Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

Maureen Callahan’s Review of Kennedy’s “Ask Not” Exposé

By meerna Jul11,2024
Maureen Callahan’s Review of Kennedy’s “Ask Not” Exposé

When the B-52’s first sang about “heroes falling to earth like a magnet from hell pulls me down,” JFK had only been dead for 15 years and was still a near-flawless national icon. Stories about his treatment of women were leaking out, but it wasn’t until the #MeToo era that we learned how horribly he and other respected and powerful men behaved.

Journalist Maureen Callahan worked for the New York Post and the Daily Mail — tabloids that never met a Kennedy they didn’t like to criticize. In her new book, “Ask Not,” she has stitched together a painful portrait of the depredations not just of John F. Kennedy but of three generations of Kennedy men. It’s a group portrait that reminds us that former President Donald Trump is no exception among powerful men.

Drawing on a wide range of sources, from obscure (the White House kennel keeper) to bestselling (Kitty Kelley) to her own reporting, Callahan takes a critical look at the Kennedy men through the prism of the unhappy and sometimes battered wives and girlfriends in their lives.

She traces the source of misogyny to Irish Catholic patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. in Gilded Age Boston and traces it anecdote by anecdote to JFK, RFK, Teddy, and a brood of baby boomers—boys hatched by Kennedy’s three wives, whom Callahan portrays as debased breeders and political props, driven mad and alcoholic. At the top is matriarch Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, a master procreator who gave birth to nine live children, including one who would become the 35th president and two future senators.

For the JFK sections, Callahan relies heavily on a wealth of secondary sources about White House orgies, parties, and the King of Camelot’s sexual addiction. He repeats allegations from Kitty Kelley’s 1978 book Jackie Oh! that her marriage to JFK at one point led to anorexia and depression, requiring electroshock therapy. Callahan again rejects unsubstantiated claims that either JFK or Robert F. Kennedy was somehow involved in Marilyn Monroe’s suicide.

It also tells the stories of women who later wrote or spoke about being college-age interns who were turned into Kennedy’s sex objects. Diana de Vegh was one of them, a third-year student at Radcliffe when she caught the eye of the married Massachusetts senator in 1958. Kennedy eventually seduced her in his Boston apartment. Her first sexual experience with him was quick and decidedly unromantic. “There was no kissing. No declarations of love,” she told Callahan in an interview. De Vegh was one of many young women who were later invited to the White House family quarters when Jackie was away.

Callahan has a keen eye for vivid detail. One of the most controversial anecdotes—the ones that reviewers and excerpt writers are already teasing out—is one she attributes to conversations with author William Manchester’s son, John, who shared details from two five-hour taped interviews between his father and Jackie that are sealed from the public until 2067. According to Callahan, Jackie told Manchester that she and Jack had sex the night before he died. But she provides no source for her shocking claim that Jackie kissed the dead president’s entire naked body while she was alone, “or so she thought,” in a Dallas hospital.

Anyone born after 1970 needs a reminder of the horrific story of Ted Kennedy leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to die a slow death in his submerged car while he walked away. And Callahan delivers. The gruesome details are devastating, and the fact that Teddy spent the next five decades in the public eye is evidence of the culture’s normalized misogyny.

Callahan writes that reporters routinely addressed Kopechne not by her last name but as “the blonde.” They often described the “Boiler Room girls” who worked for Bobby Kennedy, of which Kopechne was one, as “party girls,” and after Kopechne’s death, they were slandered by Kennedy’s attachés if they tried to talk about her.

The book is full of pregnancies and repeated miscarriages among wives who desperately tried to fulfill their duty to have children and failed. Jackie miscarried one child, lost a full-term baby at two days old, and had a stillborn while her husband was having fun with women on a boat in the Mediterranean. Joan, Ted’s wife, had three miscarriages. But together the three wives managed to raise a brood of boys, the Kennedy Third Gen, whom Callahan portrays as morally and intellectually weakened, spoiled, entitled, reckless, and as damaging to women as their fathers and grandfather.

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. survived a teenage heroin addiction but developed a sex addiction, which he described in a “sex memoir” first published by the New York Post. He wrote about being tormented by “demons of lust” and how horny women would helplessly “plunge” on him. Callahan tells the story of his wife, Mary Richardson’s, suicide, much of it drawn from details previously reported in the New York Post, including quotes from other mothers who recalled Mary begging for $20 for gas or food as her husband prepared to divorce her.

RFK Jr.’s older brother, Joseph Kennedy II, was carelessly driving an open Jeep on Nantucket in 1973, veering into the opposite lane, ejecting seven passengers. The accident left a local girl named Pam Kelley paralyzed for life. Callahan devotes a chapter to Kelley’s sad later life and her early death in 2020.

Madness, suicide, alcoholism, heartbreak, trauma, rape, and… murder. Michael Skakel, related by marriage to his aunt Ethel to RFK, was convicted of killing Martha Moxley in 2002. Another third-generation Kennedy, William Kennedy Smith (son of JFK and RFK’s sister Jean Kennedy Smith), was acquitted of raping Patricia Bowman in Palm Beach, Fla. His cousin JFK Jr. showed up at the hearing to show support, despite reportedly telling a friend that the Kennedy family “should have done something about Willie when he started doing this.” Callahan clarifies this: “meaning raping women.”

Bowman later told journalist Dominick Dunne that after raping her, Smith “looked at me, the calmest, most smug, most arrogant man” and said no one would believe her. The 1991 trial was a display of celebrity misogyny, during which Smith’s lawyer, Roy Black, portrayed Bowman as a psychotic drug addict who should not have been out with the Kennedy men at 3 a.m.

Callahan specifically notes the reputation of the golden boy who died too young. The eyes of JFK Jr.’s wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, are one of three pairs of eyes on the book’s cover (the other two are Jackie and Marilyn Monroe’s). Callahan portrays Bessette Kennedy as someone who regrets catching the eventual Kennedy prince. In the first chapter, Callahan relies on a book by ex-girlfriend Christina Haag for details of John’s reckless streak, “bordering on a death wish.” Callahan also claims—without citing a source—that Carolyn “really, really didn’t want to get on” the plane the night Junior insisted on flying together to Kennedy’s wedding.

It also reiterates unconfirmed National Enquirer reports that the couple were on the verge of divorce before she died in Junior’s small plane in 1999. “She wanted out of her marriage, but she felt trapped,” Callahan writes, quoting Carolyn — in the Enquirer article — as telling friends, “I can’t get a divorce. I’ll end up living in a trailer park, going crazy, saying, ‘I used to be married to JFK Jr.'”

The multigenerational cycle of abuse described in “Ask Not” is certainly not limited to the Kennedys. Entitled male predators, protection by a retinue of enablers, and silencing through bribery or litigation continue to underpin our national power structure. The anecdotes that make up this book are not new, but Callahan weaves them together in a way that makes the Kennedy home look like a Bluebeard castle of horrors.

Nina Burleigh is the author of seven books, including The Trump Women: Part of the Deal and, most recently, Zero Visibility Possible.

The Kennedys and the Women They Destroyed

Little, Brown. 400 pp. $32.50

By meerna

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