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An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  11,490 ratings  ·  472 reviews
An Unfinished Life is the first major, single-volume life of John F. Kennedy to be written by a historian in nearly four decades.
Hardcover, First, 838 pages
Published April 15th 2003 by Little, Brown and Company
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Average rating 3.97  · 
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Mar 10, 2021 rated it really liked it
“The sudden end to [John F.] Kennedy’s life and presidency has left us with tantalizing ‘might have been’s.’ Yet even setting these aside and acknowledging some missed opportunities and false steps, it must be acknowledged that the Kennedy thousand days spoke to the country’s better angels, inspired visions of a less divisive nation and world, and demonstrated that America was still the last best hope of mankind…”
- Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

An Unfinished Life i
Andrew Smith
I’m too young (though not by much) to remember, real time, JFK’s assassination, but I’ve been all too aware of the whodunit debate that’s raged ever since his tragic and untimely death. That said, I really didn’t know very much about the man until I read this book. It’s a thoughtful and thoroughly researched piece of work that draws on the input of many people who served with Kennedy and tapes of White House conversations, by virtue of a recording system instigated by JFK himself.

The son of a pu
Jun 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A cradle to grave biography of JFK that was well researched and made judicious use of JFK’s own words often showcasing his wry humor.

Overall an even handed book that fairly portrays JFK as a relentless womanizer and though a graduate of Harvard, a student with middling grades and only above average intellect. But despite these two deficiencies, Kennedy had genuine leadership skills and charisma, a bonafide passion about politics both globally and domestically, and the Kennedy drive. He even won
John F. Kennedy was born into a wealthy, politically connected Boston family of Irish Catholics. He and his eight siblings enjoyed a privileged childhood of elite private schools, sailboats, servants, and summer homes. Unfortunately, “Jack” Kennedy suffered frequent serious illnesses during his childhood and youth. Nevertheless, he strove to make his way, writing a best-selling book while studying at Harvard University and volunteering for hazardous combat duty in the Pacific during World War II ...more
In my opinion, this is a good biography of JFK, but not a great one. This is the first major biography of JFK in thirty years. Dallek had complete access to the Kennedy family documents. There is nothing new in the book, except information about an affair with a White House intern.

The book is well written and researched. The book appears to be unbiased. Dallek does mention JFK’s “Womanizing”. But most of the book is on his political career. About half the book is about the presidency. Dallek pro
Peter Beck
Nov 25, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: presidents
I can’t decide if I am more disappointed with JFK’s “unfinished” presidency or with Robert Dallek’s pedestrian account of his tragic life. I must have set my expectations too high. Historians rank Kennedy as one of the ten best and “An Unfinished Life” is the highest rated single-volume biography of America’s 35th president.

Dallek does a solid job of chronicling Kennedy’s early life. Like TR and FDR, Jack trod a path of Northeastern wealth and privilege that led to Harvard. Like both Roosevelts,
Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He called a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab. - James Ellroy, American Tabloid

Mitigating circumstances: This is the ninth among my presidential bio(ish) reads over the past month and change. I’ve been concurrently reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which is an amazing book about an amazing pre
4.5 Stars

An Unfinished Life is different from the usual Kennedy biographies I like to read. I usually prefer to read gossipy more tawdry books about the Kennedy's because they're more fun. I like to read about sex, the mafia, and murder coverups.


An Unfinished Life is a serious look at the life and presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Robert Dallek doesn't spend much time on gossip or rumors, he prefers to stick to the facts. I couldn't tell if Robert Dallek liked or disliked JFK, I neve
Jul 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an extraordinarily clear and detailed biography of the legendary yet all too human American president, John F. Kennedy. Robert Dallek, author of an acclaimed two-volume biography of Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, has found, remarkably, untapped sources to bring additional life and light to Kennedy's story. Chief among these new resources are vast elements of Kennedy's medical records, which indicate both the excruciating pain and personal contortions JFK went through in an effort t ...more
Oct 29, 2013 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
In a New York Times Book Review article on the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, Dallek's book was described as the best biography about the president. "Dallek, who spent five years researching and writing, has a deep appreciation of Kennedy's operatic story. The book has rich detail about the president's persistent and serious health problems, which serve to make the life seem genuinely heroic as well as swaddled in troubling cover-ups." ...more
DNF: I read about 150 pages of this and decided to put it 'on hold' for awhile. After a few days of reflecting, I decided that not only will this not be on hold, but I don't think I'll read this book again. I've read quite a bit about JFK in other books and don't find myself being enthralled about his upbringing of affluence. War hero, yes....lifetime of misery due to digestive ailments, yes, but overall his upbringing does not even make me interested enough to get to the part that I'm actually ...more
Mar 31, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

