A childhood of privilege, promise, and pain

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The youngest Kennedy had charm aplenty, and gargantuan shoes to fill

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A Kennedy family portrait taken in Bronxville, NY. Seated (left to right): Eunice, Jean, Edward, Joseph Sr., Patricia, and Kathleen. Standing: Rosemary, Robert, John, Rose, and Joseph Jr.

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On a spring day nearly two years ago, Senator Edward Kennedy sat on the porch of his sprawling Hyannis Port home with a friend of five decades, Edmund Reggie, who is also his father-in-law. The two men gazed out at the ocean that has been such an anchor in Kennedy’s life and talked about the future.

“You’re nuts to beat yourself to death like this on the Senate floor,” Reggie said. “Passing a new law won’t be any more glorious for you than the reputation you’ve made. Some people say you and Daniel Webster are the greatest senators of all time.”

Kennedy looked at the older man and deadpanned: “What did Webster do?”

It was a telling line, typical of the competitive Kennedys. But Reggie persisted. Waving an arm toward Nantucket Sound, he said: “You have all this. You and Vicki love to travel. Why are you beating your brains out? You’ve got all the money you need. Your kids are all raised.”

But Kennedy wasn’t buying it. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so. I’ll stay in the Senate.”

For the past 46 years, the US Senate has been as much a home to Edward Moore Kennedy as his beloved Hyannis Port. Still, that Kennedy could go down in history with the likes of Daniel Webster — the giant of the Senate in the first half of the 19th century — would have been inconceivable at many points in his career, as he weathered crises both personal and professional, tragic and scandalous.

There were the gargantuan shoes to fill, and for so long Kennedy seemed unable to fill them. His father’s outsize expectations passed from son to son, until, through the shattering deaths of the three older boys, they came to rest upon Teddy’s shoulders.

The youngest of nine, the fourth of four boys, he has spent his life trying to both escape and embrace the burdens placed upon him by ambitious parents, the long shadows cast by his brothers and a public hungry for a return to Camelot.

At his worst, he was considered a shallow playboy relying on the Kennedy name,a green understudy for his spectral brothers. His legendary personal problems were so public that they were reduced to shorthand: Chappaquiddick, Georgetown, Palm Beach. Each episode revealed a reckless and arrogant streak that would have sunk many careers. Politically, opponents painted him as no more than a poster boy for outdated leftist causes, the last of the liberal lions in a conservative age.

But over time, Kennedy’s energy and endurance emerged. The youngest son who had faced so much pain became, in his later years, a symbol of patriarchal strength in the Kennedy family and to others who suffered losses around the country. Senate colleagues who had long admired his work ethic began to see in the bipartisan coalitions he built to advance his health and education agenda the skill of a true master of legislative politics.

No senator in history, many now say, was able to be both his party’s most forceful spokesman for its causes and the leader who cajoled colleagues of both parties into agreement.

In what once seemed like a premonition, President John F. Kennedy at his inauguration had given his youngest brother a silver cigarette box engraved with the biblical words from Matthew: “And the last shall be first.”

Ted Kennedy did not succeed in following his brother’s path, either in cultivating a faultless image or in wielding the powers of the presidency. But by the early 21st century, the achievements of the younger brother would be enough to rival those of many presidents.

That day on the Hyannis Port porch, his father-in-law’s advice to relax and bask in his hard-won glory was also prescient. A year later, Kennedy would be diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

But then, as always in his turbulent life, Kennedy looked to his moorings: the Senate and the sea. He would meet cancer the way he met so many challenges.

He would keep working, and he would keep sailing.

Charming and challenging

Joseph P. Kennedy — the architect of the fledgling family dynasty — could not have planned it better himself. On Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday, his and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s ninth child, Edward Moore Kennedy, was born at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Dorchester. Whether or not he took it as an omen, the proud father, who already envisioned a Kennedy becoming the first Catholic president, often pointed out the felicitous date to others.

