Last month, I wrote a post of Vanderbilt-adjacent books after picking Vanderbilt as my Book of the Week. And while I was writing it, I realised that I’ve actually read quite a lot of books that could be described as JFK-adjacent at various points, so now I’ve finished The Editor, here is a look at the best of them – and believe me when I say I’ve read some bad ones too!
Lets start with the non-fiction. And I’m going to start by saying that whether some of these will work for you will depend on how much you already know about the Kennedy clan. There are loads of biographies of each of the various members of the family, many of them really quite long. If you want a straight up biography of the man himself, the one I have read is Robert Dalek’s An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy, which is long, but it is only one volume and it does give you a sense of what drove him and what the family was like. His dad comes across as being a particular type of nightmare – with massive ambitions for his kids that they could never live up to and that coloured all their relationships with other people as well. Of the non-politics members of the family, Kathleen Kennedy is possibly the most interesting – she had the family charisma and charm which she used to great effect while living in London while her father was the Ambassador. She married the heir to the Duke of Devonshire – who was then killed in combat. And she herself was dead long before her older brother became President. Paula Byrne wrote a biography of her called Kick – I think Byrne perhaps liked her subject a bit too much to grapple with some of the later parts of her life in depth, but it’s really good on most of her life and for what it was like to be one of the “other” Kennedys. I enjoyed it enough that it’s still on my bookshelves five years after I read it. There’s also (obviously) details about Jack and Jackie in Kate Andersen Brower’s books about the White House and its residents – I mentioned First Women the other week, but The Residence has a lot of detail about Jackie’s alterations and redecoration of the White House if that sort of thing interests you. You probably only need to pick one of them though – at least if you’re only reading for the Kennedy bits or if you’re planning to read them back to back!
There are also plenty of group biographies of the family out there but they do tend a bit towards the superficial – because there are a lot of Kennedy kids and thus a lot of Kennedy spouses! I read The Kennedy Wives by Amber Hunt and David Batcher around eight years ago – and even at that point I felt like I knew quite a lot of the detail already. But it was good for what happened to them all in the aftermath of JFK’s death – which is often where a lot of books stop. You will likely come away with the idea that the Kennedy men were hell to live with but that it is possible that some of the wives at least knew a little bit about what they were letting themselves in for. J Randy Tamborelli has also written about Jackie, Ethel and Joan – the wives of the political Kennedys – but it’s much older and I’ve not managed to get hold of it (yet). I have however read his biography of Marilyn Monroe – The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe – which had new (at the time in 2009) information about her relationship with not just JFK, but with Robert Kennedy and Pat Kennedy Lawford (and her husband Peter Lawford)
On the fiction side of things, I’ve read several novels which feature Jackie Kennedy’s post JFK life, none of which I feel able to recommend – except if you want to be really annoyed! Most of them focus on the triangle between Jackie, Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. I can however recommend Steven Rowley’s The Editor, which as I mentioned at the top I finished last week. His latest book The Guncle was a BotW last summer and I went looking for what else he had written and of the two options this jumped out at me. Set in the early 1990s, it’s about an aspiring writer whose first novel is bought by an editor at a major publisher – an editor who turns out to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The book follows him as he tries to works on his book with her help but also as she encourages him to work on his relationship with his own mother. She’s not the main character – and she’s a very enigmatic figure – so it’s not trying to see inside her head if that idea is something that worries you about novels about real people.
And finally there’s my favourite of the novels I’ve read about the Kennedys – The Importance of being Kennedy by Laurie Graham. Those of you who’ve been around a while will know how much I like Graham’s writing style and her books featuring real people. This was her next book after my beloved Gone With the Windsors and is another fictional person inserted into a real situation, in this case Nora Brennan, a nursery maid who takes a job with a family in Brookline Massachusetts that turns out to give her a ringside seat for history. She arrives when Joe jnr is a toddler and the book follows her through until Kathleen’s funeral. It’s sad when it needs to be, but it’s also witty and fun to read. If you’re only going to read one book from this post, maybe make it this one.