AThe Many Affairs of JFK

Free Love and the Nation’s Indifference to Infidelity in the 1960’s

When it comes to relaying the tales of John F. Kennedy’s extramarital affairs, it is hard to know where to begin. Reports of promiscuity begin in high school, and include a secret first marriage, relationships with movie stars Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich, and White House flings with an intern, courier, and even his wife’s press secretary. While the press largely ignored JFK’s dalliances, he constantly worried that his infidelities would be exposed, and as the first president to use television as a mass communication tool, considered good relations with the media to be the backbone of a pristine image.

Today it is impossible to imagine the press ignoring a president sleeping with a movie star, but in Kennedy’s day there was still a sense that the personal lives of politicians were private. Furthermore, the nation’s attitude about sex was slowly changing, moving toward what would become a complete revolution.

Although the Beatles didn’t arrive in America until the year after JFK’s death in 1964, free love was already hitting the mainstream. In the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s, the Kinsey reports had surfaced, proving that despite conservative attitudes about sex, Americans were having a lot of it, in ways that were rarely talked about openly. Masturbation, homosexuality, and other practices now considered ordinary were just making their way into popular culture.

But what made the youngest president ever elected so prone to cheating? Was he simply a young man caught up in a cultural revolution? History suggests no.

According to National Geographic correspondent Patrick Kiger, JFK was a “compulsive womanizer, whose insatiable urge for sexual conquest was fueled by a complex array of personal traumas – his own father’s conspicuous adultery, a difficult relationship with his mother, anxiety about his own health problems, his brush with death during World War II, and the deaths at a young age of his siblings Joe Jr. and Kathleen.”

It seems that Kennedy was a much more troubled man than history cares to remember. He was diagnosed with Addison’s disease as a child, and spent much of his life in pain, addicted to pain killers, and battling chronic digestion issues. Reportedly he also had several nasty venereal diseases throughout his life, infecting his wife and various lovers, and believed that sex with strange women was the only thing that could cure his chronic migraines.

Kennedy married Jaqueline “Jackie” Bouvier in 1952, and was elected to Senate the same year. Although there is evidence that Jackie cared for her husband deeply, over time she adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with her husband, and chose to spend much her time in Virginia with family. When JFK backed away from his liaison with Marilyn Monroe following her infamous and a little too sultry rendition of “Happy Birthday,” the starlet reportedly called in a confession to Jackie, who told her to “move into the White House, assume the responsibilities of First Lady. I’ll move out and you’ll have all the problems.”

Ultimately, it may have been Kennedy’s dalliances that led to his death. As Seymour Hersh reports:

“In September 1963, while frolicking poolside with one of his sexual partners, JFK tore a groin muscle. He had to wear a stiff shoulder-to-groin brace that locked his body in a rigid upright position. It was far more constraining than his usual back brace, which he continued to wear. The two braces made it impossible for JFK to bend in reflex when he was struck in the neck by a bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald. The president remained erect for the fatal shot from Oswald.”

In addition, the Secret Service had grown fed up with JFK’s reckless and womanizing behavior, and as a result of their strained relationship status, the president refused to have them ride on his rear boards that fateful day in Dallas. While Kennedy’s time in history may have made him impervious to criticism, there was no way to save him from his own destructive choices.