Joe and Rose were high school sweethearts whose grandparents had arrived in Boston from Ireland and whose fathers both held elective office. The couple’s political backgrounds and overarching ambitions meshed to create a family that would one day be called America’s royalty.

Rose, a devout Catholic, would not use birth control, and friends told her she was crazy to have another child at 41. “I became so incensed and so annoyed at being constantly berated that I determined secretly that no one was going to feel sorry for me or my baby, and so perhaps that is why Ted is so full of optimism and confidence,” she wrote in her journal.

The littlest Kennedy was chubby and cheery, the freckle-faced pet of the family. “Biscuits and Muffins,” was the nickname his sister Jean — the next-youngest, four years older than Teddy — gave him. From the start he had an unusually sunny disposition. Like many youngest, he was eager to please, and took the teasing — and the occasional big-brother torture — with good humor. He mimicked the exploits of his siblings, skiing with them in Europe, jumping off high rocks on the French Riviera, and sailing in races — all by the age of 7.

When he was 5, his much-loved oldest brother, Joe Jr., tossed him out of the sailboat and into the cold Atlantic Ocean because Teddy didn’t know where the jib was. Joe hauled him right out of the water, but Teddy never forgot the wet lesson.

Rose and Joe Sr. expressed their love for their children in the form of high expectations, and by their standards, Teddy was often lacking. Rose was not a demonstrative mother, but the lifelong closeness between her and Teddy was extraordinary. Joe, too, had a weakness for his youngest, and neither parent pushed him quite so hard as they did the older boys, on whom the yoke of the family name rested most heavily. Teddy would for a long time be the victim — and the beneficiary — of lower expectations.

“We tried to keep everything more or less equal,” Rose once said. “But you wonder if the mother and father aren’t quite tired when the ninth one comes along.”

Teddy soon realized that his role in the family was like that of court jester, and he performed beautifully. A naturally gregarious child, he loved jokes and stories, and would entertain the others with his antics. At age 7, he wrote his father that he was going to the World’s Fair. “I think I am going to get a pony there and where do you think I could keep it? Maybe in the little tool house.”

Teddy was also the most considerate of the Kennedy boys. When he was 7, he wrote to his father about Halloween: “I got dressed up like a ghost and went all the way down the road. I didn’t scare because you said not to scare anyone because they may have a weak heart.”

But being the baby often means not being taken seriously, a consideration that would dog him throughout his life. The Kennedy dining room had an adult table for the older children where politics, current events, and literature were digested along with Joe’s favorite roast beef and strawberry shortcake. Teddy and Jean would sit at the baby table with an assigned older sibling. As Ted later wrote: “I learned that if I wanted to contribute something worthwhile to the conversation, I would have to talk about a book I was reading or an interesting place I had visited.”

Something worthwhile.

That was one of the many mantras the Kennedy parents imposed upon their children. Do something with your lives. Make something of yourselves. Give something back to others. Joe Kennedy Sr. set up million-dollar trust funds and told his children they’d never have to earn money; they should devote their lives to public service.

He had made a fortune as a banker, shipyard executive, liquor distributor, real estate investor, and Hollywood producer. But politics was his real love. In the early 20th century, Irish-Americans stood on the outside of America’s power structure; wealth was Joe Kennedy’s ticket to the inside.

A generous supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joe was rewarded by being named the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In 1938, he got the job of his dreams: He became the first Irish-American ambassador to the Court of St. James. For a brief time, Joe even entertained the unlikely notion that he might become the first Irish-Catholic president of the United States.

In London, the Kennedy family settled into the 36-room embassy at 14 Princes Gate. To Teddy, the best part was the lift that he and Bobby nearly wore out until their parents put a stop to it.

