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The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America's First Family for 150 Years Hardcover – July 8, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Edward Klein is the author of the New York Times bestsellers All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy and Just Jackie : Her Private Years. He covered John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, served as a foreign correspondent in Asia, and was foreign editor of Newsweek. During his eleven years as editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, it won the first Pulitzer Prize in its history. His articles have appeared in New York, Manhattan, inc., Vanity Fair, and Parade, for which he also writes "Walter Scott's Personality Parade." He is the author of the novel The Parachutists. He lives with his wife, Dolores Barrett, in New York City and Bridgehampton, Long Island.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Kennedy Curse
IN THE FAINT PEWTER LIGHT of an Irish dawn, a young man riding bareback on an old gray draft horse emerged from a fogbank on the outskirts of New Ross, a river port south of Dublin. A cold, hard rain pelted the sides of his horse, and the fog roiled up above the treetops, concealing the road ahead. A stranger might have hesitated to proceed any farther for fear of getting lost, but the young man knew the countryside like the back of his hand. He was a local lad, and the sum total of his life's experience, along with the memory and bones of his ancestors, was encompassed within a fifteen-mile radius of the town.
He made his way through the maze of fogbound alleys, and when he came to the stone wharf, he dismounted and tethered his horse to a post. His large hands were cut and callused, a sign that he worked at a trade requiring sharp instruments. Beneath an untidy shock of reddish brown hair, his pale blue eyes looked upon the world with an odd mixture of fear and defiance.
Because he was Roman Catholic, no baptism certificate existed to fix the precise date of his birth (at the time, only Protestants were considered deserving of that privilege), but according to family tradition,he was born in Dunganstown, County Wexford, in 1823, which made him twenty-six years old. Though we possess only the barest scraps of information about this young man, it is important for the purposes of our inquiry into the Kennedy Curse that we try to piece together his story from the accounts of family members, written and oral histories, and Irish folklorists.
His name was Patrick Kennedy, and on this foggy February morning, he was about to leave his family and the tangled web of personal relationships in Ireland that had sustained him and given his life meaning, and take his chances in America. Once in Boston, Patrick would marry, have children, then die of consumption--all within the space of nine years. In that brief period of time, he became the founding father of the greatest political dynasty in American history. Through his bloodline, he gave America its first Catholic President, three U.S. senators, a U.S. attorney general, two members of the House of Representatives, two additional presidential contenders, and the dream of a golden age called Camelot.
In years to come, people would assume that Old Joe Kennedy--"the ruthless tycoon, with his film star mistress Gloria Swanson, his fortune carved from bootlegged booze, and his purchased political respectability" --was responsible for the Kennedy Curse. However, as we shall see, the seeds of the family's destruction were planted long ago in the unforgiving soil of famine-stricken Ireland.
That fateful morning Patrick Kennedy made a very odd sight indeed.
He was dressed in a cocked hat with the brim folded up against the crown and a swallow-tailed coat with long, tapering tails at the back. The coat was too narrow for his broad shoulders and the sleeves too short for his arms. He probably had no idea that his outfit, the height of fashion during the time of Napoleon, had gone out of style more than thirty years before. These shabby discards, which he had bought from an itinerant peddler for a few pennies, were all he could afford for the journey he intended to take far beyond the tidewater of New Ross.
In preparation for his trip, he had been visiting friends and family to bid them farewell. His first stop had been at the chapel, as the local Catholic church was called, where he received a blessing from the parish priest, Father Michael Mitten, who no doubt quoted from 2 Corinthians: "Weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more, nor see his native country."
He paid a parting call on the Glascotts, the Protestant family that held Whitechurch Parish and much of the surrounding land and were landlords of the Kennedys and other Catholic tenants. The Glascotts were themselves tenants of an even larger estate owned by the Tottenhams. But Patrick did not have to remove his cocked hat and bow his head to the Tottenhams, for they lived in England and did not deign to dirty their boots with the soil of Ireland.
