Read An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 Online

Authors: Robert Dallek

Tags: #BIO011000, #Presidents & Heads of State, #Presidents, #20th Century, #Men, #Political, #Presidents - United States, #United States, #Historical, #Biography & Autobiography, #Kennedy; John F, #Biography, #History

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 (3 page)

BOOK: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963
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his political and business successes with marriage to his second cousin, Mary Josephine Hannon, or Josie, as intimates called her. They had met first in Acton at the Hannons’ farm in September 1878, when Fitzgerald was fifteen and Josie thirteen. As he remembered it, he immediately fell in love with the beautiful girl to whom he would be married for sixty-two years, but Fitzgerald had to wait eleven years before Josie’s family put aside their concerns about the consequences of having Josie marry a blood relative, however distant. The union produced six children, three sons and three daughters.

The eldest of the Fitzgerald children, Rose Elizabeth, was Fitz’s favorite. Praying for a daughter who might fulfill his dreams of winning acceptance into polite society, Honey Fitz envisioned Rose’s life as a storybook tale of proper upbringing and social acclaim. As Rose later viewed it, her father succeeded: “There have been times when I felt I was one of the more fortunate people in the world, almost as if Providence, or Fate, or Destiny, as you like, had chosen me for special favors.”

From her birth in the summer of 1890, she led a privileged life. When Rose was seven, Fitz and Josie moved the family to the Boston suburb of West Concord, where Rose remembers “a big, old rambling . . . wonderfully comfortable house” and the traditional pleasures and satisfactions of life in a small New England town: “serenity, order, family affection, horse-and-buggy rides to my grandparents’ nearby home, climbing apple trees, picking wild flowers.” There was the excitement of a father coming home on weekends from Washington, where, in Rose’s limited understanding, he was something called a “congressman” doing important things. Whatever her sadness at his frequent absences, she remembered “the absolute thrill” of driving to the Concord train station to meet him and his affectionate greeting, with “a wonderful present” always pulled from his bags. She also recalled a trip to the White House at age seven with her father, where President William McKinley warmly greeted them and gave her a carnation. “There was no one in the world like my father,” she said. “Wherever he was, there was magic in the air.” There were also the memories of the matched pair of beautiful black horses that pulled the family carriage and of her own rig that at twelve she began driving to the Concord library to borrow books.

There were also the summers in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where Boston’s prominent Irish families would seek the pleasure of one another’s company and relief from the heat. A beachfront crowded with hotels, cottages, and gregarious folks strolling, sunning themselves, swimming, fishing, shopping, playing cards, and eating together in the Brunswick Hotel’s huge dining room, Old Orchard was described as “the typical watering place for those who detest the name of solitude.” Rose remembered the joy of playing with other children and being surrounded by relatives and family friends who “visited back and forth constantly.”

In 1904, having grown affluent on the returns from
The Republic,
the Fitzgeralds moved to suburban Dorchester, where their growing family of three girls and two boys lived in a sprawling fifteen-room house with a “scrollwork porch, mansard turret, and stained-glass insert in the front door portraying what Fitzie insisted was the family’s coat of arms.” Rose attended the Dorchester High School for Girls and, like her proper Bostonian Beacon Hill counterparts, rounded out her education with private lessons in French, dancing, piano, and voice.

Dorchester’s remove from the center of Boston allowed Fitz to insulate Rose and the family from the rough-and-tumble politics of his 1905 mayoral campaign. Though now fifteen, Rose had only “a hazy idea of what was happening.” This was a good thing, for it was a contest with much name-calling and ugly innuendoes about her father’s private life and public dealings that would have offended any loving daughter, especially one as starry-eyed as Rose.

Rose’s sheltered life extended into her twenties. At seventeen, as the mayor’s vivacious, intelligent daughter, Rose had become something of a Boston celebrity, in attendance at “all manner of political and social events.” Wellesley was an ideal college choice for so talented and prominent a young woman: It represented the chance to enter an exciting universe of intellectual and political discourse in the country’s finest women’s college. But believing her too young and impressionable, Fitz enrolled her in an elite Catholic school, Boston’s Convent of the Sacred Heart, where she received instruction in deportment and feminine virtues promising to make her a model wife and mother.

