I used to have the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through. It’s a funny thing that as long as you have that feeling you seem to get through. I’ve lost that feeling lately but as a matter of fact I don’t feel bad about it. If anything happens to me I have this knowledge that if I had lived to be a hundred I could only have improved the quantity of my life, not the quality.
—John Kennedy, from a letter to Inga Arvad
Written from the South Pacific following the August 1, 1943 sinking of PT-109, the long letter from Navy Lt. John Kennedy to his lover is worth a close look for what it says about a man in his mid-20s who already appears to have an enlightened sense of history and an interesting sense of himself. It’s one of the most revealing documents in The Letters of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury $30), edited by Martin W. Sandler and billed as the first such collection ever.
If Kennedy was satisfied with the quality of his life in 1943, what he achieved in the limited quantity he had left is astonishing, especially given what he was dealing with physically, day by day. As Sandler points out in the book’s last section (“A Triumph of Will”), here was a man who received the last rites of the Catholic Church four times, whose image of “glowing health and energy” (“vigor” a presidential buzz word) was “a well-orchestrated lie.” After mentioning how Kennedy “relied heavily on drugs and pills,” Sandler refers to the spending of “many days in bed,” which can be read two ways, given JFK’s legendary sex life. In fact, if he had been healthy, he might have graduated from Princeton, having actually enrolled at Old Nassau in 1935 “where he immediately concentrated on what was to become a lifetime obsession — the conquest of beautiful women.” We’ll never know how this need played out in the unlikely setting of pre-coed Princeton, for he soon “fell ill” with Addison’s disease, the sickness that would “continue to plague him for the rest of his life.” As a result, he missed most of the school year and enrolled at Harvard in 1936.
While most of the letters in this collection were written by the candidate or senator or president and will be of primary interest to historians, the exchange with Inga Arvad offers a teasing glimpse of the protagonist of the novel Norman Mailer imagined but never wrote, an existential adventurer with style and wit and a political agenda. Mailer tested the idea in “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” the Esquire essay on the 1960 Democratic Convention projecting candidate Kennedy as “‘your first hipster’ … a man who has lived with death, who, crippled in the back, took on an operation which would kill him or restore him to power, who chose to marry a lady whose face might be too imaginative for the taste of a democracy which likes its first ladies to be executives of home-management, a man who courts political suicide by choosing to go all out for a nomination four, eight, or 12 years before his political elders think he is ready, a man who announces a week prior to the convention that the young are better fitted to direct history than the old.”
Jack and Inga
Inga Arvad (1913-1973) was a Danish journalist who met Jack Kennedy (1917-1963) through his sister Kathleen when both women were working for the Washington Times Herald. Winner of a beauty contest at 16, she competed for the Miss Europe title a year later, around the time she eloped with an Egyptian diplomat, divorced him and in 1936 married Hungarian-born Paul Fejos, director of the silent classic Lonesome (in later life she married movie cowboy Tim McCoy, settled down in Hollywood, and raised a family). She was still married to Fejos when the romance with Kennedy began in November 1940. The FBI took an interest in the affair after the U.S. entered the war and it was discovered that Inga had conducted several sympathetic interviews with Adolph Hitler. That, and a photo of Inga and Hitler at the Summer Olympics, was all it took for her to be cast as a German spy. Hotel rooms were bugged, with FBI agents listening in, compiling transcripts indicating that besides making a whole lot of love, Jack and Inga took the relationship seriously, Kennedy with thoughts of annulling both her marriages so he could wed her in the Catholic Church, Inga with thoughts of carrying his baby (“you are the kind the world ought to swarm with”).
In the only letter from Arvad in the collection, she sounds at once amorous, sisterly, and maternal when she describes “the young handsome Boston Bean” who “when you talk to him or see him you always have the impression that his big white teeth are ready to bite off a huge hunk of life.” Her advice to him has an almost Emersonian ring: “Go up the steps of fame. But — pause now and then to make sure that you are accompanied by happiness. Stop and ask yourself ‘Does it sing inside me today.’ If that is gone. Look around and don’t take another step till you are certain life is as you will and want it.”
Kennedy’s reference to “the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through” echoes the wording of an earlier letter to his parents describing the man in his PT-109 crew who “always seemed to have the feeling that something was going to happen to him …. When a fellow gets the feeling that he’s in for it, the only thing to do is let him get off the boat because strangely enough, they always seem to be the ones that do get it.” Kennedy refers to the same man’s fate more explicitly in his letter to Inga: “He told me one night he thought he was going to be killed …. He was in the forward gun turret when the destroyer hit us.”
A Ranch in Texas?
In view of the day in Dallas when the survivor who had lived with death finally failed to “get through,” the most curious reference in the letter is when he tells Inga “you said you figured that I’d go to Texas and write my experiences. I wouldn’t go near a book like that. This thing is so stupid that while it has a sickening fascination for some of us, myself included, I want to leave it far behind when I go.”
With the 50th anniversary of the assassination looming (this year, as it did in 1963, November 22 falls on a Friday), the mention of Texas requires at least a moment or two of reflection. Without access to the other letters, there’s no way to track down previous references to the possibility that Kennedy might have considered going to Texas to write a book about his wartime experience. According to Michael O’Brien’s biography of Kennedy, he discussed presidential ambitions with Inga as early as 1941 and was “torn between postwar dreams of moving to a ranch out west or pursuing an extraordinary political ambition.” Inga was “quite convinced that he had it in him to become president if he set his mind to it.” She saw “the ranch out West” as an alternative to “the highway to the White House,” and “out West” presumably could mean Texas. Considering the labyrinth of coincidence and conspiracy surrounding the assassination, perhaps someone will do some research on whether Kennedy ever imagined a life for himself on a ranch in Texas.
In his preface to the letters from May-October 1963, Sandler cites the various warnings Kennedy received about a visit to Dallas in the third week of November. A member of the Democratic National Committee from Texas said that the city “simply wasn’t safe for Kennedy and should be avoided.” When Senator William Fulbright repeated the warning and advised him not to go, “Kennedy responded by saying that if any president ever reached the point where he was afraid to visit any American city, he should immediately resign.”
More Than a Celebrity
A month ago in the October 22 New York Times Book Review, there was a piece on “Kennedy the Elusive President” discussing the “Kennedy fixation” that has inspired “an estimated 40,000 books.” One of the biographers, Robert Dallek, told the Times that “the mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” seeing him “more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.”
Kennedy was more than a celebrity, he was a star, which is one reason why even as history books are negatively reassessing his administration, he still enjoys the highest approval rating among presidents of the 20th-21st centuries.
The 60s had begun with the frigid weather of the inauguration, a bareheaded old poet reciting, a bareheaded young president declaiming. After the shots in Dallas, it was if the decade had been cut down in its tracks with the man who had symbolically set it in motion. A few months later, on February 7, 1964, four young men from Liverpool arrived in America and for many of us, the 60s, for better or worse, stood up and got moving again.