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 Posted Saturday, January 13, 2001


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Toronto, Saturday, January 13, 2001
[David Irving's comment]

 

Poking about in the Kennedy attic

Grandpa Joseph's letters edited by adopted kin

Charles Laurence
National Post

NEW YORK - Back in the mid-nineties when she was a graduate student at Harvard, Amanda Smith found herself standing in the dusty attic of a seaside house that might well be considered the ground zero, the Inner Tabernacle, of American tabloid culture. It was the attic of the main house of the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, the place where the clan of Camelot has gathered to celebrate and to grieve, to mark the milestones of their glaringly public lives, for as long as most of us can remember.

Ms. Smith was there to do what no others have been permitted to do: poke about. And in old filing boxes, trunks and crates, Ms. Smith, now 33, found treasure. Here were letters and documents, here a swatch or two of cloth chosen for tailor-made suits from the '40s and '50s, and there a priceless lost album of photographs from the wedding of Kathleen Kennedy, the first-born daughter of the generation of Jack and Robert and Teddy who died, in yet another tragedy, soon after marrying into the British aristocracy.

"What I found was astonishing, and unexpected," says Ms. Smith. "And for me, to be in that attic, finding those photographs, was very moving." Smith was there in a unique position because she has spent her whole life in a special position within the Kennedy family, for she is an adopted daughter of the family that values blood above all.

"Becoming a Kennedy was a strange lottery to win," she says. "In some ways it is great. But it is also great to be a Smith, a name which offers a fig leaf of privacy."

Adopted as a baby by Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of JFK, she has the unusual viewpoint of the insider who is also partly the outsider, the one who could watch the gaudy parade of the Kennedys as them as well as us.

And now Ms. Smith, encouraged by her mother and with the blessing of the clan, has used this special viewpoint to edit and publish Hostage to Fortune, the first collection of the private letters and documents of the old patriarch who began it all, Joseph P. Kennedy, or Grandpa. It was a task that took her on a journey along 300 linear feet of documents, to use the formal means of academic measurement, and a journey deep into her own memories.

"On going into those papers, I really had no idea what to expect," she says over lunch in New York's Odeon cafe. "He was, after all, a man who people love to hate, one of those mid-century oligarchs, and I could not help but be aware of his reputation. What I found was a man of real extremes.

There is evidence of his being a really hard man in competition. But the letters also illustrate how he was also a great, affectionate father."

Ms. Smith was "a little horrified" by letters stinking with anti-Semitism and such homophobic outbursts as "the embassy was decorated by a fairy," and by some of the company he kept with intimate letters to the notorious Senator McCarthy and the FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover.

She took the title, Hostage to Fortune, from a wartime speech of Kennedy's referring to his own nine children as the hostages to fortune they would become if America declared war on Germany. His isolationism and his defeatism destroyed his political career. But Ms. Smith sees in the phrase a perfect pointer to the price his family would pay for the "Faustian bargain" which saw his own ambitions fulfilled by his sons.

The senior Kennedy was something of an enigma, and remains that even to his granddaughter. This does not not surprise Ms. Smith. Her insider knowledge, indeed, prepared her simply because she grew up knowing instinctively a key factor to the Kennedy story that is only recently being generally understood: Kennedy was among the very first to realize the value of image, of spin and celebrity, and took astonishing and prescient steps to create and preserve his own myth. His letters, for instance, not only reveal what we now know as spin, but also editing notes which make it clear he wrote them with an eye to posterity. He was among the first to realize the power of the new media technology in both business and politics.

"Where did that ambition, that drive come from?" she asks. "There were many insecurities that drove him, that becomes obvious. Look at the way he found being accepted by the British royalty and the prime minister when he was ambassador in London absolutely intoxicating.

"But there is a lot I still don't know. He was amazingly careful: you find letters wonderfully revealing of his own concept of his family as the embodiment of the American Dream, but then after five years of research, I still have not found clear evidence of, for instance, his bootlegging operations or his affair with Gloria Swanson."

This fits her own memories of mysterious old Grandpa. In the introduction, Ms. Smith, recently married and planning to start her own family, describes her one personal memory of the old patriarch. It is a cloudy picture of being taken by her nanny to see him on his deathbed, and marvelling how this frail, slight old man could be the same Grandpa who dominated not just the family conversation but the public universe too.

"I always saw him as a scary figure," she says, "very scary. But when I asked my mother what kind of dad she remembered him being, she answered, 'cozy.' That was not at all what I had expected. And it was something that made me decide to do this book, to find that side of him."

The letters -- thousands of them -- to his children reveal that it took a truly attentive father to produce his fabled legacy. Jack, at Choate prep school, is chided for spending $10.80 on suit-cleaning in a single month. "While I want you to keep looking well," he writes, "I think that if you spent a little more time picking up your clothes instead of leaving them on the floor, it wouldn't be necessary to have them pressed so often ..." Kathleen is comforted with assurances that her love for a British Anglican should not be considered a "sin," and Kennedy goes on to defy the Roman Catholic bishops who turned her marriage into a scandal. And there is a letter to eight-year-old Teddy, today's senior senator, from London during the Blitz. "I am sure of course that you wouldn't be scared," he writes, "but if you heard all these guns firing every night and the bombs bursting you might get a little fidgety."

That was the sort of letter that began to put a human face on the man who Ms. Smith now believes has become a sort of Titan figure in terms of the family's public mythology. Titan, she explains, was the fearsome, unapproachable old god who spawned the more human, sympathetic figures of Mount Olympus, and is one of those figures whom the human imagination seems to have a need to recreate in mythology over and over again. Without the fearsome Titan, there could have been no American Camelot.

Ms. Smith may well be right. She may also be right when she peers at her generation of her adoptive family and declares that there are none with the fire and the soul to match Grandpa and his deeds.

"They may look like Kennedys," she says. "But there is no one in the family now who is much like Joe, except in those looks."

And that, she goes on, may be because with the deaths of John Jr., Jack and Bobby, all of them but Teddy, the "male line was cut short." The Kennedy women were raised to different, nurturing values. "The boys had no one to raise them to those expectations," says Ms. Smith.

And that, in the end, might be the final payment in the Faustian bargain that made Old Joe's American Dream come true, and then turned it into a nightmare.

Irving David Irving comments:

I HAVE always said that Joe Kennedy senior was one of the great Americans of the Twentieth Century. His wartime telegrams and pre-war warnings from London -- FDR had sent him, an Irishman, as ambassador to the British capital, as a sort of private joke -- have only inadequately been published, and his diaries have been seen, to my knowledge, only by that fine young historian Michael Beschloss (see his book Roosevelt and Kennedy, if you can find a copy). My own visit to the Kennedy archives in Boston was one of the few occasions n my life when I have been turned away empty-handed. Read Beschloss, and you will understand why I like Joe K. Had we followed his advice, the British Empire and millions of lives would have been spared. Churchill demanded his recall in 1940. Before boarding a liner from Portugal, bound for the United States, Joe Kennedy sent a telegram which I quote in my Churchillıs War, vol. i (I found it in US embassy files): the returning ambassador asked for assurances that Washington would anounce that even if the liner should be mysteriously sunk, Washington would not use that as a cause for war with Nazi Germany. It was a precaution: Kennedy explained in the telegram to the State Department that he would not put it past Churchill to have the ship sunk by a British unit, and then claim that the Nazis had done it.

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