When it was published in 2003, Robert Dallek's "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963" was the first full-scale, single-volume biography of JFK in over three decades. Dallek is a presidential historian and former professor of history at Boston University, Columbia University and UCLA. He is the author of nearly two-dozen books including a two-volume series on LBJ and "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power."

Dallek's book benefits enormously from h
James Thane
Sep 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
This is a very good biography of JFK, focusing principally on his presidency. Dallek obviously admires Kennedy, but that does not prevent him from being critical of his subject when he believes that the criticism is warranted.

Dallek's principal contribution is to document more thoroughly than any previous biographer Kennedy's many medical problems, the treatment he received and the extent to which the President, his family, his doctors and others conspired to conceal those problems from public v
Oct 08, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I understand that one can debate whether JFK was an effective President, but can't most of us agree that he led one of the most fascinating lives of any 20th century American? Robert Dallek's biography also believes he was an effective President and I have to agree on many issues. Dallek outlines the decisions Kennedy made during his 1000 days along with reasons why.... His first challenge - the Bay of Pigs- was set up during Eisenhower, but Kennedy accepted blame for his incorrect decision to e ...more
Aaron Million
Dallek presents a balanced and solid biography of JFK. He is especially good at fleshing out the myths purporting to JFK's WWII command of PT-109 in the Pacific, his lifelong penchant for womanizing, and his myriad and never-ending medical difficulties. He presents JFK as both a foreign policy realist and an idealist - and how he straddled the line between both views.

Dallek does not delve deeply into the close relationship between JFK and RFK, which began in the 1950s. While certainly alluding
Shane Haggerty
Dec 24, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I admit to an obsession with the Kennedy Family. I remember being a kid and looking through my mom's boxes of stuff from her childhood and finding an autographed picture from JFK and Jacqueline from like 1962 or something. I was fascinated. Then, I was enamored and fascinated with the idea that this young and against-type President was shot down in the prime of life. I remember seeing JFK, the Oliver Stone movie, and loving it, and I was convinced that there was a conspiracy. I remember just alw ...more
Aug 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: listened-to
This is probably the strongest one volume Kennedy biography I've read. It covers his Presidential and Pre-Presidential life warts and all. It acknowledges that he was just hitting his stride when he died and that the real tragedy is that we never got to see how his presidency would have played out. I'm also amused that he was one of our sickliest President's (Not the sickliest, that honor belongs to FDR) and that people still think of him as so young and healthy. I personally think Kennedy would ...more
Nov 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An Unfinished Life is perhaps the most thorough—but not pedantic—presidential biography I have read since Chernow’s Washington. At 720 pages, it is longer than many that cover lives twice as long as Kennedy’s and presidencies nearly triple in number of days. But such detail paints the picture Dallek intends: Not of the highly ranked president and American royalty that many typical Americans hold onto, but the deceitful, womanizing, inexperienced young man rising to the nation’s highest office fr ...more
Sep 17, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One must wonder what there is that we don't already know about Kennedy. For me, this was an eye opener because I hadn't realized how ill the man was, not just during his presidency, but for his whole life. From early childhood until his death he was plagued like Job with constant pain and a host of diseases and injuries that it is mind-boggling that he was able to function, much less take the highest office in the country. He was in such bad shape that the Navy wouldn't take him until he had his ...more
Feb 03, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Took quite a while to read this but it was worth the effort. Very detailed on policies etc and how they were made but little mention of more sensational elements such as JFK's affairs, Jackie Kennedy or the assassination. It is quite enthralling, although quite a commitment to read, in its description of policy on eg: the Berlin Wall, Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War in general, the beginnings of Vietnam and civil rights. Also interesting for its description of JFK's life before he became pres ...more
Frank Theising
Feb 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bio-presidents
“All the mythmaking – positive and negative – about Kennedy would not have interested him as much as a fair-minded assessment of his public career.” – Page 703

