The patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, spent a big part of his life in the movie business, so it’s fitting, perhaps, to quote from a film as we reflect on the family he built. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opened in 1962, when John F. and Robert F. Kennedy ruled Washington and young Edward M. Kennedy was winning his first of nine U.S. Senate elections. It is the story of a decent, but entirely human, fellow whose fame doesn’t quite match the ambiguous facts of history. And there comes a point when the myth assumes a reality all its own. “This is the West, sir,” says a newspaper editor. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Kennedy family saga is an epic tangle of true legends and legendary truths. The father, with his bottomless checkbook and flair for p.r., cast his clan in flawless Carrara marble, more beautiful than human flesh but in the long run, less compelling. To his younger children especially the youngest, Ted fell the difficult job of reconnecting a family of statues, dead icons, to the living and the vital and the real.
That’s where they belong: not up on pedestals but down among us, where the action is. The Kennedys of reality were as much a part of the tempestuous truth and hard action of the 20th century as any single family. It was an immigrant century, and Joseph P. Kennedy sprang from that soil. His father P.J. Kennedy was a prosperous saloon owner and ward boss in the hurly-burly of the Boston Irish. It was the urban century, long dominated by men like John Fitzgerald, the machine mayor of Boston whose daughter Rose married Joe and became the Kennedy matriarch. It was the century of the Roaring Twenties, and no stock trader or reputed rum runner roared louder than Joe Kennedy did. The century of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who played a long cat-and-mouse game with Joe’s bottomless ambitions. The century of Hollywood, where Joe and his older sons cavorted among the starlets.
Onward through the riffling pages of the century’s calendar: Hitler, World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, civil rights, the space age, Vietnam. Scarcely a tide flowed through history without the Kennedys somewhere on its back, gliding downwind or beating against it. And yet reality wasn’t enough first for them, then for the rest of us. If their story is raw material for an American Shakespeare, then you might say unappeasable hunger was the fatal flaw.
One of the family’s many biographers, Laurence Leamer, marks the hinge in the Kennedy history where the arc swings from romance to tragedy as the day when Joe secretly had his oldest daughter, Rosemary, lobotomized in 1941. Her retardation was a blemish that he thought he might carve away. But for the public, the shadow first fell in 1944, when the oldest, and perhaps the most promising, of the Kennedys, Joe Jr., volunteered for a dangerous combat mission in an experimental flying bomb. The plane exploded before he could bail out.
Quite a set of clothes had been laid out for that young man. In his mind and in the eyes of many others, he was flying toward the Navy Cross and, beyond that, a career in politics that would take the first Irish Catholic to the White House. With Joe Jr. gone, John Kennedy put on the outfit. He was a sickly, slight, half-crippled young man, but he managed to swell himself to size through cunning and courage and cortisone. Old-style politics, in the form of Chicago’s Daley machine, boosted him across the Oval Office threshold. But as soon as he landed, the Kennedy myth-makers went to work vacuuming up the grit. The scaffolding of ward bosses was removed to reveal the polished image of a prince.
What John F. Kennedy was: cool under pressure, a shrewd decision maker, an inspiring speaker, a man who could learn from his mistakes. What he wasn’t: a devoted husband, a vigorous athlete, a martyred saint, a budding King Arthur. With his sudden, shocking death, however, these truths were transmuted, through understandable grief, into the gauzy unreality of Camelot.
Read “A Family Gathers to Say Farewell to The Last Lion.”
See TIME’s best JFK covers.