Steven Watts is an award-winning author who has written about the lives of Henry Ford, Hugh Hefner and Dale Carnegie and in his new book, JFK and the Masculine Mystique, he probes the mystery and magic of John F. Kennedy's extraordinary appeal. A professor of history at the University of Missouri, Steven Watts specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of the United States. He has published articles and essays in the American Quarterly, Journal of American History, Journal of the Early Republic and American Studies and has been a consultant and on-screen expert for documentaries on PBS, The History Channel, NBC, CBS and Fox. Stay Thirsty Magazine visited with him at the University to discuss these Five Questions about his work and his perspective on the legendary figures that he has chronicled.
STAY THIRSTY: You chose to filter your new biography, JFK and the Masculine Mystique, through the lens of John F. Kennedy as a cultural figure rather than as a political one. Why did you adopt that strategy in order to bring "the whole man into focus?"
STEVEN WATTS: I had become fascinated by JFK's great popularity and sparkling image, which seemed to have little connection to his political positions and policies. The energy and emotion he attracted seemed more akin to that of a movie star or a popular singer, so it seemed natural to explore the cultural, rather than political, roots of his charismatic persona. And, indeed, after a painstaking examination of the sources I concluded that the foundation of Kennedy's remarkable appeal was a powerful "masculine mystique" that combined sex appeal, vigor, courage, and assertion. This image made him both a new kind of "celebrity" leader in public life and a compelling figure in a postwar age much worried about the decline of the American male.
STAY THIRSTY: You begin JFK and the Masculine Mystique with an epigraph that contains three quotations, one from Betty Friedan, one from Percy Shelley and one from Joseph Alsop. Friedan and Alsop were contemporaries of Kennedy and Shelley died almost one hundred years before Kennedy was born. Why did you choose those particular people and those quotations?
STEVEN WATTS: These quotations, in concert, seemed to suggest much of the argument of my book. The Friedan quote from her famous volume, The Feminine Mystique, noted the "masculine mystique" that seemed to prevail among many men in the early 1960s and provided a useful term for pulling together many of the characteristics I noted with JFK and his cultural and political associates. Alsop, the famous journalist and noted Kennedy supporter, commented on the "male widows" populating Washington after the young president's assassination and suggested the strong bond of male camaraderie that characterized the New Frontier. The Shelley poem from which I quote, Adonais, presented an image of a charismatic young man—"thou wert the morning star among the living"—that seemed to characterize JFK while also offering a fascinating counterpart to Garry Wills' famous description ("Nixon Agonistes") of his great political opponent.
STAY THIRSTY: You describe "a crisis of masculinity in 1950s America" as a climate ready for the elusive character and characteristics of JFK. What was it about Kennedy's mystique that propelled him into a cultural icon at a time of great political and global turbulence?
STEVEN WATTS: Kennedy projected a powerful masculine image in the late 1950s and early 1960s—heroic, cool, sophisticated, tough-minded—that clearly appeared as an antidote to much-discussed fears about male decline in the postwar period with talk about the stifled "organization man," the aimless individual wandering in "the lonely crowd," and the timid, domesticated suburban father and husband. In examining the sources, I noticed that JFK's vigorous male image was shared by a group of associates and supporters that I termed the Kennedy Circle: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Hugh Hefner, Norman Mailer, Ben Bradlee, Kirk Douglas, Maxwell Taylor, the Mercury Seven astronauts, and several others. When attention to Kennedy's notorious reputation as a sexual conquistador was added in, the result was a new perspective on JFK that recovered the virile, elegant, tough masculinity that lay at the heart of his popular appeal.
STAY THIRSTY: As you look back at your research and the time you spent pursuing the apparent contradictions that made up JFK, how do you personally feel about him as a man?
STEVEN WATTS: My feelings about Kennedy are decidedly mixed. As a pragmatic moderate in my own politics, I admire those same qualities in JFK as he tried to steer a reasonable, practical course through a minefield of pressing issues such as the Cold War and Civil Rights without falling prey to either sentiment or ideology. I also admire the way he was able to conduct himself publicly with an air of cool sophistication, intellectual seriousness, and humor, something that seems to be all too lacking in our public life these days. On the other hand, I found Kennedy's dismissive attitude toward women to be off-putting and his private life of relentless philandering to be incredibly reckless. His womanizing with scores of consorts not only threatened to subvert the well-being of his family but threatened his administration and the security of the country. At a time when the Profumo call-girl scandal in England led to the demise of the Conservative government, JFK's sexual escapades, had they come to light during his presidency (and this was seeming more likely at the time of his death), it would have seriously compromised and possibly brought down the government of the most powerful nation on earth.
STAY THIRSTY: Your prior books have delved into the lives of Henry Ford, Hugh Hefner and Dale Carnegie. Of those men and John F. Kennedy, whom did you enjoy spending time with the most, and the least? Which one would you have liked to have over for dinner at your home and why?
STEVEN WATTS: Having enjoyed many dinners and other social occasions in the company of Hugh Hefner, a fascinating and generous man, I will leave him out of this reckoning. Among the others, I most enjoyed spending time with Kennedy and Walt Disney, the former because of his intelligence and political skills and charm, and the latter because of his incredible, wide-ranging creativity and feel for the wants and needs of ordinary Americans. I imagine that sharing a meal and conversation with either one of these two would have been greatly stimulating and rewarding. The figure I least enjoyed, even though he was probably the most historically significant of all of them, was Henry Ford. Although enormously shrewd and visionary in certain ways, he was also small-minded and often mean-spirited. Ford was one of those people that you face with a certain awe regarding his far-reaching accomplishments, but he was probably not someone you would want as a close friend or dinner companion.