Dysfunctional First Family

Is it possible to consider the career of John F. Kennedy without fixating on his sex life or the ravening ambitions of his dreadful father? For Nigel Hamilton, apparently, it is not. From the very beginning, his first volume on JFK is an implacably nasty piece of work. The fact that most of the nastiness appears to be true, and thoroughly documented, does not make it any easier to take. In Hamilton's overlong telling, Kennedy came from one of the ugliest families in American history: a crooked, dissolute father, an emotionally bankrupt mother and a helpless pack of traumatized children. It is only as the young JFK triumphs over his dysfunctional family that Hamilton finally begins to pay as much attention to his character and ideas as to the moral squalor from which they arose.

The book, which takes JFK to the age of 29, is the first of three volumes planned by Hamilton, a British biographer whose previous subject was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. "Reckless Youth" makes a horrible first impression. The prologue has something snide to say about almost everyone involved as it describes Kennedy's body lying in state at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 25, 1963. His widow is stage-managing his funeral. "Unable to tame her husband's rampant sexual appetite in his lifetime, she was determined to shape his memory in death," Hamilton writes by way of introducing Jackie. Kennedy's mother, Rose, has arrived "with thoughts only of what she would wear at the funeral." His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, is a "brilliantly successful Wall Street swindler."

No grief-stricken onlooker is safe from Hamilton's introductory bile. JFK's loyal "Irish mafia" is described as a "thin-lipped contingent of hangers-on, bodyguards, pimps and court jesters." When Hamilton mentions Susan Mary Alsop, then the wife of columnist Joseph Alsop, he just has to add: "in whose house [JFK] had committed his first adultery as president of the United States, on the night of his inauguration." And this is only the prologue. It's as though some editor--or Hamilton's own instinct--told him to merchandise his sleaziest wares up front.

His sources are extensive, including previously unpublished letters and navy medical records on the sickly young officer. Judging from the evidence presented, it's almost impossible to be too hard on JFK's father. Joe was a cheat, a coward, a shameless adulterer and a domestic tyrant. Yet Hamilton manages to be unfair even to this monstrous parent. He indulges in gratuitous ethnic slurs: a "Boston-Irish braggart" or a "jumped-up Boston Irish Catholic." And on the strength of one anonymous source, he reports unsubstantiated speculation that Joe "might have sexually abused Rosemary," his retarded oldest daughter.

Joe's principal victim was Rose. As he paraded his infidelities before her, she retreated into an obsession with clothes, jewelry and manners. She neglected her children and made her family's life "an emotional wasteland," Hamilton writes unpityingly. It was partly this lack of mothering, he maintains, that turned young Jack into a sex fiend. And by all accounts, Kennedy was a lousy lover--"intent upon ejaculation and not a woman's pleasure," Hamilton reports.

The "greatest love of Jack's life," Hamilton says, was Inga Arvad, a Danish journalist he met in Washington after he joined the navy. She was "part siren, part mother" and gave Kennedy, four years her junior, "a kind of love Jack had never known before." Unfortunately, the FBI thought she was a security risk, because she had met Hitler before the war. G-men bugged her apartment, recording her intimate moments with Jack. The scrutiny helped push them apart even before he shipped out to the Pacific.

Jack had no business fighting the war. He suffered from chronic back and stomach problems. For years, Addison's disease suppressed his adrenal glands, weakening his immune system. He was too unhealthy to get life insurance, but with his father pulling strings, he landed a desk job in the navy and then transferred into torpedo boats. Hamilton also says he suffered for decades from "postgonoccal urethritis, a less severe but still painful disease usually contracted along with gonorrhea."

Considering Jack's horrible family, his flawed character and his miserable health, Hamilton seems to say that he did pretty well. But the admiration is grudging. "He had the brains, the courage, a shy charisma, good looks, idealism, money," Hamilton writes. "Yet, as always, there was something missing--a certain depth or seriousness of purpose-that seemed to wary observers to be as indicative of his politics as of his amours. Both were, in a way, all too easy. The chase was the challenge, with voters as with women."

Jack wanted to please his father and at the same time escape him. He could never openly repudiate Joe; in fact, he allowed his father to direct, and pay for, his first, successful congressional campaign, in 1946. But in the end, Jack Kennedy rejected much of what Joe stood for. He developed a social conscience, something that never troubled his father. Hamilton says the mainspring of Kennedy's political philosophy was the fight for personal freedom--"the right of the individual against the state," as JFK once put it. Hamilton argues that Kennedy acquired this belief by suffering under a "tyrannical, Stalinesque figure of a father he both loved and resented." If so--if JFK's greatness was mainly a defensive reaction to his father--then it is Joe Kennedy, not Jack, who is the real subject of this dispiriting volume.