Camelot’s Begetter

(AP Photo)

Former Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy has earnest words with granddaughter Mary Courtney Kennedy, 2, who sits on lap of her mother, Ethel Kennedy at Mc Lean, Va. on Nov 29, 1958. The occasion is a reception for Edward Kennedy and Joan Bennett in Bronxville, New York as following their wedding. Sitting on Amb. Kennedy's lap is Bobby Jr. 4; and David, 3, is between grandfather and mother and on right, are Kathleen, 7, and Joe, 6, all are children of the Robert Kennedys. 

Even those smitten by the Camelot legend have never mustered much love for Joseph P. Kennedy. Upstart Boston Irish millionaire, early player in the movie industry, then the Securities and Exchange Commission’s founding chair under Franklin D. Roosevelt, he brought his public career to a banana-peel close by serving as our disastrous ambassador to Great Britain back when World War II’s clouds were eyeing their rainmakers. He might be a footnote today if he hadn’t fathered all those damned kids.

As David Nasaw—Dad’s most sympathetic biographer to date—well knows, total rehabilitation isn’t in the cards for an unrepentant appeaser (even the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 didn’t deter Ambassador Kennedy from advocating a deal with Hitler) and hysterical dabbler in anti-Semitism, not to mention a sharp-eyed Wall Street buccaneer who’d have purely loved Bain Capital if it had been around in his day. Nonetheless, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy does its valiant best to leave us thinking well of the old artificer.

What makes Camelot’s only begetter surprisingly bland company for most of The Patriarch’s 800-plus pages is that Nasaw’s pasteurized respect is no substitute for the harsh awe an Irish-American Ahab should inspire. But since the author undertook the project at the behest of the late Teddy Kennedy and Jean Kennedy Smith, who’s now the only member of the brood still with us, aggressive insights may not have been on the menu.

For starters, Nasaw has no noticeable interest in scrutinizing Dad’s psychology, rich turf for anyone who cares to understand the family’s role in American life. Along with his ferocity in shoving his progeny toward democracy’s pinnacles, the combined sense of mission and entitlement—and the um, cocksure values Kennedy passed on to his sons from cradle to mostly too-early graves—are arguably his major contribution to history.


Like so many proudly self-made men, he didn’t start from scratch. Far from being the mere saloonkeeper of legend, his own father, P.J. Kennedy—who more or less did—was “one of East Boston’s most prosperous, respected and powerful politicians,” an influential ward boss as well as a successful liquor importer. Even though P.J.’s son never got into the better clubs at Harvard, he did go there, not exactly shanty—Irish schooling. Nonetheless, Joe definitely married up. Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of Boston Mayor John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, was quite the catch in her day.

Set on becoming a banker—“Banking could lead a man anywhere,” he later explained, since it had tentacles pretty much everywhere—Kennedy found the way barred by the snooty WASPs who controlled most of the city’s financial institutions. Since they weren’t about to hire an Irish Catholic for any post higher than teller, he took and passed the test to become a bank examiner instead, the ideal backdoor way to acquire expertise. By age 25, he’d become the president of an East Boston savings and loan.

Unlike virtually every other Kennedy biographer, Nasaw disputes the idea that a powerful goad to Joe’s ambitions was his resentment at being disdained as a Papist parvenu by Boston’s patrician caste. Yet many incidents here confirm the grudge, including how he got the hell out of Beantown as soon as his expanding business interests permitted. (Hyannis Port summers aside, the Kennedy children grew up mostly in New York; though Bobby got slagged as a carpetbagger when he ran for the Senate from there in 1964, it was really more of a homecoming.) “Boston is a bigoted place,” Joe told one intimate, and no doubt he spoke from experience.

Nasaw does better at refuting the myth that Kennedy owed much of his fortune to bootlegging. “It flies in the face of everything we know about him,” he convincingly says; achieving respectability loomed too large in Kennedy’s priorities. The bootlegger canard may have been fueled by the fact that he made a bundle importing Haig & Haig and Dewar’s Scotch after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. But apparently no hard evidence tying him to illicit hooch has ever surfaced, and plenty of people were looking.

Still, Nasaw may not be the most industrious gumshoe when it comes to evidence of the nefarious in Kennedy’s business dealings. Toward the end of The Patriarch, we’re told that a longtime associate with whom Joe had fallen out warned him “that he knew enough to sink Kennedy and that if Kennedy dared to do anything to threaten his livelihood … he would open doors that Kennedy needed closed and locked.” Since Dad apparently found the threat credible enough to back off, you may wonder what was behind those doors. Nasaw is remarkably incurious about the answer.

