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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)

I approached "The Kennedy Women" with some dread. Its size is daunting. I felt the very title set up a false premise with its implication that there was something admirable, even exemplary, about the Kennedy women when, in fact, they were defined by the family men. I wondered what new material there was to add to the scores of books that have already been published on the family. The family's matriarch, Rose Kennedy, once called her own kin "a nation unto themselves," but she clearly had no idea that this nation would provide a cottage industry for dozens of biographers.

Leamer has done an exhaustive and admirable amount of reporting. The book is filled with new material about Rose Kennedy's early life and Kathleen Kennedy's time in England during the war. Leamer was given Kathleen's letters by the family, and they are fascinating documents that reveal her desperation to be accepted by her parents. Leamer also chronicles Joe Kennedy's appalling years as ambassador to the Court of St. James's, a stint marked by such anger from Franklin Roosevelt that after his last harsh words to Kennedy he ordered his secretary to "never let that man in here again." The entire story of Joe Kennedy's mutilation of his retarded daughter, Rosemary, is also retailed, as are the details of Jean Kennedy's youthful self-importance and moments of entitlement--which foreshadow the behavior and brutish personality of her son, William Kennedy Smith.

"The Kennedy Women's" strength however, is also its weakness. Leamer lacks the historical overview or compelling narrative vision that has made such biographies as Robert Caro's studies of Lyndon Johnson definitive works of history. At times, I felt overwhelmed by the author's inability to streamline some of his material. This is not to say I did not happily spend several long plane rides in the last month with "The Kennedy Women"--and I was rewarded with many fine anecdotes and scenes: gossip as insight.

Unfortunately, no detail or moment is too small for Leamer, and at times there is a glut of information. We learn that Joe Kennedy had the largest long-distance telephone bill in America; that Rose Kennedy wore the wrong gloves to be presented to the queen; that Eunice had to sleep with earplugs and an eye mask. It is all here, sometimes far too much of it, the bottom pinching, the alcoholism of Pat Lawford, Joan Kennedy and Ted, as well as Jean Kennedy Smith's purported affair with Alan Jay Lerner.

Infidelities and craven opportunism permeate the narrative, but what is lacking is the author's sense of the political vision of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, which captivated a generation. Leamer is more interested in the personalities than the politics of the Kennedy White House, detailed in the historian Richard Reeves' fine study, "President Kennedy." In Leamer's White House, Eunice bombards her brother on the subject of mental health to such a degree he often avoided her calls; Jackie tells Oleg Cassini that she doesn't want "all the fat women in America" to wear her dresses, Jack Kennedy treats Arthur Schlesinger with a surprising offhandedness that borders on contempt. After Schlesinger attempted to take credit for advising the President about the Bay of Pigs, the President reportedly snapped: "I'll tell you what Artie can advise on. He can devote all of his mental capacity to advising Jackie on . . . furniture." Leamer's barb at Schlesinger seemed a bit gratuitous to me and I wondered if Schlesinger had refused to cooperate with him.

Leamer is adept at describing how the Kennedy women learned not to see, viewing character flaws and horrendous amoral behavior as "a thread that if unraveled would ruin the entire suit." Rose Kennedy's tendency to push away from pain all of her life might have been a legacy of her mother, Josephine Mary (Josie) Hannon. As a child, Josie Hannon, was given the responsibility to watch over her younger sister, Elizabeth, and a friend. The two little girls accidentally drowned in a pond; Josie's father laid out their two bodies in his parlor as a rebuke to his older daughter. This might have sent another child into the nunnery, but young Josie learned to hide all emotions behind a mask of tranquillity and she escaped her family very young to marry John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, who became the notorious Boston mayor.

Once in the middle of her husband's 1913 campaign for mayor, Josie received a black-bordered letter saying her husband was involved with a woman named Toodles. Honey Fitz was forced out of the race, but Josie refused to look at the shadows of this relationship, as Rose would someday refuse to acknowledge the shadows in her own relationship with Joe Kennedy. Although Honey Fitz doted on his daughter, Rose, he was filled with bitterness that she chose Joe Kennedy for a groom. Honey Fitz had once given Rose the grandest deb party Boston had ever seen, but her wedding was modest and tainted by anger as Honey Fitz and Joe almost came to fisticuffs at the reception.

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