If there is little earth-rattlingly new to say about Jack and Jackie Kennedy, their private lives, their restive travels together and separately, the international aristocrats, butchering dictators, arms dealers, piratical shipping magnates, aging debutantes, desiccated diplomats, dress designers, fashionable hairdressers and antiques experts they cultivated along with the obligatory politicians, reporters and other useful and often loathed Washington insiders, Sally Bedell Smith at least says everything worth mentioning about these matters in one book. Everything, that is, relating to the social ambience of the White House (along with countless other Kennedy residences, borrowed houses, hotels booked by the floor, yachts and scattered embassies) and of the Kennedy marriage during Jack's vivacious, if systemically ineffectual and abbreviated, presidency.
"Grace and Power" reads like something you'd be giddy to find in your dentist's waiting room, a gracefully written tell-all that really does tell a story worth reading. Smith has wisely eschewed the corny evocations of Camelot that Jackie promoted after Jack's assassination, incarnated ad nauseam in hagiographies by mesmerized apostles like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Theodore Sorensen and William Manchester and lesser lights such as Kenneth O'Donnell, David Powers and a clutch of tenacious barnacles left over from Jack's "formative years" at various schools, his military service and a faraway time when he needed procurers rather than beards.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy's years of power, in Smith's account, were a constant swirl of sycophants of every known description (above a certain income level). While evenings of rampant boozing, sexual hijinks and adultery among famous names emit a somewhat smelly species of glamour, the picture Smith paints of the "fun" that followed every formal state dinner and stuffy function leaves one wondering how many of his government-employed coterie, or Kennedy himself, managed the reality of statecraft. Smith wonders what he might have accomplished had he paid more attention to the affairs of state and not pushed aside his powerful legislative ally, Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
Smith has the salient advantage of writing at a wide temporal distance from the frantic post-assassination myth-making and subsequent deification of JFK, enabling her to parse facts from the key players' convenient memories and to avail herself of 40 years of ever-burgeoning scholarly research.
She has several surprises to add to those historic 1,000 days. Her detailed book is hardly prurient, but it does clock -- and I do mean clock -- JFK's infidelities, which emerge here in a somewhat different light than we've seen them before. He seems to have had rotating shifts of mistresses of long duration, few of them famous or even named in earlier accounts, including at least two White House interns. He seldom spent two consecutive nights with any of them; yet they remained in his orbit, ever available, for years at a time. (One, Helen Chavchavadze, had a serious breakdown when the CIA began intimidating her over a security clearance.) Kennedy was hardly discreet about his womanizing; he once told British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that if he went without sex for three days he got a terrible headache.
Moreover, the popular cant that the press "didn't go after people's personal lives" in that long-ago era has little to do with Kennedy's immunity. His best friend was Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Another intimate was Philip Graham, the newspaper's owner (until his spectacularly public breakdown at a press convention in Phoenix in January 1963 and subsequent suicide). Kennedy's charisma was such that reporters scrambled to gain access, which he calculatedly bestowed. He could banter about his sex life all night over Scotches in complete assurance that none of these news mavens would ever repeat a word of it in print.
Often when Jackie was in attendance, JFK's squeeze du jour would be at White House dinners accompanied by a beard. No fool she, Jackie once walked into JFK's office with a visiting French diplomat to discover a young, attractive woman there, Smith writes. "This is the girl who's allegedly sleeping with my husband," she told the startled visitor in her impeccable French.
"Grace and Power" is stuffed with resonant names from yesteryear, the menus of state dinners, a roster of imported entertainers and an inventory of what Jackie wore when she deigned to appear, a sort of day-by-day recounting of the opulent off-hours of the rich and powerful. We learn that at the height of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev thoughtfully sent the Kennedys a delicious tub of Beluga caviar.