Patrick had come to New Ross this day to say good-bye to his fellow workers at the Cherry Brothers Brewery, where he had been apprenticed for the past several years as a cooper, learning to carve casks and barrels. While he waited in the fog for the brewery to open, he could hear the creaking timber of sailing ships on the River Barrow and a distant watch bell striking the half hour.
At some point he became aware of a rustling sound on the cobblestones near where he stood. At first, he mistook the noise for a flock of seagulls. Then he realized that the entire street was stirring with homeless people, awakening from a night's sleep.
He watched them stand and stretch. "The barely human shapes," reported one observer, "were so emaciated, bones seemed to be held together by nothing more than skin." A few shrunken things that resembled children huddled near the entrance of the New Ross workhouse, their mouths stained green from eating grass.
The year was 1849, and it was the fourth consecutive winter of a mysterious blight that had destroyed the potato crop of Ireland. Without potatoes, the staple of their diet, people could not survive, and Ireland was in the grip of a great hunger.
An estimated million people had died of starvation and disease,although no one knew the precise number. Perhaps another 2 million had emigrated to England, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Columns of weary refugees, evicted from their homes by landlords, wandered the roads without aim or purpose. Looking back from the perspective of our era, a writer noted that the Irish Famine represented "the greatest concentration of civilian suffering and death in Western Europe between the Thirty Years' War and World War II."
Patrick Kennedy had witnessed sights of such unimaginable horror that he and his descendants would be haunted for generations by the memory. He had seen desperate people fighting with rats over the half-eaten flesh of decomposing corpses. He had watched as emaciated bodies were dumped into mass graves from reusable coffins with trapdoors. He had been present when a starving mob besieged the New Ross workhouse while nearby a convoy of English soldiers guarded the loading of surplus butter, eggs, wheat, barley, pork, and beef earmarked for shipment to the dining tables of England.
With Ireland transformed into a vast charnel house, Patrick had decided to join the exodus to America. Unlike those who chose to uproot themselves from other European countries for the promise of the New World, he did not view himself as a voluntary emigrant. In Irish mythology, being cast adrift on the ocean was punishment for a crime committed unintentionally. Patrick believed that he was being punished by the deceitful and treacherous English for the unintentional crime of being Irish.
Ireland's English overlords did not see it that way, of course. Conveniently enough, they believed that the Famine was God's punishment for Irish sins. "Ireland," declared a Protestant landlord, "is under the curse of God and will be till she is delivered from the curse of Popery."
In London all funds for Irish famine relief were controlled by one man, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Charles Edward Trevelyan. He was a typical Victorian Englishman: self-righteous, devoutly religious, "and not noted for his admiration of the Irish." Trevelyan excused his failure to take bold action in Ireland on the grounds that"government should not meddle" with the natural laws of supply and demand, "for the market [is] nothing less than a reflection of God's will."
Some Catholics agreed that the Famine was a well-deserved scourge--"a calamity with which God wishes to purify ... the Irish people," as the archbishop of Armagh put it. But most concurred with a band of young Catholic professionals, journalists, and poets who called themselves Young Ireland and scoffed at the idea that the Famine was a visitation of Providence.
"The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine," thundered the celebrated Irish firebrand John Mitchel.
In his newspaper, the United Irishman, and in his bestselling books, Jail Journal and The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), Mitchel framed the context of the Famine for Patrick Kennedy and countless other Irishmen, both at home and abroad. Mitchel portrayed Ireland as a virtuous nation locked in mortal combat with an evil empire hellbent on genocide. Every Irish generation since the Great Rebellion of 1798 had risen up against the English, wrote Mitchel, and it was the responsibility of succeeding generations to pay a debt to the patriot dead until Ireland was rid of its oppressors.
This unquenchable desire for revenge would fuel the Kennedys' ambition for the next century and a half.
The Famine was a direct assault on Irish masculinity, for it undermined the Irishman's confidence in his manly responsibility to feed and protect his family. Along with other Irishmen, Patrick Kennedy embraced Mitchel's romantic myth, for it helped relieve him of an overpowering sense of guilt.
Guilt found fertile soil in Patrick's Irish soul. For as long as he could remember, he had been afflicted by an overabundance of it, as though he personally bore the blame for Christ's Passion and Crucifixion. Irish boys like Patrick were taught from childhood that they owed God an eineaclann, or blood fine, because they were born inOriginal Sin. When Patrick used the Lord's name as an ...

