James W. Graham, author of Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea, has written a 265-page book that is a great read about a small yacht that traveled the waterways of history with the famous Kennedys of Massachusetts. Jim is an avid sailor himself and now an author after serving as a communications advisor to many politicians.
Spanning the 1930s through today, Victura makes its reader an insider to the formation of the Kennedy children’s aura, competitiveness and love of challenges. It is also the story of how a sport that helped create a steely (and ultimately, needed) bond within one American family.
Jennifer Williams: Why did you write Victura?
James W. Graham: The story of this small sailboat was undiscovered and I think the narrative it enabled gives fascinating insight into four generations of Kennedys. Here is a small thing the Kennedys share – a sailboat and a seaside setting — to which they keep returning over all these years, their turbulent lives notwithstanding, with all the highs and lows, victories and stumbles. When Ted Kennedy died, four different people gave eulogies that included memories of the life-influencing experiences they had sailing with him on the Victura, I found that out and knew I was on to something.
Jennifer Williams: Can you explain how you went about your research on the Kennedy’s boating activities and the many boats they owned?
James W. Graham: It started with my discovery of those eulogies of Ted Kennedy and then more browsing around the Internet for references to Victura. I found so many amazing things that involved the Victura, occurring over decades, that tied many members of one big important family to one thing they had in common, sailing and one sailboat above all. I developed a story outline and approached Chris Kennedy, a son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. He embraced the concept and introduced me to other members of the family whom I interviewed. Of course I also spent a lot of time at the JFK Library and Museum in Boston, looking at family papers. And then there was the chore of going sailing with the Kennedys and listening to their enchanting tales of Victura. How laborious!
Jennifer Williams: I really enjoyed your writing about the Kennedy children’s start in boating and the passions that sailing ignited within them. In particular, it was very interesting to read about Joe Jr. (the oldest child) whom many of us non-Kennedy scholars know little about. What was your impression of Joe, Jr. and do you think that he would have moved into politics instead of Jack had he survived World War II?
James W. Graham: There’s no question that Joe Jr. was being groomed for a life in politics and he himself told classmates he expected to be president one day. I think most historians feel Joe lacked Jack’s intellect. Joe’s personality was perhaps more arrogant than – and not as warm as – Jack’s. I think it’s important to know that Joe Jr. was a true war hero, arguably more than his younger brother because Joe volunteered for an extremely dangerous mission on an experimental bomb-laden aircraft. He died on that mission. By contrast, Jack said of the events that made him a war hero, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.”
Jack said he might not have gone into politics and was interested in being a writer and teacher. He had written a best-selling book right after college. Had Joe lived, I think Jack’s life might have gone in an entirely different direction. Whether Joe could have been president is one of those alternative history questions that cannot be answered, but the odds would be against the stars aligning as they did for Jack.
Jennifer Williams: In Victura, it seems that class, religion and the anti-Irish discrimination of early 20th century Boston seems to have motivated the Kennedys entry into sailing as a sport and life-style. Being the children of great wealth, do you think that they Kennedy children would’ve been such tenacious competitors and adults had they not gotten involved in sailing?
James W. Graham: Joe Kennedy’s applications to join golf clubs were rejected by the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Boston Brahmin. Rose told her grandchildren about the Boston employers who displayed “help wanted” signs with the initials NINA, for “no Irish need apply.” I asked one of the Kennedys I interviewed whether they wanted to prove they were better than them by beating them at sailing races. I was told that he thought they sought acceptance, not proof of superiority.
Jennifer Williams: Your book does a great job of mixing in historical events, politics, family drama with the story of the Victura and its sister boats journeys with the Kennedy Clan. Was this done to make sure that Victura appealed to more people than just boating aficionados of Kennedy fans?
James W. Graham: I wanted to show the inspiring way in which the Kennedys lived their epic lives of turbulence, triumph and tragedy, over four generations, and always came back, year after year, to rejoin one another by the sea and on the water on Victura and their other sailboats, small and large.
The story of Victura is about a small boat, to be sure, but much more importantly it’s the story of a family — the greatest of American families. So I hope sailors like it, but my story is intended for a much larger audience of people who want to know what works for families that experience the dramatic ups and downs, personal successes, personal failings, and all the other things a typical family experiences. The Kennedys are by no means typical, but they are a strong family and I think the story of their lives together offers lessons for all of us. I think we all need a Victura in our lives, a consciously chose shared experience that binds a family together. Your Victura could be fishing or jig-saw puzzles or quilting.
Jennifer Williams: Can you talk a little about how Jack’s experiences in sailing races may have influenced his decision to challenge the nation to send a man to the moon in 1961?
James W. Graham: Jack said of space that it is “a new ocean, and we must sail it.” Eisenhower thought JFK’s decision to send a man to the moon was crazy because Ike thought we should focus on practical uses of rockets, such as satellites for weather forecasting and communications. JFK saw the moon as a definition of a race with a finish line that we could reach before the Soviets, a symbolic achievement that would inspire humankind. He wasn’t as interested in the scientific knowledge to be gained and said so. He was raised competing in sailboat races and there’s a wonderful moment when he is lecturing the head of NASA using language about winning that is directly channeling his father’s lectures about coming in first and never second.
Jennifer Williams: What kind of cooperation did you get from the Kennedy Family and were they possibly happy to know that you were writing such a different type of book regarding their family?
James W. Graham: Several members of the Kennedy family were wonderfully helpful, starting with Chris Kennedy. He introduced me to siblings and cousins, many of whom I interviewed. I do think they were charmed by the topic. I think they love their shared experience as sailors and welcomed a chance to talk about it.
Jennifer Williams: Regarding your writing Victura, what was your writing process?
James W. Graham: I loved the process of creating this story. I often thought it was like making a quilt, something my mother-in-law does with great artistry. You take random pieces of information, like scraps of colored fabric, seemingly unrelated, and organize them into patterns that make a whole great image and narrative. The Kennedys are many pieces in all directions and comprising random narratives, but the story of Victura was the theme and thread and color palette that made all the individual family stories greater than the sum of its parts.
Jennifer Williams: Of the three Kennedy boys who made it to adulthood, Jack, Robert and Teddy… who was the best sailor?
James W. Graham: Eunice [the Kennedyy boy’s sister] would say she was better than any of them. But in answer to your question, Ted lived the longer life and had more time to perfect his sailing, and thus was likely the best on a Wianno Senior class boat like Victura. Jack and Joe Jr. were excellent collegiate sailors who helped lead Harvard to win a major competition for the MacMillan Cup. So who knows? Jack apparently aspired to be an Olympic Class sailor, based on one letter I found. But, again, we mustn’t overlook Eunice, if only because so many do.
James W. Graham: This is not a story about politics, though it tells of politicians. We like Shakespearean tales of kings no matter our opinions of the politics of those kings. Victura is really a story of an epic family voyage over four generations and the things that kept them strong and bound together.
Jennifer Williams: Where can people find Victura and do you have a website for your book?
James W. Graham: www.thevictura.com has links to booksellers. Give the independent booksellers in your community an opportunity to serve you. All the online booksellers have it and many neighborhood bookstores can get if for you if they do not have it in stock.
Jennifer Williams: If people wanted to see this special boat, where can they visit it?
James W. Graham: From May to November it is perched like a bird poised for takeoff outside the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. They put it out of view in storage in winter months.
Jennifer Williams: Are you working on another book?
James W. Graham: I am contemplating ideas for other books and would love to create another, but first thing to do is spend time talking to people about the Victura and hoping they will find the story as compelling as I do.