Weary of the talk of war and bored with stuffy King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, London embraced the energetic, photogenic Kennedy family. The press followed the children to the zoo, Kensington Gardens, Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park. They were there when Teddy tried to take a picture with his camera upside down and when sisters Rosemary and Kathleen made their debuts into London society. At the Vatican, Teddy received his First Communion from Pope Pius XII.

Those were happy times for the family, a rare period when all 11 were together. Joe Sr. gave their nanny, Elizabeth Dunn, a movie camera and told her to record whatever she could: a frisky Teddy in short pants and knee socks posing with the king and queen, goofing off with his father, sitting on his sisters’ laps.

But behind the frivolity, Joe Kennedy had made a massive miscalculation. He had naively misjudged both the Nazis and England, and his outspoken isolationist views on keeping America out of World War II won him few friends in the White House or abroad. It was the end of his political career. Returning home in 1940, he began to focus on his sons’ futures instead. Joe Jr., he hoped, would assume high office someday, followed by Jack.

Bobby and Teddy were still boys; the pressure on them would come later.

Epic tragedies, everyday travails

World War II would cost the Kennedy family dearly; it marked the start of what later would be called “The Kennedy Curse.”

In 1943, Jack narrowly escaped death when his PT boat was sunk in the South Pacific. A year later, Joe Jr. was killed when his Navy plane blew up during a risky volunteer mission. A month after that, Kathleen’s husband, a British airman, was killed in the war. And in 1948, Kathleen, who had stayed in London, died in a private plane crash over the French Alps.

Before all that, in 1941, Joe, without telling the family, had Rosemary, who was said to be mildly retarded, lobotomized. The operation failed, and she remained in an institutional setting until her death in 2005.

Teddy was 8 when Rosemary disappeared from the home, 12 when Joe Jr. died, and 16 at Kathleen’s death. After London, the Kennedy kids were scattered. The Hyannis Port house became the one constant in their disparate lives, particularly for Teddy. Mary Jo Gargan, his cousin, spent many summers there after her parents died. Her mother, Agnes, was Rose’s beloved sister.

“For us younger children left at home, we were a little bit like the golden children of the war, and Teddy was the golden child of Joe and Rose at the time,” says Mary Jo, who later would marry Ted’s Harvard football teammate Dick Clasby.

But there was sadness everywhere. After Joe Jr.’s death, Rose would take her books, journal, and rosary beads down to the one-room hut her husband built for her next to the ocean. In some ways, Mary Jo recalls, Rose relied on her youngest child as a calming, cheery presence, an escape from her grief and worry. “My observation now is that Teddy was sort of the bright light. He’s got a lot of empathy and I think those years at the Cape, as those tragedies were happening, he probably took on that role.”

Joe and Rose, who were often apart, acted as partners in a franchise. Their product: national leaders who would vastly expand the Kennedy brand. As Rose once wrote: “A mother knows that hers is the influence which can make that little precious being to be a leader of men, an inspiration, a shining light in the world.”

Teddy was only 8 years old when his father wrote him from London during the Blitz: “I hope when you grow up you will dedicate your life to trying to work out plans to make people happy instead of making them miserable, as war does today.” It was advice Ted Kennedy never forgot and often repeated.

Though the children were blessed with all the material comforts they could want, every-day life wasn’t always easy. Second place was never good enough for their father, whose parenting slogans included, “I don’t want any losers in this family,” and “No sour pusses.” There would be no “rich, idle bums,” either.

It wasn’t much different with their mother. With nine children, Rose had to run a tight ship, and she set household rules that few dared break for fear of a whack from her infamous wooden coat hanger. Child-rearing was a strict endeavor in that era and Rose, a perfectionist, followed the books to the letter. The children were to get up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time. Dinner was always at 7:30, and Rose would lead the way into the dining room. At the end of the meal, she would lead the way out.

