My new pine bookcase runs along almost the entire length of the dining room. It was almost filled within an hour of delivery, with a selection of political and travel books and many of my biographies, an eclectic collection which includes Fidel Castro, Dorothy Wordsworth and Angie Bowie. I wander into the dining room more frequently now, just to admire the books. Sometimes I rearrange their order and, from time to time, I will open a much loved volume and savour a paragraph or two. Perhaps on one of these shelves there is at least one book which will merit consideration as my new “favourite”.
Guests sitting at the dining table often ask, ‘Hmm, are you interested in the Kennedys, by any chance?’ Almost every book on the first three shelves has the word “Kennedy” in its title.
The Kennedys have always had a special place in my life. When I was small I frequently used to go the White House to play with John and Caroline in the afternoon; some time after Watch with Mother and before Robin Hood. Well, okay, the White House was a large fireguard which was propped against the dining room wall and covered in a sheet. At least it seemed large to me at the time, but then I guess I could probably stand comfortably under the dining table. Clearly, I had absorbed my mother’s enthusiasm for the new president and his family, creating my own Camelot in a small part of Lancashire.
Those visits to a mythical Washington DC were to be curtailed cruelly one Friday night, just before the Harry Worth show. Time stood still as, following the ominous announcement of a newsflash, we waited to hear what dreadful news could warrant an interruption of the television schedule. Then we heard that John F Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. A few days later, as I was watching the news with my mother, we saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot by Jack Ruby, live on black and white TV. At least that’s how I remember it. The news was becoming more spectacular than television films, with more shootings than Rawhide or Cheyenne.
My mother had been a great fan of JFK and, now I think of it, with her dark hair, wide smile and sense of style, she had a passing resemblance to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, although I doubt they would have had anything in common. My appreciation of politics at the time extended to Robin (Richard Green) and his band of merry men redistributing wealth from the Normans to the poor. I had a hazy idea that the Russians, who were mainly beautiful fur-hatted women, were the enemy. They weren’t dangerous; they always seemed to be quickly disarmed and usually changed sides. However, my parents, having recently lived through the Cuban missile crisis, must have been terrified that the Russians or Cubans were behind the president’s death and anxious about the consequences. I had no idea though. They hid it well.
Although I did not know it then, we had our family bunker prepared “under-the-stairs”. There there was a radio and a stockpile of canned luncheon meat, peaches and carnation milk to keep our family going in the event of a nuclear winter. I recall my mother once saying that if there was a nuclear war then being a survivor would be worse than being dead. Some years later she must have decided that world peace was assured and the canned contents of the emergency food store slowly emerged to grace the tea table on Sundays. Quite.
1968 has acquired the moniker “the year of revolt”. It was hard not to be aware of politics. The Vietnam war dominated the news and Martin Luther King had only recently been buried when I remember discussing Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy’s prospects of survival with my school friends. He had been shot in L.A. the day before. We quickly concluded, sadly, that there were none. By the age of sixteen, my appetite for American politics, fueled by the media frenzy about Watergate, had grown. I have acquired autobiographies of most of the players in the scandal. I was delighted when some American girls came on a visit to our school and eagerly interrogated them about their opinion on the guilt, or otherwise, of Richard Nixon. They feigned to know nothing about politics and certainly not of Watergate, which could well have been true. However, if they did they must have felt personally humiliated that their president was seen by the world as a liar and a crook. As my passion for all things American continued, I packed my suitcase with library books, including Ted Sorenson’s book on JFK, for a school trip by train to Preston’s twin-town, Nimes, in the south of France. I have travelled light ever since.
My Kennedy collection includes serious political appraisals, family sagas, Hollywood sleaze, a Mafia mistress’s kiss-and-tell and quotations and speeches. I found William Manchester’s book which described JFK’s assassination and its aftermath compelling. The book was responsible, I think, for the deliberate construction of the myth of Camelot, even though it resulted in Manchester falling out with his friend Jackie Kennedy.
I enjoyed every word of Arthur Schlesinger’s weighty biography of RFK when I first read it. Indeed, I think I have read it twice. As I look at the tightly printed sentences on the thin paper I realise that it will not be read again, not by me, anyway.
It wasn’t until I was at university that I read, for the first time, a book which alleged a conspiracy about JFK’s assassination. Over the years I collected many tomes on the subject. Although many included spurious clues and dubious coincidences, it was clear to me that there was a second gun man on the grassy knoll. I really thought everyone knew that, and was shocked when an American colleague told me such ideas were only held by wacky conspiracy theorists. Well, I don’t think that 9/11 was a government plot, but I do think there was a conspiracy to kill JFK, although by whom I am not so sure.
My library of JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King assassination stories has grown, my interest often re-ignited by a documentary or film. The assassinations can’t fail to intrigue lovers of a good mystery. An unknown girl in a polka dot dress running away from a murder heard giggling and shouting, “We shot him! We shot him! We shot Senator Kennedy” would be a great way to start a crime novel. On the other hand it seems to be rather odd behaviour from someone supposedly involved in a complex political murder. So many of the theories around the assassination of RFK seem to belong in the land of fiction, not least, perhaps, in the pages of the Manchurian Candidate. Whether there was a conspiracy to murder all three politicians or not, one clear outcome of the three murders was to remove the leaders and political hopes of a generation, long before the unrelenting prying into their personal lives was to tarnish their reputations and legacy.
Some of these books are fading from my memory, now, though I enjoyed a recent acquisition about the Kennedy women. The great mystery is why these women put up with so much bad behaviour on the part of their menfolk, although in Jackie’s case the solution seems to be money, and lots of it. The Kennedys still sell, new books are still being written, but I have no plans to purchase any more. I don’t want an interest to become an obsession. Besides, is there anything very new to say? There are a lot of new books on new topics and ideas out there which are waiting to be read.
Two Amazon purchases fell through the letterbox following an impulsive few moments on the internet a few days earlier. David Talbot’s “Brothers: the Hidden History of the Kennedy Years” which, after tediously repeating that by “brothers” he really means that all the aides were like brothers, delivers some interesting new insights. JFK speechwriter, the Unitarian Ted Sorenson; the gung-ho attitude of some of the American generals; the JFK administration’s later dealings with Cuba, Khrushchev and Vietnam and JFK’s “American University” speech all make this book worth a read. The villains in this book are the Cuban mafia in exile with various rogue elements of the government.
I confess I couldn’t resist C. David Heymann’s “Bobby and Jackie, a Love Story”. I felt it demonised Bobby’s wife, Ethel, whether deserved or not, in order to romanticise and validate the affair of the brother and sister-in-laws. All the elements of crime fiction, complex political intrigue, who done it, (in this case LBJ and the mob) and a romance are here. Presented as fiction, this would all seem quite improbable and, really, it includes no leading characters that you could actually like. As biography it serves as an easy-to-read guilty pleasure.