The new memoir about the Kennedys, “The Nine of Us,” is a lyrical looking glass into a time that feels forever lost — when the richest class felt a deep obligation to give back to the people, to serve in the military and politics. The “to whom much is given, much us expected” motto was a mantra in the Kennedy summer compound in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Excellence in all things was encouraged, from riding to sailing to writing thank you notes. On these pages, a clear-eyed sister tells the tale of their younger, vibrant selves.
The scene is set from the beginning, a sharp contrast from the gaudy gold and chrome Trump Tower:
“The white house looked over the sea … an overgrown Cape Cod cottage with white wooden shingles and black shutters. … The white house was full of activity, chatter and laughter. Full of books on shelves and sports gear in closets. And especially full of children.”
Oh, it brings back the old days, of New England zest and camaraderie, a ready wit and willingness to get skin in the game. Touch football, anyone?
Then there were debates over dinner — you had to be scrubbed and dressed for dinner — on the raging issues of the day. “What would you do if you were president,” their father drilled them. Jack, the lover of history and books, would be 99 years old today. The striking Joe, the oldest, was the one groomed for the job, but he volunteered for a dangerous mission in World War II and got blown from the sky. He was the first to shatter the Kennedy family idyll. Jack, in a way, got elected to run by his family first. The ironic, impossibly cool Jack almost had no choice, as the second oldest son.
The author Jean Kennedy Smith is the only living one of the nine Kennedys born between the teens, ’20s and ’30s. At 88, the former ambassador to Ireland remained as the key holder of certain stories and insights about their youth, all nine of them. She and the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy were the youngest, and her character portraits of her sisters, brothers and parents come from that vantage point.
Who knew that the intense Bobby had a pink and black spotted pig named Porky that went with him everywhere? He also tended to rabbits, all manner of animals and made friends easily. “You have a lot on the ball,” his father Joe wrote to his third-oldest son.
A charmed moment is a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a stamp collector, to young Bobby, a fellow philatelist: “Perhaps sometime when you are in Washington you will come in and let me show you my collection.” Indeed, the boy did.
Smith suggests that her brother Bobby was the secret favorite of her parents, Rose and Joe Kennedy, Irish-Catholic Boston stock. Rose’s father, Honey “Fitz” Fitzgerald was the beloved mayor of Boston — political royalty.
Singing “Sweet Adeline” and reciting the classic “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” poem was the stuff of their childhood.
Joe’s dying young was followed by their sister “Kick,” a lively presence who married an Englishman destined to be a duke. She, too, died young in a plane crash. Eunice was “sporty” and such a force she might have been president if she wasn’t a girl. She founded the Special Olympics.
There are London days in Jean’s teens, as father Joe served as the ambassador to the Court of St. James (and gave Roosevelt bad advice about Germany and staying out of the war).
Nothing but the best might as well be written between the lines. Yet the Kennedys have a gift of being inclusive in their exuberant privilege, not running rampant with it simply for vainglory. You feel that you, too, are sailing on Nantucket Sound that summer day. Teddy, with the sweetest social nature, became a great sailor till nearly the end of his days, at age 77. He was the only brother to “comb gray hair,” as the elegiac Irish line goes. The artist Jamie Wyeth painted his friend Teddy sailing into the light.
Jack’s light touch comes through a letter to Jeannie: “I am most pleased to hear from you and am fully conscious of the honor.”
Call me nostalgic, because that’s exactly what I am this Thanksgiving.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
IMAGE: AFP Photo