The Early Life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Born Brookline, Mass. (83 Beals Street) May 29, 1917

With these few simple words, handwritten on a small piece of notecard, Rose Kennedy recorded the birth of her second son – a handsome blue-eyed boy who, although named after his maternal grandfather, would become known as ‘Jack’.

As expected, the family’s fortunes had continued to improve in the three years since the Fitzgerald-Kennedy marriage.  By the time of Jack’s birth, the family lived a comfortable upper-middle-class existence in the Boston suburb of Brookline.  Over the years, Joe would successfully try his hand at a number of business opportunities, which would eventually include stock market speculation, movie producing and liquor importation.  By 1927, the family had moved to the exclusive suburb of Riverdale, New York.

A Sickly Child

But, despite the privilege of his birth, the young Jack was unlucky when it came to his health.  A sickly child, he suffered from any number of childhood illnesses, including whooping cough, chicken pox and measles.  And then, three months shy of his third birthday, Jack contracted a virulent strain of scarlet fever – a potentially deadly disease in the days before the discovery of penicillin.  And indeed, for a time, it appeared that the child would succumb to the illness, but thankfully, after a month in hospital, he began to recover.  Nonetheless, the experience further weakened the boy’s already poor constitution, and he would continue to struggle with ill-health for the rest of his life.

Despite spending a good chunk of his childhood years in a hospital bed or cooped up in a sanatorium, the young Jack did manage to attend school.  In 1931, after a brief and unhappy stint at the Catholic Canterbury High School, the fourteen-year-old Jack enrolled at Choate, an exclusive Episcopalian boarding school in Connecticut.

At Choate, the teenager did well socially, and to a lesser extent, academically.  His ready smile ensured his made friends easily, and despite being a disruptive influence in class, he scored relatively well in tests.  His masters, however, were often driven to exasperation by his disobedience and his unwillingness to take instruction, to the extent that he was almost expelled on at least one occasion.

Before leaving Choate in 1935 (graduating 65th out of his class of 110), Jack was interviewed by a school psychologist who was attempting to understand the reasons for his sometimes obstreperous behaviour.  During this conversation, the seventeen year-old revealed, perhaps inadvertently, feelings of inadequacy: “If my brother were not so efficient, it would be easier for me to be efficient”, he said.  “He does it much better than I do.”

Brother Joe

The brother referred to here is Joseph Junior, Jack’s elder brother, who was born in 1915. From the very beginning, Joe Jr, who was more robust than his sibling and who shared his father’s outlook and disposition, had been the apple of Joe Sr’s eye.  It was Joe Jr, not Jack, who bore the weight of his family’s considerable expectations – in fact, not long after his birth, Honey Fitz had declared (only a little facetiously) that Joe Jr’s parents had “already decided that he is going to Harvard, where he will play on the football and baseball teams and incidentally take all the scholastic honours.  Then he is going to be a captain of industry until it’s time for him to be President for two or three terms.  Further than that has not been decided.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the poor state of his health, no such plans were ever made for Jack.  This had the rather predictable result of ensuring that although the Kennedy clan would eventually swell to nine children, the one sibling Jack felt  overshadowed by was Joe Jr – somehow, in this unending atmosphere of fraternal competiveness, Jack never quite came up to scratch.

Sinead Fitzgibbon
Read more in JFK: History In An Hourpublished by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also Sinead’s articles on Jacqueline Kennedy, JFK’s inauguration and his assassination, and Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s father.