An Interview with The Immigrant Magazine & Author, James W. Graham
Victura, the beloved sailboat that taught the Kennedys about life, family, leadership and winning
The Immigrant Experience, Book Review
James W. Graham’s new book — Victura: the Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea — offers new insights into the dynamics and magic of the Kennedy family and their intense relationship with sailing and the sea. Many families sail together, but the Kennedys’ relationship with Victura, the 25-foot sloop purchased in 1932 shortly after the family’s move to Hyannis Port, stands apart.
In an interview with The Immigrant Magazine, Author, James W. Graham shares his amazing relationship with the Kennedys and explores how their lives were not always centered on politics alone but equally how a simple family tradition of sailing would pave the way for a rich family heritage spanning generations.
• Who is James W. Graham and what is your immigrant heritage?
Professionally I help people, politicians, businesses and others communicate more effectively and form closer, friendlier relationships. In short it is public relations, but I hope it is more than that. I’m dedicated full-time now to a major-brand retailer and health care provider, and it is a wonderful company. In my down time I cruise around near-shore on Lake Michigan on our family sailboat Venturous out of Wilmette Harbor, north of Chicago.
My great-grandfather on my father’s side came over from Ireland in a 19th Century year unknown. My great-great-grandparents on my mother’s side came over from England in 1836. During the 19th Century, my parent’s forbearers all eventually settled in Joliet, Illinois, the city of my baby-boomer birth. An exception to this narrative is my grandmother on my mother’s side who came to America from England in the 1600s, so unless you are a Native American, her story doesn’t contribute much to the more modern story of America as a nation of immigrants.
• Do you have an immigrant culture and how do you think your heritage shapes the way you perceive and relate with immigrants today?
I grew up always thinking of myself as having Irish roots, though that was wrong since it pays no homage to my mother’s English heritage. I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten to grade 12 and my classmates all were a wonderful mix of Irish, Italian, Polish and other European origins.
At a very young age of about five one of my best friends was a neighbor who did not attend my Catholic School. His name was Jeffrey Nichols and I remembered having a tortured conversation with him in which I held that Santa Claus was real and he argued otherwise. Years later it occurred to me he must have been Jewish.
• What prompted you to write this book?
I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum some 20 years ago and saw the sailboat Victura displayed, as it still is today from May to November, on the lawn outside. I loved that boat and wished I could have one like it.
In 2009, Ted Kennedy died and I happened to take the time to listen to several of the eulogies given, from President Obama on down to old friends and relatives. I was struck that no fewer than four of the eulogists chose to capture the essence of the man by telling of their personal experiences sailing with him on the Victura. I realized then there was a story to be told about a simple, small sailboat that meant something deep and meaningful to an entire epic family over multiple generations.
As I looked further, I was delighted to find a rich story that offered a unique lens on one of America’s greatest families, one never previously focused in quite my way. It started with their challenges as Irish Catholics in Boston, where they struggled to gain social acceptance, and continued to today where acceptance is more than established and sailing boats just like Victura is still a passionate interest.
• What was the Kennedy fascination with sailing and how did this tie into their family dynamic?
The family bought a house on the south shore of Cape Cod in the mid-1920s and the children of Joe and Rose Kennedy quickly took to sailing because so many families did at that time and place. Competitiveness was in their DNA and taught by their parents. There was no coming in second in their father’s view, and they adored their father. That shared experience of the sons and daughters of Joe and Rose, all that time spent together racing or just cruising, formed bonds that were never severed.
In 1963, when the three brothers were President, Attorney General and U. S. Senator, three of their sisters decided that what their brothers really wanted for Christmas was paintings of themselves and their wives sailing the Victura. They commissioned an artist to make three such paintings. That’s how much that little boat meant.
• Why the title, Victura?
John F. Kennedy at age 15 was given the opportunity to name the boat. Latin was not his best subject in school, where he studied it. But he chose an excellent name because Victura means, in Latin, “about to conquer.” What a great name for a racing boat.
• The history of the Kennedy sailing repertoire goes as far back as their migration to the USA from Ireland. Do you think this makes them relatable to the average migrant experience?
Victura was a boat made for “one-design” racing, where competitors all sail the same boat with the same shape, specifications and sails. One-design racing started in Ireland about 50 years before the Kennedys acquired Victura. Ireland being an island, a love of sailing and the sea is something surely handed down from generations before.
Chris Kennedy, a son of Robert and Ethel, was sailing once with his children and he leaned next to one of them and pointed to a lighthouse. He said if you draw a line from here to that lighthouse, then continue that line in the same direction, you’ll get to Ireland. What immigrant family does not seek to create connections like that?
• This book dwells on an aspect of the lifestyle of one of the most politically prominent and beloved families in American history that many are not familiar with, do you think this adds anything or influences in any way the legacy of the Kennedys?
I hope this story of the Kennedys and their shared experiences by the sea and as sailors helps us understand better how they became such a strong family. The children of Joe and Rose collectively accomplished amazing things, and not just the boys. Think how Eunice successfully dedicated her life to redefining how we think about and embrace in society people with disabilities. She claimed she was the best sailor of all the boys and girls of that generation. So somehow the seaside and sailing lifestyle must have helped yield something magical and exceptional.
• What is your relationship with the Kennedy family and have they read the book? What has been the reception?
After I started the book I asked Chris Kennedy if I could interview him. He not only agreed and shared wonderful stories, he introduced me to members of his family and invited me to sail on a boat just like Victura out at Hyannis Port. I had a wonderful opportunity to also sail on another boat with other members of the family, including his extraordinary mother Ethel.
I don’t know about every member of the Kennedy family, but Chris read it and recently came to one of my book-signings, where he and I spoke about the book before a small audience. He was most complimentary and I’m deeply appreciative of that.
• Sailing seemed to be a spark of the competitive yet generous spirit that they shared as a family. Where does sailing rank with the new generation of Kennedys today?
I vividly remember showing up at a Kennedy household at Hyannis Port and seeing first-hand how the great-grandchildren of Joe and Rose Kennedy are being introduced to sailing and taking to it with enthusiasm. I saw a Kennedy girl of about 10 learning how to properly fold a sail. I met another one of about 18 or 19 who had recently skippered a Wianno-Senior-class sailboat like Victura all the way to Nantucket, an island you can’t even see from Hyannis Port, 35 miles away.
An important message of my book is the role of shared experiences like sailing in the strengthening of families.
• In sailing with them what was your perception of them as a family and what this meant to them?
They sail together every day if they can, during their times at Hyannis Port. It is so much a part of their shared experience and a thing they know nurtures their relationships and strengthens their family. They clearly love their time together and the opportunity to converse without interruption about things. I think I saw one member of the family walk forward to take a call on his cellphone but no one else did.
They love passing on skills as sailors to siblings and children. They know it is one thing that keeps them “grounded,” if you can use that word about a boat.
President Kennedy had a plaque on his oval office desk that said, “Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” For all of them, sailing puts so much of life into proper perspective.
The book might appear to be about a little sailboat, but it is really a book about family, and I hope it helps us all better understand how we might make our own families stronger. I hope it changes our perception of the Kennedys by making us understand better how they became such a strong family, still to this day supporting one another through triumph and tragedy, historic achievement and personal shortcoming. They are a close family with all the challenges any family faces. We can all benefit from finding shared experience – whether it is sailing or fly fishing or checkers – to bind ourselves to one another. We as families should all find our own Victura.
Victura is available in hardcover and as an ebook from all major booksellers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble etc. Also, your local independent bookseller will be happy to order the book if they do not have it in stock.