JFK - king in a Camelot of his own making
With the centenary of his birth just days away, our reporter reveals the fascinating story behind America's charismatic, most-beloved, and in the end, tragic, president
'Countless individuals have noted that the president's death affected them even more deeply than the death of their own parents even. The reason, I believe, is that the latter situation most often represented a loss of the past, while the assassination of President Kennedy represented an incalculable loss of the future," said Theodore C Sorensen, President Kennedy's adviser, in December, 1963.
Generations after his death, JFK remains one of the most popular American presidents ever. In his own family's eyes, a Kennedy son in the White House was inevitable, but it was originally older brother Joe Kennedy Jnr who was destined for the highest office in the land, in the eyes of their Svengali-like father Joseph Kennedy. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, the second son of Joe and Rose Kennedy. Rose Kennedy was deeply religious and a somewhat detached mother, Joe Kennedy was a notorious philanderer, and rabidly ambitious on behalf of his progeny.
As offspring of one of the country's wealthiest, and most prominent families, Jack (as John was commonly known) and his siblings viewed themselves as akin to American aristocracy. "It was an easy, prosperous life, supervised by maids and nurses, with more and more younger sisters to boss and to play with," Jack told a biographer in 1960.
Although an aura of youthful vigour was key to the Kennedy image, even as a young child, Jack Kennedy was regularly sick. In later years, he would hide from the public an almost constant battle with ill health, suffering from an abscess, back problems, bouts of colitis, abdominal pain, diarrhea and Addison's disease. He and his family feared, possibly quite rightly, that the truth about his health would harm his image as a strong, vigorous leader. School and college years were regularly interrupted by spells of bed rest and hospital stays. This physical feebleness, in a competitive family that placed such value on outdoorsy athleticism, was a source of shame to the young Kennedy. His "very frame as a light, thin person, his proneness to injury of all kinds, his back, his sickness, which he wouldn't even talk about…he was heartily ashamed of them, they were a mark of effeminacy, of weakness," recalled a friend.
Stoicism was part of the Kennedy make-up though. "Jack was more fun than anyone I've ever known," Lem Billings, a close friend, recalled. On entering university, Kennedy's legendary appeal to women became clear. "I can't help it," he wrote to Billings. "It can't be my good looks because I'm not much handsomer than anybody. It must be my personality." From a young age, JFK was well aware of his father's behaviour with women - somewhat shockingly, Jack warned female visitors to the family homes to lock their bedroom doors, saying "the Ambassador has a tendency to prowl late at night".
In 1937, President Roosevelt appointed Joe Kennedy ambassador to Britain. The appointment, says his biographer Robert Dallek in An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy, "gave Jack an uncommon opportunity to be, however temporarily, a part of English high society". He attended court where he met the king, went to Rome and met the Pope, stayed at the Paris embassy, skied in Switzerland. On a more sober side, he travelled to Poland and Russia, and a lifelong interest in international affairs was awakened. Jack's main concern at the outbreak of war was that his health problems would stop him from serving. His father's connections were called upon, and he was successfully enlisted in the Office of Naval Intelligence. This was a dull assignment, and he requested sea duty, opting for command of a motor torpedo boat. When his boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer in the Pacific, two crew members were killed, all others capsized. Kennedy's actions saved the remaining crew, and he became a national hero, celebrated by front-page headlines.
The war also brought tragedy to the Kennedy family; the death of Joe, Jack's eldest sibling. Now, Kennedy senior's political ambitions would focus on Jack. In November 1946, Kennedy was elected Congressman of Massachusetts. At the time a then 30-year-old Kennedy was youthful enough in appearance to pass for a college student. "Every woman either wants to mother him or marry him," commented The New York Times.
The workload was easy, and life was full of socialising and athletics. And of course, if more companionship were needed, there were women, endless women. "Jack liked girls and girls liked him," remembers a friend. "He was such a warm, lovable guy himself." Mostly, they were one-night stands. "He was not a cosy, touching sort of man," recalled one conquest. Numerous theories about the reasons for his insatiable womanising have been propounded. A fear that bad health would cut his life short, a sense of mortality merely enhanced by the deaths of his siblings Joe, Kathleen and Rosemary. A cold, unaffectionate mother. His father's example. The excitement of the chase. "I don't really know. I guess I just can't help it," Kennedy himself told a friend.
