It took Wilton resident Susan E.B. Schwartz (better known around town as Susan Schaller) 10 years to write her first and now critically acclaimed, recently released book, JFK’s Secret Doctor, which received a starred review from BookList and has been given praise from nationally-known journalist Mike Wallace, The Road director Steve Schwartz and Alpine Club President James P. McCarthy, among others.
JFK’s Secret Doctor is a not only a biography but a work that offers a unique depiction of the mid 20th century’s medical field and an intriguing insight into John F. Kennedy and his Camelot. It is about the story of a remarkable Austrian doctor and rock climber, Hans Kraus, who ventured from the imploding Habsburg Empire to the towering city of New York, who had English lessons from James Joyce and eventually cured JFK’s back problems using the then-groundbreaking new theory centered around exercise and activity to combat a slew of muscle problems such as back pain, which was quickly becoming endemic to the United States in the Post-WWII era. It’s a highly engaging, informative and illuminating book worth reading.
Schwartz first met Kraus when assigned by the climbing magazine Rock and Ice to profile him for a feature story and befriended him. Later, a few years before his death in 1996, Schwartz visited Kraus every Tuesday where he told her his life story, which for her was too important to remain untold.
“I felt the message of his life shouldn’t die with him. Hans had cured so many people, freed so many people of pain, that the story needed to get out there. I was one of them, and I needed to do what I could to give back,” said Schwartz.
The book weaves between Kraus’ adventurous and often dangerously life-endangering ‘soloing’ the precipices of steep, open-air crags, his strained relationship with his father and his somewhat Kafkaesque journey in the medical field. Kraus shirked the increasingly-popular use of drugs and expensive surgeries to cure muscle pain. Focusing instead on exercise and health as a cure, Kraus endured much derision from the medical field before making his way to the White House.
The White House’s physician at the time, Dr. Janet Travell, was ostensibly the President’s main doctor, but she had failed to cure Kennedy’s ailments. It was only when two other main physicians working with Kennedy threatened to ask the President to fire Travell for incompetence that Travell herself called Kraus for help. Once Kraus arrived, he instructed Travell—and all other doctors—to follow his instruction without question; in return, Kennedy pledged Kraus to secrecy out of fear that his reoccurring back pain would make headlines and endanger his incumbency. Travell subsequently functioned as a public figurehead while Kraus treated Kennedy in private.
Schwartz was also one of the last people Hans had cured. She had suffered from back pain due to overtraining from competitive swimming, over-exerting herself with 200-meter butterflies.
Writing the book wasn’t easy for Schwartz: being a mother of two children, both of whom attend Wilton schools, finding the time to write and research her book was no easy task. She spent many hours combing over books in the Presidential Archives and learning history on her own.
She also had trouble finding a home for her manuscript. One prospective literary agent liked the book, but found it unmarketable. The agent told Schwartz: “‘You’re an unknown mainstream niche writer, you’re writing about an unknown guy; he’s a doctor, which most people find boring, and he’s dead—he can’t even go on talk shows,” Schwartz recalled. “I appreciated the honesty.”
Clarity from climbing
Like many writers, Schwartz had wanted to write a book but had no idea what about, just that it should be non-fiction. After adding climbing to her active lifestyle, she wrote an article about bouldering in New York City’s Central Park for Climbing Magazine, sending it in cold. The editor accepted it, and she went on writing about climbing. Afterward, while climbing cliffs and mountains, Schwartz found the activity to transcended normal sport or hobby: something which gave rise to questions of life, death and interpersonal connections.
Being suspended by hook and harness thousands of feet in the air brings out a different side of people, sinewing together bonds which can only happen when faced with the possibility of cracking onto the rocks below and struggling to make sure it doesn’t happen.
“It’s not just your fears, it’s also your partners,” said Schwartz. “There’s risk and reward, the constant themes and issues and challenges to relationships” which take place during a climb, said Schwartz. For her, the spectrum of human emotions, the human saga itself, is “all boiled down and encapsulated in a climbing trip.”
Kraus had lost his best friend to a climbing accident while a teenager. The incident haunted him deeply, and foreboding signs of death became omnipresent in Kraus’ life (The same feeling parallels with Kennedy, who was preoccupied with death due to the fatalities of his two siblings while he was young, as noted in the book). Battling depression, he spent several years testing his limits during solo climbing, waiting to see if the cliffs would take his life as well. Yet he always found himself atop the rock, exhausted but energized and clear—a clarity that cut through his sorrow like dawn breaking through the dark.
Right now, for Schwartz, a (rightly) newfound euphoria comes with the book’s release.
“I’m on top of the world,” she said.
JFK’s Secret Doctor can be purchased at Amazon.com. Schwartz also and her website can be found at www.schwartzspot.com.