BOOK REVIEW / Portrait of the statesman as a young dog: Godfrey Hodgson on the weight of research behind the new biography of John F Kennedy: JFK: Life and death of an American president - Nigel Hamilton Century pounds 20

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I WAS leaning on the outside of the door into the Fish Room, in the West Wing of the White House, when it was suddenly opened from the inside. I fell, as one is apt to do when that happens, rather heavily on top of the person who was coming out, who turned out to be the King of Morocco. He is about a foot shorter and several stone lighter than I am. The resulting pile-up vastly amused the person who had opened the door, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

He was so tickled, in fact, that he insisted on my walking with him - the King and I, so to speak - across the street and down the avenue to the Blair House, where His Majesty was staying. I can honestly say, therefore, that I experienced the Kennedy charm at full blast, if only for a quarter of an hour.

Even so, I never developed into a fully paid-up devotee of the Kennedy cult. There are, therefore - not counting academic works on the President's strategy, foreign policy and civil rights commitment (or lack of it), more or less paranoid investigations of his assassination and assorted works about other members of his family - only 13 biographies of the late President on my bookshelves. So I am bound to record that my first response, on being invited to review a 14th, more particularly one which takes 900 pages to reach its subject's 29th year, was something less than a lamb-like leap of joy.

Nigel Hamilton's book, moreover, is not written with any great distinction of style, though his judgements can be pithy enough. Yet in the end he won me over (I almost said ground me down) by the assiduity of his research, the honesty of his approach and the sheer volume of information - much of it new information - that he has accumulated. In particular he has used the future President's correspondence, and especially his letters to and from his friend LeMoyne Billings, which reach right back into their raunchy adolescence as the bad boys of the Choate School, to paint an extraordinarily intimate portrait of the statesman as a young dog.

The book's thesis focuses on the way in which Jack Kennedy, so far from being the mere creature of his father's ambitions, actually developed a personality of formidable strength precisely because he was in rebellion against the family. He had to escape not only from his father's manic compulsion to dominate, but also from the loveless pietism into which his mother retreated, and the relentless competitiveness of his siblings.

Interestingly, Hamilton dismisses the widely-held idea that Jack's elder brother, Joe Jnr, might have been president himself if he had not been killed in a near-suicidal bombing mission. Long before his death, Hamilton believes, it was plain that Joe Jnr was too thick and too graceless to come within a bull's roar of the brass ring. Incidentally, he also hypothesises that Joe Jnr might have volunteered for the dangerous mission in order to expunge the blot left on the family escutcheon by his father's cowardly behaviour in London, where he was British Ambassador during the Blitz.

Joseph Patrick Kennedy Snr, in fact, is the villain in Nigel Hamilton's interpretation. It is fair to point out that Hamilton was helped financially in his researches by a foundation set up by the McCormack family, bitter hereditary foes of the Kennedy clan in the obscure and unforgiving feuds of Boston politics. We are spared none of the twice-told tales of the Ambassador's shortcomings: how he assembled one of the great American fortunes by stock manipulation (he was known as 'the Great Bear') and by cornering the import of British booze after the repeal of prohibition; how he flaunted mistresses, most flagrantly Gloria Swanson, in front of his wife; how he tried to get his children's girlfriends into bed with him; how he flirted with Hitler, sold Britain short and ran away from the bombing.

On the technicalities of the founding father's iniquities, Hamilton has little to add that was unknown. He makes up for this, however, by the vehemence of his language: 'anti-Semitic', 'arrogant', 'braggart', 'cowardly', 'fearsome', 'fraudulent', 'relentless', 'ruthless' and 'swindling' are just some of the adjectives he hurls. Indeed, Joseph P Kennedy Snr steps out of these pages as an uncanny ringer for the late Robert Maxwell.

More interesting is Hamilton's interpretation of how the Kennedy family relationships may have influenced their second son's development. There was, said Inga Arvad, Jack's femme fatale friend, 'something incestuous about the whole family'. Indeed there was.

After four pregnancies in four years, one of which resulted in the birth of her retarded daughter Rosemary (who later underwent a lobotomy), Rose Kennedy - scandalised by her husband's adulteries and desolated by his absences - ran away. After only three weeks she was back. She allowed her husband his conjugal rights, like the good Catholic wife she was, to the tune of nine children. But, says Hamilton, she became 'like Andersen's Ice Maiden, concealing her frozen heart under an exterior of courage and self-control'. She was always snobbish, pietistic and disciplinarian; she became incapable of spontaneous warmth. Jack, Hamilton theorises very plausibly, 'would never wholly overcome his sense of abandonment and deprivation, which would condemn him to a lifetime's fruitless romantic and sexual searching'.

The searching is certainly well documented in these first 900 pages. Hamilton has uncovered the fact that Kennedy suffered for at least 12 years from recurrences of an incurable form of gonorrhoea contracted in 1940, as well as from other illnesses which racked his body and hardened his personality: mysterious ailments of the spine and colon, as well as Addison's disease, by which, says Hamilton, who has had access to clinical notes from the President's medical file, his immune system 'was so weakened that he could be carried off by a common cold'.

Thinking of the aura of unassailable health and vibrant youth that the President conveyed in his lifetime, one is struck by the cynical truth of his father's comment, just after the primary that opened his son's path to a career in Congress: 'It's not what you are that counts, it's what people think you are]'

Few people since Casanova, in fact, since can have had their sex lives as meticulously documented as Jack Kennedy's is by Nigel Hamilton. We learn, from one Susan Imhoff, who knew him - obviously well - at Stanford University, that he preferred to make love with the woman on top, because of his back problems. We are told that when he learned that he had made one of the secretaries in his first congressional campaign pregnant, all he said was, 'Oh, shit]'. He boasted that he was 'screwing Sonja Henie', and he had affairs with several other Hollywood goddesses. But the big surprise for connoisseurs of Kennedy tittle-tattle is the seriousness with which Hamilton takes Kennedy's relationship with Inga Arvad, the Nordic beauty he called 'Inga Binga'.

Previous biographers have recorded that it was Kennedy's affair with this mysterious, twice-married journalist - who had interviewed Hitler, whose husband was on the payroll of the Axis- sympathising billionaire, Axel Wenner- Gren, and who seemed well in with senior Nazis - that led to his being exiled from Naval Intelligence. That in turn led indirectly to his heroic stint with torpedo-boats in the Solon Islands. Hamilton believes it was much more: that it was, in fact, the love affair of Kennedy's life.

What does emerge from the massive corpus of gossip, detail, vituperative descriptions of the family and sometimes jejune psychological speculation is a true and living picture of an extraordinary young man emerging, as from a chrysalis, from the extraordinary circumstances of his family and his experience in peace and war. What is more, Hamilton has revealed and documented the gradual birth, in this gangling, randy, spoilt but restlessly intelligent and inquisitive young man, of 'a strangely persistent appeal to others to commit themselves to deeds, not talk'.

(Photograph omitted)