BOOK REVIEW: Joseph P. Kennedy was a curious mixture of good and bad: sometimes a hero but oft-times a scoundrel. His incredible life gets a close examination from writer-teacher-historian David Nasaw in “The Patriarch” (ISBN: 978-1-59420-376-3). The dichotomies pile atop one another in a fascinating portrait.
Enormous wealth, unrepentant hubris, and incredible tragedy — that might serve as a summary of the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John, Bobby, and Teddy. The sweep and scope of the book are broad yet there is a feeling of looking over the shoulder of the participants, of being in the room with them, and sometimes even inside the head of JPK. There are two reasons for this pleasant effect:
First, there’s the excellent writing of historian and Pulitzer-nominee Nasaw. And second, it’s the result of Nasaw being given access to never-before-revealed material including letters, journals, and many other documents. In addition, Nasaw was able to interview numerous Kennedy family members and friends.
Even if JPK had not been such a fascinating creature, the book would still have been interesting to examine the man’s interaction with so many of the decision-makers of the twentieth-century. Over the course of a long life, he advised and argued with Roosevelt, Churchill, Hoover, Neville Chamberlain, Eisenhower, Truman, to name just a few. And his life — all against a backdrop of world wars, the depression, the New Deal, and the New Frontier — was a truly astonishing journey, with stints as real estate magnate, stock market trader (insider information anyone?), motion picture and Broadway producer, Ambassador to Great Britain, and father of senators, a U.S. Attorney General, and a president.
With his continual accumulation of riches came much happiness but the loss of his sons John, Bobby, and Joe, Jr. brought immeasurable pain. And let’s not overlook the lobotomy of his daughter Rosemary, one of the saddest chapters in a long and storied life.
Cast of Characters
Prior to the start of the book, there is a nine-page Cast of Characters and it is a veritable Who’s Who of the twentieth century. The 199 names are listed alphabetically, putting the well-known side-by-side with people you might not recognize. For example, one section reads like this: “Walter Trohan, journalist with Chicago Tribune / Max Truitt, Maritime Commission, Kennedy friend / Harry S. Truman, president, 1945-1953.”
Getting Down to Business
The 13-year-old Kennedy got off to a good start in his education, being sent to Boston Latin, “the oldest, best-known, and arguably most academically rigorous public school in the country.”
Every student was required to take six years of Latin, centered on translation, memorization, writing from dictation, and reading metrically from Caesar, Ovid, Cicero, Sallust, and the Aeneid, six years of science, six years of mathematics, six years of English, five years of history (including a year of Roman history and a year of Greek history), four years of French, and three years and two months of Greek.
It was on to Harvard after that, where “his final record was heavy with Cs and Ds,” but getting the degree and making some lifelong friends were the primary results. Entering real estate and finance, he became one of the world’s youngest bank presidents at age 25 while maintaining ties to his real estate concerns. “Did his real estate customers get preferential treatment when applying for mortgages from his bank? Probably. Was he breaking any laws? No.” Nasaw’s writing, always good, is outstanding when he turns out a concise editorial paragraph like that.
Ethics, or the Lack Thereof
Working with a man named Eddie Moore, “who would become his best friend, constant companion, and most trusted partner in business and politics,” JPK owned Fenway Building Trust where they operated something that “was, at base, a shell game of sorts, but a legal, profitable one.” That one little word, “but,” seems to be at the heart of many early business transactions involving Kennedy.
In a few short years he had moved on to the entertainment industry where his hard work and understanding of financial realities resulted in success after success (business success — he produced no artistically notable works unless you count the aborted “Queen Kelly” and most of his films were dubious fluff like “Naughty Nanette” and “What a Widow!”). While it is not possible to admire his lack of artistic or personal ethics one must be impressed with his work ethic itself. By 1928, Kennedy was:
running three large entertainment companies at the same time, two picture studios and a chain of several hundred vaudeville theaters that were in the process of being converted to pictures. Even those who had worked with him in the past marveled at the energy he expended, the impossibly long hours he kept, his ability to concentrate on several matters at once, and his capacity for juggling numbers, accounts, personalities, staffs, employees, and contracts as he flitted back and forth from office to office, city to city, coast to coast.