The Kennedy dinner table was a classroom, with Rose and Joe quizzing their children and encouraging their political views. Where is Siam? Who is the president of France? Rose’s obsession with improving her children knew no bounds. In 1975, when Ted was a third-term senator and Rose was 85, she wrote him: “I watched you speak about drugs last Friday night . . . Please say, ‘If I were President,’ not ‘If I was president.’ The reason is the old what used to be known in Latin as condition contrary to fact. For instance, ‘if I were he,’ etc.”

As for Joe, he was known to order the boys to their rooms if they goofed off and lost a sailing race. Still, he was the emotive hugger in the family and wrote his children reams of letters during his frequent absences.

It has been said that the Kennedys competed among themselves and against the world. Indeed, Joe and Rose encouraged what they considered healthy competition, which could become a Darwinian struggle within the family — the youngest often losing out. The legendary football games in Hyannis Port were dress rehearsals for the real family sport: politics.

With the kids off at boarding school, college, or the military, both Rose and Joe traveled widely but rarely together: She went for shopping and culture, he for business and extramarital affairs. Before landing at the Fessenden School in Newton at age 11, Teddy had been in 10 different schools, always the new boy, never able to put down roots.

“I think Ted did have probably a very sad childhood in spite of terrific parental support,” says his longtime friend John Culver, who would later join Kennedy in the Senate. “I mean, to be away at school at that age is hard, and the thing that’s amazing to me is how he’s come through it, in terms of his personality. Part of it I think is reflected in his incredible empathy and sympathy and in the political positions he’s taken. 

Parental prodding, from afar

Ted’s academic record was mediocre, and both parents were constantly on him about his spelling, his marks — and his weight. The huskiest of the weight-obsessed Kennedys, Teddy had a love of sweets that was the stuff of family lore.

Rose didn’t just write Teddy chiding him about being in “the fourth fifth” of his class. She also wrote the headmaster at Fessenden to complain that her 11-year-old still counted on his fingers: “Will you please bring it to the attention of his arithmetic teacher in the fall?”

Joe could be merciless, too. “You still spell ‘no’ ‘know,”‘ he wrote his 13-year-old son. “Skating is not ‘scating,’ ” and so on. He ended on a sardonic note: “I am sorry to see that you are starving to death. I can’t imagine that ever happening to you if there was anything at all to eat around, but then you can spare a few pounds.”

Perhaps the toughest parental scolding was that which compared the siblings with one another. In a letter that reveals much about the family dynamic, Joe wrote the 11-year-old Teddy: “You didn’t pass in English or Geography and you only got 60 in Spelling and History. That is terrible. . . . You wouldn’t want to have people say that Joe and Jack Kennedy’s brother was such a bad student, so get on your toes.”

Joe Jr. was the charming, ambitious brother. Jack was the reflective intellectual. Bobby was serious and dogged. Teddy was the late bloomer, more into sports than grades.

Always deferential to his parents, Teddy took such comparisons as a normal part of growing up Kennedy. To him, family loyalty was paramount. He believed that his parents’ words were for the children’s own good — a generous interpretation, since he often came out on the short end.

He would remain a devoted son, putting together books of remembrances upon his parents’ deaths. “For all of us, Dad was the spark and Mother was the light of our lives. He was our greatest fan and she was our greatest teacher,” he wrote. “Whatever any of us has done — whatever contribution we have made — begins with Rose and Joe Kennedy.”

During that time at Fessenden and Milton Academy, where he spent his high school years, Ted grew especially close to his maternal grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a former congressman and mayor of Boston who was the consummate constituent politician.

Teddy often spent Sundays with the old man, an affable and voluble character who would take his grandson on the same historical tours he took Rose on as a child, explaining the importance of the Old North Church or the elegance of Louisburg Square. He also took Teddy down to the wharves where the immigrants came in and he introduced him around.

“Teddy was more Honey Fitz than Joe Kennedy,” says Robert Healy, who covered the 1960 presidential election for the Globe. “Honey” was sweet and warm, whereas Joe was colder, more calculating.

