‘The House of Kennedy’ explores the ‘curse’ surrounding one of America’s most notorious political families
Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, ride up Broadway in a ticker-tape parade.(Frank Hurley/New York Daily News)
They were rich, famous, charismatic and cursed.
That’s certainly one take on the Kennedys, a political dynasty going back more than a century. But “The House of Kennedy,” a multi-generational history by James Patterson and Cynthia Fagen, has a subtler explanation.
Maybe it wasn’t always fate that felled them. Perhaps, sometimes, it was their pride.
The real story begins with Joe Kennedy, born in 1888. His grandfather, the first Kennedy to arrive in America, died poor in 1858. But his son, Patrick, had become a state legislator. And his son was Joe, who went onto Harvard, then returned to wed Rose Fitzgerald, the sheltered daughter of a Boston mayor.
Joe prospered in banking and on Wall Street. Eager to get closer to the action, in 1927, he moved his growing family to Riverdale, then Bronxville.
Joe’s ambition was expanding even faster than his brood. He started producing movies, too. He also started seducing actresses, beginning a lengthy affair with Gloria Swanson. In the bedroom, she said, the flinty financier turned into a tiger.
“He stroked my body and pulled at my kimono,” Swanson wrote about their first time. “He kept insisting in a drawn-out moan, ‘No longer, no longer. Now.’ He was like a roped horse, rough, arduous, racing to be free.”
Generations of Kennedy men would follow in his philandering footsteps. In turn, generations of Kennedy women would copy Rose’s strategy: Ignore it.
By 1938, Kennedy was in politics, ambassador to Great Britain. But Joe Kennedy and diplomacy were strangers. He urged appeasing Hitler, saying nothing in Europe was “worth shedding blood for.” If Jews were being persecuted, he said, “They brought it on themselves.”
Once the war started, Kennedy’s political future ended. He focused his dreams on his eldest son, handsome, hearty Joe Jr.
Privately, the son shared his father’s anti-Semitism. But he didn’t share his isolationism and enlisted in the Navy Air Corps. Sent to Europe, Lt. Joseph Kennedy Jr. served with distinction, but also recklessness. “There was never a mission that meant extra hazard that he did not volunteer for,” his squadron roommate remembered.
He seemed to be tempting fate. And on Aug. 12, 1944, he lost that bet, as his faulty plane exploded in mid-air.
It was a hard blow for the family, and naturally, it would not be the first — even for that decade.
First, in 1941, worried that his lively but cognitively delayed daughter Rosemary might become an easy target for seducers, Kennedy agreed to experimental surgery. He had the 22-year-old lobotomized. She remained institutionalized for the rest of her life.
Then, in 1948, high-spirited Kathleen, her father’s favorite, flew to London with her married lover. The pilot warned them the weather made it risky. The couple insisted. The plane crashed in the Alps, leaving no survivors.
Another Kennedy almost died in 1943, when the Japanese sunk Lt. John F. Kennedy’s boat. Kennedy, though, not only survived, he emerged as a war hero. And, after Joe Jr’s death, became his father’s new political hope.
“It was like being drafted,” he confided later.
JFK won election to Congress in 1946, to the Senate in 1952. Although he married the elegant Jacqueline Bouvier the next year, he still lived life as a bachelor, bedding every woman he could. That was just the way Kennedy husbands were.
As he later assured baby brother Ted, on his wedding day: “Being married doesn’t mean you have to be faithful.”
Jack’s election to the presidency gave his father the prize he had long pursued, but the old man didn’t have time to brag. In 1961, he had a stroke, leaving him essentially mute.
Two years later, another tragedy struck in Dallas.
Advisers had told the president it was an unfriendly city. He went ahead anyway. They said he shouldn’t ride in a convertible. He should have extra Secret Service men on the running boards. He said no, he wanted everybody to see his pretty wife.
After Jack’s assassination, it was left to the remaining sons to fulfill their father’s dream.
Bobby was the first to try. He had a reputation for vindictiveness, living by the Kennedy motto, "Don't get mad, get even." But his brother's death changed him. He moved to New York, won a seat in the Senate, and began railing against poverty and the Vietnam War.
It would not be Kennedy cockiness that took him down, but his own empathy. Rushing through a hotel kitchen after a campaign speech, he paused to shake a busboy’s hand. That was all the time his assassin needed.
The mantle now passed to the last of the boys, long considered the least.
Ted Kennedy had left Harvard after being caught cheating in his freshman year, and although he was later readmitted, the stigma lingered. Still, he won election to the Senate in 1962, and after Bobby was killed, became the family’s standard-bearer.
Then, in 1969, he drove his Oldsmobile off a bridge in Massachusetts.
Ted swam to shore, and walked away. Later, he called his lawyer. When police recovered the car the next day, Mary Jo Kopechne’s body still in it.
“This is the fall of the House of Kennedy,” an LBJ confidante predicted.
But Kennedy’s slap on the wrist was two months, suspended, for leaving the scene of an accident. Massachusetts re-elected him to the Senate the next year and kept reelecting him until he died in 2009, although his national reputation was forever damaged.
After, the Kennedy family seemed to court scandals more than tragedies. A new generation of Kennedy boys, many from Bobby’s wild brood, started showing up in the gossip pages.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was convicted of heroin possession in 1983 but later completed rehab. His brother David fatally overdosed in 1984. Michael Kennedy was accused of sleeping with an underage babysitter; he was still being investigated when he died in a skiing accident in 1997.
There was still one more Kennedy tragedy to come, however, and it might have been the most heartbreaking.
Thanks to Jackie, Caroline, and John F. Kennedy Jr. had grown up into healthy, happy adults. True, John was no scholar and changed girlfriends with the frequency that came with the Kennedy name. He dated Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna and many others.
By his 30s, though, John found direction. He launched a magazine, George. And he married a chic fashion executive, Carolyn Bessette. Although the union was rocky, on July 16, 1999, he decided to fly them to a cousin’s wedding in Hyannis Port.
Never mind that he had recently broken his ankle. Never mind that he was taking painkillers. Never mind that the weather was bad. He was confident and in a hurry.
Just as his great-uncle Joe had been. Just as his great-aunt Kathleen had been.
And just like theirs, his plane went down, killing all aboard. He was 38.
The world was stunned by the loss of another dashing Kennedy. Was he another victim of “the Kennedy curse”? Or just another macho Kennedy man falling prey to his pride?
The family’s many fans, and critics, can debate that endlessly. What’s less arguable is with John’s death, only Caroline remains as the link to the Camelot days of Jack and Jackie.