With JPK there was, to be sure, a massive ego on display, as with the multipage full-color ads for his entertainment properties, all featuring “a smiling photo of Joseph P. Kennedy, under the headline THE MAN. . . THE PRODUCT AND THE MASTER SHOWMAN OF THE WORLD,” which is how I’d like all my reviews here at eNewsChannels to be presented. (Thus far, management has been remarkably reticent to meet my humble request.)
Just as JPK felt that the rules about finance were for other people, so too were things like marriage vows. One could say that when it came to sex, Kennedy was highly in favor of it.
Other men might have had to make a choice between wife and mistress, but not Joseph P. Kennedy. Having a wife at home and girlfriends away from home was neither an ethical nor a logistical problem for him. He had always been a ladies’ man…Before Swanson, there had been flings with dozens of women, in Boston, New York, Chicago, Palm Beach, and Hollywood.
His affairs with a surprising number of women are outlined in the book, with a great many of the details (fairly tame and chaste I’m sorry to report) devoted to the better-known of his paramours such as film star Gloria Swanson. (Those who only recall her as the faded beauty in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” should check out how she looked in any of her 1920s films.)
In today’s world, where the grubby thumb of Big Finance is crushing the populace, it is difficult to think about a time when things were worse. At least we have a few piddly regulatory agencies in place, one of which is the Securities and Exchange Commission. Prior to the SEC, “Stock or stock options issued to promoters were disguised; companies falsely advertised ownership of nonexistent timber, gold mines, or oil wells; the accountants who verified the financial statement were company officers.”
Yes, that sounds exactly like the situation surrounding Enron, Wall Street, big banks, Countrywide Funding, and the state of Texas, but the point is that it is now illegal and subject to regulatory overview. Well, in theory.
In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Securities and Exchange Act, followed by appointing commissioners and a chairman to the newly-formed SEC. He needed someone who would be in charge of preventing the type of activity indulged in by people like Joseph P. Kennedy:
Although he remained employed by Pathe and would be for some time afterward, Kennedy sold short the options for the 50,000 shares he was to receive later that year, for a profit of another $310,000, worth almost $4 million in today’s currency. That he was selling a stock in a company in which he was an executive and doing it because of “insider” information may have been unethical, but it was not illegal and would not be until the SEC ruled it so under its first chairman, Joseph P. Kennedy.
That’s correct: JPK became the first head of the agency that created policies to hold in check people like JPK. Not that this altered his basic approach to most of his activities, personal or professional — his extensive charitable contributions, political contributions, and real estate holdings were all utilized to obtain leverage, favors, and/or a quid pro quo. (When FDR heard loud complaints about his choice of JPK he replied, “Set a thief to catch a thief.”)
Then As Now
In politics, as in any human endeavor, greed is a constant. Take the Roosevelt administration’s push for the 1935 public utilities bill.
The aim of the legislation was to break up the large holding companies that together controlled three quarters of the nation’s privately owned electricity-generating industry. The moment the bill was introduced in Congress in February, Wall Street and the utility companies had launched a mammoth lobbying and misinformation campaign against it, claiming that the legislation, if approved, would halt investment, curtail future innovations, raise consumer costs, and lead to government ownership of the utilities and the ruin of the millions of Americans who had invested their life savings in utility holding company stocks…Washington was inundated by more utilities lobbyists than there were senators and congressmen combined.
Sound familiar? Same problem today with all manner of rapacious industries such as financial rapists, those who profit from the sick, and the makers of tools for killing. Or, as they prefer to be known, Wall Street, bankers, insurance firms, healthcare provider organizations, and defense contractors.
At the end of 1937, Roosevelt named JPK to the post of ambassador to Great Britain, thrusting him into the machinations leading up to World War II. The book deals with a lot of the political bickering about the appointment but omits the wonderful scene of FDR asking Kennedy to drop trou to see if he was too bow-legged to wear the traditional knee-britches associated with that role. (The farcical encounter is detailed in Conrad Black’s “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom.)