The idea of becoming president had been the end goal from the outset. Such a result would require a suitable mate. Jack wasn't keen on marriage, but, despite the horrific callousness he would show her with his almost constant infidelity, he is said to have truly fallen in love with Jacqueline Bouvier. She was a 22-year-old socialite when they met; beautiful, rich, Catholic, well-educated, of similar social standing. Her parents had divorced when she was nine, her father an alcoholic womaniser. "I think he understood that the two of them were alike," recalled Billings, "even the names, Jack and Jackie: two halves of a single whole. They were both actors and I think they appreciated each other's performances. It was unbelievable to watch them work a party." Another friend described how Jackie, unlike most women, really interested Jack: "You could see it in his eyes, he'd follow her around the room watching to see what she'd do next." Jack's womanising didn't seem to put her off; friends speculated that Jackie's father-crush syndrome left her susceptible to the type. The pair married in September 1953. "At last I know the true meaning of rapture," Jack wrote to his parents from honeymoon. Rapture didn't translate into ideal husband material. "After the first year they were together, Jackie was wandering around looking like the survivor of an airplane crash," recalled a friend. Whilst she was heavily pregnant, Jack, by then a senator, took a yachting trip, allegedly enjoying different women at every port. When news reached him that his wife had suffered a miscarriage, it was only when warned that a divorce could hamper his presidential aspirations that he decided to return home. Despite serious obstacles - his health (he had undergone back surgery to avoid losing the ability to walk), his religion (a Catholic had never been elected to the White House), his emigrant antecedents (JFK twice visited Ireland) and his youth, Jack set his sights on 1960 as JFK's year. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that Jack beat Nixon in what was one of the closest-ever American presidential elections. "How did I manage to beat a guy like this by only a hundred thousand votes," Kennedy himself exclaimed. It was Jackie who actually used the phrase Camelot after her husband's death to describe their time in the White House. The youngest President, his beautiful wife, and their young family embodied a sense of hope and potential. From the outset, Kennedy's presidency was eventful. The issue of the Cold War and arms race would dominate it; Kennedy's rational leadership avoided escalation into nuclear war, his greatest fear. Giving the green light to the invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961 was a disaster. At the Vienna Summit in 1961 in talks with Khrushchev, Kennedy came across as a lightweight, and the Soviets went on to build the Berlin Wall. The US involvement in Vietnam was increased during Kennedy's tenure.
Jackie Kennedy didn't particularly relish the role of First Lady. During the campaign, she had admitted that she felt "so totally inadequate, so totally at a loss, and I'm pregnant; and I don't know how to do anything". She suffered from depression after the birth of her son John John in late 1960. When asked what duties she would like to take on as First Lady, she replied "as little as possible. I'm a mother. I'm a wife. I'm not a public official." A Secret Service agent recalled Jackie as seemingly lonely, "a sad lady". Gradually though, she seemed to have found a way to make the role work for her, admitting there was one unexpected benefit - the "closeness of one's family". Working from home did not put a stop to JFK's philandering. Showing a French journalist around the White House, Jackie commented in French on passing a secretary, "this is the girl who is supposedly sleeping with my husband". Outwardly though, she was a triumph - on a trip to France her husband declared to a press lunch: "I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."
If anything, the president's affairs multiplied after he entered the White House. Nineteen-year-old interns, office staff, women connected to the mob, sister-in-laws of journalists, Jackie's press secretary, starlets, call girls, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, no one was off limits. He confided in the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that he needed a woman every three days, otherwise he would have a dreadful headache. JFK "loved being president", recalled one senior adviser. "He never complained about the 'terrible loneliness' of the office or its 'awesome burdens'." To most observers, by 1963 Kennedy seemed a man thoroughly at home in the role of president. "I have a nice home, the office is close by and the pay is good," he joked.
Trouble of some sort, probably protests, was anticipated on the trip to Texas; the deeply conservative state did not care for Kennedy's association with the civil rights movement. "We're heading into nut country today," Jack told his wife on seeing an ad in a local paper that implied that he was soft on communism. "But Jackie, if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?" Lee Harvey Oswald had lived in Russia for several years and publicly supported Castro, which could have made him an object of FBI interest. Were it not lunchtime, the sixth floor from which he shot Kennedy would not have been deserted. But for Kennedy's back brace, holding him straight, the third shot which hit the back of his head might have missed.
But by 1pm on November 22, JFK was dead. People, both fellow world leaders and millions of Americans, had genuinely believed that Jack Kennedy could improve the world, and mourned his death with a sense of personal loss.
He had been president for just over 1,000 days, was just 46 when he died. Maybe if he had lived, personal scandals or political failures might have tainted his legacy. As it is, we remember him as king in a Camelot of his own making, a symbol of the highest we can reach for. In his own words: "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on."
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