Review

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

by Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek's epic biography, AN UNFINISHED LIFE: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, portrays the life of the 35th president of the United States in award-winning fashion.

Dallek, a professor at Boston University, spent five years of extensive research to produce this tremendous biography. Not only did Dallek unearth Kennedy's own tryst with a White House intern (which recently made national headlines), he also reveals Kennedy's use of numerous prescription drugs during his turbulent life to battle the multitude of inflictions that ravished his body since early childhood.

While it isn't breaking news today, Dallek also presents the fact that Kennedy, like his father, delved deep into adultery. Dallek concludes that Kennedy's numerous affairs could be blamed on his mother Rose's inept upbringing of their second of nine children. Dallek makes several references to Kennedy's torrid appetite for sex and its correlation with a neglectful mother, with which I tend to disagree.

JFK lived a pampered life --- before and after his service in the US Navy during World War II --- as the member of a prominent Boston family. Extremely good looking, Kennedy was the quintessential playboy and, as Dallek shows, used his power in politics before and during his presidency to attract his female suitors.

In the mid-1950s, after Kennedy defeated Henry Cabot Lodge, the crucial gears towards the presidency were put into place as JFK left Congress and became a senator. Dallek illustrates numerous examples during this time of the tremendous build-up of the Kennedy political machine, constructed from his father's fortune.

Interestingly enough, Dallek also examines how Kennedy's father did all he could and used all of his financial muscle to not only get his son elected as senator, but also to have the nation embrace the first ever Irish-Catholic candidate for the office of the presidency of the United States.

Possibly one of the most interesting and stark examinations of Dallek's biography is the involvement JFK's father had in his son's political career. It is also worth mentioning the poignant fact that the author reveals how the death of JFK's older brother Joe during a botched bombing run in World War II eventually paved the way for the younger brother's political career.

Kennedy's road to the White House in 1960, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs incident, Vietnam --- it's all here in Dallek's excellent presentation of JFK's legendary and tragic 1,000 days in office.

Being a Boston native and a journalist, I grew up on all the nostalgia of the Kennedy legacy and "Camelot" that was left behind after that fatal day in Dallas in 1963. Now, nearly 40 years since Kennedy was shot to death and as "The New Frontier" came to a halt, Dallek pushes aside all the myths surrounding JFK and presents his subject like a true historian.

Despite Dallek's earlier assumption about Kennedy's mother, AN UNFINISHED LIFE should be considered the finest biography ever written about the slain statesman.

Reviewed by David Exum on January 24, 2011

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
by Robert Dallek

  • Publication Date: May 4, 2004
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316907928
  • ISBN-13: 9780316907927