I didn’t know a great deal about Joseph P. Kennedy before I began reading about him, and from the little I knew he seemed an unsavory character. He had made a large fortune, some of it possibly from bootlegging; he was the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain from 1938 to 1940 and supported appeasement of Nazi Germany; he had his eldest daughter lobotomized; he was said to have used his money to buy his son’s election to the presidency; he was a notorious womanizer.
Every item in Joe Kennedy’s resume that I was familiar with seemed ringed with questions; the only fact clear and unambiguous was that he was the father of nine children, including President John F. Kennedy, Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, and Jean Kennedy Smith, ambassador to Ireland from 1993-1998. (The Patriarch was the Catholic Book Club selection for March. Read Kevin Spinale's introduction to the book here, and listen to his interview with author David Nasaw here.)
It was her son’s tribute to Eunice Kennedy Shriver when she died in 2009—“she never ran for office but she changed the world”-–that made me curious about what it was that produced so many significant achievers in one family.
That was the question that led me to attend a talk by David Nasaw about his new book, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. Most of the talk was devoted to Kennedy’s work in business and public life, but Nasaw then took questions from the audience and spoke to the one I wanted answered. Joe Kennedy was an “extraordinary father,” Nasaw said, a man who completely supported his children in their endeavors even when he disagreed with them. No one could have been more adamantly opposed to the United States entering World War II, but when his three oldest sons wanted to enlist he pulled strings to help them do that. He wrote personalized letters to each of his nine children when they were growing up. Early on he set them on the path most of them would follow. He told them he had amassed a fortune so that they could dedicate themselves to public service.
Nasraw’s talk piqued my curiosity about Kennedy’s career and character, but I might not have roused myself to read his book had not a friend dropped it by for me read while I was recovering from an injury. Eight weeks and 800 pages later, I finally finished it and was glad I had. Joe Kennedy was on the scene at so many significant junctures in our country’s history that his life holds interest regardless what you think of him.
He was controversial in his time and probably will remain so in ours. He was energetic, ambitious, astute, a brilliant businessman with a knack for making money in good times and bad. He regularly made headlines not only because he was possessed of the holy trinity of social life -- wealth, charm and good looks --but because he was also a self-promoter par excellance and engaged a New York Times journalist to act as his publicist and to plant stories about him in the press.
He made his money in shipping, motion picture distribution and investments and was surprisingly cautious with it as well as shrewd. He banked his gains and most the time used other people’s money to build his fortune. Nasaw, a historian at the City University of New York, spent six years researching the book, examining many previously unseen sources, and found no evidence that Kennedy ran bootleg liquor during Prohibition. But he was an operator. He was Gloria Swanson’s business manager as well as lover, a relationship that ended when she learned that the bungalow and mink she thought he’d given her as gifts were charged to her account.
His relationship with his wife leaves one wondering what each felt about the other. For most of their married life, they lived apart 300 days out of the 365. Kennedy wintered in Palm Beach while Rose stayed with the children in New York or Boston. He was, in his own words, a man’s man and he filled his home in Palm Beach with male friends and golfing buddies as well as a succession of women, none of whom seem to have been significantly more important than the others.
His political positions were interesting. He was a conservative businessman who supported the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was one of the few Wall Street magnates who did, and he was shocked that more businessmen didn’t realize their own self-interest lay in seeing American capitalism reformed and thereby preserved. “We are witnessing the strangest hatred in history,” he wrote of the venom heaped on Roosevelt by the business class in his 1936 campaign book I’m for Roosevelt.
FDR appointed him to become the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. It was a much-criticized appointment, but within months Kennedy had silenced critics by the energy with which the SEC set about reforming and regulating the financial markets, curbing insider trader and other questionable practices, many of which Kennedy had used to make his fortune. He went on to head the Maritime Commission and won kudos during his short tenure there.
He wanted to be Secretary of the Treasury but settled for being the first Irish-American ambassador to Great Britain. A friend, columnist Boake Carter, asked him if he really wanted to be Roosevelt’s errand boy and warned him that if he took the job his reputation would be destroyed. Those were prescient words. Independent, plainspoken, impatient of cant, Kennedy was not a diplomat by temperament or training. He believed Britain was doomed for defeat in a war with Germany and he feared the United States would be dragged into war in support of Britain. He mounted his own foreign policy to prevent that happening. Reading of the measures the State Department and White House took to sideline their own ambassador makes one cringe. As the United States prepared to go to war, he became what Boake Carter predicted: a political pariah, damned for being a defeatist and appeaser.
Nasaw’s biography is detached, careful, fair. He never gets under the skin of his subject, but then perhaps it’s an illusion that one can and an honest biographer doesn’t try. For the most part, he resists making broad judgments about Kennedy, bad or good, but lays out the evidence for readers to reach their own conclusions. He does decisively acquit his subject of one of the worst accusations hurled against him. Kennedy was not a Nazi sympathizer, Nasaw writes, nor after the war did he have any sympathy for Soviet Russia, but detestable though he thought both systems were, he did not believe the United States should go to war because of them. He was throughout his life consistently anti-war. He was determined not to serve in World War I; he did his utmost to avert the U.S. entry into World War II; he thought the Korean War pointless. War was not the answer to evil, he said in a commencement address he gave. He opposed the Allies’ demand that Germany surrender unconditionally; he was horrified that the United States dropped the atom bomb on a civilian population in Japan and asked Archbishop Spellman to intercede with Truman to provide a few days truce so Japanese leaders could respond before a second bomb was dropped. He thought the Cold War a huge waste of U.S. resources.
The Patriarchis aptly titled. His biographer writes that Kennedy adored his children and his children adored him. He was devastated by the death of his oldest son, Joe, in World War II. Kennedy wrote a friend that the death of his eldest son shook his Catholic faith like nothing else had ever done and made him fear that he had lost it. His daughter Kathleen’s death followed four years later. Both losses were preceded by another tragedy: the botched lobotomy in 1941 of his oldest daughter, Rosemary, who was developmentally disabled, possibly mentally ill and had begun to suffer from seizures. That her father had arranged a lobotomy for her, and without even consulting his wife, had struck me as monstrous, one of the worst things I’d ever heard. Now that I’ve read more about the circumstances, the lobotomy appears less an example of parental cruelty than medical malpractice, or at the least medical hubris about the promise of the emerging field of psychosurgery. The procedure left Rosemary the mental age of a 2-year-old. She spent the rest of her life in an institution.
It is, of course, the advantage of biographies to give you the whole man, not just one act or aspect of him, and to show the context for his actions. Biography is a wonderful corrective to judgmentalism (and to journalism too.) The Joe Kennedy I read about was more perspicacious, more public-spirited, more driven by convictions than the character I’d constructed from a thimble of facts and rumors. He was not the ideal husband, but he was an attentive and devoted father. He made possible his sons’ journeys to the White House not just because of his money, his ambition and his connections, important though all these were. He set high standards for his children; he encouraged them; he imbued them with a sense of confidence about what they could accomplish in the world; he supported them in every way he could and cheered them on.
His role as a father is only part of the story Nasaw tells. Joe Kennedy, not his children, is the focus of the book. Still, when I close the last page it’s a mental image of the entire family that lingers. There Kennedy stands in the midst of his many children, a confident larger than life figure, and in his final years, after a debilitating stroke and the deaths of two more sons by assassins’ bullets, a broken man.