On the Way to the Presidency: JFK's Early Years

IT is remarkable in this age of computer banks and written records that so much new information continues to be unearthed about the Kennedy family, especially the most public member, former President John F. Kennedy.

Scores of books, after all, have already been written about the 35th president, many of them based on private letters, as well as public correspondence and documents.

But perhaps its not surprising that Kennedy correspondence continues to be found: The extended family is enormous; family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, had nine children, most of whom raised families of their own. And the Kennedys, especially Jack, appear to have a special talent for making close friends and keeping them for life.

Despite the numerous books on the Kennedys, little scholarship has been undertaken about JFK's youth. Thus Nigel Hamilton, a British biographer who wrote an excellent life of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, has performed a yeoman task in JFK: Reckless Youth (Random House, 898 pp., $30). He provides an exhausting yet fascinating account of John F. Kennedy from the future president's birth in 1917 in Brookline, Mass., through his school years - from Choate (where he was almost expelled), to the London Sc hool of Economics, Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford - to his years in Europe before World War II, when his father was United States ambassador to Great Britain.

The first of three planned volumes, Hamilton's book ends in 1946 when JFK was elected to Congress at the age of 29. His father, we are told, paid the incumbent congressman, James Curley, $12,000 to run for mayor, thus leaving the congressional seat open.

Hamilton has scoured the trenches for any scrap of paper touching on young Jack. He looked at personal letters, obtained government medical reports, and even dug into FBI files. Along the way we learn much about JFK that is unexpected. The future president's family, we quickly realize, is what sociologists now call dysfunctional.

Jack's father, who made his fortune from both the stock market as well as some rather unsavory enterprises (Hamilton calls him a swindler), was, we are told, a frequent adulterer; his mother, Rose Kennedy, perhaps out of frustration with her unhappy circumstance, spent much of her time on trips that took her away from her small children. She could be indifferent to her young brood, mailing them form letters at their respective boarding schools.

Hamilton attributes Jack's frequent dalliances with women to a reaction against the lack of close affection he felt from his own mother. The surviving Kennedy children, however, charge that Hamilton's book misrepresents their family.

We also learn that Jack was not a political neophyte, as described by his family and others, who have suggested that Jack became interested in government only because of the death of his older brother Joe during World War II. Far from it. JFK's great interests, from his earliest years, were history, government, politics.

Jack could be an indifferent student when it came to formal classroom work (often earning Cs for grades). Yet, in his private moments, he was a creative thinker who valued independent reading, particularly histories. Affable, although with a touch of shyness, he attracted friends from all walks of life, both male and female. Some readers might be shocked at Hamilton's accounts of young JFK's endless trysts, his earthy letters to friends, and his various medical tests for venereal diseases, usually taken for good reasons.

Hamilton also carries the first complete account of Jack's romance with Inga Marie Arvad, whom Jack called "Inga Binga," a beautiful young Danish journalist who spoke four languages but was an acquaintance of Adolf Hitler. She was regarded by US intelligence officials as a Nazi spy. Hamilton believes that Jack was in love with Inga - a pattern of misguided romance that was to repeat itself in his later life when, as a senator and president, he shared a paramour with a top Mafia crime boss.

Yet what finally emerges from the book after all the lurid tales is the picture of a rather serious young man who had a very clear perception of the fragility of the world of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Jack was eventually able to break free of his father's attitudes of appeasement toward Hitler's Germany. He demonstrated great bravery in the Pacific during World War II when his PT boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer.

Hamilton's account of young JFK has already set the talk shows abuzz and made Page 1 of the tabloids. Is there far more here than we really need to know about JFK's indiscretions? Probably. Yet the book makes it clear that, for all his wealth, style, and charm, JFK had a great deal to overcome before he could be president - starting with his own family.

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