(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The deliciously nasty tone and absorbingly readable yet erudite style of JFK: Reckless Youth is apparent from the opening lines of the prologue, ironically but fittingly entitled “The Birth of Camelot.” It is 9:30 a.m., November 25, 1963. The doors to the Capitol rotunda slam shut as the body of the slain president lies in state, like Abraham Lincoln’s a century before. Emulating the ceremonies held in honor of the Great Emancipator had been Jackie Kennedy’s idea, and she made sure her children knew the script when it came time for Caroline to kiss the casket and John to salute, actions a generation of grieving Americans would never forget. The widow with the “whim of iron” (McGeorge Bundy’s words), unable to control her husband’s carousing while he lived, was determined to lay him to rest royally. Author Nigel Hamilton contrasts the snobbery of Jackie Kennedy with the frumpery of her predecessor, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. Although the real villain in this saga, Papa Joseph Patrick Kennedy, is not on the scene, having suffered an incapacitating stroke, Hamilton skewers almost all the notable mourners, from the “hangers-on, bodyguards, pimps and court jesters” known collectively as the Irish Mafia to the matriarch Rose Kennedy, allegedly concerned only with what to wear. Columnist Joseph Alsop is introduced as the man in whose house JFK committed adultery on the night of his inauguration. President Lyndon B. Johnson, in Jackie’s eyes a usurper, has been shunted temporarily to the sidelines by the woman whose houseguest on her last night in the White House was Aristotle Onassis.

Should it be judged an exercise in sleaze for this John F. Kennedy biography to dwell incessantly on salacious matters? Not so if the word “sleaze” is understood to mean flimsy or unsubstantial. Given the thirty-fifth president’s lifelong obsession with sexual conquest, it would have been negligent not to have examined JFK’s treatment of women in the context of his upbringing within what Hamilton depicts as a dysfunctional family headed by an overbearing, philandering father and a cold, withdrawn mother.

In this meticulously researched first volume of a planned trilogy, the Cambridge-educated Hamilton, whose previous effort was a much-praised three-volume biography of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, incorporates scatological letters from young Jack to Choate classmate Lem Billings, with whom he lost his virginity to the same Harlem prostitute. Hamilton makes extensive use of FBI confidential files, including excerpts from bugged hotel room conversations Kennedy had with wartime lover and suspected Nazi spy (in J. Edgar Hoover’s warped mind, at least) Inga Marie Arvad, who, with an earth-mother beauty, allure, and sexual sophistication, was possibly the only woman JFK ever loved aside from his sister Kathleen.

Since the book contains few revelations not covered more gracefully in Joan and Clay Blair’s The Search for JFK (1976), Herbert S. Parmet’s Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980), or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987), what scholarly purpose does it serve? Hamilton admits that library bookshelves are virtually groaning under the weight of Kennedy biographies, but he maintains that none is “a complete life, in the English tradition.” Whatever he means by “English tradition,” his book is more intimate and irreverent than profound, more amateur psychohistory than “life and times.” One learns less about the United States between the wars than of Kennedys between the sheets. Hamilton expresses the hope that his work will be reviewed in a serious, scholarly vein; but in the circus atmosphere surrounding its arrival on best-seller lists, it has been characterized, somewhat unfairly, as a hatchet job on a family that once was considered close to royalty. The book sullies the reputations of parents Joe and Rose so badly that the family went to the extraordinary length of publicly criticizing it. As for young Lancelot himself, however, JFK: Reckless Youth is an oddly flattering portrait of a terribly sickly, intellectually curious, legitimate war hero who had developed an ambition for high office even prior to what Hamilton tastelessly refers to as the suicidally competitive death mission of his oldest brother. As early as his maiden 1946 election to Congress, upon which volume 1 comes to an end, JFK’s charisma and shrewd political instincts were on display.

The dapper son of a deracinated Irish Catholic robber baron, JFK cavorted with debutantes, chorus girls, and starlets. He was the product less of Boston’s ethnic neighborhoods than the fleshpots of New York, London, Hollywood, and Palm Beach. His life represented an aristocracy of wealth and style, if not pedigree. In between bouts with venereal disease, a bad back, and mysterious fevers and changes in skin pigmentation later diagnosed as having to do with Addison’s disease, young Jack Kennedy satisfied a compulsive need to lie with women—“obsessively, manically, to the point of sexual addiction.” Hamilton continues: “Jack’s pals were men; women, for him, were denizens from a foreign tribe, to be hunted in the dark hours and...

(The entire section is 2143 words.)