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 (7 page)

BOOK: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963
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More puzzling medical problems punctuated Jack’s second year at Choate. In January and February 1933, “flu-like symptoms” plagued him, as well as almost constant pain in his knees. “Jack’s winter term sounded like a hospital report,” a fiftieth-anniversary remembrance of his attendance at the school recounted, “with correspondence flying back and forth between Rose Kennedy and Clara St. John [the headmaster’s wife]. Again, eyes, ears, teeth, knees, arches, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes, Jack needed attention.” X rays showed no pathology in his knees, and so his doctor attributed his difficulties to growing pains and recommended exercises and “built-up” shoes.

Matters got worse the following year. Over the summer of 1933, after he had turned sixteen, he gained no weight. It precluded him from playing football, but more important, it stimulated fresh concerns about his health, which now went into a sharp decline in January and February 1934. “We are still puzzled as to the cause of Jack’s trouble,” Clara St. John wrote Rose early in February. “He didn’t look at all well when he came back after Christmas, but apparently had improved steadily since then.” But at the end of January he became very sick and had to be rushed by ambulance to New Haven Hospital for observation. Mrs. St. John told Jack: “I hope with all my heart that the doctors will find out in the shortest possible order what is making the trouble, and will clear it out of the way even quicker than that.” His symptoms were a bad case of hives and weight loss; but the doctors now feared that he had life-threatening leukemia and began taking regular blood counts. “It seems that I was much sicker than I thought I was,” Jack wrote classmate LeMoyne Billings after he got out of the hospital, “and am supposed to be dead, so I am developing a limp and a hollow cough.” He complained that his rectum was “plenty red after the hospital. Yours would be red too if you had shoved every thing from rubber tubes to iron pipes up it. When I crap I don’t even feel it because it’s so big.” By March, Jack’s symptoms had largely disappeared, but his doctors remained uncertain about the cause of his difficulties.

In addition to his illnesses, Jack now struggled with normal adolescent problems about identity and sexuality, as well as having to live in the shadow of a highly successful and favored elder brother. By the time Jack arrived at Choate, Joe Jr. had established himself as, in the words of the headmaster’s wife, “one of the ‘big boys’ of the school on whom we are going to depend.” Rose had already signaled George St. John, the headmaster, that Jack was not Joe Jr.—unlike Joe Jr., Jack did not acclimate easily to either academic or social regimens. Mindful of their concern, the headmaster told Joe, “Jack sits at a nearby table in the Dining Hall where I look him in the eye three times a day, and he is fine.”

But Joe Jr.’s success on the playing fields and in the classroom took its toll on Jack. A tall, skinny boy of fourteen, whom his classmates called Rat Face because of his thin, narrow visage, Jack was too slight to gain distinction in athletics, which he badly wanted. When his brother won the school’s coveted Harvard Trophy at his graduation in 1933, an award to the student who best combined scholarship and sportsmanship, it confirmed in Jack the feeling that he could never win the degree of approval his parents—and, it seemed, everyone else—lavished on his elder brother. Jack told Billings that he believed he was as intelligent as his brother, and probably even as good an athlete, but he had little confidence that his family would ever see him as surpassing Joe Jr.

In addition to feeling too much in his brother’s shadow, Jack wrestled with the strains of uncommonly high parental expectations, pressures to live up to “Kennedy standards,” to stand out not just from the crowd but from the best of the best. The overt message, especially from his father, was “second best will never do.” Whether in athletics, academics, or social standing, there was an insistent demand that the Kennedy children, especially the boys, reach the top rung. The lesson Jack now learned was that privilege had its advantages and pleasures, but it also had its demands and drawbacks. As one Kennedy family biographer said: “[Joe] stressed to his children the importance of winning at any cost and the pleasures of coming in first. As his own heroes were not poets or artists but men of action, he took it for granted that his children too wanted public success. . . . All too often, his understanding about their desires . . . were fruits of
experience and
dreams, not necessarily theirs.”

Joe Jr., with a robust constitution, a temperament much like his father’s, and a readiness to follow his lead, was Joe’s favorite. Yet despite this and whatever Jack’s antagonism toward Joe, an understanding that his father would do anything for him, that his overpowering dad was motivated by an intense desire to ensure his well-being, established surpassing lifelong ties of affection. Jack also identified with Joe’s iconoclasm, with his talent for seeing opportunities conventional businessmen missed, making independent judgments at variance with prevailing wisdom, and setting social standards that ignored accepted rules for married life.

