[In the following passage from The Kennedys: An American Drama, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, 1984, the authors argue that Jack, although he didn’t show it, was deeply affected by the early death of his brother and sister—Joe, the eldest, died in 1944 at 29, and Kathleen (“Kick”), the second eldest girl, died in 1948 at 28. ‘When he was growing up, she and Joe Junior had been the stars, the ones blessed with looks, health, and personality, the ones most likely to succeed. . . This fact gave rise to daunting conclusions about the nature of things.’]
Over the next few years, Jack thought and talked constantly—almost compulsively, it seemed to many of his friends—about death. He told Joe Alsop flatly that he doubted if he would live past the age of forty-five. Ted Reardon remembers walking home to Georgetown with Jack one bright spring afternoon after a House session. Jack suddenly stopped: “Tell me, Teddy boy, what’s the best way to die?” Standing under the blossoming cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, Reardon replied that it did not seem to be an appropriate day for pressing such a question. But Jack persisted until Reardon finally tried to get the conversation over by saying the best death was from old age. “You’re wrong as hell.” Jack gave him a triumphant look and started walking again. “In war—that’s the best way to die. The very best way. In war.”
George Smathers, who saw Jack as “deeply preoccupied by death” throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, remembers a fishing trip when the subject came up. “He wanted to know which I thought was better—freezing to death, drowning, or getting shot. I wasn’t responsive enough, I guess, because he started answering the question himself with the care one usually devotes to philosophical issues. Because of his experience in the PT boat, he felt that drowning was out. He was against freezing because it took so long. And he didn’t much relish getting shot. He talked about poison rather hopefully; that seemed to be the preferred solution. After he’d finished this lengthy inquiry into the best ways to die, he leaned over to me and said: ‘The point is that you’ve got to live every day like it’s your last day on earth. That’s what I’m doing.’ ”
That was the remarkable thing: he had identified himself as a terminal case, but he never became doomy, morbid, or self-pitying. If anything, his obsession with death made him even more lucid and companionable. In Chuck Spalding’s opinion, this conviction that he had to live each day as though it was his last gave his days a special intensity and weight: “There was something about time—special for him, obviously, because he always heard the footsteps, but also special for you when you were with him. Death was there. It had taken Joe and Kick and it was waiting for him. So whenever he was in a situation, he tried to burn bright; he tried to wring as much out of things as he could. After a while he didn’t have to try. He had something nobody else did. It was just a heightened sense of being; there’s no other way to describe it.”
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