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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, March 3, 2002

Books Examine 'American Royalty,' The Kennedys

The historian and biographer Geoffrey Perret appeared on C-SPAN the other night talking about his new book on Jack Kennedy. A suave-looking gentleman who reminded me a little of the photogenic presidential historian Michael Beschloss, he soon grabbed my full attention.

My admiration for President Kennedy had taken a battering over the years with all the revelations about his womanizing and drug use, yet his appeal remains, and Perret made clear to me that night that one of the reasons for this was Kennedy's gift for leadership. Listening to him, I was also made aware for the first time how ill Jack Kennedy really was. Perret obviously admired Kennedy after all his research, so I decided to give him another chance by reading a few new books on the Kennedys.

Jack: A life Like No Other by Geoffrey Perret (Random House, 2001).

Perret's book on Kennedy is full of stories about Kennedy that I had never heard. The book is historically sound and fair in his treatment of his subject. Though Perret tells all about Kennedy's darker side, he does not obscure the man he continues to admire.

I am not a Kennedy buff, so I did not know he had Addison's Disease and had almost died from it several times and continued to live only because of the availability of cortisone.

I didn't know how bad his back really was.

Kennedy himself was sure that he would die young and lived life in a hurry as a consequence.

This book places a great deal of emphasis on the extent of his father's influence on his life, as well as how much his personality was shaped by his rivalry with his older brother, Joe, Jr. Kennedy's father decided early that he was going to establish a political dynasty and that at least one of his sons would be president. Jack Kennedy had fatalistically accepted his father's destiny for him by the time he matriculated at Harvard.

The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963 by Laurence Leamer (Morrow, 2001).

Leamer is known as a biographer of movie stars, so one might think that he is over his head when tackling the Kennedys; but such does not prove to be the case. This huge book tells the full story of Joe Kennedy's clan and reads like a novel.

What Leamer lacks is Perret's historical judgment, and he is quick to put a negative spin on any imperfections of the family. For example, Joe is portrayed once again as a Prohibition bootlegger, cavorting with the likes of Al Capone.

The Kennedy White House: Family Life and Pictures, 1961-1963 by Carl Sferrazza Anthony (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

It is easy for middle-class people to feel comfortable with the Kennedys because in some ways they were like us, never fitting into the society of the Boston Brahmins or high Anglican eastern establishment because of their Irish Catholicism.

This book contains over 300 photos of the domestic side of the Kennedys' life and reminds us how close they actually were as a family. Even though Joe, Sr. was an unfaithful husband and Rose was withdrawn into her own cloistral world, all the children considered their family to be great, loyal and caring. The family lived with a passionate intensity that made other families pale in comparison.

Reading the surprisingly accomplished text accompanying these photographs, one might come to believe that Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy were slowly falling in love as they took on the responsibilities of parenting. What began as little more than an arranged marriage was developing into a relationship of mutual admiration.

Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years by Hamish Bowles (Little, Brown, 2001).

Bowles has collected a book of stunning photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy's gowns, coats, and hats from the John F. Kennedy Library, accompanied by photographs showing her wearing each item in public.

This clothing is just as much modern art as is the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi. Included is an amusing photograph of the future first lady reading a paperback copy of Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, while reclining in the seat of an airplane, dressed in a scarlet double-faced wool coat. Maybe Jack wasn't the only hip one in the family.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.