Going inside the Kennedys' bedroom

Special to The Times

In these days of rapidly changing technology and built-in obsolescence, nothing in our culture seems to last long -- except, that is, people's fascination with all things Kennedy.

There have been enough Kennedy-based movies and miniseries to spawn their own network (soon we can add "Jack and Bobby," a WB television series about two modern-day brothers who are not the Kennedy's but who are being groomed for politics), and a forest of trees has been felled in the family's name: More than 600 books have been written about the Kennedys, with at least four new titles coming out this year.

However, according to author Sally Bedell Smith, despite all the volumes in print, "There had never been a book about the Kennedys and their circle that traced all the relationships, showing the intersection between the private lives and the public decisions." And so her book, "Grace and Power, the Private World of the Kennedy White House," arrives to fill that gap, the latest addition to the Jack and Jackie oeuvre.

142 interviews

Smith, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, has previously written biographies on CBS founder William Paley, Pamela Harriman and Diana, Princess of Wales. No stranger to voluminous research into the lives of the rich and powerful, she begins "Grace and Power" with an impressive cast of characters she calls "the Kennedy Court," including members of the Kennedy family, JFK's administration, advisors, friends -- and several of the president's lovers. There are 42 in all, 28 of whom were alive while Smith was doing her research; she interviewed 20 of them. All told, Smith conducted 142 interviews and pored over 100 books before sitting down to write.

The effort paid off. Her book, which covers only the time from John F. Kennedy's 1960 election until his death in 1963, abounds with details, from the title of the novel JFK read in the transitional months before his inauguration ("The Warden" by Anthony Trollope) to Jackie's tendency to swallow a lot when she was tense to the value (in both 1960s and 2004 dollars) of the furniture and artifacts Jackie wheedled out of benefactors for her famed White House renovation.

One fascinating addition to Kennedy lore is the character of Frank Finnerty. "He was Jackie's secret confidante, and talking to him helped to answer a question that I had going into the book," Smith reveals, sitting in her Beverly Hills hotel during the final leg of her book tour. (Coincidentally, it's 10 years to the day since Jackie's death.) "How did she cope? With all of her husband's womanizing, the magnitude of her role -- where was her release?" asks Smith, a petite brunet, sporting the kind of timeless, tasteful attire and pearl accessories that would have worked in the Kennedy era.

Hints about foreplay

The answer, she believes, was Finnerty, who speaks on the record for the first time in "Grace and Power." A cardiologist and neighbor of Bobby Kennedy, he met Jackie in 1961 when she sprained an ankle after being lured into one of the family's legendary touch football games. According to Finnerty, after he helped her that afternoon, Jackie called him regularly, speaking candidly about whatever was troubling her, including the president's infidelity and her own sex life with him.

Finnerty apparently offered her some helpful foreplay hints, even assisting in devising an acceptable way to present them to the president. Jackie told him she'd sought guidance from a priest, who recommended she talk to her obstetrician about the delicate subject.

How did Smith know that Finnerty was telling the truth about his unique, heretofore unheard-of relationship with Jackie? "There's no paper trail for somebody like that," she admits. "You have to go with your instincts. In talking to him, his insights into Jackie and the way she spoke could only have come from somebody who had spent some time with her."

Finnerty was not the only one to break decades of tomb-like silence. Another was Helen Chavchavadze, who spoke to Smith at length about her affair with JFK while he was president. Smith believes they and others who spoke to her have come forward now because both JFK and Jackie are dead, and as they're getting older they want to set the record straight. "Helen Chavchavadze said, 'I wanted to come out of the shadows. My experience with him is part of who I am, and it's part of who he was.' "

Kennedy's extra-curricular sex life was an open secret to much of Washington at the time. "The membrane between the press and the president was very, very thin," Smith says. "And he had a particularly special relationship with them. He loved the company of reporters."

Those reporters valued their proximity to power and so kept quiet about his dalliances. So bold was he in behavior we might more likely expect in prime-time soap operas that women Kennedy was intimate with would often be included at White House dinner parties where Jackie sat as hostess. Nothing stopped the revelry, which often lasted until the wee hours -- not even the Cuban missile crisis.

Nevertheless, the book does not give the impression that the leader of the free world was fiddling while embers flickered on the shores of the Potomac. Smith writes of JFK excusing himself from dinner one night during that very tense time in October 1962 and of Jackie then coming upon her husband sitting on the floor of the living quarters with British ambassador and close friend David Ormsby Gore, surveillance photos of the missiles spread out in front of them.

Smith came upon another trove of new information when she gained access to the previously sealed papers of William Manchester, whose "The Death of a President" is still considered by many the authoritative work about the Kennedy assassination. It was there she learned that the weekend after JFK's funeral, a White House maid was about to send Jackie's bloodstained Chanel suit to the dry cleaners but was stopped by her mother, Janet Auchincloss.

The suit was boxed, labeled "worn by Jackie 11-22-63" and ultimately sent to the National Archives, to remain unopened for 100 years. Reading that passage, one cannot help but reflect on another dress that never made it to the dry cleaners, which also played a role in presidential history -- to immeasurably less dignified effect.

The lure of Camelot

As for why avid interest in the lives and, often, untimely deaths of the Kennedys has endured, Smith, 55, believes that "the Camelot mythology obviously has a lot to do with it," referring to the idealized portrayal of JFK's thousand days in office that was carefully orchestrated by Jackie and his inner circle in the months immediately following his assassination.

"They invigorated the country and brought an appreciation of culture and glamour and style and a kind of international flavor [to Washington]. And they were so young," she says.

The Kennedys were the youngest couple ever to occupy the White House. He was four months shy of 44 when inaugurated; Jackie was 31.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis lived until 1994 but to many was, like her slain husband, frozen in time as a 1960s icon. The woman who emerges in Smith's pages is a more complex figure than the whispery-voiced, aloof persona on public view. Rather, she was feisty, strong-willed and adamantly refused to play the conventional first lady role.

"Jackie had a very clear idea of what her priorities were and how she wanted to spend her time," Smith says.

"She didn't want to do a lot of 'meet and greets' with ladies with flowered hats, which is what the role had been, and she had this whole lineup of extremely willing in-laws and Lady Bird Johnson, who were all happy to step in for her."

So Jackie was able to tend to her children, go fox hunting with friends, travel with her sister -- sometimes leaving the capital for weeks at a time -- and if an eyebrow was raised, it was rarely raised in public. What isn't clear is whether her husband's faithlessness was the reason behind Jackie's distance.

JFK's philandering is certainly not news, but there is still something shocking about the sheer volume of his promiscuous exploits as chronicled by Smith, and it remains remarkable that there were no serious threats of exposure or scandal.

"[Many of] Kennedy's women were part of his inner circle," Smith explains. "They were of a certain class. They knew the rules. They kept it private and he could trust them. It was a time of greater civility and camaraderie."

To be sure, the game is now played by far different rules. If John Fitzgerald Kennedy were coming of political age today, quite possibly, he wouldn't even bother.

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