John F. Kennedy: Why books were a big part of his life

John F. Kennedy was a voracious reader – mostly history, including Winston Churchill’s books, which helped shape his character. But he loved Ian Fleming’s James Bond spy novels too.

Steve Heaslip/The Cape Cod Times/AP
Barnstable Police honor guard member Arthur Caido pauses during the National Anthem at the Kennedy Memorial on Friday in Hyannis, Mass. Across the country flags flew at half-staff, and moments of silence were planned for the hour when Kennedy was shot riding in a motorcade in Dallas 50 years ago.

John F. Kennedy was a voracious reader. In part this was due to the ill health that led to many invalid days in bed as a youth. He was often stuck in hospital stays for tests and treatment. Visitors would remark that the thin, young patient could hardly be seen behind the books piled around his pillow.

Adult visitors were sometimes surprised at how many of those books were serious histories.

“I was very impressed, because at that point this very young child was reading ‘The World Crisis’ by Winston Churchill,” said a friend of father Joseph P. Kennedy who saw JFK in the Mayo Clinic in 1934.

Throughout his life Kennedy loved what today might be considered dusty tomes. He read most if not every book Churchill wrote. In an article for Life Magazine in 1961 he listed as among his favorites Churchill’s million-word-long biography of ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough.

Churchill said he undertook Marlborough’s life to rescue his reputation from the smears of past historians. Perhaps the young Kennedy was thrilled by Churchill’s recitations of Marlborough’s many military victories.

“It is the common boast of his champions that he never fought a battle that he did not win, nor besieged a fortress he did not take,” wrote Churchill.

As he got older, another book Kennedy cited often was John Buchan’s memoir “Pilgrim’s Way,” published posthumously in 1940. A British aristocrat, Buchan had served in the Boer War and World War I. He later rose to be governor general of Canada. “Pilgrim’s Way” is something of an elegy for the many friends and promising youths swept away in the Great War’s trenches.

One of those was Raymond Asquith, son of the British Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Buchan had known Asquith in school and admired him, and in “Pilgrim’s Way” he wrote: “He loved his youth, and his youth has become eternal. Debonair and brilliant and brave, he is now part of that immortal England which knows not age or weariness or defeat”.

Kennedy marked this passage in his copy of the book, writes historian and journalist Nigel Hamilton in his “JFK: Reckless Youth.” Asquith was the clever son of a powerful man, light-hearted and high-spirited in college, as was Kennedy.

“Did Jack identify with Asquith?” wrote Hamilton.

JFK gave Jacqueline Bouvier a copy of “Pilgrim’s Way” when courting her. It was meant to explain to her what sort of person he was.

“Jackie . . . was captivated. . . None of the young men touted by her mother had ever done anything like that,” writes author Barbara Leaming in her book “Mrs. Kennedy.”

Kennedy also gave Jackie Lord David Cecil’s “The Young Melbourne,” which describes the early years of a man who became Britain’s Prime Minister from 1834 to 1841. It delves deeply into the world of Whig aristocrats of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, men who moved constantly between episodes of high political seriousness and intense pleasure, notes Leaming.

As President, Kennedy pushed the works of Ian Fleming, creator of British agent 007, James Bond. He listed Fleming’s “From Russia with Love” as one of his favorites on his Life Magazine list.

Fleming, of course, famously served himself in British intelligence during World War II. Reportedly Kennedy met Fleming at a dinner in 1960 and asked him how he might rid the US of troublesome Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Fleming told him to convince Castro that his beard attracted radiation, which could cause him to shave it and lose his iconic revolutionary identity.

 Kennedy also admired Ernest Hemingway. In the opening of his own book “Profiles in Courage,” JFK quoted Hemingway’s description of courage as ‘grace under pressure’.

The two men never met. But after Hemingway’s death in 1961, the Kennedy administration arranged for his widow Mary to enter Cuba, despite the travel ban in place. Once there she retrieved personal papers and other items from Hemingway’s Cuban villa Finca Vigia, which they had fled during Castro’s revolution.

She later donated Hemingway’s papers to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library and Museum. There’s a Hemingway room in the JFK Library’s Boston waterfront building.

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