Shelf Life

EXCERPT: Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero

Chau Tu Nov 1, 2011

The following is an excerpt from “Jack Kennedy” by Chris Matthews. Copyright © 2011 by Chris Matthews. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY. Listen to an interview with Matthews here.



History made him, this lonely, sick boy. His mother never loved him. History made Jack, this little boy reading history.

–Jacqueline Kennedy, November 29, 1963,

from notes scribbled by Theodore H. White

Certain things come with the territory. Jack Kennedy, born in 1917 in the spring of the next-to-last year of World War I, was the second son of nine children. That’s important to know. The first son is expected to be what the parents are looking for. Realizing that notion early, he becomes their ally. They want him to be like them–or, more accurately and better yet, what they long to be.

Joseph Kennedy, a titan of finance, whose murky early connections helped bring him riches and power but never the fullest respect, had married in 1914, after a seven-year courtship, Rose Fitzgerald. The pious daughter of the colorful Boston mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, she launched their substantial family when, nine months later, she presented her husband with his son and heir, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. For the proud couple, he would be their bridge to both joining and mastering the WASP society from which they, as Roman Catholics in early twentieth-century America, were barred.
Such stand-in status meant, for the young Joe, that he had to accept all the terms and rules put forth by those whose ranks he was expected to enter. The idea was to succeed in exactly the well-rounded manner of the New England Brahmin. Above all, that meant grades good enough to keep up at the right Protestant schools, and an ability to shine at sports as well. In this last instance, there was no doubt about the most desirable benchmark of achievement. The football field was not just where reputations were made and popularity earned, it was where campus legends were born.

Joseph Kennedy’s handsome eldest boy would prove himself equal to the task. Entering Choate, the boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, where he was a student from the age of fourteen to eighteen, he quickly made his mark. A golden youth, he became the headmaster George St. John’s ideal exemplar. Transcending his origins–which meant getting past the prejudices St. John was said to hold for his kind, the social-climbing Irish–Joe Jr., with his perfect body and unquestioning, other-directed mind, seemed to embody the Choate ethos without breaking a sweat.

A second son such as Jack Kennedy, arriving as he did two years later, finds himself faced with that old familiar tough act to follow. And, of course, embedded in the soul of any second male child is this Hobson’s choice: to fail to match what’s gone before guarantees disappointment; to match it guarantees nothing.

You have to be original; it’s the only way to get any attention at all–any good attention, that is.

Jack Kennedy, almost as soon as he got to Choate, quite obviously put himself on notice not to be a carbon copy. He was neither a “junior,” nor would he be a junior edition. He would be nothing like the much-admired Joe, nothing like the Choate ideal. What he brought, instead, was a grace his brother–and Choate itself–lacked. Even as a child of the outrageously wealthy Joseph Kennedy and his lace-curtain wife, Jack soon showed himself well able to see the humor in life. The wit he displayed cut to the heart of situations and added to life an extra dimension. He was fun.

Here, then, is where we begin to catch a glimpse of the young man who would stride decisively up to that convention stage a quarter century later, leaving behind the indelible image. Even though he’s very much still a boy, he’s preternaturally aware of the way life demands roles and resistant to stepping into one preselected for him.
There’s the wonderful irony that comes with those surprises that second sons–Jack Kennedy included–are driven, and also inspired, to produce. Unlike his older brother, bound to a more conventional blueprint, Jack wasn’t under the same pressure. There was a lightness to him, a wry Irishness that blended with the WASP manner rather than aspiring to it. With that combination, he could enter where his father, mother, and brother could not.

What happened to Jack when he got to Choate in the fall of 1931, by then already a victim of persistent ill health, was that, first of all, he had to find himself, and, to a daunting degree, simply survive. His brother Robert–the seventh Kennedy child, younger than JFK by eight years–later said of that period that any mosquito unlucky enough to bite Jack would surely have paid the ultimate price. Jean, his youngest sister, told me it was his bedridden youth that made all the difference. “I remember him being sick. I remember that he read a great deal, and why he was so smart was because during those formative years he was reading when everyone else was playing baseball or football or something like that.”

So it was in the sickbed, it turns out, that he became a passionate reader, thrilling to the bold heroes of Sir Walter Scott and the tales of King Arthur. At Choate, he may have wound up the holder of a title he never trumpeted: the record for most days spent in the school’s Archbold Infirmary.

