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Reading List: The Kennedy Men, by Laurence Leamer

Laurence Leamer's 2001 tome covering the lives of Joe, Edward, John F., Robert, and Teddy Kennedy from 1901 to 1963, The Kennedy Men, is the first book I finished in 2016 (though I started it back in September '15 (hey, it's 750 pages long)) and probably the longest book I've read word-for-word since I was in school. Such is my abiding fascination with this complex, charmed, and cursed American family that, in the 20th century, became nothing short of royalty in this country.

As the name suggests, the book treats as its main characters the men in the family, referencing the Kennedy women as side members of the cast; however, lest that ruffle the feathers of any of my female readers, you'll be delighted to know Leamer's first book on the Kennedy family was called The Kennedy Women. I plan to get to that book as soon as I give my self a little Kennedy-break and read through some other books that have been piling up on my nightstand. 

Here's a few bullet points on The Kennedy Men:

  • Not the right book for someone looking to gain an initial understanding of the Kennedy family and it's mystique. This isn't Kennedy Family 101, more like Kennedy Family 290 or something. You'll be treated to a lot of deep family history and salacious revelations that you might not want to hear or have the patience to read through. This book is one to read after you've heard all the myths and fables and want the inside story and have the time to pore over 750 pages to do it. In simpler words: not an introductory volume.
  • Focuses a lot on Joe's and Jack's philandering. To me this was perhaps the biggest revelation of the book. Sure I'd read about JFK and Marilyn Monroe, and Joe Kennedy and his long-time secretary, but The Kennedy Men makes you wonder how any of these guys, (eveen Edward and Teddy) had time for anything else other than chasing women. Jack particularly comes out of this book seeming like a naughty rich boy with the sex drive of a Billy goat, who learned early how to manipulate people and was expert at knowing what to think rather than why
  • Rosemary Kennedy....whoa!! I had NO IDEA the full extent of the story there and it still makes me shudder when I think about it. I'll leave that for you to investigate but suffice it to say Rosemary's story has got to be one of the darkest episodes in the chronicle of this family, that we know about anyway.
  • Goes into astonishing detail about JFK's chronic illnesses. That's right...illnesses. Apparently, by the time he was president, his back problems were so bad he could barely even sit down for long stretches at a time, not only causing him severe pain but also to have to take daily injections of pain medication. He also had Addison's disease, which has something to do with the adrenal gland, and so he had to take periodic hormone injections which colored his skin that healthy, tanned glow he always seemed to have. Also, he was chronically sick during his youth, which was surprising. 
You think you know this man; you probably don't.
  • To me, Joe (the father) has always been the most interesting of the Kennedy clan, and the first third of this book left me pretty well sated in terms of Joseph P. Kennedy lore. You'll learn a great deal about his rise from a well-to-do East Boston family to millionaire stock manipulator, film magnate, international business man, and ambassador to England, and how he ultimately fell on his political sword for the sake of his sons. If you are looking to deepen your quest for Kennedy knowledge, start with Joe.
  • All this is to say nothing about the excellent coverage this books brings to the lives of Edward (whom I knew almost nothing about), Bobby, and Teddy, who, let's face it, were influential but did not grab headlines like Jack or anchor the ship like Joe.
If you're looking for a book that really lets you backstage on the drama that was the Kennedy family in the first half of the 20th century, and leaves you feeling like you've been privy to some real insider information, this is it. Thankfully, Leamer does not go so far as to judge any of the participants in this drama, and -- apart from what is clearly an axe to grind against JFK paramour Judith Exner -- Leamer goes light on the editorializing and presents a balanced picture of the Kennedy family and those associated with it. 

I'd have liked to see him linger a bit more on the JFK assassination, but I can absolutely see why he did not; that'd be like starting another book just when he was nearing the end of this one. It was a wise choice to leave any of the controversy surrounding the assassination of JFK alone and stick to what is known. 

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