For all the love and attention he lavished on his second son, Joe resented the many medical problems that plagued Jack’s early life. “Jack was sick all the time,” one of his friends recalled, “and the old man could be an asshole around his kids.” In the late 1940s, during a visit to the Kennedys’ Palm Beach, Florida, home, the friend, Jack, and a date bade Joe good night before going out to a movie. Joe snidely told Jack’s girlfriend: “Why don’t you get a live one?” Angered by the unkind reference to Jack’s poor health, afterward the friend made a disparaging remark about Joe. But Jack defended his father: “Everybody wants to knock his jock off,” he said, “but he made the whole thing possible.”

It was typical of Jack to see the best in people and outwardly not take umbrage at Joe’s occasional hostility toward him for his physical limitations. But Joe’s hectoring did make Jack wonder whether the pressure was worth the many privileges his father’s wealth and status conferred on him. “We all have our fathers,” Jack said resignedly to a friend complaining about his parent. At a minimum, Joe’s allusion to Jack’s health problems struck a painful chord. Jack was self-conscious about his physical problems and worked hard to overcome and ignore them. One friend said, “[Jack’s] very frame as a light, thin person, his proneness to injury of all kinds, his back, his sickness, which he wouldn’t ever talk about . . . he was heartily ashamed of them, they were a mark of effeminacy, of weakness, which he wouldn’t acknowledge.” When this friend upbraided Jack for being too concerned about improving his appearance by getting a tan, Jack replied, “Well, . . . it’s not only that I want to look that way, but it makes me feel that way. It gives me confidence, it makes me feel healthy. It makes me feel strong, healthy, attractive.”

Within sharply delineated bounds, Jack rebelled against school and, indirectly, parental authority at Choate. His schoolwork continued to be uneven—strong in English and history, in which he had substantial interest, and mediocre at best in languages, which required the sort of routine discipline he found difficult to maintain. His low grades in Latin and French compelled him to attend summer session in 1932, at the end of his freshman year. Rose later remarked on how concerned they were about Jack’s health during his Choate years. But “what concerned us as much or more was his lack of diligence in his studies; or, let us say, lack of ‘fight’ in trying to do well in those subjects that didn’t happen to interest him. . . . Choate had a highly ‘structured’ set of rules, traditions, and expectations into which a boy was supposed to fit; and if he didn’t, there was little or no ‘permissiveness.’ Joe Jr. had no trouble at all operating within this system; it suited his temperament. But Jack couldn’t or wouldn’t conform. He did pretty much what he wanted, rather than what the school wanted of him.”

During his years at Choate, Jack remained more interested in contemporary affairs than in his classes. But although he “conspicuously failed to open his schoolbooks,” Choate’s headmaster recalled, he “was the best informed boy of his year.” One classmate remembered that Jack was able to answer between 50 and 60 percent of the questions on the popular radio quiz show
Information, Please,
while he himself could only get about 10 percent of them right. Jack’s limited grasp of the Great Depression suggests that he did not have much interest in economic affairs, but he became a regular subscriber to the
New York Times,
reading it, or at least glancing at it, every morning. He also began a lifelong fascination with the writings of Winston Churchill.

Although Jack’s academic work was good enough in his junior and senior years to allow him to graduate in the middle of his class, and although he enjoyed considerable popularity among his peers, winning designation from his senior classmates as the “most likely to succeed,” he still refused to fit in. “I’d like to take the responsibility for Jack’s constant lack of neatness about his room and person, since he lived with me for two years,” Jack’s housemaster wrote. “But in the matter of neatness . . . I must confess to failure.” Jack’s sloppiness was seen as symbolic of his disorderliness “in almost all of his organization projects. Jack studies at the last minute, keeps appointments late, has little sense of material value, and can seldom locate his possessions.”

In November 1933, Joe Sr. wrote George St. John: “I can’t tell you how unhappy I was in seeing and talking with Jack. He seems to lack entirely a sense of responsibility. His happy-go-lucky manner with a degree of indifference does not portend well for his future development.” Joe urged his eldest son to help in any way he could to encourage Jack’s commitment to his work. Joe worried that Jack might end up as a ne’er-do-well son ruined by an indulged childhood. “We have possibly contributed as much as anybody in spoiling him by having secretaries and maids following him to see that he does what he should do,” Joe told Choate’s assistant headmaster.