The appalling reality is that no one–no doctor, nor any of the top-drawer specialists to which his father sent Jack–could tell the Kennedy family or the young patient why he suffered so. He’d had scarlet fever, and his appendix removed, but what continued to plague him was a knot in his stomach that never went away. Frighteningly, too, his blood count was always being tested. Leukemia was one of the grim possibilities that concerned his doctors, and Jack couldn’t avoid hearing the whispers.

What seems clear to me is that, both at home and away, this fourteen-year-old–a big-eared, skinny kid nicknamed “Ratface”–wasn’t marked for anything in particular, as far as his father was concerned. The succession was taken care of. There was only one dukedom.

For Joseph Kennedy, his determination that his kids not be losers counted as a one-rule-fits-all. Nor did Jack seem to be of any particular emotional interest to his mother. Rose Kennedy kept her distance geographically as well as emotionally. Hard as it is to believe, she never once visited Jack at Choate, not even when he was ill and confined to the infirmary. “Gee, you’re a great mother to go away and leave your children alone,” he once told her at age six, as she was preparing for a long trip to California.
Sent away to school, Jack Kennedy was a spirit marooned. Choate, from the first, caused him to feel trapped. Chilly and restrictive, overly organized and tiresomely gung-ho, it was a typical Protestant boarding school based on the classic British model, and as such, more suited to his brother’s nature than his own. Perhaps because he suddenly was more aware of his Catholic identity in that setting, he faithfully went into Wallingford to church on Sunday mornings. At night, he knelt next to his bed to say his Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

However serious were Jack’s fears about his ultimate medical prognosis, he kept them to himself. There was no one yet in whom to confide his secrets. What he really needed to figure out for himself was a way to be happy there. He understood, too, the necessity of putting forth his best effort to prove himself at the sports at which he stood a chance of excelling–swimming and golf were his choices–while doing his best in the rougher ones, football and basketball. With that covered, he was free to make his name in more inventive ways.

His great success was to find ways to have fun. Jack Kennedy knew how to have–and share–good times. Watching The Sound of Music decades later, a classmate was reminded of him. Like the trouble-prone Maria, he “made people laugh.”

But even before he’d gotten to Choate, Jack was forming and nurturing an interior self. He had survived, even thrived in his way, as a bookish boy who soon would tolerate no interruptions when reading. While at the Catholic school where he’d boarded before coming to Choate, Jack had devoured Churchill’s account of the Great War, The World Crisis 1911-1918.Soon he was getting the New York Times each day. After finishing an article, it was his habit, as he once told a friend, to close his eyes in an attempt to recall each of its main points.

There would come over his face an expression of almost childlike pleasure when he’d worked through something difficult and figured it out. We all remember those kids who knew things, and cared about them, that weren’t taught at school. Jack was one of them. And it wasn’t the knowledge for its own sake, it was the grander world he glimpsed through it. Such habits of mind as thinking about Churchillian views of history were the glimmerings of the man he was shaping himself to become.

Yet, early on–and this habit, too, sprang from the many solitary hospital stays, lying in bed waiting for visitors–Jack had developed a craving for company. Left to himself so often for periods of his young life, as he grew older he never wanted to be alone. Even the companionship of any single person for too long never suited him. New people, and new people’s attentions, energized him, bringing out the seductive best in him–all his quickness, wit, and charm.

It was close to the end of his sophomore year at Choate that he met the first person he felt he could truly trust, and this allowed the first real crack to appear in his wall of solitude.

Boys in closed-off environments such as boarding schools are caught by the dilemma of needing one another while recognizing they must stay wary. The easily popular types and their followers don’t suffer; the quirkier, harder-to-classify ones are left to feel their way more carefully into friendships. Kirk LeMoyne Billings, a year ahead of Jack, would become, to the bewilderment of many, the absolute enduring stalwart of Jack’s life. Their relationship was a natural affinity that could never have been described until it happened.

Also a second son–his older brother, Fred, had, like Joe Kennedy, been a Choate superstar–Lem was a big kid, a 175-pounder. His father was a Pittsburgh physician. With all the strength of his instantly faithful devotion, Lem Billings quickly began to tend to the needs of his new pal, whom he’d met in the offices of the Choate yearbook, the Brief. Looking at the support this friendship quickly began to provide for Jack, one could even see it as counterbalancing the neglect by his mother. He would confide in Lem that he cried whenever his mother sent word that she was heading off on yet another extended trip. He would be equally open with Lem about his health situation.