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 260 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (July 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 031231292X
  • ISBN-13: 978-2702886519
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #115,373 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Edward Klein is a well-known editor, writer and public speaker with a distinguished career in American journalism.

After serving an apprenticeship as a copy boy for the New York Daily News, he went on to earn a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, which awarded him a traveling fellowship to Japan. There, he learned to speak Japanese and traveled throughout Asia as a foreign correspondent for United Press International. Upon his return to New York, he joined Newsweek, where he became foreign editor and then assistant managing editor with jurisdiction over foreign and military affairs.

From Newsweek, he joined The New York Times. As editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, he led this flagship publication of the Sunday Times to new heights of public interest and editorial excellence. During his editorship, The New York Times Magazine won the first Pulitzer Prize in its history.

Since leaving The Times, Edward Klein has written many articles for Vanity Fair and other national magazines. For Parade, he wrote "Walter Scott's Personality Parade," the most widely read column in the English language.

His nonfiction books have all appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List. They include: The Truth About Hillary; Katie: The Real Story; Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died; The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House; and Blood Feud: The Clintons Vs. The Obamas. His latest book is Unlikeable: The Problem With Hillary.

Edward Klein is also a novelist. He is the co-author of If Israel Lost the War and the author of The Parachutists.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 49 people found the following review helpful By mwreview on March 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I picked up The Kennedy Curse by Edward Klein with much skepticism. The title, as well as the subject matter, suggested a book taken from the gossip pages of the newsstand rags. The early and rare Kennedy family photos on the cover and in the illustrated section of the book sparked my interested and I decided to give The Kennedy Curse a chance. There is plenty of gossip and sexually lurid details in this book, of course, but I was more struck by how well-written and researched it is. Klein covered JFK's 1960 political campaign and had interviewed many Kennedys through the decades and was a friend of Jacqueline Onassis for over a dozen years. Klein demonstrates more credibility than I expected and his writing style presents a book that is a joy to read and difficult to put down.

Klein clearly states the premise of his book: "The Kennedy Curse is the result of the destructive collision between the Kennedys' fantasy of omnipotence-their need to get away with things that others cannot-and the cold, hard realities of life" (p. 23). According to Klein, this "curse" stemming from some narcissistic, thrill-seeking gene originated several generations up the Kennedy family tree. He begins his book with a chapter on Patrick Kennedy (JFK's great grandfather) who arrived in America from the famine-stricken Ireland in 1849. On the other side of the family, Klein next covers John Francis Fitzgerald "Honey Fitz" (JFK's grandfather) who was an ambitious politician and mayor of Boston. The other chapters cover Joseph P. Kennedy, Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, JFK, William Kennedy Smith, and JFK Jr. Klein focuses on the most controversial aspects of the lives he examines. Joseph P.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Annette L. Munson on September 1, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Except that the author isn't Edward Klein.
During the media frenzy preceding the publication of "The Kennedy Curse", one of the book's most vociferous critics was Laurence Leamer, author of "The Kennedy Women" (1994) and "The Kennedy Men" (2001). Both of these majestic, exhaustive tomes are firmly housed in my collection, despite my complicated emotions regarding America's royal family. I have returned to these works again and again, largely due to the following unavoidable fact: Mr. Leamer is an excellent writer, eminently capable of enthralling the reader with vivid, evocative prose and memorable phrasing.
Conversely, Edward Klein doesn't pull off a similar feat - not with this latest work. First of all, the book is paltry: 225 pages. (Leamer's books are three times as voluminous - with a comparable list price.) Moreover, most of the so-called revelations are rehashings from earlier books. If you've read Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedy's" and/or "The Kennedys: An American Drama" by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, you won't find much of significance here.
Leamer's works, however, remain my overwhelming favorite - and Klein's writings suffer dramatically by comparison. Forgive me, but you cannot compare "'You're a cokehead!' John said to Carolyn" with this treasure by Leamer in "The Kennedy Women": "Half a century later, the mere mention of Kathleen's name brought tears to the eyes of elderly men who once danced her across gleaming ballrooms, and wistful melancholic silences to women who so long ago shared evenings of laughter."
Leamer was referring, of course, to the brilliant, tragic Kathleen Kennedy, who perished at age 28 in a plane crash in 1948.
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41 of 52 people found the following review helpful By E. A Solinas HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
"The Kennedy Curse: Why America's First Family Has Been Haunted by Tragedy for 150 Years" is a mewling, drippy tome of regurgitated material, alternately leering and worshiping the Kennedy family. It's hard to read this excruciating little book without feeling queasy.
The book traces the Kennedy family back to the immigrants escaping impoverished Ireland (a protracted and very dull chapter) to the assassination of JFK, to the death of JFK Jr. and his wife Carolyn. The genuinely tragic material (David Kennedy's psychological breakdown and drug OD, for example) is buried below more sentimental slop, the type of writing that perpetuated the Camelot myth in the first place.
New material isn't really to be found in this book; most of it can be found elsewhere. The only possible new material is his continuous negative coverage of Carolyn Bessette, whom Klein pours venom on continuously (even to the point of saying presumptuously what Jackie would have thought of her). The Kennedys themselves get off lightly; even Teddy and Joe are carefully whitewashed. Most of them aren't even dealt with; the book is surprisingly skinny, and most of the supposed tragedies Klein mentions are never really elaborated on.
Perhaps most absurd is Klein's desperate clinging to the myth of the "Kennedy Curse." Despite saying that they're narcissistic and thrillseeking, he claims that a supernatural curse is the only reason why the extended family could possibly have all these problems. Choosing to use cocaine, avoid basic safety measures, leave a girl in a submerged car, seduce the babysitter and ski backwards are not signs of a curse -- it's just recklessness, based on free choice. Why should I sympathize?
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