President Kennedy’s sexual addiction: a review of Michael O’Brien’s latest biography
This post has to be about two stories, the first about John F. Kennedy’s sex addiction and the second about whether, why, and how this first story needs to be told in the first place. I’m just going to focus on the second story. This is a review of a book by Michael O’Brien, historian and Emeritus Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley (Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Madison).
Let’s get to the bare facts:
- O’Brien’s book is entitled, John F. Kennedy’s Women: The Story of a Sexual Obsession.
- It’s very inexpensive ($2.99).
- It’s very short and is only available in eb0ok formats (from “Now & Then: Digital Publishers of Serious Nonfiction Books”) through the usual distributers (iTunes, Amazon, B&N.com).
- Its sources are noted as follows:
- One of O’Brien’s sources for this book is one of his other books – John F. Kennedy: A Biography [992 pages] – which has been favorably reviewed as a substantial history that “brings balance to the life” of Kennedy, that “offers a serviceable consideration of JFK that’s as much a survey of the literature as it is a biography”, that “favors providing reliable information about events over speculating on emotions or the effects of various relationships”, and that “takes a more holistic approach” than do many earlier histories of the President.
Now, my read of this little book is that it’s an expansion of a chapter — “14. Married Life and Other Women” — in the big biography. Does O’Brien need to tell “The Story of a Sexual Obsession”? Do readers need to hear this story? Is there anything new? Or is the focus, as the main title would suggest, rather more on women, the story of women? On “John F. Kennedy’s Women”?
I do feel the main title is misleading, even if the publisher’s blurb begins to make it clear that the book is rather to chronicle “John F. Kennedy’s womanizing” and then to make some sense of that for us. Here are the sorts of questions that O’Brien’s little book answers or begins to provide some answers for:
- Which of Kennedy’s parents may have been most responsible for his eventual philandering? (As you can see from the publisher’s preview, O’Brien gets into this question very early: “Like many Irish-American women, Rose Kennedy, John’s mother, was exceptionally chaste, even within marriage; but her husband, Joseph P. Kennedy, became a notorious philanderer, and his behavior profoundly influenced his second son.” If you’ve read O’Brien’s John F. Kennedy: A Biography, then you may remember how he’s dealt with this question there.)
- How did John F. Kennedy view his brother’s commitment to marriage? How did he attempt to protect his sister from being pursued by philandering men?
- How and when did he lose his virginity? What were his sexual concerns, his fears and his proclivities?
- Who all did he sleep with, and who did he attempt to sleep with? Which woman associated with Adolf Hitler (actually photographed with the German leader)? Which Pulitzer Prize-winning author? Which Hollywood actresses? How did these women describe him?
- What did Jackie Kennedy know? What did his presidential staff know? Which philandering federal government men and which lobbiests worked with him? Who knew what?
- Why? Why did he do it? Was he a sexual addict? “In some ways Kennedy’s compulsive pursuit of women was similar to addictions to drugs and alcohol, but not completely,” writes O’Brien. How was Kennedy unlike the typical addict? If you don’t want to read the book, then you may want an answer to this question anyway. O’Brien suggests that JFK really may have been addicted to sex, which is why he starts the book looking at his early life, his family life, the influences of his parents, their religion, and their respective responses to the teachings of the Church. (In O’Brien’s substantial biography, he gets into the issue of Rose Kennedy’s Catholicism as it related to the sexual views and practices of Catholics then.)
Reading the book, we might then decide how to view President Kennedy’s sexual addition.
However, we might decide to do something else. We might listen to those to whom O’Brien seems to have referred to as John F. Kennedy’s Women. We might just change the title of this post, to note that the biography of Kennedy can only be understood well if the perspective of women around Kennedy is taken into account. O’Brien does do this, but like the title of my post his publisher and his subtitle make prominent, The Story of a Sexual Obsession. This is the weakness of this little work. It’s not entirely clear what O’Brien, writing a second biography of Kennedy, is trying to do with this expanded focus.
The best thing about O’Brien’s book is that it works in a few ways to give “John F. Kennedy’s Women” agency.
Rose Kennedy, for example, about whom her son John (or “Jack”) seemed to discredit publicly as a parent, is defended as the stronger, the better of his two parents. And O’Brien gives perspective to the views of other women such as Kathleen Kennedy, Jacqueline Bouvier, Marilyn Monroe, Judith Campbell, Marrietta Tree, and many others such as Mary Pitcairn, who when reflecting on John F. Kennedy’s behaviors and misbehaviors asked, “What kind of object is a woman?” Furthermore, if you look back to the “source” list above, then you’ll note the names of writers who O’Brien believes tried to blow the whistle on the womanizing of JFK. Nina Burleigh (for Mary Meyer), Judith Exner, Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Gloria Swanson, Gunilla Von Post, Laura Bergquist (about Fiddle and Faddle), Kitty Kelley, Liz Smith, and Joan Hitchcock (discussed by Maitland Zane) are women whose histories O’Brien gives some credence to.
O’Brien concludes his book by suggesting that Kennedy’s “scandals” made the American public distrust “politics and politicians” in general and caused the American press to enable such “[male] presidential misbehavior” as normal. He suggests that “the situation persists.” And yet earlier in the book, O’Brien seems to look for change, to ask why a book like his needs to be written. He looks both to women and to men as those who might have been (and therefore might still be) complicit in the problem of such “presidential misbehavior.” What may be needed is for more light to be shined, for more knowledge to be shared, for the ugly side of stories and of histories to be told. No more gentleman’s understandings ought to be tolerated, suggests John F. Kennedy’s Women: The Story of a Sexual Obsession; or, at least by reading the book, this is what one might infer from several women:
Maxine Cheshire noted that “In Washington, women all too often lie about their relationship with famous men—to get publicity, to even a score, to enhance their power.” From the era of Franklin Roosevelt the media had adhered to a gentleman’s understanding not to pry into the president’s personal life. As much self-protective of the press corps as the president, the attitude was, “If we’re going to blow the whistle on this guy, are we going to start telling about each other?” Still, the main reason the press didn’t investigate Kennedy’s womanizing is that most reporters were unaware of his private behavior. The columnist Betty Beale asserted that “the press was totally in the dark. I mean totally. The idea of the President having an affair with Marilyn Monroe or anyone else . . . well, it was just inconceivable.” UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas agreed. “I was right there every day,” Thomas said, “and I didn’t know a thing. Period.”