Well written and engaging, the book surveys three generations of Kennedys over four sections, beginning with how Joseph Patrick Kennedy shaped his family and gave his sons a calling (Architect of Their Lives) then moves on to how his sons Jack and Bobby developed their public careers following Joe, Jr.'s death in WWII (The Stand In) then moving to the peak Kennedy years of Jack's Presidency and Bobby's campaign (Brothers Within). The drama ends as both a sad farce describing Teddy's troubles and as a tragedy invading the lives of the lost generation of Kennedy children (The Lost Boys).
The book centers, as did the family, around the elder Joseph Kennedy and his wife, the queenly Rose Fitzgerald. JPK's generosity and his sincerity surprise the reader given his raw ambition, his selfishness, his manipulation of people, his womanizing, and his incompetence as a diplomat. All this was equaled only by his talent as a business man and in the end surpassed by his devotion as a father. On the other hand, Rose comes off rather dry and unappealing, which is a little difficult to believe given that she had nine children.
A disturbing revelation of the book was how high on drugs (usually prescribed) Jack was during his presidency. His awful health mandated pain killers and other drug therapies to allow him to function, but at the same time must have affected his judgment and his ability to work. Given the confrontational character of the Kennedys, one shudders to think of how badly the Cuban crisis could have turned out.
I have two strong criticism of the book. First, not enough space is given to JPK's most important contribution to the United States: he created and established the Securities and Exchange Commission, which gave the USA for decades a virtual monopoly on fair and transparent financial markets. (President Roosevelt apparently responded to critics of this appointment that "it takes a crook to catch a crook".)
Second, in the interest of protecting privacy, the material on the last Kennedy generation should have been left out. The book was published in 1984 when the lost Kennedys were still in their teens and twenties. The authors needlessly (though with sympathy) sensationalized sad stories, at too early a time in those lives to pass any sort of critical judgment.
The most interesting discovery for me was Lem Billings. He basically followed all three generations: best friend to Jack Kennedy, reassuring JPK that his son had someone supporting him outside the family, and surrogate father to some of the young Kennedys after Bobby's assassination until his death in the early 80s. A short book on Billings would be welcome.
I disagree with what BOTH of the reviewers below have written about this book. In my opinion, "The Kennedys" doesn't fairly or unfairly "bash" the Kennedys - it just tells the story of this remarkable New England family as it really was - without the hype, romanticism, or nitpicking that their critics and admirers have done to them over the years. Relying upon extensive interviews (some of which had never been done until Collier and Horowitz did them) this book starts out by telling of the rise to fame and fortune of the "Founding Father", Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969). It was "old Joe" who ruthlessly yet cleverly built the family's vast fortune, and did so by bootlegging whiskey during Prohibition, making early Hollywood films (and having a not-so-secret extramarital affair with the actress Gloria Swanson, which his wife ignored), and other legal and not-so-legal methods. Horowitz and Collier were among the first biographers of the Kennedy family to point out Joe's almost-complete domination of his male children, and his relentless pressure on them to excel, to "win" at everything they did, even if it was just a "friendly" sailboat race. The Kennedys were never supposed to lose at anything, and Joe made his large family into a kind of tribal, "us-against-them" clan with its' own rules and traditions. The middle section of the book follows the Kennedy boys as they attempt to fulfill their father's expections. Some encounter tragedy, such as the family's "golden boy" Joe, Jr. who was killed in a suicidal mission over England in World War Two. JFK and Bobby then enter politics and the familiar "Camelot" story is exposed as the sometimes-successful, sometimes-not affair that it really was. The final section of the book generated the most controversy, yet this third section may be among the most poignant and devastating pages ever written on the Kennedys or the American obsession with "success". This section focuses on the latest generation of Kennedys - the children and grandchildren of Joe, JFK, Bobby, and Teddy. Over their parent's strong objections, Horowitz and Collier did interviews with many of these "survivors" of the terrible tragedies which had befallen their fathers and uncles. What they found was that the third generation of the Kennedy dynasty had been left leaderless (and parentless) by the older generation's deaths. Some had been in trouble with the law, some were addicted to drugs (such as David, who overdosed on cocaine in a hotel room in 1984, not long before this book was published). Collier and Horowitz paint a devastating portrait of young men and women who go through the motions of being "good Kennedys" but who have grown tired of living in a glass house and are both bemused and cynical of the family "business" (politics) that they are expected to take part in. Several of these people are running for political office next year (2002), or will be in the next few years, and although many years have passed since the book was released, the stories in this final section should give any voter concerns about electing anymore Kennedys into public office. Collier and Horowitz are especially effective in showing how the actions of one generation haunted the younger generation which followed them. As one of the younger Kennedys the authors interviewed in 1983 told them: "I keep asking myself what was it in my grandfather that made him push the family so hard and cause us all such tragedy"? Far from being a "hatchet job" on the Kennedys or a sappy, admiring biography such as Doris Kearns Goodwins "The Kennedys: An American Saga", this book by Collier and Horowitz tells the story of our greatest political dynasty as it really was, with no blinders, rose-colored glasses, or fairy tales. An excellent, thought-provoking book.