At the close of Rose’s year in Sacred Heart, the Fitzgeralds took their two eldest daughters on a grand European tour. Ostensibly, it was to broaden the girls’ education. But Fitz, who had lost a reelection bid as mayor in 1907 and was under suspicion of lining his pockets during his two-year term, saw the summer trip as a chance to shield Rose and her sister Agnes from press coverage of his wrongdoing. To keep them away from the unpleasant public gossip and discourage a budding romance with Joseph Patrick Kennedy, P.J.’s son, the child of a family with less social standing, Fitz also decided to enroll Rose and Agnes for the 1908-09 academic year in a Sacred Heart convent school in Holland. Attended mainly by the daughters of French and German aristocrats and well-off merchant families, it was a more cosmopolitan version of its Boston counterpart.

After coming home in the summer of 1909, Rose took refuge from the political wars with another year of schooling at the Sacred Heart Convent in Manhattanville, New York. At the close of that year, she returned to Boston ready to assume a large role in her father’s second term, which ran from 1910 to 1912. With two small children to care for and little patience for the duties of a political first lady, Josie left the part to Rose, who filled it with a style and grace reflecting her advantaged upbringing and education. She became Honey Fitz’s constant “hostess-companion-helper,” traveling with him to Chicago and Kansas on city business, to the Panama Canal to consider its effect on Boston’s future as an international trade center, to western Europe to advance Boston’s commerce with its principal cities, to meet President William Howard Taft at the White House, and to attend the 1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore that nominated New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson for president. As one biographer records: “Fitzgerald delighted in the good looks of his daughter, in her intelligence, her presence of mind and superb social skills. . . . She proved to be her father’s equal in conversation, curiosity, dancing, athletic ability and powers of endurance and even in the capacity for fascinating reporters,” who gave her front-page coverage in Boston’s newspapers.

Nothing more clearly marked Rose as a local leading light than her coming-out party in January 1911. The state’s most prominent figures were counted among the 450 guests in attendance. Even the normal social barriers between Protestants and Catholics fell away for the occasion: Massachusetts’ governor-elect, two congressmen, Boston’s district attorney and city councilmen—who declared the day a holiday—rubbed shoulders with wealthy and fashionable bankers, businessmen, attorneys, physicians, and clergymen.

By the conventions of the time, Rose’s debut at age twenty was a prelude to courtship and marriage. She certainly did not lack for suitors, but by accepted standards, they did not include Protestants. The “mistrust” and “resentment” between Boston’s Brahmins and its Irish Catholics caused them to have “as little as possible to do with each other.” And even though her father had fostered better relations by joining with Brahmin James Jackson Storrow to establish the Boston City Club, a place where both sides could meet in “a neutral and socially relaxed atmosphere,” Rose saw the divide as “one of those elementary facts of life not worth puzzling about.” Besides, there were enough eligible Catholic men who could measure up to her status, including, she believed, P.J.’s son, Joe, whom she had known almost her entire life and who impressed her—if not her own father—as a most desirable mate.

Joe, like Rose, had no sense of inhibition about reaching the highest rungs of the country’s economic and social ladders. His parents and their families had gained material comforts and social standing that had put them in the upper reaches of the American middle class. And like the business titans of the late-nineteenth century—Diamond Jim Brady, Andrew Carnegie, Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller—whose backgrounds and middle-class beginnings had acted as no bar to their acquisition of vast wealth and international fame, Joe Kennedy could entertain similar dreams.

Born in 1888, Joe grew up in an era when America’s greatest heroes were daring entrepreneurs who not only enriched themselves but greatly expanded the national wealth by creating the infrastructure of an industrial society—steel, cheap energy, railroads, and financial instruments to grow the economy. Never mind that many were left behind in the rush to affluence: The social Darwinian code of the time, by which Joe was guided throughout his life, gave legitimacy to the view that the innately talented and virtuous succeeded while the less deserving made only modest gains or fell by the wayside. It was the natural order of things, and no sense of injustice need attach to wide gaps between the richest and poorest Americans. Of course, there was nothing against the fortunate sharing some of their largesse with needy Americans; indeed, the most well off were obliged to help the least advantaged. But to impute any inhibition on the accumulation of wealth from this obligation was never a part of Joe’s outlook or that of other contemporary self-made men. As a boy, Joe had an oak bookcase stacked with the works of Horatio Alger Jr., which one of his sisters said he read avidly. Although Alger’s stories were more attuned to the world of a rural pre-Civil War America, his rags-to-riches theme held a constant appeal to ambitious, up-and-about boys and young men like Joe Kennedy. Similarly, “mind power,” or a belief in self-manipulation or success through positive thinking, which began to have a strong hold on the popular imagination at the turn of the century, captivated Joe. As he made his way in the world, Joe never tired of reminding people that anyone with God-given talents could figure out how to succeed; it was largely a matter of will.

