Book Review: American Adulterer by Jed Mercurio

“American Adulterer” by Jed Mercurio is a psychological examination of a serial womanizer in America in the middle of the 20th Century. Only Mercurio is not looking at some obscure business executive or college academic, but at John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. Throughout the book Mercurio refers to Kennedy as “the subject” just as in a medical report or a scientific paper.

As with any “successful” cheater, Kennedy had to be judicious in his selection of paramours and used caution in their seduction. He had to apply every effort to hide his many affairs from his wife and rivals, both personal and political.

Mercurio seeks insight in Kennedy from the provocative facts about the President’s sex life. He also connects the similarly scandalous Profumo Affair to the loosening of the ties which had bound the press corps about not reporting on government sex scandals. Seeing them as private affairs, until the British cabinet member was caught sleeping with a girl that was also sleeping with a Russian spy.

This book is not a denunciation of Kennedy, but rather is more empathetic and sees Kennedy as both a flawed hero and as a victim of what we now call sexual compulsion. JFK feared that his sexual activities would destroy his family and his Presidency, yet could not seem to help himself as he bedded every available woman from starlets to secretaries. While many people would see the great statesman and the sexual beast as dichotomous, Mercurio rather sees them as two sides of the same coin.

The book takes the reader through Kennedy’s short Presidency. It moves from the stirring inaugural address to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. It discusses the European summits, the face-off with Khrushchev to the Cuba Missile Crisis and finally on to Dallas in November. The book does not shy away from the grubby, but no less famous stories, of Kennedy’s trysts with Marilyn Monroe and others. Mercurio deals with the medical issues that Kennedy faced as well. Painful back injuries, taking daily doses of drugs prescribed by multiple doctors and the President treating sex like just another form of physical therapy. JFK once confided in British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that if he (Kennedy) went without a woman for three days, he suffered brutal headaches.

Smart and stylish, the book is a Roman à clef of the highest kind; a novel that reads like history, or perhaps as history should be written.

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