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Joseph K.

The Founding Father: The Story of Joseph P. Kennedy

by Richard J. Whalen
The New American Library, 486 pp., $6.95

This efficient book begins with Joseph Patrick Kennedy in the innocent June of 1911—big, handsome red headed, a substitute first-baseman for Harvard. They were ahead in the big game with Yale, when, to the surprise of his teammates in the last half of the ninth inning with two men out, the Harvard captain called time out, and waved in, of all people, Joe Kennedy, a sworn enemy of his, who caught the ball on first base, and made the final play. Leaving the diamond on the last victory of a brilliant career, the Captain asked for the ball as a trophy. Since Kennedy was not on the team that year and was beholden to the Captain for letting him win the “H” he had not earned, the request was not unreasonable. Joe Kennedy just struck the ball in his pocket. “I made the put out, didn’t I?” he said and moved truculently off. Long afterward when his teammates asked why he had been so considerate that day, the sheepish ex-Captain confessed: some days before the game he had had a visit from some associates of Patrick Joseph Kennedy of the Boston City Council. The men happened to have heard that the Harvard Captain planned after graduation to apply to the city for a license to operate a movie theater. If the young man expected that license, Pat Kennedy’s son had better win that letter.

This book concludes with Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy at seventy-six, former Chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission, of the U.S. Maritime Commission, Roosevelt’s envoy to the Court of St. James, stricken with an intracranial thrombosis, last seen as a figure of vast resignation—mute, paralyzed, in his Hyannisport bedroom late in the November afternoon of the funeral, seated before the blank, devastated television screen from which his hero-son had passed into legend. “When the going gets tough,” Joe Kennedy used to tell his growing boys, inculcating that strain of ambition he would call “moxie” and Max Lerner “hubris,” “that’s when the tough get going.” The proof of that humble apophthegm is the career of this phenomenal American, more phenomenal than any or all of his descendents, who out of some Gargantuan urge to establish his line exhorted, subsidized and dragooned his sons into politics to create new dimensions of power that touch on the metaphysical.

Richard J. Whalen, an editor of Fortune and an alert young man, younger even than Teddy K., has compiled a solid journalistic biography. He has drawn from authorities as diverse as Henry Adams and Oscar Handlin on the curious social and political structure of Boston; from the spate of contemporary prose, mostly fatuous and ephemeral, that has been manufactured about, for, and now and then by Kennedys, from newspaper files and public documents. These secondary sources are embellished by unpublished materials on the life of the progenitor and, most importantly, by interviews with old colleagues and cronies like Burton K. Wheeler, James A. Farley, James F. Byrnes, and Arthur Krock, who thought up Mr. Whalen’s scarcely electrifying title. That the biographer’s requests for their cooperation went unheeded by his hypersensitive subject and his family is not surprising. And yet their caution becomes in retrospect as unnecessary as it is disappointing. There was less to fear from a writer employed by the family friend Henry Luce than from a knee-to-the-groin style hack like the author of the bestselling spitebook of some time back called John F. Kennedy: The Man and the Myth. Any story that tells of the amassing of enormous quantities of money is bound to include certain particulars which the beneficiaries had rather not discuss (from this distress great philanthropic foundations are born). But Mr. Whalen plays fair; he is not out for blood but merely does his best at a job that evolved out of a Fortune assignment: to set down all that could be discovered about a “remarkable life and career.” He had at his disposal the editorial resources, the accreditation and, insofar as one exists, the viewpoint of Fortune.

These assets, however, are all of one dimension, and a writer pays for them, acquiring a shrewdness at the expense of insight, and a glib sort of “accuracy” which is rather different from truth. However, when no special profundity is called for, Mr. Whalen can his right on the nose. “[John F. Kennedy] was in politics, not to advance an ideology, but to derive personal satisfaction. His politics was as self-centered as his father’s fortune building: the one was the natural successor to the other.” Despite its shallowness, this book is never specious or dishonest. Mr. Whale has earned the nice piece of change that accrues from a work of which slightly bowdlerized excerpts appearing in Fortune and The Saturday Evening Post attracted considerable attention in advance of its triumphant publication as a Literary Guild selection and a persistent best seller.

There is matter here that defies the hardiest works of literature. Balzac would have been astonished by the man. “Wealth is Virtue,” said Vautrin, the cynic-fiend of Balzac’s vision: Money is Power. And what a pallid contrast that is to this conception described by an anonymous friend: “[Kennedy] understands power. Everywhere he went, from Brahmin Boston to the Court of St. James, he saw the great hypocrisy about the philosophy of those who rule. Power is the end. What other delight is there but to enjoy the sheer sense of control?…Joe thinks like a king, and kings aren’t always nice guys.” Or which hero of American fiction comes even fleetingly to mind? Neither Frank Cowperwood nor Daddy Warbucks can hold a candle to the phenomenon of Joseph Kennedy. A creature of flesh and blood, he breathes the same air as we but is otherwise so remote and alien to our pedestrian experience that his very name, breezily abbreviated, becomes Joseph K.

