Certain things come with the territory. Jack Kennedy, born in 1917 in the spring of the next-to-last year of World War I, was the second son of nine children. That’s important to know. The first son is expected to be what the parents are looking for. Realizing that notion early, he becomes their ally. They want him to be like them – or, more accurately and better yet, what they long to be.
Joseph Kennedy, a titan of finance, whose murky early connections helped him bring riches and power but never the fullest respect, had married in 1914, after a seven-year courtship, Rose Fitzgerald. The pious daughter of the colorful Boston mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, she launched their substantial family when, nine months later, she presented her husband with his son and heir, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. For the proud couple, he would be their bridge both to joining and mastering the WASP society from which they, as Roman Catholics in early twentieth-century America, were barred.
Such stand-in status meant, for the young Joe, that he had to accept all the terms and rules put forth by those whose ranks he was expected to enter. The idea was to succeed in exactly the well-rounded manner of the New England Brahmin. Above all, that meant grades good enough to keep up at the right Protestant schools, and an ability to shine at sports, as well. In this last instance, there was no doubt about the most desirable benchmark of achievement. The football field was not just where reputations were made and popularity earned, it was where campus legends were born.
Joseph Kennedy’s handsome eldest boy would prove himself equal to the task. Entering Choate, the boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, where he was a student from the age of fourteen to eighteen, he quickly made his mark. A golden youth, he became the headmaster George St. John’s ideal exemplar. Transcending his origins – which meant getting past the prejudices St. John was said to hold for his kind, the social-climbing Irish – Joe Jr., with his perfect body and unquestioning, other-directed mind, seemed to embody the Choate ethos without breaking a sweat.
A second son such as Jack Kennedy, arriving as he did two years later, finds himself faced with that old familiar tough act to follow. And, of course, embedded in the soul of any second male child is this Hobson’s choice: to fail to match what’s gone before guarantees disappointment, to match it guarantees nothing.
You have to be original; it’s the only way to get any attention at all – any good attention, that is.
Jack Kennedy, almost as soon as he got to Choate, quite obviously put himself on notice not to be a carbon copy. He was neither a “junior” nor would he be a junior edition. He would be nothing like the much-admired Joe, nothing like the Choate ideal. What he brought, instead, was a grace his brother – and Choate itself – lacked.
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