In his final year at Choate, Jack pushed the school’s rules to the limit. Organizing a Muckers Club, the headmaster’s term for Choate boys who defied the rules and did not meet their obligations to the school, Jack and several of his friends aimed to “put over festivities in our own little way and to buck the system more effectively.”

LeMoyne Billings and Ralph (Rip) Horton, Jack’s two closest friends, were “co-conspirators” in the “rebellion.” Jack and Billings had a natural affinity for each other. Both had more successful elder brothers who had set seemingly insurmountable standards at Choate for their younger siblings. Like Jack, Lem loved practical jokes and was irreverent about the school’s many rules regulating their daily lives. Billings, the son of a Pittsburgh physician, and Horton, the child of a wealthy New York dairy business family, deferred to Jack, who enjoyed higher social standing and, like his father, insisted on being the leader.

Although the Muckers represented no more than a small rebellion on Jack’s part, in the cloistered atmosphere of a rural private school, where such defiance took on a larger meaning, St. John responded angrily. He “let loose“ at the thirteen club members in chapel, naming names and denouncing their corruption of the school’s morals and integrity. Privately, he described the Muckers as “a colossally selfish, pleasure loving, unperceptive group—in general opposed to the hardworking, solid people in the school, whether masters or boys.” He wired Joe Kennedy to come “for a conference with Jack and us which we think a necessity.” Choate English teacher Harold Tinker later admitted that St. John enjoyed the thought of humiliating Jack’s father: St. John was anti-Catholic—something he made quite clear at faculty meetings—and “resented having Catholics at his school,” especially any related to someone as rich and prominent as Joe Kennedy. But St. John also understood that the well-being of the school partly depended on giving no overt expression to his bias. Though Jack had no evidence that the headmaster would act on his anti-Catholicism, he nevertheless feared that St. John might expel him and destroy whatever approval he still enjoyed from his parents. The episode, however, blew over when Jack promised to disband the club and take his punishment of a delayed Easter vacation.

In acting as he had, Jack played out several impulses that dominated his early life. He tested the rules so boldly at Choate because he believed he could get away with it. As the son of a wealthy and prominent family—Joe had become the chairman of Franklin Roosevelt’s Securities and Exchange Commission in the summer of 1934—Jack felt some invulnerability to St. John’s strictures. But he also understood that the limits to what St. John would allow might be influenced by Jack’s own powers to ingratiate himself with both his elders and his peers. He was very well liked by most of the other boys at the school, as their willingness to vote him most likely to succeed demonstrates. St. John himself readily acknowledged that Jack had a winning way that endeared him to most everyone: “In any school he would have got away with some things, just on his smile. He was a very likeable person, very lovable.” Writing Joe in November 1933, St. John concluded that “the longer I live and work with him and the more I talk with him, the more confidence I have in him. I would be willing to bet anything that within two years you will be as proud of Jack as you are now of Joe.” In another letter that month, St. John went so far as to declare: “I never saw a boy with as many fine qualities as Jack has, that didn’t come out right . . . in the end.” The following February, during a health crisis Jack weathered, St. John told Joe, “Jack is one of the best people that ever lived—one of the most able and interesting. I could go on about Jack!” He may not have liked Catholics, but he certainly liked this Catholic, a testament to Jack’s remarkable charm.

In his limited rebellion at Choate, Jack was also playing out a trait Joe Sr. had consciously worked to instill in his children. Joe was not entirely blind to the fact that he was an overbearing, demanding, insistent character who dominated almost everyone and everything he touched. Because he sensed how destructive this could be to his offspring, especially the boys, he made a point of encouraging a measure of independence and even irreverence. Visitors to the Kennedy home who watched Joe’s interactions with Joe Jr. and Jack remembered how he would push them to argue their own point of view, make up their own minds, and never slavishly follow accepted wisdom. Lem Billings recalled that mealtime conversations at the Kennedys’ never consisted of small talk. Joe Sr. “never lectured. He would encourage them [the children] completely to disagree with him, and of course they did disagree with him. Mr. Kennedy is, I’d say, far right of his children, and yet he certainly didn’t try to influence them that way.”

BOOK: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963
13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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