Luckily for Kennedy, insider trading wasn’t illegal in the Roaring Twenties (and wouldn’t be until the 1930s, when he banned it as the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission). The big money started rolling in once he turned freelance stock speculator, a path to wealth that uncannily prefigured today’s financial-sector manipulations. “In many regards, he was his own hedge fund” is one of Nasaw’s sharper observations about then’s kinship with now, and the verb that recurs in his descriptions of Kennedy’s complex market maneuvers is “juggle.” Then Dad turned prescient eyes toward Hollywood.

Not only was there overlooked gold to be made in its hills. By and large, the East Coast establishment hadn’t yet recognized the vulgar, disreputable movie biz as an investment opportunity. The public-relations coup for Kennedy, who was always looking to better his social profile along with his fortunes, was that he quickly became the respectably “American” (for which read not Jewish) face of the film industry in adulatory magazine profiles. Back East, he’d been the victim of WASP bigotry, but now he was the beneficiary of another kind of prejudice. At one point, he had a hand in running no less than three studios and a theater chain.

 This part of the saga has recently been told better by Cari Beauchamp’s admirably thorough (if sometimes wearying at a forest-for-the-trees level) Joseph P. Kennedy Presents. Her book doesn’t leave Nasaw with much to add except an ungentlemanly take on the most notorious episode of Kennedy’s Hollywood years: the affair with silent-film star Gloria Swanson that began with his offer to put her messy finances in order and ended in the debacle of Swanson’s starring in director Erich von Stroheim’s never-completed Queen Kelly. Elsewhere, Nasaw is irritatingly coy about the ruthless and competitive satyriasis Dad would end up passing on to his sons. Since the Swanson liaison is too notorious to elide, our biographer swings back and forth between forgiving boilerplate—“There was no one quite like her”—and fatuously Kennedy-channeling contempt: “The inescapable truth was that for Joseph P. Kennedy, Swanson was another sexual conquest, one of many he would fit into his busy life.”

The romance’s upshot was her outraged discovery that he’d looked out for his own financial interests while leaving her situation as dire as ever. But Nasaw, revealingly, chooses to smirk at her innocence: “He was a businessman.” You can practically hear Bugs Bunny drawl, “Ain’t I a stinker?”


By most accounts, Nasaw’s included, Kennedy was a good and maybe inspired choice to head the newborn Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in Roosevelt’s first term. A big part of his attraction was that he was one of the few nationally prominent businessmen who was also a prominent Democrat; even making millions hadn’t turned Joe away from the party both his father and his father-in-law had prospered in. On his end, Dad was blunt about the post’s attractions: “I told [FDR] that I did not desire a position with the Government unless it really meant some prestige to my family,” he wrote his oldest son, Joe Jr., who was later killed in World War II.

No fox knew his way around the Wall Street henhouse better. Though Kennedy was on the job for under a year—October 1934 to September 1935—he operated vigorously and successfully on multiple fronts. First, he had to reassure a market so Chicken Littled by the Securities Exchange Act and FDR’s imprecations against Wall Street that the shortage of new stock offerings had caused trading to slow to a crawl. Kennedy’s first radio address as SEC head convinced America’s financial sector he’d come to save and not bury it: The new rules, he promised, would be “simple and honest. Only those who see things crookedly will find them harsh.”

Second, with no experience of our nation’s capital, Kennedy had to organize and staff the new agency from scratch, bringing, among other future bigwigs, eventual Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to head up the section in charge of bankruptcy oversight. Third, under huge time pressure, he and his team had to devise the new rules the SEC would enforce—uncharted territory then. Creating the template for federal regulation of market shenanigans during the next, mostly prosperous half-century, the SEC stint marked Dad’s peak as a public servant.

If FDR’s genius at casting people apparently failed him when he named Joe our envoy to the Court of St. James, who’s to say he didn’t intuit that there was no better way of marooning and wrecking a potential rival? In any case, at whatever cost to our relations with Britain, Roosevelt had to keep Kennedy—by then among the best-known Irish Catholics in the country—on a leash until the 1940 election was done with. A Joe decisively estranged from the administration was a Joe who might either toss his own hat in the ring or decide to endorse FDR’s Republican rival, Wendell Wilkie. Yet the latter seems never to have been a possibility. While business interests might have logically placed him in the GOP’s camp, he still didn’t cotton to patricians. Aside from his not having much use for Wilkie, an earnest dunce whom Joe seems to have pegged as a loser despite their shared isolationism, a major concern—as usual—was the effect of breaking with the Democratic Party on his children’s future political fortunes.

Almost from the moment he landed in England, however, Dad was in it up to his bow tie with Britain’s most pro-appeasement if not outright Fascist-sympathizing elements, not least for the Kennedyesque reason that they represented entree into high society. Repeatedly, he infuriated Roosevelt by going public with his own agenda, which was peace at any price. Even after Hitler had gobbled up Czechoslovakia and begun eyeing Poland, Nasaw writes, Kennedy “continued to regard him as a rival business leader with whom it was possible to negotiate one’s differences.”

