JFK RECKLESS YOUTH has only one drawback: It covers only the part of his life up to his election to Congress. Hamilton has promised two more volumes, but they have so far not appeared. That said, it is the only negative that can be said for this remarkable volume, for my money the best JFK bio anywhere (including the new but hardly impressive JFK: AN UNFINISHED LIFE by Robert Dallek). There isn't an aspect of Kennedy's life that goes unexplored. Hamilton, however, did not have the access to JFK's medical records that Dallek did -- therefore he probably did not realize how very serious JFK's health issues were. (Of course, he is writing about JFK's early life, when he was obviously a lot healthier than he was later.)
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.