JFK: RECKLESS YOUTH Nigel Hamilton. Random House. 976 pages. $30. He has had hagiographers aplenty, pals and sycophants. Revisionists, debunkers and cynics have sat in judgment. Finally, after 29 years of fevered and fruitless speculation about his death, John F. Kennedy has a biographer.
Nigel Hamilton, as ambitious as any Kennedy, decided that "no one had ever written a complete life, in the English tradition." That tradition includes Mr. Hamilton's three-volume biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Monty's life was compelling, but tame compared to the Kennedy melodrama, an endless miniseries that has kept casting agents working double shifts.
"The English tradition" is a literary metaphor for a Woodward-Bernstein investigative sweep of letters, school transcripts, books, newspapers and magazines, archives and LTC oral history projects, all funneled into a narrative that neither demonizes nor sanctifies its subject.
To assess the first 29 years of Kennedy's life, Mr. Hamilton had to confront a major myth. For 50 years, as societal tensions defined other American families as dysfunctional, the Kennedy legend was marketed as the embodiment of family. Large and loyal, loving and laughing, this gang of handsome siblings seemed secure, united by a deep religious faith and strong parental devotion, plus millions of dollars. Kennedyland, a theme park of family values, has flourished in the American imagination; Mr. Hamilton has dismantled it.
The matriarch, now in her second century, has survived four of her nine children who died violently, tragically, even heroically. But Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy gets no slack. Her "reaction to her husband's infidelity had been to throw herself into social activities and treat her progeny as a management exercise," Mr. Hamilton writes. Cataloging her ocean voyages during Jack's medical crises at boarding school, he accuses her of neglect: "She had ventured abroad 17 times in four years, but could not manage a journey to Connecticut, where Jack lay in the hospital a further month."
He concludes: "Rose Kennedy was a cold, unmotherly and distant woman whose main contribution to Jack's character was his strangely split psyche, leaving him emotionally crippled in his relations with women: a young man who disliked people embracing him, who showered compulsively -- often five times a day -- and yet perpetually craved the most symbolic and intimate of all touching: sexual union."
The mother, however, is a secondary target. If Mr. Hamilton is Ahab, Joseph P. Kennedy is his great white obsession. The charges of "coward . . . appeaser . . . adulterer . . . swindler . . . anti-Semite" all have been hurled before at the man Franklin D. Roosevelt chose as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and ambassador to Britain. But Mr. Hamilton bundles them into a monstrous portrait, a Bram Stoker gargoyle.
"There was indeed something weird about a man who took New York harlots home to Hyannis Port when Rose was away, yet would retain private detectives to spy on his daughters," he writes. Kennedy's private and public morality blended in "shame" at the Court of St. James's, Mr. Hamilton charges. "His own lack of moral fiber blinded him to the futility of trying to do a deal with Hitler," the author writes. "As he had once contributed to the downfall of the New York stock market in the Great Crash of 1929, so now Kennedy was contributing to the downfall of the democracies in Europe." All of them?
Joe Kennedy dominates this book the way he dominated his children's lives, with much focus upon the U.S. envoy's support of Neville Chamberlain over Winston Churchill in 1939. Joe Kennedy let England down and Nigel Hamilton will not let him up.
Since the author acknowledges that he is also the son of a powerful father (Denis Hamilton was chairman of Reuters and editor of the Times of London), it is fair to suggest that this volume owes as much to a Viennese tradition as to the English. Psychological snap judgments abound, and the "skein of liaisons dangereuses" that marks the subject's youth is nearly always paternally inspired. Mr. Hamilton gives Jack Kennedy little blame -- or credit -- for his own behavior.
This first volume, thoroughly documented from his letters, is more of a sexual biography of JFK than an intellectual one. The most priapic preppy on the East Coast went to California, looking forward to a "layin L.A." The horniest of Harvard freshmen signed off as "Stout-hearted Kennedy, despoiler of women."
Another English-tradition burden is the book's emphasis on prep-school appraisals, like one from a Choate house-master: "Jack has a pleasing personality, and is warmly received by all the boys in the house, but rules bother him a bit." Rose agreed: "Jack has no discretion; in fact he has never eaten enough vegetables to satisfy me."
If Kennedy's role in history were left to peers and pedagogues, there would be no major biography. A rare favorable notice came from Josephine Fulton, the wife of the Winthrop House janitor at Harvard, the first to speak for the millions of voters who admired Kennedy's intellect: "Always his hands full of books, going, going, going, and I'd holler to him 'Where's your hat?' That was the thing: coming down the street, no hat on him, and snow."
During his research, Mr. Hamilton was John F. Kennedy Scholar and Visiting Professor at the John W. McCormack Institute, part of the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He was close to the Kennedy Library, where he encountered the resistance that many scholars find at presidential libraries.
The privacy that a presidential family seeks is buttressed by the rules donors insist upon before donating papers. The most revealing passage in this book comes from the children of JFK's friends, K. LeMoyne Billings and Inga Arvad. If the next generation had not been so cooperative, this book would be slimmer and less satisfying.
By no means an official biography, the book's 66 pages of footnotes are as beguiling as the main text. Steering between political puff and prurient pulp, its revelations make it sensational in every sense of the word and, on every page, utterly fascinating. If, after his diary was posthumously published, H. L. Mencken could be exhumed and arraigned for using the bigoted patois common in the 1930s, the same fate may await Kennedy. He signed a letter to Billings: "your nigger, Jack," and at 13 "boasted to his father in the anti-Semitic tone of the school" about a purchase: "Have jewed sled down to $3."
Mr. Hamilton has set the standard for clear, cold-eyed appraisal (with the occasional Freudian astigmatism). His effort will make readers hope he is planning a similar examination of Bill Clinton. If not, Millard Fillmore will do.