About the Book by Kate Storey Titled “White House By the Sea: A Century of the Kennedys at Hyannis Port”

From a New York Times book review by Louis Bayard headlined “Where Kennedys Sail and Play Football, Others Cook and Clean”:

We weren’t invited to hang out with them, and that was the point. At a key juncture in his life, Joe Kennedy wasn’t invited either. In 1922, already wealthy, a Harvard grad furiously propagating, he applied for membership in the prestigious Cohasset Golf Club outside of Boston. The Brahmins took one look at him and saw only the son of an Irish Catholic barkeep, so Joe set about building the most exclusive club of all.

It began as a white-shingled house on a dead-end street in a quiet residential neighborhood called Hyannis Port. The advantages were many: privacy, a picture-perfect view of Nantucket Sound, a calm, shallow stretch of water for children to swim in, and a long, flat lawn perfect for touch football. Joe doubled the size of the house and imported Irish horses and installed a state-of-the-art movie theater in the basement and — here is where some of us hear biblical cadences — he and his wife did raise nine children, and God favored them, and they prospered. And two of their sons moved into adjoining homes, and there rose up a Kennedy compound (a label they refrained from using until they decided they liked the shorthand).

We know the rest, don’t we? The whole rise and fall. But it is the contention of “White House by the Sea,” Kate Storey’s well-paced history, that a great family can be understood only through the prism of their home, where they can be “the people we are when no one but the neighbors is looking.” Storey, a former Esquire staff writer and the senior features editor for Rolling Stone, has interviewed those neighbors, has shaken a lot of archival trees and has embedded herself within the surviving Kennedy family, a dozen of whose members “took me sailing, gave me tours of their homes … shared their photo albums and sat for hours opening up about their lives on the Cape.”

The result is a revealing record of the costs and benefits of access journalism. On the asset side, we get revealing anecdotes. Young Patricia Kennedy hijacks a local bus to win a scavenger hunt. Nearly-30-year-old Robert F. Kennedy crashes a high school football game to swing the balance toward the Barnstable Townies. Jackie gazes wide-eyed at her Secret Service agent and says: “Oh my goodness, I thought everyone water-skied.” Bobby Jr. spits ice cream into a policeman’s face. Rose Kennedy sends cookies to the young woman permanently paralyzed in her eldest grandson’s car accident and, in her last moments on Earth, says: “Remember, when I’m dead not to heat the swimming pool!”

On the debit side, we get no sustained inquiry into the incredible privilege that made all those anecdotes and the Kennedy lifestyle possible. It was Jackie who, in the days after her husband’s assassination, first planted the lyrics of “Camelot” in a credulous journalist’s ear, but it is Storey who insists six decades later that Hyannis Port is “what’s left of Camelot,” even as her own research suggests just how much of that myth rested on actual human backs: nannies, governesses, cooks, nurses, drivers, sailing instructors, tennis instructors, gardeners, landscapers, personal assistants — even young female “Irish bunnies,” who were, for reasons unclear, imported every summer.

“The hours were long,” Storey allows, “but there was such a sense of loyalty among those who have worked for the Kennedys.” Against this I can pose only my own suspicions, but I’m grateful to Storey for introducing me to people who live outside the Kennedy mythography. One of them, amusingly, is Oprah Winfrey, who was invited to the compound for a clambake, and then had to shut herself in a closet to avoid playing any more family games. Another is Eugenia Fortes, a Cape Verdean who spent most of her life cooking for Hyannis Port’s rich white families — “They’re not happy,” she concluded — and who, through sheer doggedness, ensured that a portion of the town’s beach remained public. Today it bears her name.

Louis Bayard is the author of “Jackie & Me” and “The Pale Blue Eye.”

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