Camelot, our Emerald royalty

So many books have been written about the Kennedy family that authors often seek new ways to slice its history: younger Kennedys, female Kennedys, one particular Kennedy. In his new book, The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, Thomas Maier has chosen to focus on the family’s Irish Catholic background.

“Though some call them ‘America’s royalty,’ a more apt analogy may be the Irish chieftains of old, the kings of an emerald isle who, according to legend, inspired and led large groups of followers,” Maier writes.

Maier retells many Kennedy stories, but through an emerald-green lens, emphasizing anything to do with Irishness or Catholicism. He begins by describing President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Ireland, during which JFK visited the old family homestead in New Ross — from whence his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy had voyaged to Boston back in 1848.

“As if coming full circle, as if completing some generational journey begun by his forefathers more than a century ago,” Maier writes, “Kennedy returned to Ireland for a state visit in June 1963, the only Roman Catholic ever elected to the White House and the first American president to come to the Emerald Isle while in office.”

The Kennedys, in Maier’s depiction, in many ways epitomized the Irish-American immigrant family. He moves from Patrick Kennedy’s arrival in the United States to the political career of his son, P.J., a ward boss in Boston, to the rise of P.J.’s son, financier and Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the famed nine Kennedy children (including JFK, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy [D-N.Y.], and Sen. Edward Kennedy [D-Mass.].)

While much of the book is devoted to Joe and his sons, particularly John and Robert, Maier also delves into the lives of various other family members, including the devoutly religious mother of the clan, Rose; her daughter Kathleen, who caused a scandal when she married a British Protestant; her son Joe Jr., killed in World War II; and her daughter Jean Kennedy Smith, ambassador to Ireland during the Clinton administration.

In his effort to shed an Irish light on the Kennedys’ history, Maier describes JFK’s stepping into politics to replace his fallen brother, Joe Jr., as typical of Eire’s traditions.

“Wrapped often in hyperbole, the story of Jack’s entry into the political arena sounds like some Irish legend, of one chieftain lost in battle being replaced by another,” Maier writes. “The theme of a brother picking up the mantle for his fallen sibling recurs throughout Irish history in heroes such as Brian Boru or in the battle legends of Vinegar Hill.”

He also opines that father Joe’s attitude toward his children was rooted in an Irish pattern: “Joe Kennedy’s familial control over his adult sons was reflected in many examples of Irish Catholic family life. Like his older brother, killed near age thirty, Jack was still unmarried at age twenty-eight. The center of his emotional life remained focused on the large family created by his parents, a common Irish trait. … Without a wife to counsel him, Jack was particularly susceptible to his father’s influence.”

But Maier’s book — which includes some wonderful photos — is not simply a recasting of familiar tales. Maier, a reporter for Newsday, has sparked some controversy, revealing Jacqueline Kennedy’s suicidal thoughts after JFK’s assassination, as confessed to a sympathetic priest, Father Richard McSorley, who gave her tennis lessons at Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s house. “Do you think God would separate me from my husband if I killed myself?” Maier quotes Jackie as saying. “It is so hard to bear. … I feel as if I am going out of my mind at times. Wouldn’t God understand that I just want to be with him?”

In addition, he describes Joe’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering with the Vatican — including an episode in 1958, as JFK prepared his presidential bid. Joe, as Maier describes it, wrote his old friend Enrico Galeazzi, a high-ranking Vatican layman, expressing his own willingness to be a conduit between CIA Director Allen Dulles and the Vatican. “I think that if there is anything that you want me to do, you could let me know at once and I will contact him,” Joe wrote, continuing, “He [Dulles] is very aware of the fact that Jack may be the next president and while he has always been very friendly to me, I think that he is more than ever anxious to please.”

Writes Maier: “Whether Jack Kennedy, well under way with his presidential plans, knew or approved of such an extraordinary promise by his father is not certain. To be sure, though, Jack’s political opponents, if they were aware of this letter’s existence, may very well have raised serious questions about the candidate’s independence of Rome.”

If you’re at all interested in the Kennedys — and a lot of people are — Maier’s book provides an intriguing take on an always-fascinating family.

Book reviewed:
The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings
By Thomas Maier
676 pages; $29.95
Basic Books, 2003