The Kennedys And The Women They Destroyed

Louis Bayard at The NY Times: In the opening sentence of her rage-swollen “Ask Not,” Maureen Callahan declares that her book “is not ideological or partisan.” It is, of course, both. Sometimes it is both in extremis. You need only cast an eye over its cover, which, like the book itself, is black and white and red all over. Bad men wronging good women: cheating on them, abandoning them, infecting them, turning them into alcoholics, leaving them for dead, raping and maiming and killing them.

That the men in this case are (mostly) Kennedys is meant to shock us, but the only shock by now is shock’s absence. Decades of reportage have left us with a grim roll call. Mary Jo Kopechne, slowly suffocating beneath three feet of Chappaquiddick black water. Pamela Kelley, thrown from a Jeep and paralyzed for life while the driver, a Kennedy, walked away with a $100 fine.

Not to mention the family’s own women: Joan Kennedy, cycling in and out of D.U.I. arrests and rehab; Mary Richardson Kennedy, the second wife of a current presidential candidate, hanging herself; Rosemary, the loveliest of the Kennedy daughters, muted and infantilized by a family-authorized lobotomy.

What does Callahan hope to add to this vale of tears? Only her residual and, yes, partisan and ideological suspicion that despite ample testimony (in many cases from the victims themselves), the Kennedy men have somehow gotten away with it all.

So unfurls her multigenerational perp walk, which begins, as it must, with Big Joe, the “financially and sexually rapacious man” who built a family fortune and a family to go with it. His Catholic wife doesn’t countenance non-procreative sex, so, without apology, he takes up with a sequence of mistresses, one of whom, the silent-film star Gloria Swanson, in her memoir described the least consensual of encounters.

Joe’s habit of treating women as, in Callahan’s words, “accessories, broodmares, chattel” was inevitably passed down to his sons. John Kennedy’s White House notably featured what one aide called “a conveyor belt of young women” running up and down the back stairs, “leaving blond hairs and bobby pins,” Callahan writes, “dripping water and passing their half-finished drinks to Secret Service agents as they scurried out the door, no doubt hearing that the first lady was on her way home.” In one particularly repellent act, she writes, the president commanded the 19-year-old intern he was having sex with to fellate one of his aides.

Travel forward a decade to Joe’s youngest son, Teddy, a senator whose widely known womanizing is described by one journalist as “barely personal and ultimately discardable encounters” that, in addition to being “a creepy way to act,” suggest “a severe case of arrested development, a kind of narcissistic intemperance, a huge, babyish ego that must constantly be fed.”

Who’s left? There’s John Kennedy Jr., whose crime was to kill himself, his wife and his sister-in-law in a plane he had no business flying. This exemplifies such Kennedyesque qualities as arrogance, entitlement and foolhardiness, but even Callahan can’t turn him into a sexual predator.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may have been every bit the misogynist Callahan describes, but he has been repudiated by his own family over some of his political positions. All this suggests that Callahan, despite her insistence that “the Kennedys remain a powerful and frequently destructive force,” is essentially writing a history.

That being the case, we should note that her sources include The National Enquirer, journalist-ragpickers like Kitty Kelley and a rotating crew of ax-grinders, including a low-level Senate aide whose claims of rampant cocaine abuse by Ted Kennedy fell apart pretty quickly under scrutiny. Whatever conspiracy theory has ever been floated about la famiglia — Joe Sr. molested Rosemary, Jack and Bobby killed Marilyn, Aristotle Onassis killed Bobby — gets to saunter in the daylight.

Let’s note, too, that not all the victimizers in the book have Kennedy in their name. (Onassis cheated on Jackie within two weeks of their wedding and arranged for paparazzi to photograph them having sex on a beach.)

Nor are all the victimizers men. Rose Kennedy, as Callahan acknowledges, was a cold and punitive mother who abandoned her children to fly off to Paris fashion shows, cut off her daughter Kick for marrying a Protestant and harassed her daughters-in-law whenever they fell out of line. Least forgivable, perhaps, was her abandonment of Rosemary at a Wisconsin facility, shrouded in silence for a quarter-century. “In our family,” Rose acknowledged, “if you’re not doing anything you’re left in the corner.”

In recent months, mostly in The Daily Mail, Callahan has trashed the likes of Britney Spears, Oprah Winfrey, Gisele Bündchen, Hillary Clinton, Taylor Swift, Judy Blume and, for perhaps the millionth time, Meghan Markle. Sisterhood is a sometime thing.

Finally, let’s put in a word for the agency and complexity of human beings. In the book’s final paragraph, Callahan reminds us that Jackie Kennedy Onassis chose to be buried not in New York, where she had enjoyed a successful career and her life’s most satisfying relationship, but in Arlington National Cemetery, alongside her philandering first husband and their two dead babies. Was it the babies she was circling back to? Was it Jack? Was it something else? This isn’t a book that can wrestle with those questions.

ASK NOT: The Kennedys and the Women They Destroyed | By Maureen Callahan | Little, Brown | 370 pp. | $32.50

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