The book starts out, as many Kennedy biographies do, with the last days of the doomed president. But it focuses on a doodle the president made on the stationary of the Rice Hotel in Houston, where he and his wife Jacqueline stayed the night before his assassination in Dallas. On a piece of paper found later by the cleaning staff was a little sketch of a sailboat.
It’s a novel way to approach the story of the Kennedy family, and I was anxious to see how the story of their love for the sea wound through the historic highs and lows of the Kennedy epic. We learn a number of things about the family and their relationship to the sea, mostly about their family compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. We’re reminded the Kennedys were ambitious, competitive and hated to lose at anything, especially sailing. This was something they learned from the patriarch of the family, Joseph P. Kennedy, who would chide his children, or just plain not talk to them, after a loss in a sailing race. We learned that, to the Kennedys, sailing was a ritual to prove their place in the family, and fight for a place in the pecking order. Sailboats were a place for courting and building an image as America’s first family of a new generation of politicians in the tumultuous middle of the last century.
Many of the iconic stories and images of the Kennedys concern boats and water. The most powerful, of course, is the story of JFK surviving the sinking of the PT109 in the South Pacific during World War II; another is the picture of JFK and Jacqueline on Victura during their courtship (pictured above, on the cover of the book). This tale is at its best when it sticks to the boats and the lives of the Kennedys when they return to Hyannis Port to sail together as a way to celebrate or mourn, which they did in spades.
The book drags a bit when it wanders too far from the sea, trying to weave in the major issues and crises of JFK’s presidency, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, and other historical and political challenges faced by JFK and his brothers. It’s clear that returning to Hyannis Port to sail was one way the Kennedys decompressed from their extraordinary public lives. The sections on the presidency don’t add to what is already known, and make the real core of the story — a family’s love for the sea — seem small and, except to a sailor, slightly inconsequential in perspective.
This book confirms much of what we have come to know about the Kennedy family: they live lives not like the rest of us. But it also showed that they shared something core to most sailors: the knowledge that roiling tides, battering winds and the challenges of flapping sails and flying sheets are both a salve for despair and a powerful way to feel the joys of victory. Whether you are a sailor or fan of John F. Kennedy, you might enjoy the book Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat and the Sea by author James W. Graham.
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This is a guest post written by Spencer A. Sherman. Spencer last wrote about Houseboating on Lake Oroville.