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Stand By Your Men : THE KENNEDY WOMEN, By Laurence Leamer (Villard Books: $27.50; 796 pp.)

September 11, 1994|Marie Brenner | Marie Brenner is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her most recent book is "House of Dreams: The Collapse of an American Dynasty" (Avon)

The Kennedy women, like their brothers and husbands, were trained to merchandise the family mythology, no matter what. They were pressed into service most effectively in late October, 1960, the final week of the presidential campaign. Across America, television viewers turned on their sets to see "At Home With the Kennedys," one of the earliest attempts to sell a presidential candidate as if he were a mere celebrity. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the candidate's wife, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, his mother, and all of his sisters except for Pat Lawford sat stiffly in a living room and talked about Jack Kennedy's personal life. The sisters, Eunice and Jean, burbled about their lives at Hyannis--the houses near each other, the children's horseback rides and swims. For the 1960 audience, these exotic women were like birds of paradise, and America, newly prosperous, was captivated by the illusion of their lives.

In the days after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' recent death, snippets from this commercial were aired frequently. How young all the Kennedy women looked! They were hardly out of their 20s, and it showed: They were proper Sacred Heart girls, sitting with their ankles crossed as the nuns had taught them. And, as if it were part of their catechism, they had already learned how to camouflage a lifetime of family secrets.

Sitting beside a tentative and delicate Jackie was her mother-in-law, Rose, in a good suit, her cold ambitions apparent even through a 1960 camera eye. Rose's cadence was robotic: Isn't Jack lucky he found a wife who is fond of campaigning! Jackie's response was equally stiff and equally false. "I've always enjoyed campaigning so much, Mrs. Kennedy. Your son, Teddy, is the campaign manager, as you know. . . ." How could anyone in 1960 say that the Kennedy women, despite being Catholic, did not represent the best of America? "At Home With the Kennedys" is credited with being the final salvo in J.F.K.'s narrow victory.

Would history have been different if the American public had known that the mystique of this glamorous family was based on a pack of lies? By this time, of course, Jackie, very pregnant, was desperate, miserable in her marriage. She was an ambitious, rather fey young woman mired in the contradictions of what it truly meant to be a Kennedy woman. She was surrounded by evasions and half-truths and had already debated leaving Jack. Off-camera as well, Pat Kennedy Lawford's marriage was a shambles of alcohol and indifference. The exuberant Kathleen (Kick) Kennedy and her older brother, Joe Jr., were long dead; Jack Kennedy was suffering in secret from Addison's disease, and the women in the family had learned to live with the horror of their retarded sister Rosemary's lobotomy, the result of a decision made cravenly by their father, Joseph Kennedy.

For anyone with a conscience in the America of 1960, Joe Kennedy was a sleaze who had supported appeasement before the war and he was personally repulsive as well, often running his hands up and down the thighs of his daughters' friends and talking about which women were great lays.

Ahead of this family were the glory years of Camelot and then murders, drug addictions, Chappaquiddick, William Kennedy Smith's rape trial, more alcoholism and lies; and courtiers who would build up their image, perhaps because, as Jackie once wrote, the family was like "carbonated water when everyone else was flat."

The Kennedy women gathered again more recently for Jackie Onassis' funeral in late May. I watched them as they appeared at the wake and in the church--indefatigable, almost jaunty, a Kennedy-esque way to grieve. The wake was as raucous as Ethel's yearly reunions at Hickory Hill, repelling many of Jackie's closest New York friends. The sisters, who had called Jackie "the deb," seemed as if they were at a cocktail party, one friend told me. One sister had sat at Jackie's bedside as she slipped into a coma, narrating loudly, "So-and-so says they love you, Jackie!!"

At the funeral on Park Avenue, Ethel Kennedy bounded out of her car with her son Joe Kennedy Jr., smiling and waving at the hundreds of reporters gathered on the street as if she were on a campaign stop. It is a commonplace of biographers, including Leamer, to tacitly criticize this family for such boisterous vulgarity, for its refusal to look at shadows, to avoid pain at any cost. And yet the Kennedys have produced a President, an attorney general, a senator and dozens of grandchildren who retain a ferocious loyalty to the myth.

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