Review of the Kennedy expose “Ask Not” by Maureen Callahan

Review of the Kennedy expose “Ask Not” by Maureen Callahan

When the B-52s first sang of “heroes falling to the ground as hell’s magnet draws me down,” JFK had been dead for only 15 years and was still a largely untainted national icon. Stories of how he treated women trickled out, but it wasn’t until the #MeToo era that we learned just how abominably he and other revered and influential men behaved.

Journalist Maureen Callahan has worked for the New York Post and the Daily Mail – tabloids that have never met a Kennedy they didn’t want to smear. In her new book, Ask Not, she has assembled a scathing portrait of the devastation not just of John F. Kennedy but of three generations of Kennedy men. It’s a group portrait that reminds us that former President Donald Trump is by no means an outsider among powerful men.

Drawing on a wide range of sources, from unknowns (the White House kennel owner) to best-selling authors (Kitty Kelley) and her own reporting, Callahan takes a critical look at the Kennedy men through the lens of the unhappy and sometimes abused wives and girlfriends in their lives.

She identifies the origin of misogyny in Irish Catholic patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. in Boston during the Gilded Age and traces it anecdote by anecdote through JFK, RFK and Teddy and the litter of men of the baby boomer generation – boys fathered by three Kennedy wives whom Callahan portrays as humiliated breeders and political mainstays driven to madness and alcoholism. At the top is matriarch Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, a master of procreation who gave birth to nine live babies, including one who would become the 35th president and two future senators.

For the sections on JFK, Callahan relies heavily on a wealth of secondary sources about orgies, White House parties, and the King of Camelot’s sex addiction. She repeats claims from Kitty Kelley’s 1978 book Jackie Oh! that Jackie suffered from anorexia and depression at some point as a result of her marriage to JFK and required electroshock therapy. Callahan repeats unsubstantiated claims that both JFK and Robert F. Kennedy were somehow involved in Marilyn Monroe’s suicide.

She also tells stories of women who have since written or spoken about becoming Kennedy’s sex objects as college-age interns. Diana de Vegh was one of them, a third-year student at Radcliffe University when she caught the attention of the married senator from Massachusetts in 1958. Kennedy eventually seduced her in his Boston apartment. Her first sexual experience with him was brief and decidedly unromantic. “There were no kisses. No expressions of affection,” she told Callahan in an interview. De Vegh was one of several young women who were later invited to the White House family quarters when Jackie was away.

Callahan has a good eye for lurid details. Among the most controversial anecdotes — which critics and excerpts are already cherry-picking — is one she attributes to conversations with author William Manchester’s son, John, who revealed details from his father’s two five-hour taped interviews with Jackie, which will be kept secret from the public until 2067. According to Callahan, Jackie told Manchester that she and Jack had sex the night before he died. But she provides no source for her eye-popping claim that Jackie kissed the entire naked body of the dead president while she was alone in the Dallas hospital — “or so she thought.”

Anyone born after 1970 needs to be reminded of the horrific story of Ted Kennedy leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to die slowly in his submerged car while he walked away. And Callahan delivers. The grisly details are damning, and the fact that Teddy lived another five decades in the public eye is a testament to the culture’s normalized misogyny.

Callahan writes that reporters routinely referred to Kopechne not by name but as “the blonde.” They often referred to the “boiler room girls” who worked for Bobby Kennedy, of which Kopechne was one, as “party girls,” and after Kopechne’s death, Kennedy attachés vilified them when they tried to comment on them.

The book is replete with pregnancies and repeated miscarriages of women desperately trying and failing to fulfill their duty to have children. Jackie suffered a miscarriage, lost a full-term baby at two days old, and experienced a stillbirth while her husband cavorted with women on a boat in the Mediterranean. Joan, Ted’s wife, suffered three miscarriages. But together the three women managed to hatch a horde of boys, the third-generation Kennedys, whom Callahan portrays as morally and intellectually weakened, pampered, spoiled, ruthless, and as devastating to women as their fathers and grandfathers.

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. survived a teenage heroin addiction but then developed a sex addiction, which he catalogued in a “sex diary” first published by the New York Post. He wrote that he was tormented by “lust demons” and helplessly “ambushed” by horny women. Callahan tells the story of his wife, Mary Richardson’s, suicide, with many details previously published in the New York Post, including quotes from other mothers who recalled Mary begging for $20 to buy gas or groceries while her husband prepared for divorce.

RFK Jr.’s older brother Joseph Kennedy II recklessly drove an open-top Jeep on Nantucket in 1973 and veered into oncoming traffic, throwing seven passengers out. The accident left a local girl named Pam Kelley paralyzed for life. Callahan devotes a chapter to Kelley’s sad later life and her untimely death in 2020.

Madness, suicide, alcoholism, heartbreak, trauma, rape and… murder. Michael Skakel, related to RFK through his aunt Ethel’s marriage, was convicted of the murder of Martha Moxley in 2002. Another third-generation Kennedy man, William Kennedy Smith (the son of JFK and RFK’s sister Jean Kennedy Smith), was famously acquitted of raping Patricia Bowman in Palm Beach, Florida. His cousin JFK Jr. showed up at the trial to show his support, despite allegedly telling a friend that the Kennedy family “should have done something about Willie when he started doing this.” Callahan explains it clearly: “I meant raping women.”

Bowman later told journalist Dominick Dunne that after Smith raped her, he “looked at me as the most quiet, smug, arrogant man” and said no one would believe her. The 1991 trial was a display of celebrity misogyny, with Smith’s lawyer Roy Black portraying Bowman as a mentally ill drug addict who should not have been out with Kennedy men at 3 a.m.

Callahan specifically takes aim at the reputation of the golden boy who died too young. The eyes of JFK Jr.’s wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, are among the three pairs of eyes on the book’s cover (the other two are those of Jackie and Marilyn Monroe). Callahan portrays Bessette Kennedy as someone who regrets snagging the ultimate Kennedy prince. In the first chapter, Callahan references his ex-girlfriend Christina Haag’s book for details about John’s reckless streak, “which bordered on a death wish.” Callahan also claims — without citing sources — that Carolyn “really, really didn’t want to get on the plane” the night Junior insisted on flying together to a Kennedy wedding.

She also repeats unconfirmed reports from the National Enquirer that the couple were close to divorcing before they died in Junior’s small plane in 1999. “She wanted out of her marriage, but she also felt trapped,” Callahan writes, quoting Carolyn – from an Enquirer article – telling her friends, “I can’t get a divorce. I’m going to end up in a trailer park, going crazy, saying, ‘I was once married to JFK Jr.'”

The multigenerational cycle of abuse chronicled in Ask Not is certainly not limited to the Kennedys. Sophisticated male sex offenders, protection by a retinue of supporters, and silence through bribery or litigation remain the foundation of our national power structure. The anecdotes that make up this book are nothing new, but Callahan strings them together in a way that makes the Kennedy household seem like Bluebeard’s castle of horrors.

Nina Burleigh is the author of seven books, including The Trump Women: Part of the Deal and most recently the novel Zero Visibility Possible.

The Kennedys and the women who destroyed them

Little, Brown. 400 pages. $32.50