I thought I knew a fair amount about JFK going into this book. Reading this 711 page bio, I can truly say I learned a great deal that I didn’t know about both the man and his presidency. Trying to look at his record objectively, I think there is a strong case to be made that JFK is quite possibly the most overrated president in our nation’
Dec 21, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The health problems that John F. Kennedy had were quite incredible, and it is hard to read them without having sympathy and awe for Kennedy's perseverance. Historian Robert Dallek was the first to have access to Kennedy's health records, though Seymour Hersh detailed many of Kennedy's ailments through anonymous sourcing in a book he wrote.

Dallek is a good writer and presents Kennedy well. That said, this biography didn't change my own view that JFK is perhaps the most overrated president in U.S.
Oct 10, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
I have now completed the third biography on my list of US Presidents who have been in office during my lifetime: Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. It appears that to be taken seriously a presidential biography must be a door-stopper no matter how long their lives or how many terms they served. John F Kennedy only lived for 46 years and only held the Presidency for 1000 days but he still got 711 pages of text from Robert Dallek.

This reading about presidents' lives is probably the most difficult o
May 17, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really had to think before I started this book because the nearly 1,000 pages were a tad daunting. But it's a really good read. This is one of the third generation books about John F. Kennedy. Following his assassination, there were countless books that romanticized him and his presidency. Then years later, the highly critical books began to be published. This look at Kennedy by Robert Dallek, a professor of history at Boston University, looks at Kennedy from childhood through his assassinatio ...more
Colleen Browne
Jul 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book was even better the second time around. I admit, I read it this time for a class but it is one of the best biographies of Kennedy, in my opinion.
Lewis Woolston
More than detailed, exhausting is the word i'd use, life story of JFK.
To be honest i got kind of sick of it about halfway through, just too much detail and here's the curious thing...the more the author showed the real JFK behind the scenes, the less i liked or cared about him.
In fact after reading this i'm kind of wondering why Kennedy is as loved as he is. Perhaps when the Baby Boomers die off and nobody remembers that fateful day in Dallas anymore the mystique of Kennedy will fade and he wi
Jason Russell
Mar 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
(Posted on my blog)

As I watch Jimmer and BYU take on Gonzaga in the "third round" of the NCAA tournament, I'm using an iPad from my company's IT department to write this post. It's pretty cool, I guess.

I recently finished a very compelling biography of JFK (An Unfinished Life). Being too young to have any experience with his presidency (or life, for that matter), I learned a lot from this book. I know a number of my "conservative" friends would automatically say JFK was a liberal. I suppose he d
Jan 05, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 3-star
I had to read this entire book for my English dialectical (a journal where you have to take a page of notes on every chapter).

Considering that this was around 700 pages and had more than 40 chapters, this was not a fun reading experience for me.

Regardless though, the biography itself was rich and extensive. Honestly, though I was a fan of JFK before I read this, but afterwards, not so much.

He womanized and cheated so much, and he only got into Congress because of his father's money and influenc
Joshua Mirabella
Apr 28, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very satisfied with this one. A shorter biography for sure, but that’s obviously understandable, and it’s sweet nonetheless. Still, I’m docking a star due to a relative lack of analysis compared to other bios (especially other ones by this author). Looking forward to LBJ next!
Brian Eshleman
Didn't learn that much. Fairly cursory treatment of a generally fascinating subject. ...more
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Robert Dallek is the author of 'Nixon and Kissinger', a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and 'An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963', among other books. His writing has appeared in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Society of American Historians, for which he served as preside ...more

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