At Milton Academy, which was also Bobby’s alma mater, Ted played football, tennis, and hockey but was not a standout. He was also in the drama, debate, and glee clubs, the latter reflecting his lifelong love of singing. As a senior, he ran a distant third in the “Class Politician” category. He went to dances and wrote his father that he was “getting to know more girls, which couldn’t please me more.”

Despite his mother’s best efforts, young Teddy was far from perfectly behaved. Though teachers remarked on his genial personality, there were also notes home about demerits for minor offenses. While at Milton, Teddy borrowed the car of former Boston Police Commissioner Joseph Timilty, a close family friend. After it stalled out a few times, Teddy simply abandoned it in Mattapan — though he informed “The Commish,” as the family called Timilty.

In the fall of 1950, Ted followed his brothers and his father to Harvard, where his main interest was football. He was a big, fearless end on the freshman team. But that spring, he was in danger of flunking Spanish. He needed to pass the final to be eligible to play the following fall. A teammate took the exam for him but when he turned in the blue book, the teaching assistant recognized him as Bill Frate, not Ted Kennedy. Both boys were thrown out of school; they could return in two years pending good behavior.

“Teddy didn’t manage himself effectively,” recalls classmate Burton Hersh, later a Kennedy biographer. “Afterwards, his father said, ‘Don’t do this cheating thing, you’re not clever enough.’ ”

Biding his time until he could be readmitted to Harvard, Ted joined the Army and spent two years as a military policeman stationed in Paris; Joe, with his political connections, had made sure his youngest wasn’t sent to Korea. Ironically, a few months before the cheating incident, he had written Ted: “Keep after the books if only to keep the draft away from your door.”

Back at Harvard in the summer of 1953, Teddy buckled down with his government studies — and managed an A- in Spanish. But he saved plenty of time for play, holding court at a jock’s table in Winthrop House, where his brothers had also lived. “He had such a zest for life,” says classmate Claude Hooton, who has remained a close friend. “We had so much fun.”

When Jack Kennedy was in the hospital recovering from an illness, Ted and Hooton would visit and sing “Bill Bailey” and “Heart of my Hearts.” One summer, they started a water-skiing school in Southern California.

Teddy often took friends to Hyannis Port for cookouts and touch football and went to dances with Wellesley College girls. Teddy and Dick Clasby would rate the girls they met: A through F. “He had a twinkle in his eye for pretty girls,” Clasby says.

The high point of Ted’s football career came senior year in a snowstorm when he caught a short pass on Yale’s seven-yard line and scored. Harvard lost, but Joe, who came to all of his games, was deliriously proud, and Teddy got his varsity football letter.

Then there was church, a given in the Kennedy household. Rose was obsessively religious, often attending Mass twice daily. She told her son if he went to Mass seven straight Fridays, he was guaranteed to go to heaven.

“So Ted and I went seven Fridays, and that was it,” says Clasby. “That was the deal.” Ted still attends Mass regularly, even when Clasby and other friends are at Hyannis Port for their annual sailing hiatus.

‘Let’s stay out of gossip columns.’

In 1956, Teddy graduated from Harvard and enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia, Bobby’s alma mater. At UVa., Teddy pored over his books, writing his father: “Am holding on down here on my 12-hour-a-day schedule.” He would end up around the middle of his class, says his friend John Tunney.

Still, he and Tunney, his roommate and son of heavyweight boxing champ Gene Tunney, won the law school’s prestigious moot court competition, beating out 49 other teams over five rounds that spanned a year and a half. “And of course, Teddy just loved the fact that he had won and Bobby had not,” says Tunney, who would also serve in the Senate with Ted and John Culver.

Just as important was a note he got from Joe, who couldn’t resist a family comparison: “You did a great job winning that event. Scholastically, it certainly fits with anything anybody has ever done before — including your father!”

