Biography, Nonfiction

The Kennedy Heirs by J. Randy Taraborrelli

John, Caroline, and the New Generation: A Legacy of Triumph and Tragedy

In addition to being an Anglophile royalist, I also enjoy keeping up with our own “American Royalty,” the Kennedys. While I’ve learned quite a bit about Joe Jr., JFK, RFK, Kick, Ted, Eunice, Pat, Jean, and Rosemary, I wanted to learn more about their children, including JFK Jr., RFK Jr., Kathleen, and the other 26 cousins.

Synopsis

From the publisher marketing:
A unique burden was inherited by the children of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his celebrated siblings, Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy. Raised in a world of enormous privilege against the backdrop of American history, this third generation of Kennedys often veered between towering accomplishment and devastating defeat. In his revelatory new book, acclaimed Kennedy historian J. Randy Taraborrelli draws back the curtain on the next generation of America’s most famous family.

John Kennedy, Jr.’s life in the public eye is explored, following the Kennedy scion as he faced the challenges posed by marrying his great love, Carolyn Bessette. Riveting new details are shared about the couple’s tragic demise–and why Ethel Kennedy advised Carolyn not to take the trip that would ultimately end her life. John’s sister, Caroline Kennedy, had her own complicated relationships, including a marriage to Ed Schlossberg that surprised her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and an unexpected bond with her mother-in-law, Mae Schlossberg.

Additional stories, many shared here for the first time, illuminate the rest of the Kennedy dynasty: Kara Kennedy, Ted’s daughter, and her valiant battle against lung cancer; how Ted’s wife, Vicki, introduced a new era of feminism to the Kennedy family; the lifelong struggles with addiction faced by Bobby Kennedy Jr. and Patrick Kennedy; the unexpected way pop star Taylor Swift helped Conor Kennedy heal after the death of his mother, Bobby’s wife Mary; and Congressman Joe Kennedy III’s rise to prominence. At the center of it all is the family’s indomitable matriarch, Ethel Kennedy–a formidable presence with her maddening eccentricities and inspiring courage.

Review

First things first, at the end of this page you will find a brief Kennedy family breakdown to reference. As the Kennedys like to repeat names often, I found it helpful while listening and reading to have this name list near by. As my copy is an ARC, I do not know if finished physical copies have a family tree in them but it would have been tremendously helpful to have one while reading/listening.

The Kennedy Heirs is over 600 pages long, a tome by the look, but not by the feel given that this is, in reality, a biography of 29 people. Some feature more prominently than others, some have simply lead more public and more interesting lives than others and so the “usual suspects,” the ones you’d expect to feature more heavily, do. I break it down further in the family tree who is featured more than and who is featured less.

I’m a useless royalist, mocked by my friends and family for caring so much about royalty. When I was a kid, it was definitely princess fantasies (thank you Disney for making me want to marry Prince Harry) but when I went to college, my interest shifted to a more sociological interest in royalty and celebrity culture in media. In the 21st century, one could argue that the Kardashians are the American royalty, but in the 20th century, the Kennedys were the American royal family, and they continue to hold great interest to the public today. The Kennedys will continue to make headlines if for no other reason than the Kennedy curse and humanity’s fascination with tragedy. A public figure dies and the world wants to know how, why? And the Kennedys have dealt with their fair share, if not more, of tragedy. (Also see the family tree at the bottom for those featured who fell victim to the curse.)

It’s almost impossible to talk Kennedys without veering towards gossipy and salacious stories, but I honestly think J. Randy Taraborrelli does a decent job of trying to be objective. He has been a Kennedy scholar for much of his career and has had access to sources within and around the family that few other unofficial Kennedy biographers have been able to claim. The Kennedy Heirs is also not a hagiography.

None of the men discussed at length in the book save for John Jr. and Bobby Sr. come off well, and it’s even debatable in regards to the two of them. Much emphasis is placed on the women’s long suffering anguish of dealing with the misogynistic pigs of their lives, including both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Andrew Cuomo, and rarely does it seem that they end up happy. Nearly all the members of the third generation got divorced or had significant marriage issues over the years.

I did really like getting an insight into the lesser known members of the family, as well as John Jr.’s relationship with his cousin on his mother’s side, Anthony Radziwill, as well as his dynamic with his sister Caroline (listening it was a bit confusing as the narrator occasionally misspoke and would say Caroline instead of Carolyn and vise versa). And frankly the most fascinating thing was how Ethel (Bobby Sr.’s widow who is still alive by the way) and Ted (Senator and younger brother of Jack & Bobby) became the de facto heads of the family and surrogate parents and grandparents to the third and fourth generations.

When JFK Jr. started dating Carolyn, he took her to meet Ethel. Ethel had the big compound in Virginia outside DC and lives in the main house of the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. Ted, being the last of the brothers, was unsurprisingly patriarch. But the way Taraborrelli tells it, Ethel is really the one who has been the head of the family since Bobby Sr.’s death.

There are, as expected, some salacious details throughout about the antics of the family members, particularly in regards to the men and their relationships with women who were not their wives. The tragedies are touched upon, but not dwelled upon. Taraborrelli discusses them in how they affected the other family members, he doesn’t do trauma porn. Overall it is, from my understanding and reading of other Kennedy books, an accurate painting of a complex family who has played a large role in shaping the country as it is today.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

Additional Kennedy Books Reviewed

Kennedy Family

3rd Kennedy Generation: THE KENNEDY HEIRS (grandchildren of Joe & Rose, children of JFK, Eunice, Pat, RFK, Jean and Ted), born between 1951 (Kathleen) and 1972 (Kym).

  • Children of Jack & Jackie Kennedy (heavily featured)
    • Caroline, married Ed Schlossberg
    • JFK Jr.*, married Carolyn Bissette
    • Also featured: Jackie’s nephew, Anthony Radziwill*
  • Children of Eunice & (Robert) Sargent Shriver (not prominently featured besides Maria)
    • Robert III
    • Maria, married Arnold Schwarzenegger, former first lady of California
    • Timothy
    • Mark
    • Anthony
  • Children of Pat(ricia) & Peter Lawford (not prominently featured)
    • Christopher
    • Sydney
    • Victoria
    • Robin
  • Children of Bobby & Ethel Kennedy (heavily featured, including Ethel)
    • Kathleen, former lieutenant governor of Maryland
    • Joe II**, former member of the US House of Representatives
    • Bobby Jr., married Mary Richardson*, best friend of his sister Kerry
    • David*
    • Mary
    • Michael*, married Vicki Gifford
    • Kerry
    • Christopher
    • Max
    • Douglas
    • Rory
    • Also featured: Ethel’s nephew, Michael Skakel**
  • Children of Jean & Stephen Smith (not prominently featured)
    • Stephen Jr.
    • William**
    • Amanda
    • Kym
  • Children of Ted & Joan Kennedy (heavily featured, including Ted, Joan and Vicki)
    • Kara*
    • Teddy** (Ted Jr.)
    • Patrick II**
    • Also featured: Ted’s second wife, Vicki

*tragic death attributed to Kennedy curse, or otherwise
**other Kennedy-curse-esque incidents

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