John F. Kennedy: Childhood, Illness & Harvard
John Fitzgerald Kennedy—or "Jack," as friends and family knew him—was born on 29 May 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, a quiet, affluent, tree-lined suburb of Boston. His parents, preoccupied with social status and legitimizing their place in Boston's high society, made a concerted effort to provide Jack and his siblings with the finest opportunities available. By all accounts, the Kennedy children enjoyed a privileged lifestyle that including sailing, summer homes on the coast, lavish meals, and upper-crust boarding schools. As a young man, Jack rarely carried cash, knowing that the family's accountant would settle all debts and balances privately.4 Although Jack came of age during the Great Depression, economic hardship was entirely foreign to him (in an incredibly lucky twist of fate, Joe Sr. took the family's fortune out of the stock market shortly before the crash in 1929). In a 1960 interview, Jack acknowledged that he "really did not learn about the Depression until [he] read about it at Harvard."5
Despite his family's wealth and prominence, Jack's childhood was no walk in the park. Beginning in 1919, the future president began to suffer from a steady stream of illnesses, several of which proved to be life threatening. Just three months before his third birthday, Jack contracted scarlet fever and was admitted to the hospital, where he remained for two months. Although he made a full recovery, Jack's bout of scarlet fever only signaled the onslaught of even more health troubles. During his childhood and teenage years, Jack suffered from a plethora of diseases: diphtheria, appendicitis, whooping cough, jaundice, asthma, and pneumonia, to name a few. Sickness would remain a constant in Jack's life, plaguing him throughout college, military service, his tenure in Congress, and the presidency. Although Joe Sr. seemed supportive of his sickly son, his frustration and disappointment with Jack's poor health was thinly veiled. Once, when Jack brought home a date for the evening, Joe Sr. famously asked the girl, "Why don't you get a live one?"6 Largely as a consequence of his persistent illnesses, Jack lived in the shadow of his older brother, Joe Jr. Because Rose and Joe Sr. raised their children in an intensely competitive environment, the two boys fought often—one particularly heated childhood battle left Jack with 28 stitches!7 When Joe Jr. was just a boy, Joe Sr. began grooming him for political office, firmly believing that his eldest son would one day be President. Unbeknownst to Joe Sr., it would be his second son, Jack, who would ultimately fulfill that dream.
In high school, Jack was best known for his troublemaking, not his academic performance. At Choate, an elite boarding school in Connecticut, Jack co-founded the Muckers Club, an underground group of rebellious students who organized practical jokes. As a consequence of his Muckers involvement and his continued sickness (he spent the summer after his junior year undergoing tests at the Mayo Clinic), Jack was only a mediocre student, graduating 65th in a class of 110 students. Despite showing aptitude in English and History, he earned consistently poor marks in subjects like science and Latin, and seemed more concerned with his social standing than with his studies. In 1936, with the help of family connections, Jack was admitted to Harvard, where his older brother was already a student. At Harvard, Jack developed a reputation as a playboy; in letters to friends, he bragged of his numerous and varied sexual conquests. Jack also became more invested in his education, developing a passion for international relations that would carry through to his presidency. His senior thesis, an examination of Britain's isolationist policies prior to World War II, later became the basis for his first bestselling book, entitled Why England Slept. Thus Jack, the often-sick, often-average son, began to carve out his own identity as a scholar, author, and future politician.