I should premise this by saying I’ve been fascinated with the Kennedy family since my freshman year of college when, while working in the library, more or less managed to read an entire book on them while I should have been “working” putting books back on the shelves.
That said, I haven’t read many books on the Kennedys besides that one from college, partially because a lot of the books on the Kennedys are a) more expensive than I’d like b) in many ways, the same.
But I’d been interested in this particular book since it came out in 2009 - Bobby and Jackie: A Love Story by C. David Heymann.
Pulitzer-nominated biographer Heymann delivers a gawk-worthy beach read with this fascinating look at Jackie and the Kennedy clan in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Life for JFK and Jackie was less than perfect; one story finds him cheating on Jackie during their 1953 Acapulco honeymoon, leaving the new Mrs. Kennedy “by herself on the verandah.” Still, Jackie’s devastation was real; afterward, her love for his brother Bobby was equally genuine. Unable to find peace (her Georgetown home had become a stop for all D.C. tour buses), Bobby gladly volunteered to play surrogate father to her kids; before long, an affair began. According to Truman Capote, it was “perhaps the most normal relationship either one ever had.” It was not necessarily simple, however; both saw a number of people while together. Promiscuity aside, the Kennedys were also notoriously “chintzy” in their personal lives-they didn’t tip and employed undocumented workers at home- though Jackie fares marginally better. It’s anyone’s guess how the affair would have ended if Bobby hadn’t been killed; just four months later, she married Aristotle Onassis. Heymann’s research is top notch, with plentiful attributions, making this train-wreck love story a substantial guilty pleasure and a sizzling reminder of how the rich are different.
Price is the reason I’d avoided this book for so long (who wants to pay $25+ on something like this?) but I got it at Barnes & Noble on sale for $7, and decided this was a reasonable investment.
The book takes a detailed look into the time between Jacqueline Bouvier’s marriage to John Kennedy in 1957 through Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. It chronicles JFK’s serial infidelities (as well as RFK’s), the women they “shared” including Marilyn Monroe, and Jackie’s “revenge” affairs.
When I first heard of this book, I thought maybe the affair between RFK and Jackie may have occurred while Jack was still alive, which would have been WAY more scandalous, but (alas) that was not the case.
JFK was assassinated, Jackie was losing her mind from the trauma and the public attention, RFK was sick with grief, he stepped in to help raise her kids (never mind the 200 or so he had of his own) and at some point or another, they started an affair due to shared grief and mutual adoration - they had been close friends even before the assassination. Bobby and Jackie “got” each other, so to speak.
The book paints Bobby Kennedy, not John Kennedy, as the love of Jackie’s life. She turns to him for everything, and uses numerous other relationships to make him jealous, including one with Aristotle Onassis, who the entire Kennedy family disliked and who Jackie married only after Bobby’s death when she decided Onassis was the only one who could afford the protection she and her children needed.
It’s a fairly in depth look at the affair, with 183 pages of text and then another 30 pages of references and footnotes and sources and such.
The Kennedy men thought nothing of cheating on their wives - repeatedly and with a multitude of different women - and their wives more or less turned a blind eye, and you felt for them, but they responded with humor. Jackie Kennedy, who’d been cheated on on her honeymoon, sat her husband between two of his lovers at a dinner party. Ethel Skakel Kennedy, Bobby’s wife, had a dinner party where she sat 25 women at one table and 25 men plus herself at another. Bobby got the message loud and clear.
But in spite of this, the one I felt sorriest for was Ethel, who had 11 children and a husband who cheated on her long term with her far more glamorous sister-in-law. While Ethel could be rude to Jackie, and wasn’t as universally beloved by everyone around her (or even necessarily liked at all) and never openly confronted Jackie about the affair, she showed a lot of grace when Jackie showed up at the hospital after Bobby had been shot.
Jackie was the one who ordered the doctors to take Bobby off life support and was later thanked by Ethel and Ted Kennedy for doing what they couldn’t bring themselves to do.
In spite of these affairs, Bobby Kennedy was sincerely devoted to his wife in other ways and never considered divorcing her. He always, eventually, went home to her and the two of them taught each other a lot of things. I don’t think this really excuses his behavior, but I do think it’s possible to love two people at the same time, which Bobby certainly did with Ethel and Jackie.
While Bobby comes off as a pig, my view of Jackie is very different. She had gone into her marriage with an open mind but realized she couldn’t change JFK. She mostly just asked that his depravity stay out of her sight. Her affairs were mostly for revenge and the attention of her husband. While she probably should have told RFK to go home to his wife, she wasn’t the married one and she really did love him. She was more devoted to Bobby and his ambitions than she was to John and his ambitions.
Jackie also comes off as a very strong, formidable woman. With the exception of the 6 months or so after JFK’s assassination in Dallas, she held it together. She knew how to get what she wanted out of people. She was savvy and charming and smart and well educated. She was an excellent fundraiser and a great lover of the arts and history. She’s the one who saved Grand Central Station from the wrecking ball. She was really an incredible woman with many talents.
What’s truly amazing is how this whole thing was mostly kept from the general public. While high society and the press certainly knew, most people had no idea. These people were considered hugely sophisticated and yet the notion that nobody would ever find out about the affair is so quaint its charming. In this day and age, this would never be a secret. Ever. And, according to the author, most people were unwilling to talk about it until after Jackie Kennedy passed away in 1994. As a sidenote, I thought it was nice that Ted Kennedy never talked about it publicly out of sensitivity to Ethel’s feelings. Yes, Bobby Kennedy’s widow is still living.
All this being said, I don’t know how accurate the book is. I greatly enjoyed it, because I guess, in my heart of hearts, I love a good gossipy scandal. Sure, this one is 40 years after the fact, but so what? There’s something still compelling about the Kennedy family, even all these years later and after most of them are dead. But how true this is? I don’t know. Eye witness accounts are shaky right after the fact, let alone decades later. The people most/best able to confirm any of it have long since died. Unless Ethel Kennedy decides to talk about it, or maybe Caroline Kennedy (Jackie’s and JFK’s daughter) decides to talk about it (assuming she knew it was happening at the time), I think this is one of those things where we just have to make a judgment call.
As for me, I think the chances are pretty good that Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy did have an affair. I could see how it started, and I could see how it continued, and even if some of the stuff is slightly off or exaggerated, I doubt that many sources are flat out wrong. Plus, the sexual morals of the Kennedy family seem to be more skewed than the sexual morals of regular people. I think John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were good men, who tried to do what was right for their country, but lousy husbands who rarely did what was right by their wives.
As for Jackie, well, she was something, wasn’t she? She was a real woman with real flaws, but she was strong. I don’t think less of her after reading this book. More women should be that strong.
Bobby and Jackie: A Love Story, though questionable in its facts, is an enjoyable read. It’s a perfect biography for the beach - not to heavy or dense, fairly romantic, and yet somewhat shocking all at the same time.