Author to speak on life of Kennedy patriarch in Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series
When the father of America's most famous family is mentioned today, there are many negative connotations. Joseph P. Kennedy, it is said, made his fortune as a bootlegger. He also is presumed to have exerted influence in Chicago in the presidential election of 1960 when his son, John F. Kennedy, was elected president.
David Nasaw, who appears Nov. 4 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series, disproves those allegations in his hefty biography “The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy,” (Penguin, $20).
According to Nasaw, Kennedy had one profitless incident of bootlegging: when he secured liquor for the 10th reunion of his Harvard graduating class. Nor could Nasaw — who spent almost eight years researching the book and pored through statistical analysis of 1960 election results — find any evidence of voter fraud in Chicago.
These misconceptions exist, the biographer says, because the family decided Joseph Kennedy's controversial and colorful past might affect the political futures of his sons.
“The patriarch was going to recede into the background,” Nasaw says, “that he wasn't going to give interviews. When accused of past misdeeds, he would not defend himself, he would not respond, and nobody in the family would respond for him. As a result, all of these rumors and allegations went unanswered and multiplied one upon another. It was only when the family gave me access to his papers that I could look through this material and find answers to some of the questions and defenses to some of the charges that were out there.”
Nasaw — who has written biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst and was approached by Jean Kennedy Smith and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to write about their father — doesn't absolve his subject of all sins. Joseph P. Kennedy “had many unsavory elements,” including, as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, endorsing prime minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler during the run-up to World War II. Nasaw also cites Kennedy's thinly veiled, and sometimes blatant, anti-Semitism; and shady financial dealings during the boom stock markets of the Roaring '20s.
But Nasaw thinks what Kennedy achieved was astounding. He was a successful movie mogul during the period when silent film made the transition to talking pictures. He was a much-admired member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet, serving as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and as the first chairman of U.S. Maritime Commission. He was a doting father despite long absences from the family, and his children unabashedly worshiped him.
But it was Kennedy's business acumen, especially playing the stock market in the 1920s, that made him one of the wealthiest people in the country, however ruthless. Many business partners felt betrayed when they learned Kennedy had gotten the best of them. Actress Gloria Swanson, who had an affair with Kennedy, was appalled when she learned many of the gifts he gave on her behalf — and sometimes to her — were billed to her accounts.
“When you made a deal with him, you'd better have your T's crossed and I's dotted and the smartest lawyers in the room behind you,” Nasaw says. “It was warfare. He was out to maximize his profits. That didn't mean he wasn't a smart businessman; he knew damn well in negotiating that you never get 100 percent of what you want. But he wanted at least 51 percent, and he entered into deals that gave that 51 percent, if not more.”
Despite all his financial success, the second half of Kennedy's life was marked by unrelenting sadness. First, his eldest son Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., was killed in 1944 during a mission as a pilot for the Navy in World War II. Four years later a daughter, Kathleen (known as Kick), was killed in a plane crash. Another daughter, Rosemary, was irrevocably damaged by an ill-advised lobotomy.
By 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Joseph Kennedy had been incapacitated by a stroke for two years. But his life had been in a downward spiral for two decades.
“He never got over the death of his first and oldest son and namesake,” Nasaw says. “He would always say he envied Rose (his wife) her (Catholic) faith because she could recover from tragedies and he couldn't. ... And these were tragedies that no parent should ever have to go through.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.