What is made painfully clear here is that JFK became president not because of his parents, but frankly, in spite of them. It was the force of his intellect and personality, more than his father's money, that made him who he was. Hamilton spends a lot of time in comparisons between Joe Jr. (the heir apparent) and Jack, the second son. According to him, Joe Jr. was ponderous, prejudiced, hardworking but abrasive and often nasty, and in general, simply did not attract people to him as Jack did. Jack, on the other hand, for all his natural rebelliousness (almost certainly fed by his parents' endless hectoring and marital issues), had enormous charm, warmth and endless humor. Hamilton even uncovers evidence of a surprisingly tender heart and his attempts to hide his concern for his friends with sarcasm and wit. His friends note that he constantly looked for new friendships and never lost a friend, even when the friends treated him with less than kindness and respect. He was loyal to a fault.
Hamilton does reserve tremendous ire (and who can blame him?) for JFK's parents, two of really the most awful parents it's possible to imagine. Rose was a mother who constantly went off and left her children with the help, never home even when her oldest children were babies, and was never, never affectionate or even perhaps very interested in them, due to her unending though silent opposition to her husband's abuse and philandering. While she inspected them daily for missing buttons or loose threads, she was completely uninvolved in their interests, games and problems. Their father Joe was, as Hamilton makes clear, good at only one thing: manipulating stocks in order to steal himself a fortune. Every other thing he tried, including banking, shipping, movies, politics and diplomacy, was a failure. (Joe was so unscrupulous that even during his stint as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, he had people buying stocks he had inside information about. It says something that when FDR appointed him the first chairman of the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission, and FDR's cabinet protested vigorously, FDR's answer was, "Set a thief to catch a thief.") What made Joe rather insidious (and this only in comparison to Rose) is that if he did have a good point, it was his genuine love for his children, misguided as his childrearing experience was. Unfortunately, he taught them to win at any cost and that women were to be treated with contempt and used like tissue. But because he expressed affection and care for them, even dropping his own work schedule to appear at their schools when Rose wrote letters but never bothered to visit her sons even when Jack was deathly ill in boarding school, Joe comes off as, ironically, the much better parent. He was loving and affectionate, though his affection came with a price: That they think as he thought and do as he did, which Jack simply rebelled against.
Hamilton has to be commended for his sense of balance. While never shirking his responsibility to point out Jack's flaws, he is careful also to show from where they sprang -- the terrible, dysfunctional union of his parents and their awful sense of what raising a family meant. The children were socially isolated (partially because of his parents' desperation to enter Boston's WASP society while being Irish Catholics themselves), turning to each other for comfort and thus becoming close, but then separated when Rose decided she couldn't handle them anymore and sent them to boarding school, some as young as age eight.
There is so much in this book that has value, but what I personally appreciate the most is Hamilton's constant underlying (though silent) thesis that Jack's gifts were so many that had he been born to different parents, he still would have been remarkably successful, yet probably been a less tormented and far less complex personality. For Hamilton sees his sexual yearnings as nothing less than looking for the love he missed in his mother, yet unable to express his need for it because of her coldness during his formative years and what that coldness did to his ability to express and receive affection.
I could go on and go (actually, I have), but I do heartily recommend this. It's an absorbing read about the formation of a remarkable and pivotal personality in American history. I'd love to see the next volume -- imagine what he'd do with the marriage of Jack and Jackie? -- but must wait till he gets there. Meanwhile, this volume is a five-star, fifty-carat gem. Don't miss it.
Then I spent my young adulthood hearing more and more about the women, the Mob connections, the flaws of this truly extraordinary man.
Nigel Hamilton - in spite of what must have been vociferous pressure from the Kennedy family, fully detailed in his "Afterward," - has done an incredible job of presenting, clay feet and all, a fully dimensional description of who the young John Kennedy was, and how he came to be that way. He writes with passion and insight, fully annotating those reckless aspects of JFK which defy belief (like, his being unfaithful to Jackie with an actress on the very night of his Inauguration), together with a genuine respect and admiration for so many of JFK's talents and finer qualities. What emerges is an unforgettable man. It's the very mixture which all earlier biographies miss. Yes, I DID read several after Hamilton's book, and found them all black-and-white, adore Kennedy, or detest him. Good and bad, flawed and courageous, witty and ruthless, inconsiderate and idealistic, it's all here in the early young man (the book ends with Kennedy's win for his first Congressional seat in 1946).
I would like to think that JFK, of all people, would have appreciated the paradoxes and intricate ironies Hamilton so thoroughly details. One comes away from this book saddened that the book - and the life - ended so soon.
After years of fearing that Kennedy pressure had ended Hamilton's multi-volume history after only the first installment, I'm thrilled to see that Amazon.com is offering Hamilton's second volume, "JFK," beginning in December, 2000. I've already placed my order!
On a related subject, a surprisingly excellent adaptation of "JFK: Reckless Youth" was made for TV and is available on videotape, with Patrick Dempsey's superb performance as young John Kennedy; also highly recommended if the book intrigues you.
This book recounts JFK's life until his election in Congress, beginning years before his birth with accounts of his grandparents and parents and what drove Joseph Kennedy to obsess on politics. While it includes JFK's assorted premarital affairs, there is also a great deal of complicated and in-depth information on his Navy service, his health, his political life, his family life, and the things that would affect him when he later became president of the United States.
Hamilton manages to pull more material -- only a portion of Kennedy's life -- into more pages than most Kennedy biographers could if they tried. He does this by incredibly in-depth investigation into just about everything in Kennedy's life. This approach not only gives much-needed depth to Kennedy himself, but to other people in his life. While his parents are no more sympathetic here than they ever were (meaning that they probably were as they seem), people that he interacted with (and in some cases, slept with) are given new attention. For example, his first serious lover Inga Arvad is explored in greater depth. Here she is not a promiscuous gold-digger or a clingy adulteress, but a woman who is willing to give up her love for his own good. Her Nazi sympathies and marital status are not downplayed, but her emotions and feelings are presented to the readers to make us realize what she was like.
And Hamilton's skill as a writer shows in how he is able to include all this detail and all these anecdotes without boring the readers silly. The eight-hundred-plus pages fly by like those of a book half its length, sprinkled with occasional pictures of JFK, his parents, "Inga Binga," Lem Billings, and others. These pictures are relatively few and far between, but make up for it in quality rather than quantity.
If you read one Kennedy biography, make sure that it's this one. Nigel Hamilton's "Reckless Youth" is written with style, class, and skill. Definitely worth the read.