The Main Line's Classical Inspiration
by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
originally published November 21 – November 27, 2001
After President John F.Kennedy’s assassinationon Nov. 22,1963, his younger brother Robert struggledto findmeaning inthat cruelevent. This was the second of hisbrothers to die – oldest brother JosephJr. had died in an explosion while pilotinga bomber on a secret mission overFrance in 1944. Now the second-oldestKennedy brother, also a World War IIhero, had become the fourth presidentto be murdered.
It was a shatteringtime forRobert – the second-youngestbrother and farfrom the anointedson. Growing up,he was, with condescension,consideredhis mother’spet. He was amediocre studentand his militaryexperience consistedof servingas a seaman secondclass on aNavy ship namedafter his oldestbrother. He wasseen largely, afterthe war, as anadjunct to John’spresidential aspirations.Hisappointment toAttorney Generalin the JFKadministrationwas therefore anextension of that mission, in the eyes ofhis father, Joseph Kennedy Sr.
This was a family brought up asIrish American aristocracy, if not royalty.Their father was such a thorn inPresident Franklin Roosevelt’s sidethat, in spite of his antipathy toward theEnglish and outspoken opposition to awar with Germany, Roosevelt sent himto London as the Ambassador to theCourt of St. James. But AmbassadorKennedy knew he’d never be president;that was for his sons. They wouldfulfill the family’s destiny of greatness.His aspirations were funded by importingmillions of dollars of British liquorto Canada duringAmerica’s Prohibitionand manipulating thestock market toenhance his family fortune.
Bobby Kennedy – aslight man given toovercome many selfdoubtsand fears bysheer force of will andfeats of extraordinarycourage – was the mostintrospective and spiritualof the Kennedybrothers, possiblybecause of the ambassador’sdismissive attitudetoward him in hisformative years. Helooked inward as ameans to accept thedeaths of his older,more accomplished brothers, and oneway was to give them greater meaning.
After JFK’s interment in Arlingtonnational Cemetery, Bobby’s family, thepresident’s widow and her childrenwere invited to spend time at theMellon property in the Caribbean.While there, something happenedwhich all who knew Bobby saidchanged his life. The president’swidow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy,had brought along a copy of a bookand thinking it might interest theAttorney General, gave him her copy.
The book was Edith Hamilton’sThe Greek Way. Instead of days loungingin the sun he loved, BobbyKennedy spent much of the vacation inhis room reading and underlining passagesin the book.
Agraduate of Bryn Mawr College,Edith Hamilton was the product of anextraordinarily educated household.Born in Fort Wayne, Ind. in 1867, shewas the first of five children. She wasschooled at home until she was 16.When she went off to Miss Porter’sSchool in Farmington, Conn. with hersisters Alice, Margaret and Norah. Shealready spoke French, German, Latinand Greek. In fact she’d learned theselanguages by age 8. According to herbiographer, Michael Martone, she readan enormous amount of literature, evenas a child, and the Greek poets madethe deepest impression.
From there Hamilton went to BrynMawr when she demonstrated herintellectual capability by winning aEuropean Fellowship. She studied atthe University of Leipzig and later atthe University of Munich, where shewas the first woman admitted to thatschool.
While studying in Germany, anotherbiographer and lifelong friend, DorisFielding Reid, said the dean ofBryn Mawr College, Miss M. CareyThomas, wrote to her. She offeredthe post of headmistress at the BrynMawr School, a college preparatoryschool for girls started in Baltimore.According to Reid she really had nodesire to become the head of a school,but she decided to take advantage ofthe opportunity.
She held the post from 1896 untilher retirement in 1922. During hercareer she made the school the mostprominent and popular school for girlsin Baltimore. She set high standardsand believed that hard work was good.The Greeks had recognized the importanceof the individual, and Hamiltonadopted this philosophy when dealingwith her girls, said Reid.
After retiring, Hamilton moved toNew York City and lived with a friendand former student for most of the restof her life. During that time shereceived great encouragement to writea book, since most of her friends wereenchanted by her stories and explanationsof classic literature, mythologyand history.
She was 63 when her first and probablymost popular book, The GreekWay, was published in 1930. This wasthe beginning of Edith’s writing career.
In The Greek Way she wrote howthe ancient Greeks appreciated andencouraged freedom of the mind. Shedescribed the Greek approach to life asthe “extraordinaryflowering of thehuman spirit.”Perhaps it was thisview of life thatheld Edith’s lifelongfascinationwith the Greeksand enabled her towrite her highlysuccessful book.The Greek Waywas praised asbeing one of the best and clearest interpretationsof Greek literature ever written,said Reid.
More importantly, Hamilton popularizedher subject matter, writing articlesfor Theatre Arts Monthly, TheSaturday Review of Literature and theSaturday Evening Post. Her secondbook, The Roman Way, was publishedin 1932 and is familiar to any studentwho took Latin in high school or college.
For Robert Kennedy it was theunderstanding of great ideals andphilosophies that changed his view andlife. He wasn’t considered to be a deepthinker, but Hamilton opened his eyesto fate and the Greek view of tragedyand tragic events.
In much of Greek tragedy – whichrefers to a type of play, as opposed tocomedy – there is often a note of foreboding.That hit a chord with Kennedy,having experienced the event not oncebut three times with his own siblings.Reading Hamilton’s description ofAeschylus’ play Oresteia, Kennedymay have found at least a measure ofsolace, learning that the fall of greathouses is fated – and felt kinship withAgamemnon and the House of Atreus,doomed to repeat the sins of thefathers, generation upon generation.
There was even a justification forhis emotional pain. Kennedy respondedto the cry of the herald in Aeschylus’Prometheus: “In agony, learn wisdom!”The Greeks understood that “injusticewas the nature of things” but that theawfulness of fate could be borne andredeemed through pain. Gloomy as itsounds, it gave meaning to horrificevents – meaning of no value except tohelp a man live with his life.
Kennedy even memorized passages,and his friends and associates knewthere was always a chance for a renderingof Hamilton’s erudite views ofGreek philosophy. One of his favoriteswas a reflection of Aeschylus himself.The poet was also a warrior; he hadfought at Marathon, the site of the greatvictory of Athens over the Persianinvaders at the beginning of the GoldenAge.
Aeschylus was not just a thinker buta doer. “Life for him was an adventure,perilous indeed, but men are not madefor safe havens,” writes Hamilton,paraphrasing the Greeks. “The fullnessof life is in the hazards of life.”
It was time for Robert Kennedy torejoin the living, to experience againthe hazards oflife, to feel, likethe Athenians somany centuriesbefore, “theoverwhelmingobligation toserve the state.”
He propelledhimself back intopublic life afterresigning asAttorney Generalin 1964. Hebecame a senatorand, in 1968, apresidential candidate.Bobby, aman born intofabulous privilege,became atireless voiceagainst theVietnam War andfor the forgottenpoor.
“There was astrangeness thatcaused blacks tolove him,” formerblack militantSonnyCarson told RFKbiographer EvanThomas. “Hewas this youngerbrother full of pain.”
During the spring of 1968, U.S.Sen. Robert Kennedy seemed to be ridingunbridled momentum toward theDemocratic nomination. Then, on June6, 1968, he followed his brothers intomartyrdom. Kennedy was gunneddown in the Los Angeles AmbassadorHotel just moments after his greatestvictory, in the California primary. Hewas just 42 years old.
Our Aeschylus was no more.