewd young senator from Massachusetts that if he didn't race home, he'd never win the woman's vote in any future campaign. As told in one Kennedy biography, his close friend Senator George Smathers warned him: "You better haul your ass back to your wife if you ever want to run for president." And so he did come home, but privately it did not mean he took his marriage any more seriously. Marlene Dietrich and a host of other lesser-known women were still up ahead of him.
But right at the end, too late for atonement perhaps, there was a dramatic shift in Kennedy's priorities.
It came in the aftermath of his trip to Ireland and the death of his prematurely born baby son from respiratory distress syndrome. He was called Patrick Kennedy, the first Patrick in a generation for the storied Irish-American dynasty. That he was so named, just weeks after the president's trip to Ireland, can be no coincidence – Kennedy was still basking in the romantic afterglow of the trip. Jackie had, of course, curtailed her public duties because of her pregnancy and to widespread disappointment here had not accompanied her husband on the June tour, something that hardly bothered her husband: they were all but living separate lives by that point. Still, when their little boy died after just three days in an incubator it united them in grief and provided an unlikely shot in the arm for their marriage.
Boston's Cardinal Richard Cushing celebrated the funeral Mass in the chapel of his official residence in Boston on the morning of August 10, just three days after Jackie had given birth. She was still in hospital recovering and was not among the 13 mourners at the little boy's funeral. According to Catholic doctrine, baptised children who die before the age of reason go directly to heaven, and the Mass of Angels is designed to be a consoling ceremony, emphasising the purity of the infant. JFK wept quietly throughout. When it ended, he took the money clip fashioned from a gold St Christopher medal that Jackie had given him at their wedding and slipped it into Patrick's casket. At the very end he hugged the tiny coffin. All Ireland grieved for the child's death and in the days after the funeral messages of condolence arrived by the sack-load from Ireland.
After the funeral Mass in Boston and burial in nearby Brookline, which Jackie missed because she was not well enough to travel, JFK spent long hours with her at the army hospital, describing the small family ceremony, the little white casket and the white flowers she specifically ordered covering it, and they wept in each other's arms. When Jackie finally left the hospital one week after giving birth, she and JFK came out of the green, single-storey building side by side. The president held her hand as she daintily descended the two small steps. Then the couple walked arm in arm several feet to a black limousine, Jackie smiling wanly and cameras flashing like lightening bolts. The president helped her get settled in her seat, then went around and climbed in beside her.
His new attitude toward Jackie was obvious to all, and over the years it would be noted by biographers and in memoirs by those who knew the couple well. "After the trip to Europe and death of Patrick, the other agents and I noticed a distinctly closer relationship, openly expressed, between the president and Mrs Kennedy," her Secret Service agent Clint Hill recalled in his recently released memoir. "I first observed it in the hospital suite at Otis Air Force Base, but it became publicly visible when Mrs Kennedy was released from the hospital."
One small piece of evidence that this was the case, Hill said, was that the president and first lady had made their first public appearance after the child's death holding hands. "It was a small gesture, but quite significant to those of us who were around them all the time. Prior to this, they were much more restrained and less willing to express their close, loving relationship while out in public. The loss of Patrick seemed to be the catalyst to change all that."
How enduring this new commitment to his marriage would have been is impossible to know. Hardly three months after Patrick's death, the most powerful couple in the world climbed into an open Lincoln Continental limousine for a ride through Dealey Plaza in Dallas and she tenderly squeezed his arm.