One of the first things you will see are family-trees at the beginning of every part, where you can see all the members of the family, their children and their birth- and deathdates. Unfortunately for the Kennedy family many died prematurely, as is well recognized.
Most Kennedy books will be focused on John F and his brother Robert F who were both shot. But in this book they still play main parts, but not the only ones. The book starts when the Kennedy's, and Fitzgeralds, came to America and how they quickly rose in first Boston and later American society, even though they had one big disadvantage; they were Irish.
JFK's grandfather Honey Fitz became mayor of Boston by using the Irish vote. Joe Kennedy Sr. started out selling newspapers but was soon a movie producer, even having an alleged affair with movie star Gloria Swanson, something his sons would later copy with Marylin Monroe of course.
Then came the biggest move in Joe Kennedy's life; he became Ambassador in England under Roosevelt, with whom he had a somewhat strained relationship. He would ever since be referred to as the Ambassador, even in his own family.
Collier and Horowitz make it clear that the Ambassador is the most important member of the Kennedy family and that every child's actions are in some way related to him. The story is sometimes a little TV-movie sentimental, but whould would you do if you lose 4 children when you are still alive. The oldest son Joe dies in a WWII plane crash, his oldest daughter marries but loses her noble husband soon and dies herself in a plane crash a few months later.
And of course there are the deaths of JFK and RFK.
It's certainly not a hagiography telling how great the Kennedy's were. Old Joe Kennedy is sometimes shown as a towering figure who completely dominated his family's life until his stroke. JFK got his last rites twice and was often very sick with pain in his back and Addisson's desease. His medication is mentioned in the book and also are his numorous flings with women in the White House, his own house, even Airforce One. RFK seems to have been the most moral person and I believe the authors feel that way too. They explain his religion, his fight against organized crime and Jimmy Hoffa and also his meetings with minorities all over the world. He seemed to have had the Kennedy promise even more than his brother Jack or later Ted.
The last part of the book is devoted to the next generation who cannot seem to deal with their heritage and often get into trouble, it seems as if everyone in the family is doing drugs, the last Kennedy death in the old edition, even loses his life because of it.
It's a gripping story that sometimes reads like a novel. I think it gave a balanced story of the family with the good but also the bad, which made them even more human. It's a lot clearer now why the family was so loved and hated at the same time.
A must-read for Kennedy-admirer and Kennedy-hater alike.
Rhonda C. Elsaesser
An excellent account of the Kennedys from the beginnings up to 1984, when the book was written. This book gives you a blow-by-blow history of the family and the kids. I found it most interesting learning about the little known real story of Camelot. There has been so much written about the Kennedys but the authors did some serious research and told some never before written stories, such as the JFK's back problems and Rosemary's retardation, also stories about the Kennedy kids and their drug problems. Quite informative and thorough, this book is excellent history.
This was an amazing account of the Kennedy family, including first-hand knowlege of personalities and events from those closest to them.
If you are 30 or younger this is a must-read to find out the story your parents didn't tell you.