This Book Was the First to Spill JFK's Secrets.Roundup: Talking About History
tags: JFK, biographies
This is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and both the New York Times and the Washington Post devoted their Sunday book sections to reviewing old and new books about what Jill Abramson called “the elusive president.” One of the books they do not mention is one of the most important ever written about him, The Search for JFK by Joan Blair and Clay Blair, Jr., which was published in 1976 and is out of print. I read it in the early ‘80s when I was trying to figure out how to write a biography. I am not an expert on Kennedy’s presidency, but I have read enough to say that what the Blairs wrote about Kennedy was earth-shaking at the time and has, as far I know, not been disproven or discredited. Yet, their work has been completely forgotten. On Nexis-Lexis, I could find no mention of the book during the last 20 years.
Clay Blair was a well-known military historian and the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and his wife Joan Blair co-authored several of his books. They set out to write the story of Kennedy’s early years up to his becoming Senator in 1953. They became convinced that the standard biographies of Kennedy slighted or distorted these years, but they were stymied by the refusal of the Kennedy Library to release relevant documents. So they set about interviewing more than 150 people who had known Kennedy back then. The result is not a conventional biography, but a chronicle of their attempt to find answers for the questions they had about Kennedy’s upbringing, school life at Choate and Harvard, service in the Navy, and early political life as a congressman. They quote at length from letters they discovered, but also from interviews they conducted. If the subject were less fascinating than Kennedy, such an approach might be tedious, but I found the Blairs’ book to be riveting.
At the time, their most controversial finding was about Kennedy’s medical history, documents about which the library refused to disclose. What they were able to piece together was that Kennedy, who during his presidential campaign had declared himself “the healthiest candidate for president in the country,” had been sickly from his youth and had almost died from Addison’s disease, for which he had to be continually treated while he was president. “His health, almost from birth,” the Blairs wrote, “was disastrously poor.” He was born with an “unstable back,” which required two operations, he had to take a year off from college because of illness, he left the Navy because of poor health, and in 1947, he was diagnosed with Addison’s, which consists of a malfunctioning adrenal gland. If anything, these various ailments would converge during his presidency....
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