The Young and the Reckless

updated 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. his legend grew as the youthful, charismatic prince of Camelot. But in recent rears the myth has eroded, and now a controversial book, JFK: Reckless Youth, by British biographer Nigel Hamilton may redefine that image more thoroughly than any hare before it. The first installment in a projected three-volume biography, Reckless Youth delves into every facet of JFK's life up to his election to Congress in 1946 at age 29. The book provides a complex portrait of a young man of precocious intellect and boundless ambition. He was plagued by constant illness and forever scarred in his boyhood by an absentee father and a cold, remote mother. Kennedy emerges also as a rogue who was by turns funny raunchy and charming.

The meticulously footnoted book is based on newly opened files of letters, FBI transcripts and other documents at the Kennedy Library in Boston, and on hundreds of interviews with JFK's friends, classmates and colleagues. Hamilton did not have the cooperation, originally promised, of the Kennedy family; indeed, in an op-ed piece in The New York Times this month, JFK's siblings—Jean, Eunice, Patricia and Ted—look issue with Hamilton's "malicious portrayal" of their parents. In a rare public statement that seemed to reflect their outrage, the Kennedys said they "categorically reject the misjudgments. mischaracterizations, insinuations and outright falsehoods" about their family

The second son of Sir Denis Hamilton, who was editor-in-chief of the London Times and chairman of Reuters news service, Hamilton studied history at Cambridge and has written an award-winning, three-volume biography on World War II Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. For the past four years he has been the John F. Kennedy scholar and visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He and his Finnish wife, Outi, have four children, ages 12 to 25. He recently spoke with associate editor Paula Chin.

Why did you choose to write about JFK, about whom so much has already been written?

In the summer of 1963, alter my freshman year al Cambridge, I was training as a reporter at The Washington Post and met Bobby Kennedy. The buzz of the capital at the height of the Kennedy Administration has never left me. Twenty years later, when I was working on the Montgomery biography, I thought of doing a slim volume telling JFK's life from beginning to end. Of the more than 400 volumes about JFK, almost all are about his presidency, the assassination or whatever, with nothing of the complete life, in the English tradition. It was only when I began my research that I found unpublished documents at the Kennedy Library that offered a richer, deeper insight into the young man who would become President.

Had the papers been unused by re-searchers or withheld from them?

There was some interesting material—more than 1,000 interviews with JFK's close associates conducted by the library—which people had largely overlooked. I also found out about a secret list of hundreds of interviews that had never been cataloged or made available—some because of clerical oversights and some in deference to the Kennedy family. Under the Freedom of Information Act, I petitioned the National Archives. which runs the library, to see these interviews and other records.

What was so controversial about these documents?

They didn't comply with what I believe was an unspoken policy that anything made public by the library should reflect well on the dead President. The Kennedy family myth about JFK is that he was this kind of glorious person produced by this wonderful set of parents whose whole purpose was to bring up clean-living, honest children dedicated to public service. That is baloney. The Kennedy household was an emotional wasteland.

How so?

For one thing, Joseph Kennedy was a truly evil man. He was a swindler and a compulsive womanizer, an absentee father, a man capable of lobotomizing one of his daughters without telling his wife or other children. This is a man who lays out pornographic magazines on JFK's bed when he was 14 or 15, who sexually harasses his sons' girlfriends when they visit his house.

And Rose Kennedy?

According to some of JFK's closest friends, Rose was a priggish, emotionally cold woman, and JFK harbored a deep-sealed bitterness toward her because she had never given him the kind ol warm, physical, maternal affection he craved. I found no record that in all those years during which he was sent away to boarding schools and hospitalized for months for life-threatening diseases that were extremely difficult to diagnose Rose ever visited him. That sense of abandonment would go all through his life.

What is your reaction lo the Kennedy family's unprecedented public defense of Joseph and Fose in The New York Times?

I was surprised they wrote in what would seem their own words rather than enlisting the support of a historian, which they've done in the past. Their article is offensive to me as a serious biographer. That said, it is utterly understandable that any child should want lo stand up for his or her parents if attacked. I emphasize my book is not an attack; I am trying to tell the truth.

How did JFK cope with the family problems?

JFK wanted to succeed in ways his rather narrow-minded parents had never done. With his charm, self-deprecating humor and remarkable ability for friendship, he banded together with influential Protestant students at Harvard, which is how he became not only the first Kennedy but possibly the first Boston Irish-Catholic member of the elite Spee Club, which is similar to a fraternity. In letters to his lifelong friend Lem Billings during those years, you see a young man who is always thinking about the next social conquest.

Don't the letters also reveal a less flattering side?

Well, they begin as yen raunchy teenage letters in which he is obsessed with sex and eternally boasting about the girls he has bedded. The thing is, he's not in love with any of these girls, and he's in terrible health much of the time. But one of the remarkable aspects of this correspondence is that he never gives way to self-pity.

What was the young JFK's biggest accomplishment?

To me the great triumph of JFK's early life was that moment in 1940 when he wrote his lather—who was then U.S. ambassador to England and advocated accommodation with Hitler—saying that Britain was fighting America's fight and that America had to stand up for democracy too. Some weeks later Joseph Kennedy backed down on his objections to helping Britain.

But didn't JFK renounce a love of his life, Inga Arvad, because of his father's disapproval?

Because of that—and his own political ambitions. It was the autumn of 1941 when Jack, despite his back problems, finally got into the Navy and was working in a Washington office that decoded secret Japanese signals. He met this Danish journalist, four years his senior, and fell in love. He continued the romance even after she was wrongly suspected of being a Nazi spy and put under surveillance. From the FBI tapes of their phone conversations and intimate correspondence, we see the tenderness JFK is capable of.

What about JFK's combat record?

The truth is that everyone worshiped JFK out in the Solomon Islands. Often gifts of leadership are only really tested in war, and I think the war was the making of JFK. It wasn't just the heroism in saving his crew after they were rammed by the Japanese destroyer. It was his toughening up during the days they were stranded on an island behind enemy lines when he realized no one was coming to look for them.

What new insights does your understanding of JFK's early years give you about the man he became?

There is an incredible story here of how a true hero went through great trials. I also think that JFK is someone more politically and intellectually talented than we have previously known. But he was driven by a sexual compulsion too, more and more incapable of loving relationships, yet desperate to have them, in a way that puts everything at risk. From my book, I hope we not only understand him better but sympathize with him. As a historian, I can't ask for more.

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