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Going inside the Kennedys' bedroom

A new book, based on interviews with many in the inner circle -- some for the first time -- relates how Jackie dealt with the open secret of JFK's infidelities.

May 29, 2004|Ellen Baskin | Special to The Times

In these days of rapidly changing technology and built-in obsolescence, nothing in our culture seems to last long -- except, that is, people's fascination with all things Kennedy.

There have been enough Kennedy-based movies and miniseries to spawn their own network (soon we can add "Jack and Bobby," a WB television series about two modern-day brothers who are not the Kennedy's but who are being groomed for politics), and a forest of trees has been felled in the family's name: More than 600 books have been written about the Kennedys, with at least four new titles coming out this year.

However, according to author Sally Bedell Smith, despite all the volumes in print, "There had never been a book about the Kennedys and their circle that traced all the relationships, showing the intersection between the private lives and the public decisions." And so her book, "Grace and Power, the Private World of the Kennedy White House," arrives to fill that gap, the latest addition to the Jack and Jackie oeuvre.

142 interviews

Smith, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, has previously written biographies on CBS founder William Paley, Pamela Harriman and Diana, Princess of Wales. No stranger to voluminous research into the lives of the rich and powerful, she begins "Grace and Power" with an impressive cast of characters she calls "the Kennedy Court," including members of the Kennedy family, JFK's administration, advisors, friends -- and several of the president's lovers. There are 42 in all, 28 of whom were alive while Smith was doing her research; she interviewed 20 of them. All told, Smith conducted 142 interviews and pored over 100 books before sitting down to write.

The effort paid off. Her book, which covers only the time from John F. Kennedy's 1960 election until his death in 1963, abounds with details, from the title of the novel JFK read in the transitional months before his inauguration ("The Warden" by Anthony Trollope) to Jackie's tendency to swallow a lot when she was tense to the value (in both 1960s and 2004 dollars) of the furniture and artifacts Jackie wheedled out of benefactors for her famed White House renovation.

One fascinating addition to Kennedy lore is the character of Frank Finnerty. "He was Jackie's secret confidante, and talking to him helped to answer a question that I had going into the book," Smith reveals, sitting in her Beverly Hills hotel during the final leg of her book tour. (Coincidentally, it's 10 years to the day since Jackie's death.) "How did she cope? With all of her husband's womanizing, the magnitude of her role -- where was her release?" asks Smith, a petite brunet, sporting the kind of timeless, tasteful attire and pearl accessories that would have worked in the Kennedy era.

Hints about foreplay

The answer, she believes, was Finnerty, who speaks on the record for the first time in "Grace and Power." A cardiologist and neighbor of Bobby Kennedy, he met Jackie in 1961 when she sprained an ankle after being lured into one of the family's legendary touch football games. According to Finnerty, after he helped her that afternoon, Jackie called him regularly, speaking candidly about whatever was troubling her, including the president's infidelity and her own sex life with him.

Finnerty apparently offered her some helpful foreplay hints, even assisting in devising an acceptable way to present them to the president. Jackie told him she'd sought guidance from a priest, who recommended she talk to her obstetrician about the delicate subject.

How did Smith know that Finnerty was telling the truth about his unique, heretofore unheard-of relationship with Jackie? "There's no paper trail for somebody like that," she admits. "You have to go with your instincts. In talking to him, his insights into Jackie and the way she spoke could only have come from somebody who had spent some time with her."

Finnerty was not the only one to break decades of tomb-like silence. Another was Helen Chavchavadze, who spoke to Smith at length about her affair with JFK while he was president. Smith believes they and others who spoke to her have come forward now because both JFK and Jackie are dead, and as they're getting older they want to set the record straight. "Helen Chavchavadze said, 'I wanted to come out of the shadows. My experience with him is part of who I am, and it's part of who he was.' "

Kennedy's extra-curricular sex life was an open secret to much of Washington at the time. "The membrane between the press and the president was very, very thin," Smith says. "And he had a particularly special relationship with them. He loved the company of reporters."

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