ALLEN LANE 432 pages €21.99

ALLEN LANE 432 pages €21.99

One of the photographs in this fascinating book is of Marlene Dietrich being welcomed to the White House on September 10 1963. Evelyn Lincoln, the President’s personal secretary, noted “ she looks mighty good – leggy for 62.” Her meeting with JFK on this occasion was brief, and in the Oval Office, even though Jackie was out of town, in contrast to a year earlier when the two had met in the family quarters and slept together.

Dietrich’s account of that encounter is hilarious. Seeing Kennedy unwinding the bandages holding his back brace in place, she thought “ I’d like to sleep with the President, sure, but I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to be on top.” However, he took the superior position and she reported it being over “ sweetly and very soon.” With an urgent speaking appointment waiting she shook him awake after dressing and he escorted her, wearing only a towel “ as if it were an everyday event – which in his life it probably was”, to an elevator, instructing the operator to arrange a car to take her to the Statler Hotel. His parting exchange was to ask had she slept with his father, remarking when she denied it “that’s one place I’m in first.”

Vignettes like this mark Clarke’s book, surely one of many as the 50th anniversary of Dallas approaches, as an enthralling and compelling read which few will put down. The rich detail makes it far more than just a snapshot of the three months before the assassination. With no presentiment of what was to come the President carried out a full and frantic schedule to the end.

How full Clarke’s account makes clear. There was no end of term wind down. Life went on. Tough political arm twisting secured the successful passage through the Senate of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, permitting Kennedy to sign in early October. On August 28 came the historic Civil Rights March, with Martin Luther King’s “ I have a Dream” speech. The President grasped the march’s significance and endorsed it, in the knowledge that doing so, in tandem with his civil rights legislation, would cost him political support, particularly in the South.

For a President who had won in 1960 by the slenderest of margins there were always political considerations. The months were filled with plans and concerns about the 1964 election, the follow up to the developing thaw with the Soviet Union and first moves in an initiative towards Castro. An unexpectedly successful tour of several western states was followed by the fateful decision in early October to include Dallas in a Texas visit. Meanwhile the worsening morass in Vietnam was commanding more and more of the President’s attention.

The President’s private and public lives were inextricably mixed. On the day that the new U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, flew out, August 21, an Air Force plane left Andrews Air Force Base carrying Ellen Rometsch, a former East German refugee and one of JFK’s sexual partners, deported on Bobby Kennedy’s instructions, amid allegations that she was a spy.

There was a history to everything – like the Dietrich meeting, or the fateful decision to visit Dallas – and Clarke cleverly weaves in past detail and background, to create a rounded portrait of those days. Clarke is clearly a Kennedy admirer – the book is at its weakest in the claims he makes for what Kennedy might have achieved – but he does not ignore JFK’s flaws and conveys effectively the sense of loss and promise unfulfilled after Dallas.

While much of the book deals with political events, it is most compelling regarding Kennedy’s personal life. It begins just before the “ Hundred Days”, on August 7 with the premature birth and tragic death on August 9 of Patrick Kennedy, an event which affected both parents deeply, and which brought them closer together.

JFK was particularly solicitous towards Jackie after Patrick’s death. She had suffered severe post natal depression after John Jr’s birth three years before, and Kennedy feared a repetition. This may have prompted him to curb his womanising and there are several quotes from Jackie towards the end in which she expressed optimism that their marriage was going to work. Indeed it was this positive frame of mind that led her to agree to go campaigning with him in Texas.

Before that, however, was the Greek trip in early October, something Kennedy regarded with trepidation . Jackie planned to accompany her sister Lee Radziwill on a cruise aboard Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, and JFK feared negative public reaction so soon after her bereavement. He crafted bland press releases to play down the notion that the cruise was a jet-setting jaunt. He informed Franklin Roosevelt Jr. and his wife, who were going along as chaperones that “Lee wants Jackie to be her beard ( to disguise her affair with Onassis).”

The trip went ahead, proved as embarrassing as he had feared and was followed by a side-trip to Morocco. Jackie thus missed the state visit and dinner for Sean Lemass on October 15, an event which, Clarke notes, “may have meant more to her husband than any of his presidency”. The book, throughout, is peppered with references to Kennedy’s affection for Ireland.

Details abound, some superfluous, all interesting. JFK’s chronic health problems, his preoccupation with his place in history, his abhorrence of the prospect of nuclear war, even Jackie’s white gloves, worn habitually to hide nicotine stained fingers, are all covered. Kennedy was aware of the target he presented, observing that “Crowds don’t threaten me. It’s that fellow standing on the roof with a gun that I worry about.” He was also philosophical: “ What will be, will be.”

Inevitably, the last chapters command attention. On November 21 he observed his back felt better than for years, commenting later that “ Jackie is my greatest asset.” At Dallas Airport one reporter compared the sunlight hitting her pink suit to “ a blow between the eyes.” Their reception was ecstatic. Then came the motorcade. Incredibly “ the Secret Service did not check the upper floors of buildings unless they had received specific threats.”

All those of a certain age remember what they were doing when they heard that Kennedy was dead. This gripping book reminds us just why.

August 2013


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