It was his immigrant grandfather, Patrick, who knew bitter poverty; Joe Kennedy was born into the rising Boston Irish middle class. He had managed in his youth a realty firm which offered its worthy clientele “protection against the encroachment of undesirable elements.” At twenty-five, in his determination to protect the family’s interest in a neighborhood bank, he acquired the bank. He was the youngest bank president in Massachusetts. Against the inbred anti-Irish bias, he forced his election to the board of directors of a failing company. “Do you know a better way to meet people like the Saltonstalls?” he told a friend. At the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, he became assistant manager of a shipbuilding subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel, just in time for the country to get into the First World War. Mr. Whalen writes that wartime shipping then was “one of the dizziest whirlwinds in the history of American industry.” Tensions were fierce; Kennedy got his first stomach ulcer, but he impressed Charles M. Schwab, the Chairman of Bethlehem, and other powerful people. “That fellow has something” they would say in Boston. Yankees were used to young Irishmen in their banks and brokerages, but not to seeing them rise….

Never the Olympian Saltonstalls, but Yankee speculators of humbler parts, with names like Guy Currier and Caleb Stone, country Yankees come to town in the style of Silas Lapham, gave him some pointers. At this stage Kennedy perfected his method of “picking the best brains” before he made his move. His speculator’s temperament (“a passion for facts, a complete lack of sentiment, a marvelous sense of timing”) was fully developed; so were the munificent trust funds he established for each of his children. From this eminence his family had nowhere to rise socially, nor financially, in Yankee-owned Boston. Ever defiant, he moved them to New York where his skills as a maniupulator were much in demand. With a ticker and a bunch of telephones he could seduce, confuse, panic the stockbuying public. In six furious weeks, virtually alone, he rescued the Yellow Cab Company from a pack of raiding bears. As a banker and corporation builder he invaded Hollywood just as talkies were coming. “Look at that bunch of pants pressers…making themselves millionaires,” he said. “I could take the whole business away from them.” He did not quite, but in less than three years of telephoning and maneuvering, he merged his companies with David Sarnoff’s RCA; and Radio-Keith-Orpheum was born. He was forty years old and something like five million dollars ahead when he cashed in his movie assets at the end of 1928. He decided not to reinvest in the Bull Market. In October of ‘29 when Thomas W. Lamont spoke his deathless line on behalf of J. P. Morgan and Co.: “There has been a little distress-selling on the stock exchange,” Joe Kennedy was at a safe remove. For Morgan partners, for all the fallen giants of the establishment who had snubbed him, this lone operator had scant pity now. “Big business men are the most overrated people in the country.” he told his sons: “Here I am, a boy from East Boston, and I took ‘em. So don’t be impressed.”

He took ‘em best on the Bear Market. “Sell ‘em, sell ‘em, all! They’re not worth anything,” bellowed “Sell ‘em Ben” Smith, his flamboyant acquaintance among the great bear raiders. In a stable market the short seller, who sells borrowed stock on the chance that he can buy it back at a lower price, faces disaster if the stock should go up. When the bottom falls out of the economy however, and prices go down and down with no forseeable limit, the risks are not so bad for a man with nerve and a telephone. Tens of millions of dollars were to be had by driving down Telephone, Steel, Chemicals, Copper even faster than they were dropping under their own dead weight.

The technique was well-established. Only Grotonian-Porcellian-Republican Bulls found it ungentlemanly. Such a feasting on the carcass of their dream was annoying. And when the lonely marauder Joseph P. Kennedy—a man as profoundly and unthinkingly conservative as they, a man who cultivated Herbert Hoover—threw in with the New Deal, that was some sort of treason. Their supercilious view did not grasp that an Irish Catholic boy from East Boston had no place in their Republican rank. To be labelled at birth, as a consequence of birth, a Democrat was not the same as being a “born” Democrat; chance was as far removed from “conviction” on Wall Street as anywhere. And “New Dealer” too was just another label. The first Wall Street personage to get on the bandwagon, Kennedy had naught to do with idealism or reform, and everything with what a Capitalist and prominent Catholic layman might do to move strategic forces on the Right. He boosted Roosevelt to Father Coughlin, to the unpredictable A. P. Giannini of the Bank of America. At the deadlocked convention of 1932 he urged a fellow isolationist, William Randolph Hearst, against a formidable reluctance to support FDR on the fourth ballot, and won him the nomination.

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