Jack was willing to divulge to Lem, a doctor’s boy, descriptions of those periods he’d spent captive to medical procedures and tests–even at their most graphic. “God, what a beating I’m taking,” he wrote once to Lem from one hospital over a summer break. “Nobody able to figure what’s wrong with me. All they do is talk about what an interesting case. It would be funny . . . if there was nothing wrong with me. I’m commencing to stay awake nights on that.”

The thought that even the experts were stymied by his symptoms tore at him, and came to haunt him. However jaunty he might have tried to sound, it was the fears they’d planted of a shortened life that he really wanted to share with Lem.

Sidekick, confidant, and traveling companion, and, above all, a touchstone, Lem was always to be a cherished constant. When his friend became Mr. President to the rest of the world, it wasn’t long before Lem Billings had his own room at the White House. As Joseph Kennedy, Sr., wryly observed at the beginning, he “moved in one day with his tattered suitcase and never moved out.”

Lem’s loyalty changed Jack’s notion of himself. It taught him he could have followers, which he soon did.

Jack had entered Choate a vulnerable and often lonely boy, a seemingly negligible younger brother with no constituency. He would depart four years later a practiced ringleader. If his adventures before then had been vicarious ones, enjoyed among knights and princes in the pages of books, when Jack left, fealty had been sworn to him much as it would have been to Robin Hood or King Arthur.

His Merry Men were called the Muckers.

To begin with, there were just the two of them, Jack and Lem. Their chemistry was the center from which the circle grew around them. Next came Ralph “Rip” Horton, the son of a wealthy New York family. The rest followed, until there were thirteen in all. Credit, or blame, for the way the Muckers chose that impudent name must be laid directly at the door of the very authority figure to whom they were setting themselves up in opposition.
It was during one of his daily sermons in evening chapel that headmaster George St. John had gone on the attack against those students displaying what now would simply be called “bad attitude.” The background is this: It was Jack and Lem’s final year. Lem, a class ahead of his best friend, had elected to stay on in order to graduate with Jack, and they were uproariously, and very chaotically, rooming together. The instructor overseeing their dormitory wing was not amused by their shenanigans. Fed up not only with their mess but also with the noisy gang of disciples who gathered there each day to listen to Jack’s Victrola, he complained repeatedly to the headmaster.

St. John, when he went on the attack, was clearly directing his words at Jack and Lem’s little band, and it was one of those you-know-who-I’m-talking-to moments. What the headmaster couldn’t anticipate, though, was the way one expression, in particular, that he chose to use–to refer to the “bad apples” he pegged as a small percentage of the student body–soon would come back to haunt him.

Mucker, the label he hung on the Kennedy-Billings gang, has several meanings. A mucker can be someone who takes important matters too lightly, who mucks about to no particular purpose–in this case, the sort of boys unwilling to uphold the time-approved, gold-plated Choate standards of decency, cleanliness, sportsmanship, piety, politeness, and, above all, respect for the powers that be. In short, the kind exemplified by Jack’s and Lem’s older brothers.

Yet there is another, secondary definition of mucker that would have been well known to a Boston boy of Irish extraction. That meaning addresses itself directly to those who traffic in muck, which is to say, mud. And in Boston, this sense of mucker had evolved from being a derisive term applied to Irish-Americans put to work shoveling up horse manure from the city streets during the era of carriages, to becoming an all-purpose epithet for their immigrant countrymen.

Without realizing it, then, George St. John had thrown down a gauntlet. Sitting in front of him was Honey Fitz’s grandson, whose own Irish ancestry was a source of pride to him and for whom the insult hit home. But the headmaster’s choice of words also, Jack realized, provided an opportunity for a memorable stunt, perhaps the cap to his career at Choate.

Troublemaking by kids at school escalates. They compete to come up with outrageous schemes, each trying to top the other. Strategicallyastute, Jack and Lem–already known as Public Enemies Number One and Two on the Choate campus–had recruited their followers, the ones who now were the regulars in their room, from among the “wheels.” That is to say, their pals were the sons of rich fathers upon whose deep pockets the school’s endowment and building programs depended. That night, after chapel, back at Jack and Lem’s room, they agreed to be henceforth known, as dubbed by Jack, the Muckers.

It was a thumb in the eye to old St. John.

Then Jack was clever enough–when further inspiration struck–to conjure up a reality out of the metaphor. Here was the plan: The dining hall had been decorated for an important school dance. Just imagine, he proposed, the faces of their classmates if a large quantity of manure, imported from a nearby field, suddenly got dumped in front of them and their dates. Cue the Muckers, shovels in hand, to scoop it all up and save the day.

