David Nasaw writes that Joseph P. Kennedy was always “the most vital, the smartest, the dominant one in a room” who “imposed his will on family members, friends, and acquaintances, on those he worked for and with, on political associates, business colleagues, and the hundreds of topside and not so topside men and women he came in contact with.”
All of that may be a bit of an overstatement, but not by much.
Nasaw offers this statement at the very end of his 2012 biography Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Time of Joseph P. Kennedy when he’s leading into his description of the stroke that left the elderly Kennedy unable to walk or speak, a frail and pitiable figure.
Not that I have much pity for Kennedy. By the end of — well, actually early on in — Nasaw’s book, I came to dislike the man. Not hate him, not despise him, as a good many people do. He was too small a person to hate.
Then, again, I never met him.
It seems, from Nasaw’s extensively researched book, that Kennedy was so charming, so vibrant, so confident that he would fill most any room he walked into with his oversize personality. Women not his wife fell for him, including Hollywood actresses such as Gloria Swanson. Business and political associates were awed and beguiled by him.
He had a knack for making money — in the stock market, in the movies, in real estate — by “skating along the [ethical] edges” and playing the angles and playing it safe and taking a bearish (pessimistic) approach to every question. When it came to amassing wealth, he was brilliant.
Those skills and that money set his nine children up in life — pampered, challenged and driven. And four died early of violent deaths — Joseph Jr. on a World War II bombing mission; Kathleen, who married into the British aristocracy, in a plane crash; John, killed by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas in the third year of his presidency; and Robert, gunned down in a hotel corridor during his own run to be U.S. President.
And then there was Rosemary, born mildly retarded, whose life was ruined by a lobotomy.
Effort to be fair
During his life and afterwards, Joseph Kennedy made a lot of enemies, and many previous biographies of him have gone overboard in criticism. Nasaw, who was given access to the Kennedy family archives, makes every effort to be fair to his subject.
He makes it clear that Kennedy was never a bootlegger as many previous books have asserted. Neither was he tied to Organized Crime. And his financial dealings, while, at times, ethically questionable, were never illegal.
Okay, so he wasn’t evil. Still, while reading Patriarch, I just had to shake my head.
Kennedy was not one of the great financial figures in American history. He wasn’t a major figure in the history of Hollywood. He wasn’t a major figure in government service although he did well as the first chairman of the Security Exchange Commission. He wasn’t a major figure in U.S. diplomatic history although he served — badly — as the American ambassador to the United Kingdom during the lead up to and the beginning of World War II.
He fathered and boosted the careers of three sons — Jack, Robert and Ted — who were important in U.S. history. Okay.
Nasaw points out how, in various ways, these sons expressed some of the same political and social sentiments as their father had. Yet, those views were modified by real world considerations (something his rarely were) and by a social conscience (something he never had).
Is Kennedy worth a biography with 787 pages of text and nearly a hundred more pages of notes, bibliography and index? I don’t think so.
I came away from this well-written book with the sense that Kennedy was the quintessential blowhard.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas described Kennedy as “a crusty reactionary and a difficult man.” And Douglas was one of Kennedy’s friends.
Kennedy’s great wealth and charm gave him a sense of entitlement. He would lecture President Franklin D. Roosevelt for hours. He would lecture anyone he could force to listen for hours. Nasaw writes:
General Raymond E. Lee, Kennedy’s military attaché in London, had noted early the ambassador’s penchant for “going off into a tirade or oration” at the drop of a hat. He “used almost to get drunk on his own verbosity, and I am inclined to think that is what betrayed him on many occasions.”
And, with this flood of words, Kennedy most often was whining, complaining, carping.
“Miss Smith of Peoria”
For instance, as World War II was about to start, and Britain was preparing for battle with the certainty of German bombardment and the likelihood of invasion, Kennedy wrote in a letter to a friend:
I am sitting at my desk, waiting to hear what Mr. Hitler says to Sir Neville [Chamberlain] and wondering whether it will be peace or war. The children are all back in London, but I don’t feel I should send them home until I have the rest of the Americans out of London. Another one of those great moral gestures that the American people expect you to make; that is, get your own family killed, but be sure to get Miss Smith of Peoria on the boat.
Oh, come off it! What a dweeb!
The reality was that Kennedy was able to send his wife and kids out to a mansion far away from a major city. The Miss Smiths of the world — whether they were American visitors or British citizens — didn’t have that luxury.
A short time later, he did send his family back to the U.S., and required that Luella Hennessey, the younger children’s nurse, go along — even though she wanted to stay to get married to the man she’d been seeing. In an oral history, Hennessey recalled:
He said it was going to be a long, hard war, and eggs were going to be rationed to one a month. And he gave me quite a bleak picture of the future there, but I still thought that love would take care of everything. So then he said, “Well, I’ll tell you, you come back with us, and when you land in New York, you can do whatever you want. You can wait for the boar to turn around, and come right back again, or you can stay in America. But Mrs. Kennedy and I feel that we brought you over single, and we’ll return you to America single.”
Hennessey — obviously, one of the Miss Smiths of the world — went home with the children, continued to work with the family and later cared for Kennedy after his stroke. Her boyfriend, a pilot, was killed in the war.
“He wanted what he wanted”
Kennedy was a bully.
And even powerful people in the world, such as Frank Stanton, the president of CBS, could be a Miss Smith of Peoria.
When CBS followed its usual procedure of rotating reporters at mid-point of the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy was livid and called Stanton. In an oral history, Stanton described the call:
It was Joe Kennedy: he was very abusive because we had the practice…of switching our correspondents in the middle of a campaign…That turnover took placed when Jack Kennedy was campaigning in Minnesota…He was demanding that we keep the correspondents that we had with Jack Kennedy with Jack Kennedy. And I explained the policy and the reason for it. It made no difference to him. He wanted what he wanted and that’s all there was to it. And threatened me. Threatened my job.
Nasaw makes much throughout the biography of Kennedy’s feeling as an Irish-Catholic of immigrant stock that he was an outsider. His life, in this perspective, was an effort always to find a way to be an insider.
And he had much success if being an insider meant having access to powerful people.
Yet, Nasaw makes clear, Kennedy never understood what being an insider meant — or being a member of a community, a member of a team.
In the end, he failed to understand what was required of him in a wartime emergency. Joseph P. Kennedy had battled all his life to become an insider, to get inside the Boston banking establishment, inside Hollywood, inside the Roosevelt circle of trusted advisers. But he had never been able to accept the reality that being an “insider’ meant sacrificing something to the team. His sense of his own wisdom and unique talents was so overblown that he truly believed he could stake out an independent position for himself and still remain a trusted and vital part of the Roosevelt team.
Patrick T. Reardon