TWO MONTHS AGO the personalities page of
Newsweek carried two photos, juxtaposed, of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Prince Andrew of Great Britain. I forget what it was they were doing that week, or whether Koo was involved, but the placement of the photos stays in the mind.
This same monarchical conceit is present in Growing Up Kennedy and The Third Generation, as in the former's chapter headings, for instance: "David in Exile"; "John--Prince Disarming"; "Reluctant Princess Caroline." In such context, references to "the sovereign touch of a Kennedy" are not out of place. Friends of the family are part of a court called "The Kennedy Auxiliary." When the authors change metaphorical gear, they do not downshift, hence this now sadly ironic passage about Robert F. Kennedy Jr. being urged to run for public office in 1982 uses a higher metaphor: "he turned them down flat, agreeing with friends that he had to prove himself in some way before he accepted the chalice." Elsewhere a campaign worker remarks there were those who wanted to "touch the hem of their garments." Figure of speech, but all of a piece. The text of The New Generation is more straightforward: "we note the milestones of their lives with the same proprietary affection the British lavish on the Royal Family." A subsequent chapter lets it all hang out: "Think of the influences on the new generation of Kennedy children as a vast and colorful tapestry, richly embroidered and vividly detailed, a pageant of mythic people and awesome events, with famous slogans rampant on a field of memory." Er, if you insist.
The 29 grandchildren of Joseph and Rose Kennedy are a pretty decent, normal bunch, given the enormity of what's been thrust on them. They're variously handsome, spoiled, bright, impulsive, troubled, rich, freckled, mop-haired, friendly, wary, jealous, high-spirited . . . did I say normal? Correction--that would be heretical, given the underlying doctrine of these books. They are something else, and ordinary adjectives will not do. John F. Kennedy Jr., who will always be made to live in Dad's shadow and who is probably a good guy, is described this way in Growing Up Kennedy: "At 22 he is astonishingly good looking, reminding at least one gawker of the Greek athletes sculpted by Praxiteles." (That gawker sure knows his Attic sculptors.) The Third Generation offers this: "John has become a tall, darkly handsome young man with the startling Bouvier looks of his mother's family and a poetic air that has been described as Byronic." Praxitelean, Byronic. Where does a lad of 22 go from there?
Many of the Kennedy 29 seem wonderfully public- spirited. Tim Shriver works with disturbed and poor children in New Haven. A few seem insufferably full of themselves. Joe Jr. finally settled down after a troubled and reckless youth. The family ethos can be overbearing, but it has its attractive manifestations. Teddy Jr., who lost his leg to cancer, is a remarkably courageous-- and funny--young man. His relationship with his father, the senator, is touching and inspiring.
Harrison Rainie and John Quinn have done a good job of reporting. The serious Kennedyphile will not be disappointed. The book is crammed with anecdotes about Hyannisport antics and theology. They did not skimp on details, though I'm not sure the bit about Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and her husband biting into their second-born's amniotic sac was really necessary. Is nothing private anymore?
Their prose runs the color spectrum from royal blue to purple: "The telltale smile, toothy, full, sparkling; the shaggy hair, abundant and rich, chestnut and black. For the men, long hard bodies, unbent from the physical punishment they inflict on themselves. For the women, high cheeked natural beauty in slender frames. For both, piercing eyes of aqua, emerald and brown in square, open, expressive faces. Better-looking bearers of the great American dreams--fame, power, wealth, benignity, glory--could not be imagined."
And that's only page 19. It gets better.
Frank Teti was wise to do a photo book; his mistake was in not letting the photographs alone. The accompanying text is frankly abominable. Teti's photographs are the stuff of family albums, leaning heavily toward the adorable; in fact, his book is a family album gone to press.
The hagiographic imperative is so unremitting in both books that when I got to the part in The Third Generation about Patricia Kennedy and Peter Lawford being married at the Roman Catholic church of St. Thomas Moore, it actually crossed my paranoid mind that the misspelling corresponded to Senator Kennedy's middle name.
It is hard to be orphaned by Oswald and Sirhan and hard to live in the fishbowl, and in many ways the Kennedy grandchildren are earnestly not to be envied. But these books are only going to make the fishbowl smaller. "We are shameless," declares The Third Generation, "in our hunger for details about how they're progressing and what they're doing next." We must be if books like these are getting published. Next time around the Kennedys might think twice before succumbing to the hubris of cooperating with us in writing them.