As a teenager, Joe had already made clear that he was determined to rise above the ordinary. There were the usual things boys did then to make a little money: sell newspapers on the docks and candy and peanuts to tourists on a harbor excursion boat, light gas lamps and stoves in the homes of Orthodox Jews on holy days, deliver hats for a haberdasher, work as an office boy in his father’s bank. But Joe had an urge to make money in a more inventive way. At the age of fifteen, he organized a neighborhood baseball team, the Assumptions. As the team’s business manager, coach, and first baseman, he bought uniforms, rented a ball field, scheduled the games, and collected enough money from spectators to make a profit. When some of his teammates complained that he was too domineering and that they had no say about anything, Joe made it clear he didn’t care. There could be only one boss, and he would settle for nothing less. Summing up his personal philosophy, Joe told his sister: “If you can’t be captain, don’t play.”

Because she believed that Joe was special, his mother decided to use the family’s social standing and affluence to move her son from East Boston’s Catholic Xaverian School to Boston Latin. It was not unheard-of for aspiring Catholic families to seek and win admission for a son to Boston Latin; Rose’s father had of course been a student there in the 1870s. But when Joe attended the school in September 1901, the redheaded, freckled-faced, muscular thirteen-year-old Irish kid from across the harbor was in a distinct minority among the scions of Beacon Hill and Back Bay families.

It did not stop Joe from making a special mark at the school. Although he never stamped himself out as an especially good student, he excelled in extracurricular activities and athletics, becoming the colonel on a drill team that won a citywide competition, captain of the baseball team, and in his senior year, the player with the city’s highest high school batting average, for which he won the Mayor’s Cup, presented by His Honor John F. Fitzgerald. Admired by his fellow students for his accomplishments on the diamond and for his warm personality and loyalty to his friends, Joe was also elected president of his senior class.

Reflecting the drive and self-help outlook that dominated his thinking, Joe later said that Boston Latin “somehow seemed to make us all feel that if we could stick it out we were made of just a little bit better stuff than the fellows our age who were attending what we always thought were easier schools.” Joe’s self-assurance rested not simply on the cultural milieu in which he grew to manhood but also on the special affection that his parents had showered on him as their only son and that his two sisters gave him as an adored elder brother.

After Boston Latin, in 1908 Joe moved on to Harvard, which, in response to nationwide pressure for more institutional and political democracy and less concentration of wealth and power, was ostensibly committed to diversifying its student body. Yet old habits of social stratification remained as intense as they had been in the nineteenth century. Despite coming from Boston Latin, Joe had no claim on social status at Harvard, where the “golden boys” from the elite private schools such as Groton, St. Mark’s, and St. Paul’s, many of them the sons of millionaires, arrived at the college with servants and lived in luxurious residence halls with private baths, central heating, swimming pools, and squash courts. Joe joined the less affluent majority in drab, poorly heated dormitories with primitive plumbing. Characteristically, he had no sense of fixed inferiority from the sharp divisions he met at the university. Instead, he built a congenial social world on friendships with former Boston Latin classmates and ties to athletes, including some who came from the elite circle closed to someone of Joe’s background. Within limits, Joe gained a measure of acceptability that spoke volumes about his potential for reaching heights not yet scaled by Boston’s Irish. In his sophomore year he and his closest friends became class leaders, serving on the student council, organizing all major class events, and winning entrance into significant clubs such as the Institute of 1770, the Dickey, and Hasty Pudding, which conferred high status on their members. Yet admission to the innermost circle of student standing through membership in the most prestigious clubs, such as Porcellian and AD, was denied him. For such appointments, one’s pedigree still made all the difference.

BOOK: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963
2.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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