At times, his naïveté (or disingenuousness) was splendid, as when he recommended in the spring of 1939 that Roosevelt pay attention to “public opinion” in Germany and Italy—two countries where no such entity was in effect. Though he devoted considerable effort to pie-in-the-sky schemes to resettle Germany’s threatened Jews in colonial Africa, Kennedy saw Hitler’s Jewish hang-up primarily as a maddening impediment to everything being hunky-dory between democracies and dictatorships. In fairness, if he’d managed to save lives, his motives would have been irrelevant.

Meantime, as the Brits’ increasing disgust with him and FDR’s lack of use for his advice began to go public back home, he took to blaming his PR troubles, with increasing vehemence, on international Jewry—fortunately for him, mostly in private correspondence. This makes Nasaw rightly queasy but also leads him into some peculiar attempts at rationalization. “The Kennedys had to blame someone for the criticism,” he writes—why, one wonders?—“and who better than Europe’s most venerable scapegoats.” Similarly gauche is Nasaw’s reluctant acknowledgment that Kennedy’s dread of the looming European conflict led him to advocate giving Hitler “more than he justly deserved.” Justly?

Once war started and then France fell, Joe became, in the words of Churchill’s diplomatic adviser, Sir Robert Vansittart, “a very foul specimen of double-crosser and defeatist.” He told everyone who’d listen—a category no longer including anyone in the White House or State Department—that Britain was doomed. But that hardly deterred him from taking care of business before heading home in late 1940. As America’s leading importer of Dewar’s and Haig & Haig, “Kennedy had, while still in London, pulled all the strings he could to secure precious cargo space for his Scotch,” Nasaw writes. “He now had enough of it stockpiled in American warehouses to last the war.”


It’s at around this point, of course—with Dad’s public career, though not his moneymaking skills, in shards—that the next generation starts edging into the limelight. Though Joe was an affectionate if often absentee father, his high expectations were on steely exhibit throughout—and well after—their formative years. Yet Nasaw’s soft-focus treatment of Joseph P. Kennedy, Proud Parent and Sponsor, shies away from contemplating how relentlessly he molded them to serve his ego. It also underestimates Dad’s marketing genius, because the Kennedys were never just a family; as early as the 1930s, they were a brand.

His understanding that the right sort of publicity could endow the family with not only fame but prestige may have been his most satisfying revenge on the Brahmins. Even today, the upstart Kennedys—not the Lodges, not the Cabots, not even the patrician Bushes—define our notion of that contradiction in terms, American aristocracy. That may be because they were the first to make the oxymoron more glamorous and implicitly accessible than it was forbidding.

Conceivably, Jack’s Harvard senior thesis on the Munich pact might have been worth publishing on its merits, but only Dad could have arranged for Henry Luce to write the foreword of Why England Slept and for heavyweight New York Times columnist Arthur Krock to give his son’s prose a going-over. An indefatigable Kennedy shill (one of many) who went on to boast of helping to swing a Pulitzer Prize for JFK’s later book Profiles in Courage, Krock may well have been on Joe’s payroll for decades. Typically, while faulting Krock for his “disturbing” readiness to be suborned, Nasaw doesn’t knock Kennedy for doing the suborning.

So it went, from Jack’s campaigns for Congress and then the Senate to the presidency—with Bobby taking the attorney general’s job at Dad’s insistence (and despite both Bobby’s and Jack’s qualms) to groom him for the succession, even as Teddy stepped into JFK’s old Senate seat. Nobody seems to have asked the youngest Kennedy brother whether he even wanted the job—or the older ones either, for that matter. Dad’s will ruled.

Then again, give the kids credit for living up to their billing. The zeal for public service that euphemized Joe’s drive for dynastic power may have been a myth they started out being stuck with, but if so, they’d hardly be the first actors to end up believing their own roles—including the firebrand liberalism that never went all that deep in Jack but that Bobby embraced after his brother’s death and Teddy then made good on for almost four decades in the Senate. While the sons still seem valiant despite their sins, Dad just seems bleak. Nasaw keeps assuring us of Kennedy’s ebullient charm, but the closest Joe comes to likability is in the sportive note of some of his correspondence with old cronies. Pity, which he never invited and presumably would have loathed, is the only reaction to knowing he lived to see two of his sons assassinated before he died in 1969, eight years after the stroke that left him half-paralyzed and speechless except for one word: “No.”

Hence the decades of tabloid-minded blather about the “Kennedy curse,” whose hifalutin’ equivalent usually involves dragging in the House of Atreus sooner or later. Yet such hyperbole only testifies to how we’ve got no other family myth that equals this one. So should we thank Dad or blame him? Maybe the safest compromise is just to be glad he wasn’t our father. Unless, from a different point of view, he was.

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