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President Kennedy’s sexual addiction: a review of Michael O’Brien’s latest biography

January 30, 2012

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.”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2012 5:47 pm

    How odd to see Helen Thomas, who has been the subject of scandal herself, being quoted above.

    I looked up the book Kennedy’s Women. There is a sample of the text on the publisher’s web site, and the first page begins:

    Millions of people around the world consider John F. Kennedy a great president. He tried to reduce the risk of nuclear holocaust by miscalculation. He was a catalyst for activism among the nation’s youth, as shown by his support for the Peace Corps. His major speeches on civil rights, détente with the Soviet Union, and the nuclear test ban were brilliant. Finally, he grew in office. The Kennedy of 1963 was a different, more mature, more capable leader than the Kennedy of 1961. “What was killed in Dallas was not only the president but the promise,” wrote the New York Times’ James Reston.

    On the other hand, there were unfortunate blemishes and failures on Kennedy’s record. Among them was a serious weakness involving his personal attitude toward women. He was nearly a pathological philanderer and was usually incapable of viewing a woman as anything but a sex object.

    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. While working in Hollywood in the 1920s, Joe, a wealthy businessman, rented a large home on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills where he often beguiled dazzling young women. With one prominent actress he had an extended sexual affair. In 1925, at age twenty-six, Gloria Swanson was Hollywood’s reigning sex goddess, earning about $1 million a year. In the late 1920s Swanson often came east to visit Joe and even accompanied him and Rose on a trip to Europe. Joe belonged to the Bronxville Field Club in Westchester County, New York, where the local newspaper reported that Swanson and Joe played tennis together at the club.

    I think we can safely say that with prose like this, O’Brien is not at any risk of winning the Pulitzer Prize. The writing is child-like. The second setence is ambiguous. The third sentence gets the preposition wrong (I hope he meant “by” and not “among”); the portion of the sentence after the comma is a non-sequitur. The “finally” in the fifth sentence is unfortunate, given the reference to his assassination in the seventh sentence. In the second paragraph, I have to wonder if there are “fortunate blemishes.” How does O’Brien determines that Kennedy was “nearly a pathological philander”? (I am not sure what a pathological philanderer is, and how O’Brien determines that Kennedy is not pathological but nearly pathological.) I could go on.

    I’ve seen high school students write more fluent essays. Must hearsay be badly written?

  2. January 30, 2012 6:14 pm

    I’ve seen high school students write more fluent essays. Must hearsay be badly written?

    Well, and high school students also learn to document their sources, to use footnotes, to cite with precision the material they’re gleaning information from. Yes, that guards the readers and the writers from authorial fancy, from plagiarism, and even from hearsay.

    (Is the ethos of a published emeritus professor any excuse for all the unintended questions O’Brien raises? Neither he nor his publisher tell us why this book, and why this book now? As I said, there’s nothing new except the condensation of various works to more sharply diagnose the President with sexual addiction. One reason I reproduced O’Brien’s list of sources is to give a sense that there is a body of work he has had to acknowledge. I should be clear, nonetheless, that though the book is full of direct quotations, he neither footnotes nor cites page numbers in the text.)

  3. January 30, 2012 10:27 pm

    O’Brien is most definitely not emeritus faculty at Madison. He is emeritus faculty at University of Wisconsin, Fox Valley.

    Perhaps you are not familiar with UW-Fox Valley. It is a two-year junior college.

    Arguably, the affairs with Exner and Monroe are relevant: the former had Mafia connections; the latter openly flirted with Kennedy (“Happy Birthday, Mr. President”) and had significant influence on American culture. But this book appears to be National Enquirer sort of stuff. For example, on page 9, O’Brien writes:

    Several women had unpleasant memories of their sexual encounters with Kennedy. “I was fascinated by him at the time,” said one woman, “but our lovemaking was so disastrous that for years later I was convinced I was frigid. He was terrible in bed, which I assumed was my fault. It wasn’t until I had a loving relationship with someone else that I realized how awful my affair with Jack had been.”