Glorious a prank as it was, it didn’t happen. What kept it stillborn was the killjoy who’d caught a whiff of what was going on and ratted them out to St. John. All thirteen would-be culprits were instantly called from their classrooms and onto the carpet of the headmaster’s office, where they were reminded the punishment for forming an illegal club was expulsion. They were told they could count themselves as Choate students no longer; they would have to pack their bags and arrange for transportation home.
Almost as quickly, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., was also summoned from his office in Washington, where he was chairing Franklin Roosevelt’s new Securities and Exchange Commission. Jack’s fifteen-year-old sister, Kick, alarmed at hearing the news from Lem–he adored her and stayed in close touch–telegrammed her support: DEAR PUBLIC ENEMIES ONE AND TWO ALL OUR PRAYERS ARE UNITED WITH YOU AND THE ELEVEN OTHER MUCKS WHEN THE OLD MEN ARRIVE SORRY WE WON’T BE THERE FOR THE BURIAL.

However, Jack’s father, a ruthless rule-breaker in his own right, seemed far more impressed than angry once he heard the story. Pretending to share the headmaster’s anger, he waited until he had his son alone to tell him that if he’d founded the club, its name would not have begun with an M.

For the first time, I imagine, Joe Kennedy was forced to take a good look at his second son. He’d devoted a great deal of his attention to imbuing Joe Jr. with the style he wanted, but now, I think, he saw in Jack essential qualities that he recognized only too well. Just as he, Joe Sr., had been a corsair defiantly mapping his own way, now Jack was revealed to be similarly audacious.

When the furor died down and, somehow, they weren’t expelled after all, the failed stunt only left Jack and Lem with a zest for defiance. On the night of a different dance, they and their dates drove off campus, chauffeured in a convertible by a friend who’d already graduated. Such behavior was strictly forbidden: no students were to leave the grounds, ever, during a Saturday-night dance.

Off they went–Jack and Lem in white tie and tails, the girls in long formal gowns, the Connecticut country lanes opening invitingly before them. But to their shock, just as they confidently assumed they were getting away with it, they glimpsed a car following them. Panicky, and sure it was campus security, they swerved into a farmhouse driveway, leaped out, and scattered. Jack, Lem, and one of the girls sought cover in a barn. Lem’s date stayed in the car and pretended to neck with the driver. When the coast seemed clear, Jack suddenly was nowhere to be found, so the others headed back to campus without him.

A half hour later he turned up at the dance. In the end, it was all a false alarm: no one from Choate had been after them, and they were never found out. The tale is a fine example of the sort of risk Jack Kennedy enjoyed taking–dangerous on the downside, with very little on the up, except for the tremendous sensation it gave, short-lived but long-savored. It offered the promise of deliverance. It was his way of coming alive, and it would never change.

As Jack’s time at Choate was drawing to an end, he and the Muckers changed course. Legitimate concerns now occupied them: directed by Jack, they began to invest their wit and energy in securing for themselves the “Most” tags featured in the senior yearbook. Jack wanted “Most Likely to Succeed” for himself, while Lem would get “Most Likeable.” The rest would divide the allotted spoils. However they managed it–and the historical record persists as a bit murky about whatever vote-swapping went on–Jack’s budding skill as a strategist-with-defined-set-of-goals successfully came into play.

This exercise may have involved only prep school popularity, forgotten in the crumbling album of time–except for the identity of the intelligence masterminding it all. In this long-ago microcosm, Jack, the leader, created the first of what Tip O’Neill later dubbed the “Kennedy Party,” a political faction united by a personality. Their success sharing the yearbook spoils, as JFK might later say, had a hundred fathers.

Speeches do, too.

Perhaps the most significant legacy from Choate was his likely memory of a familiar refrain of George St. John. As with all the other well-loved mottoes, maxims, and homilies the headmaster delivered into the ears of his youthful charges during evening chapel, he expected this one to sink in. It’s a portion of an essay by his beloved mentor, Harvard dean LeBaron Russell Briggs. “In and out of college the man with ideals helps, so far as in him lies, his college and his country. It is hard for a boy to understand that in life, whatever he does, he helps to make or mar the name of his college. As has often been said, the youth who loves his alma mater will always ask not ‘What can she do for me?’ but ‘What can I do for her?’ “

Though Jack Kennedy had rebelled against that call to higher duty in his youth, it would come to define him.

© 2011 Christopher J. Matthews

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.