In Charlottesville, Ted and Tunney lived in a house on Barracks Road, “just made for two young men who loved to speed because it had turns,” says Tunney. Kennedy’s fast driving had long been noted by his friends: Ted Sorensen, JFK’s speechwriter, remembers riding back from the Cape to Boston with Teddy. “It was the first time in my young life that I realized when cars coming from the other direction blink their lights at you, it means there’s a trooper up ahead and you ought to slow down,” says Sorensen.

After one police chase while in law school, with speeds up to 90 miles per hour, Teddy was charged with reckless driving and driving without a license, which he had left at home. “If you’re going to make the political columns,” wrote his father, “let’s stay out of the gossip columns.”

Still, Joe managed to keep the arrest out of the news for several weeks, releasing it just after he released the news that Teddy was going to head Jack’s 1958 Senate campaign. The positive story had the effect of blunting the negative one and again Joe, the ultimate fixer, had come through.

Marital step, political leap

Joe and Rose soon decided it was time for their free spirit to settle down. After all, Jack was a US senator and Bobby was making a name for himself as a chief counsel in the Senate.

At the start of Ted’s second year at UVa., the family went to Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. to dedicate a sports complex they had built in honor of Kathleen. There, Jean, a Manhattanville alumna, introduced Teddy to Joan Bennett, a senior at the Catholic women’s school. “I was not intimidated because I had never heard of the Kennedys before,” says Joan, who grew up in Westchester County. ” No one had ever heard of the Kennedys outside Massachusetts.”

Teddy made quite an impression on his own: “He was tall and he was gorgeous.” The two began seeing each other and Rose invited Joan to Hyannis Port, where so many Kennedy dates had been vetted.

Ted proposed on the beach near the Kennedy estate, mumbling: “What do you think about us getting married?” The two hadn’t spent much time alone — their half-dozen weekends together were always group affairs. “I guess we felt we knew each other, but there were no deep talks,” she says.

They were married Nov. 29, 1958, by Cardinal Spellman at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Bronxville. At the reception, Jack had to tell a hovering Rose: “Mother, he’s not a baby anymore. He’s married. He has a wife.”

During the festivities, Jack, Ted’s godfather and best man, wore a microphone because the Bennetts had hired a film crew as a wedding gift. Later, watching the footage, Joan would hear Jack whisper to his brother that marriage didn’t mean you had to be faithful. It was not the gift her father had planned, but it did serve as an early warning: Like his father and his brother Jack, Teddy would have a problem with fidelity.

Three weeks before the wedding, Jack had won reelection to the Senate against an obscure candidate, Vincent Celeste, with an unprecedented 74 percent of the vote. Joe’s plan had been to make this election the largest landslide in Massachusetts history, the better to position Jack for a 1960 presidential run.

It also served as Teddy’s political baptism: Jack had tapped his 26-year-old brother, still in law school, to be chairman of the campaign. What Teddy lacked in experience he made up for in enthusiasm, going to union halls, factory gates, and teas.

Unlike his brothers, Teddy seemed to revel in the hand-shaking and back-slapping. “One of his abiding strengths was that he genuinely liked talking to people,” says Gerard Doherty, who ran signature drives with Ted. “He’d talk to telephone poles if he could, whereas Bobby and Jack were a little more uncomfortable.”

Still, he was considered the kid brother, the one who campaigned on behalf of others.

In the 1960 race, he was assigned the 13 western states, which were predominantly Republican. “Teddy’s role was that of a young kid who would do anything to get his brother elected,” recalls Bob Healy. In Wisconsin, he promised folks at a bar that he’d go off a ski jump if they’d support Jack. Soaring off the 180-foot jump, he managed to land on his feet. In Montana he came out of a rodeo gate riding a bucking bronco, holding on for five seconds before being tossed off.

Despite Ted’s efforts, JFK lost all but three western states. But he had won the election, and it was about time, Joe thought, for his youngest son to emerge from the shadows and take his rightful place in American politics.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2009/02/15/chapter_1_teddy/

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