February 3, 2011

February 3, 2011

Things I’ve Read: The Importance of Being Kennedy / Gone with the Windsors

You and I could be living history right now. Like, every day. Even though we are not currently famous, and may never be. (Let’s be realistic: If I were going to be a published author, it would probably have happened already. Where’s your jet pack, Zuckerberg?) See, we may know someone who, someday, is going to blow the world of science, technology, and/or the arts right out of the water. It is at that point that you—or I—can gain moderate notoriety by giving interviews about how we once were so-and-so’s co-worker/babysitter/neighbor/dogwalker.

Everyone wants their 15 minutes. Not a new phenomenon; people have been frantically brushing up against the rich and famous since approximately the beginning of time. (See: Seth, the original also-ran.) Two books I read recently, both by Laurie Graham, examine the famous families through the fictional prism of someone in their inner circle.

The Importance of Being Kennedy is narrated by Nora Brennan, in the form of a diary. Nora was the nursemaid to the Kennedy clan, from Joe Jr. to Teddy. Since Joe Sr. was busy, y’know, trying to rule the world and all, Nora was the one who really got to know the kids. She saw firsthand how they were groomed for public life, drilled to perfection, and taught to overlook their parents’ indiscretions.

Though the facts will be nothing new to anyone familiar with the family, the characterizations (especially of Rosie) are a bit more intimate than you’d get from Wikipedia or History’s now-defunct miniseries. Mrs. Kennedy enjoyed raising children even less than she enjoyed having them. The only bonus for her were the rewards she got for each kid: vacations, vehicles, and the like. Kathleen’s liasons dangereux are all the more tragic when you know that they’ll be the literal end of her. And Rose. Poor Rose. Few of us would argue the tragedy of Rose Kennedy—fewer still would deny how it underscores her father’s complete compulsion to Perfect Children. But while we are most familiar with Rosie post-procedure, the personality presented in these pages brings a fullness to her life that makes what happened even more tragic.

The book ends well before JFK’s assassination, Chappaquiddick, or any of the latter-day Kennedy clan moments. But it shows a bit of the string-pulling that brought those scenes to be.

Gone With the Windsors, on the other hand, is the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson as recounted by Simpson’s friend Maybell Brumby. They leave for England little realizing that war and the very throne will soon come their way. Despite being the hardcore fan of British class structure that I am, I found the “We went to ___’s dinner; they served ___; ___ and ___ were there” passages a bit tedious. I would’ve preferred something from Simpson’s point of view, or perhaps her lady’s maid. Someone who was a bit more “in the room,” if you will, when the great decision of abdication was being made. It’s one thing to give up a job for love. It is another thing entirely when that job has been in your blood for like a thousand years.

Fans of the monarchy will find plenty to like. Just not as much as they could have if the grand tradition of below-stairs gossip had played a larger role.

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