This is a bit of a departure from my usual reading, and I must admit I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if my daughter Augusta hadn’t given it to me as a birthday present.
However, I’m very glad I did.
At over 650 pages in hardback, with 120 pages of notes and a 30 page index, this is definitely not a lightweight work.
As the subtitle, “Coming of age in the American Century 1917-1956”, tells you, this is a biography of the 35th American President that sets out to place him in the context of the USA from World War I to Kennedy’s unsuccessful run to be the Democrat Vice Presidential nominee in 1956, the time during which America went from a self-absorbed nation separated from the world by two oceans to an economic powerhouse and the world’s policeman.
Meticulously researched and beautifully written, it delves deep into Kennedy family history, pulling no punches on father Joseph’s political, economic and social views during his time as Ambassador to the UK and beyond, but also distinguishing him from the evolution of second son Jack as a thinker, writer and, eventually, politician.
Logevall goes to great lengths to explain the family history without excusing it, doesn’t underestimate the role their great wealth played in how they lived their lives, details the unusually tight yet competitive sibling relationships, and is plain about the shared predilection of father and son for affairs outside of marriage.
The tale of John F. Kennedy is an extraordinary one, from writing his first book at 25, an analysis of England during World War II admired by Churchill, his chronic ill health, family tragedies, his magnetic attraction for women, his heroic exploits on PT 109 during World War II, and his second book, published before he was 40: a Pulitzer Prize winning profile of eight US politicians who put principle before politics which became a textbook in American schools.
Logevall places Kennedy’s personal development into the wider context of how America was evolving during the first half of the 20th century: through wars, the depression, how state and federal politics was changing, the role of the media as it too evolved – and the country’s national relationship to the wider world.
And there’s Jack Kennedy, almost Zelig-like in the way he’s present at key world events – when he isn’t holidaying in the south of France with his latest girlfriend. Around him are the characters that defined America during this time: Roosevelt, MacArthur, Truman, Eisenhower, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, as well as Churchill, Chamberlain, Hitler, Stalin – and the role women played in his life, from his mother Rose to his wife Jacqueline.
The author is a Pulitzer Prize winner himself, and it’s not hard to see why. This is a huge story, and the author makes it not only digestible but rivetting, as we see Kennedy evolve from am absent-minded gadabout playboy into a serious thinker, seemingly drawn inevitably into his role as a leader in thought and action.
I assume Fredrik Logevall will be publishing a second volume that covers the last seven years of Kennedy’s life. I, for one, am looking forward to it.