Book Review: Jack 1939
by Francine Mathews
Riverhead Book, 2012
John F. Kennedy, age 22, ostensibly enjoying himself in London in 1939 while his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, is the United States ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, is actually an intelligence operative working on secret instructions from President Franklin Roosevelt – the conceit of Francine Mathews’ new novel, Jack 1939 should make it callous (the man’s real life wasn’t interesting enough for the purposes of historical fiction?) or at least laughable (“The name’s Kennedy – Jack Kennedy”). No U.S. President spun finer or more far-flung webs than FDR – he hardly needed the clandestine services of a pasty Harvard senior (codename: Crimson, Mathews writes, as if daring us to snicker). And no super-agent candidate in 1939 would have looked less promising than Jack Kennedy – rail-thin, sickly, and more than a little feckless (“a face for comedy, not tragedy” as Mathews tells us quite accurately).
So Jack 1939 shouldn’t work, and yet it does. And not only does it work, it excels. This is one of the best historical novels of the year, and the best fictional evocation of the Kennedy world yet written (not that it has much competition yet on that second score, the necrophilic rantings of James Ellroy notwithstanding).
The real Jack Kennedy spent the politically tense spring and summer of 1939 mostly living it up with London’s smart set. He had incredible, almost epicene good looks, limitless funds, and the pretense of important work as a member of his father’s staff. The spotlight of history isn’t trained on him yet – it’s still shining on his older brother Joe Jr., and on his father, who nurses dreams of the White House – so he was free to drink and dance every night at all the fashionable spots with Mitford girls and society debutantes … and most of all his glorious sister Kathleen, nicknamed “Kick,” whom Mathews does the honor of assessing fairly:
Even at nineteen, Kick would never be a beauty; she was too Kennedy for that, with a freckled face, a snub nose, and a square jaw. But she was shrewd and funny and her smile lit up a room; half of London was in love with her.
It was a belle epoque world of consequence-free privilege (Jack’s dalliances were numberless, and Kick even went so far as to fall in love with no less than the heir to the Duke of Devonshire) – hardly the stuff of international espionage. But Mathews goes about her story with a no-nonsense certainty and an impressive amount of backstage research. A large number of historical figures walk across these pages, from J. Edgar Hoover to Gestapo chief Reinhard Heydrich to testy career diplomat George Kennan – not to mention all those Kennedys, from the young boys Teddy and Bobby to the gutter-mouthed ambassador and his frigid, brainless wife (the real-world Kennedy clan must not be pleased with these portraits of their paterfamilias and matriarch, but that’s the risk you take by being part of history) – and every one of them is expertly sketched. Including that toughest subject of all, the mastermind in the Oval Office:
“I expect your friends in England are watching Joe Kennedy.”
[General "Wild Bill"] Donovan’s gaze never wavered; it was a habit Roosevelt valued. “They don’t trust Joe in the slightest. Think he’s a defeatist and an appeaser. It wouldn’t surprise me if the embassy’s bugged.”
Which meant that Donovan knew it was.
“You should recall him,” Wild Bill urged. “If he’s lost your confidence and the Brits’, he’s no use to you in London.”
“He’s safer there.”
Through the open window, Roosevelt could hear the high, birdlike call of his grandson as he ran across the White House lawn. The memory of former springs, of his young body running through fresh grass on a May morning, flooded his mind. With effort, he turned from that lost brightness.
“Joe stays across the Atlantic until after the election.”
“You’ll have to work around him,” Donovan tells the President, who responds cryptically, “I already am …” Enter Jack Kennedy, the perfect candidate for an unofficial mission, since he’s smart, historically informed, and, as the ambassador’s black-sheep second son, able to fly below the radar in a way his matinee-idol older brother is not. We follow intrepid young Jack through all the byways of pre-war Europe and even so far as Instanbul, all of it exuberantly brought to life by our author:
The ancient souk sprawled over fifty-eight streets and held thousands of shops; traders had bargained beneath its arched ceilings for five hundred years. It was, Jack thought, a postcard from Byzantium, the lost world of Suleiman the Magnficent, and for a while the colors and scents transported him: cardamom and bitter orange blossom; tobacco bubbling in hookahs; the mustiness of rolled wool rugs and the brown coal smell of open braziers. The bazaar stank of goats and unwashed humanity and occasionally attar of roses. A man gestured at carpets and a boy offered alabaster; when Jack ducked down a quieter path through the labyrinth, an aged crone tried to sell him her daughter.
The most pleasing thing about this novel full of pleasing things is the seamless way Mathews fits a very believably realized Jack Kennedy – the weak and painful body, the fatalism, the wiry courage, even the vocal mannerisms, here caught perfectly – into the more or less conventional setting of a spy thriller without slighting either the man or the genre. There’s a beautiful woman – Diana Playfair – and there’s an odious villain – Hans Obst, “The White Spider” – and there are chases, foggy night-scenes in Prague, some business with a luggage claim check, and a thrilling climax. Amidst all this gunfire and assassination, Mathews can’t resist a couple of rather heavy-handed allusions to young JFK’s fate in the future, but to a remarkable degree, her Jack Kennedy is a fresh and immediate creation.
Jack 1939 is a surprising and totally convincing bolt of entertainment. No fan of historical fiction – or history – should miss it.