    I fail to understand any circumstances under which that bit of reportage could be worth printing (although I realize that this “book” is not actually printed.)

  4. January 31, 2012 7:16 am

    The University of Wisconsin – Fox Valley bio of O’Brien (which I link to in my post) and his ebook publisher’s bio (which I also linked to) both show that he is emeritus professor at UW – FV and that he has his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I’ve corrected my sloppy cut and paste job. Thanks for noting the difference between the two institutions. The University of Wisconsin – Fox Valley describes itself online in these terms: “a fully accredited two-year collegiate campus of the University of Wisconsin System.” The faculty members there necessarily focus on teaching, particularly the teaching of freshmen and sophomores, and not on research. If one takes the time to read the description of O’Brien’s history department, one easily notices that there are but two faculty members and neither (yet) at the professor rank.

    How did you find “page 9″? I read O’Brien’s ebook in kindle format on a PC, and there aren’t page numbers.

    I agree that the Exner and the Monroe affairs were more publicized and may have been most significant to Americans in general because of the risks of a president entering into such. The reporting of these two affairs, nonetheless, was never free of any National Enquirer sort of salacious sell and push. You saw how O’Brien complicates the way Exner attempted to tell the stories that allegedly pertained to herself with Kennedy. He seems to be perpetuating something. In his big history of Kennedy, O’Brien asks whether Exner had “concocted all or most of her story to sell a book?” (page 686).

    Indeed, one might ask this of O’Brien, at least the “to sell a book?” part of his question.

    Note that television reporters are breaking a story about an alleged JFK affair. Last night, Brian Williams of NBC Rock Center announced next-week’s airing of an interview of Mimi Alford by Meredith Vieira. Notice the pre-airing announcement headline:

    Rock Center: JFK White House Intern: ‘It was Mrs. Kennedy’s bedroom’

    Season 2012 : Episode 0130

    Jan. 30: Mimi Alford, a former White House intern during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, spoke exclusively to Rock Center’s Meredith Vieira about her time as an intern in 1962 and the secret she’s kept for half a century

    As you may know, Alford has recently written a book, Once Upon a Secret, due out in early February 2012. In May of 2009, Mokoto Rich for The New York Times broke the story of Alford’s writing the book: “Paramour of Kennedy Is Writing a Book.”

    Perhaps O’Brien noticed this announcement and decided he’d re-work in January 2012 one of the chapters of his Kennedy 2005 biography into the ebook. Strangely, in the ebook, O’Brien fails to mention Alford (then Mimi Beardsley) by name although he did so earlier, in his big biography. Compare the two versions:

    [O’Brien’s original sentence to start a paragraph on page 692, with the next sentence added here for context –] A young White House intern, Mimi Beardsley, performed sexual favors for the President during two summers. Two young White House employees, Fiddle and Faddle, also regularly had sex with the President.

    [O’Brien’s ebook rewrite –] In the White House meanwhile, a young intern performed sexual favors for President Kennedy over several summers. Two young White House employees, nicknamed Fiddle and Faddle, also regularly serviced the president.

    See how O’Brien not only deletes this individual’s name from the sentence in his ebook but how he also changes the phrase “during two summers” to the more exaggerated “over several summers” (and with regard to other alleged affairs, he turns his clause “regularly had sex with the President” into the more salacious “regularly serviced the president”).

  5. January 31, 2012 6:06 pm

    The reference to page 9 is to the pagination given by the publisher at the preview at its web site.

  6. February 19, 2012 1:49 am

    Here’s the Huffington Posts takes on the Mimi Alford interview and on Meredith Vieira’s take on the interview. Links to the videos are at the end of the two HuffPo pieces:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/09/mimi-alford-interview-meredith-vieira_n_1265929.html

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/07/meredith-vieira-mimi-alford-exclusive-interview_n_1261042.html?ref=media%3Cbr%20/%3E

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