JPK’s time in England was frustrating for him and his hosts. The outspoken Kennedy often shocked the more reserved British politicians and the snail’s pace in almost any area of government always bothered the bustling businessman. It also appeared to bring out some of his worst instincts:
Kennedy did not welcome the coming of a Fascist-like economic order — he much preferred the free-wheeling capitalist system through which he had made his fortune — but he believed that the unregulated, uncontrolled, private investment regime that had fueled economic expansion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries might not be a viable option in a global economy… It was time now for the United States government to extend its control over the economy, as the Italians had, and provide a few wise businessmen such a Joseph P. Kennedy with more authority.
For a Democrat, that was pretty powerful Republican thinking.
Watching JPK’s attempts to influence the political, economic, and military policies of the major participants in the coming conflagration is fascinating, as when he leaked false information to officials of the German embassy in the mistaken belief that he alone could forestall the Second World War.
Note: I’ve always wanted to use that as a subhead in one of my book reviews and — way cool! — now I can!
It is amazing that Kennedy, so adept at reading people in his financial dealings, was so poor at reading Adolph Hitler. Following the distasteful appeasement of Neville Chamberlain, Kennedy tried some appeasement of his own in 1939:
Kennedy’s plan was to offer Hitler a comprehensive economic package that would enable Germany to trade on favorable terms for the raw materials it required, thereby removing the need for future aggression. Though there was abundant evidence now that Hitler was not a rational actor, that he was motivated by concerns other than the purely economic, that he had decided that the best way to solve German’s trade problems was by territorial aggrandizement, Kennedy continued to regard him as if he were a rival business leader with whom it was possible to negotiate one’s differences.
His pessimism and misreading of reality continued even as the RAF (Royal Air Force) was battling the German Luftwaffe in the skies over Great Britain. Kennedy felt that:
The best outcome — the one that would spare the most lives and halt the slaughter and sacrifice — would have been for the British to accept defeat. The worst outcome — and the most likely one — would be that they kept fighting in the expectation that the Americans would, responding to their misery, “come into this war and sign a blank check.”
Over and over again he expressed his opposition to the war and to America’s entrance into it because it might harm his own financial investments. During one of his visits back in the US, he delivered a three-hour speech “in which he declared with an almost manic urgency that the British were doomed, that Britain’s Jews were being blamed for the war in Europe, and that Hollywood and America’s Jews would be similarly blamed for whatever hardships might occur should the United States enter the war.”
It should be noted that the topic of JPK and anti-Semitism appears alarmingly often in the book. You’ll find them referenced in the book’s Index (pages 202, 311, 501-2, 509, 581-82, and 748).
The privileges of JPK’s offspring sometimes went beyond what one might expect, all the way to having the taxpayers help out:
From London, he helped the children with their hobbies and their schoolwork. He had letters sent to the American consuls general in Montreal, Bangkok, Tunis, Algiers, Calcutta, Moscow, Istanbul, and every European and South American embassy, asking them to purchase “small dolls, about 8 to 10 inches high, dressed in the native costume of the country” for his daughter Jean’s collection; he directed embassy staff to save special stamps for Bobby; and when Jack decided to write his senior thesis on British foreign policy and preparedness after the Great War, he mobilized his public affairs office to collect research materials for him.
Almost Too Much
It’s a big book because it covers a big life. In going over my notes it seems that the negative stuff outweighs the positive but there are moments of triumph, tenderness, and good humor in amongst the financial shenanigans and political difficulties.
The effect of the book is sometimes eerie in that it feels like eavesdropping, not just on conversations but also on the thought processes of that large cast of characters. As Nasaw points out about the tale, “In telling the story of Joseph P. Kennedy, we retell the history of the twentieth century.” The book is an entertaining history lesson and is often eyebrow-raising good fun. And if it isn’t enough for you, there is a Bibliography with 200+ sources for further reading.
“The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy” by David Nasaw; The Penguin Press, ISBN: 978-1-59420-376-3, 896 pages, 35 photographs, $40.00.
David Nasaw on “The Daily Show” —
This original review is Copr. © 2013 by John Scott G and originally published on PublishersNewswire.com – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. No fee or other consideration was paid to the reviewer, this site or its publisher by any third party for this unbiased article. Editorial illustration based on book jacket created by Christopher L. Simmons.