photo by Jacques Lowe
One powerful truth I learned from my years working in the eating disorder field is there is no such thing as a perfect anything, and no matter how physically attractive a person is, or outwardly charming, glamorous, or happy they might appear to the world, there is always a deeper story quietly tucked behind the appearance of a “perfect” life.
This is the reason I was mesmerized by my latest book, Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero.
Despite my admiration and fond impressions I had of this President, I had heard the stories of his flagrant womanizing; I had seen the grainy photo of him smiling with Frank Sinatra, and heard about the secret file J. Edgar Hoover kept, that exposed a more human side to this man. But after all, I’m a clinician at heart, and when I picked up this book, I was drawn to those pieces of his life that had been purposely tucked away from public view.
Only I didn’t expect to be surprised. But in author Chris Matthew’s narrative, there are rich anecdotal stories shared by those closest to Kennedy, that not only weave together a picture of a complex man who tended to compartmentalize his life, but I found one stunning truth that JFK managed to keep from the American public. Here it is.
John F Kennedy suffered his entire life with poor physical health
Sure, I had heard, only never realized the extent of his struggles; the daily pains that he coped with from the time he was a little boy, ailments that landed him in bed for weeks, sideswiped his college plans, his travels, his military physical, and weakened his body for months at a time. How serious was his struggle with his health? On three separate occasions Kennedy was so close to death that a Catholic priest was called in to perform last rites over his body. Think about this. Three death-bed experiences.
Why is this the one piece of his compelling life that I’m choosing to focus on? Well, first of all, it’s because I believed those physically robust images. Jack Kennedy (as Matthews fondly refers to him) became seared into our nation’s mind as the symbol of youthful vitality, masculinity and political power; he epitomized strong leadership during one of our nation’s the most frightening stand-offs with the Soviet Union, steering our nation from the brink of nuclear war. He is associated with wealth and power. As the son of a billionaire, Kennedy grew up with all the benefits that money could buy, only it couldn’t give him the one thing that most of us take for granted: a strong, healthy body.
The second reason I’m touched by this knowledge is because it confirms the comfortable truth about real life. The fact that you can never judge another’s life based on mere image. Deeper layers are always there, ready to present a fuller understanding of a person that outsiders can’t know.
The irony about JFK’s poor health, is that this “weakness” that he worked so hard to hide, actually sheds light on his inner strength and sheer guts, those parts of his personality that equalized his physical impairments, his charm, his sunny outlook, his natural curiosity, and his amazing intellect were all there in an extraordinary combination.
Here are a few fascinating facts about JFK’s health that you might not know.
- Contrary to the robust, athletic images of the Kennedy family, John Kennedy had a lonely childhood beset by chronic illness. He was a sickly kid, and as a young boy he was constantly bedridden, suffering from scarlet fever and persistent stomach problems that mystified specialists. After his death Jackie elaborated about the effect of this kind of aloneness. “History made him what he was, this lonely, sick boy in bed, so much of the time. All the time he was in bed he was reading history…Marlborough. He devoured the Knights of the Round Table...”
- Later Jackie Kennedy had harsh words for his mother, the devout Rose Kennedy, whom she described as an image-driven woman, one who relished the societal benefits of being the ambassador's wife but had less interest in the warmer sides of mothering. “His mother never really loved him,” Jackie said.
- Despite his scrawny weight, and persistent back problems, on the night of August 2, 1943, he towed an injured crew member four miles to an island, after their PT 109 boat was cut in half by a Japanese sub. Pappy McMahon, the rescued man with the badly burned arms, remembers Kennedy casually cutting his life jacket strap and pulling him in the Pacific waters for hours with this strap between his teeth, while McMahon looked at the sky and listened to Kennedy’s heavy breathing. At this moment, he didn’t know that Kennedy had been rejected by the army due to his poor health, and initially was turned down by the navy because of his bad back. Kennedy had stubbornly trained for five months to gain muscle and weight in order to pass his military physical. That night, McMahon and the other crew members followed Kennedy to an island, then watched him leave in search of help with a 38 pistol tied around his neck, and with a flashlight in a life jacket to keep it afloat. He later returned around noon, after hours in the ocean, looking “scrawny and exhausted with yellow skin and bloodshot eyes. He vomited and passed out.”
This is a photo of the real coconut that Kennedy carved with his pocket knife. The next day, Kennedy assembled his men on an eight foot plank and still dragging the injured McMahon, he lead them to another island where he passed this coconut to natives who then, passed it to Australian allies. After they were rescued, Kennedy had this coconut transformed into a paperweight which he kept on his desk.
- Although JKF was considered a physically handsome man, especially popular with female voters, when he was twenty-eight years old, one mayor, Mike Neville remembers thinking, “I couldn’t believe this skinny, pasty faced kid was a candidate for anything.”
- Throughout his political campaigning, his wartime exploits conveniently provided a cover for the chronic health problems that beset him. There were helpful rumors spread that blamed his sallow, unhealthy complexion and his frighteningly gaunt frame (140 pounds at one point) on the malaria that he had during the war. John Kennedy was finally diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a secret that Lyndon Johnson threatened to expose prior to be offered the Vice Presidency.
- Ironically, the steroids that John Kennedy took to manage his Addison’s disease had the benefit of filling out his thin face, so that when he was running for President against Richard Nixon, and struggling to manage this illness, “he never looked better.” (pg. 291)
- In the spring of 1954 Kennedy’s back pain became unbearable. His X-rays confirmed that the fifth lumbar vertebra had collapsed possibly as a result of years of steroid use. Although historian Robert Dallek reported that he could no longer bend over to put a sock on, and only managed to get up and down stairs by walking sideways, snapshots taken at this time show Jack, Jackie and Bobby Kennedy playing touch football in the park, and happily playing tennis.
Photos: courtesy of Caroline Kennedy; seldom seen image of JFK with corset
- After surgeries in 1954 and early 55’ he continued to suffer with back pain due to his loss of bone mass. In 1957 while traveling the country, he required hospitalization to remove an abscess from his back in the New York Hospital. His traveling companion on the political circuit during this time, Ted Sorenson, recalls all those rural drives and stops at small motels without proper mattress support “in retrospect, it is amazing that, in all those years, he never complained about his ailments.” (pg. 224)
- In one of his most life threatening back surgeries, Kennedy was warned that he might die on the table due to possible complications from his Addison’s disease. It didn’t go well and he later went into a coma. Evelyn Woods, his personal secretary was told that he was not expected to live through the night. News spread in the Senate, and Richard Nixon’s secret service man remembers hearing Nixon moan out loud, “That poor young man is going to die. Oh God, please don’t let him die.”
- While John Kennedy was recovering from back surgery he wrote, Profiles in Courage in conjunction with Ted Sorenson, his trusted advisor and speech writer. Those around him during this time remember him lying flat on his back with pen and paper above his face. He coordinated writing efforts over the phone with Sorenson, and later received a Pulitzer Prize for this book.
Whatever you may think of the man, he had incredible fortitude.
Did I tell you something you didn’t know? Do you believe that Kennedy’s weak health would pose a problem in our elections today? Do you think his leadership qualities would be questioned as a result of his health problems?
It’s an interesting question. I would love to hear your opinions. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment.
And tell me what book you are reading. Bye for now!
photos: JKF Library unless otherwise noted; quotes from Elusive Hero.