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Twice-Told Tale

Mrs. Goodwin and others would have it that Joe’s ruthless ambition was reinforced by two snubs he received early in life. At Harvard he was not asked to join a “final club” such as Porcellian, AD, or Fly. A decade later, after he had made his first million, he, as an Irish Catholic upstart, was turned down for membership in the Cohasset Country Club. Mrs. Goodwin’s explanations are not quite accurate. Harvard in Joe’s day was still in its Gold Coast era. Santayana called it a finishing school for Boston. The final clubs, whose members numbered only about a tenth of the student body, were an upper-class preserve: proper names, proper addresses, proper private schools. Occasionally a brilliant athlete of alien background might be taken in, certainly not an East Boston liquor dealer’s son from the plebeian Boston Latin.

The surprising thing is that Joe crossed one social dividing line by being asked to join the Institute of 1770 (later combined with the Hasty Pudding Club). About a hundred were picked from each class, and Joe had the added distinction of being among the first forty, so-called members of the Dickey (from the earlier gDKE fraternity absorbed by the Institute). To wear the Institute’s black tie with its horizontal white stripe was an initial sign of acceptance, separating the wearer from the clubless majority. Mrs. Goodwin would have Joe sitting in his room waiting in vain for the knock on the door that would announce his election to a final club. I doubt if that ever happened. In his senior year he joined the DU fraternity, one of the few that had survived at Harvard, most of the others having renounced their national fraternity connections to turn themselves into clubs.

At Cohasset the Kennedys had rented a large shingled cottage on the cliffs overlooking the sea. Joe’s secretary Eddie Moore lived in a small bungalow at the rear of the cottage. A former secretary to Honey Fitz, Moore was a Catholic and “as Irish as a clay pipe.” Yet he had no difficulty in getting a summer membership in the country club. Such membership was readily granted. But in the Kennedy’s case membership was refused. Joe’s chauffeur, Harry Pattison, privately told John Cutler that it was not Joe that the club members objected to, it was his wife Rose. Her driving around Cohasset in a plum-colored Rolls-Royce was just too ostentatious for the established club members. They did not want to see that plum-colored car in front of the clubhouse all summer.

These are indeed passing events in Mrs. Goodwin’s account of the Kennedys. Two months out of Harvard, Joe Kennedy went to work as a clerk in a small East Boston bank of which his father was a director. Then he was appointed a banking inspector, an unrivaled opportunity for learning the ins and outs of the banking system. Two years later he became president of the East Boston bank—one of the youngest bank presidents in the country—and he married Honey Fitz’s daughter Rose. If he had been content then to stay a small-time banker he might have moved to one of the newer suburbs and raised his large and attractive family. There would have been no Kennedy saga, if also no tragedy. For a man of Joe’s searing ambition, such a life would have been no life at all. A brief connection with a Boston brokerage firm became for him a seminar in the moves and countermoves of market manipulation, the rigging of stock pools.

Mrs. Goodwin recounts his earlier success in fighting off the financial raiders aiming at John Hertz’s Yellow Cab Company. For seven weeks Kennedy never left his hotel suite, equipped as it was with tickers, telephones, and secretaries. He bought and sold thousands of shares, operating so deftly that in the end the raiders gave up. But she does not add that Kennedy was suspected of having kicked away the props he had set up, by selling Yellow Cab stock short. Afterward Hertz threatened to punch Kennedy in the nose if ever they met again. 3

Mrs. Goodwin concedes that “all through the ‘dry’ twenties, Kennedy had been surrounded by rumors suggesting his involvement in the illicit liquor trade.” It was more than rumor. Reliable accounts, including The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster, by John Davis,4 a member of the Bouvier family, have described him as a bootlegger. This gave him his first solid financial backing. His father, a bartender and liquor dealer, is, according to Davis, generally conceded to have continued the liquor trade underground with his son after Prohibition. Kennedy’s two Fitzgerald uncles, also in the liquor business, ran speak-easies during the dry era. In 1973 Frank Costello, the former boss of the Luciano crime syndicate, admitted that he had been in the bootlegging business with Kennedy. “I helped Joe Kennedy get rich,” he said. Some of Kennedy’s men had been in vicious fights with Mafia bootleggers. Sam Giancana, boss of the Chicago syndicate—whose mistress Jack Kennedy would later share—told a friend, who was also a friend of Jack’s, that father Joe “was one of the biggest crooks who ever lived.”5

Within the feverish financial ambiance of the Twenties Joe moved with cold-blooded precision. His feral instincts sent him for several years to Hollywood. Mrs. Goodwin candidly relates his affair with Gloria Swanson; she could scarcely have minimized it after the latter’s true-confessions autobiography. He returned from Hollywood richer, with an enhanced reputation on Wall Street. Absorbed in the Coolidge-Hoover era, he even considered joining the Republican party, one of the new facts that Mrs. Goodwin has unearthed. If he had gone down with Hoover, there would have been no Joseph Kennedy saga, merely the story of a man of wealth at odds with his times.

Without Joseph Kennedy’s predatory activities the entire glittering edifice of the Kennedy legend could never have been constructed. It is a tale that has been told many times from many angles, and Mrs. Goodwin tells it again. Her prose can sometimes be overwrought:

Built on a grand scale, with ambition, passion and will attaining in them a terrifying yet wondrous force, both the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys seemed to live their lives with an uncommon intensity which drove them to seek out the heights of earthly greatness.

Juvenile Jack Kennedy appears as a child out of Isaiah, possessing “a conquering poise that made him seem older than he was.” As a small boy his

reaching out to others in the larger world promised salvation; yet even as he charmed people one by one, drawing friends to his side as if by magic, he would retain a measure of reserve, an avoidance of easy intimacy, which, in the strange alchemy of his relationships, served only to increase his attraction to others.

When in the hospital for scarlet fever as a boy he is “an irresistibly charming child with an uncommon capacity to stir emotions in people, creating in each of them the feeling that he and they somehow shared a special bond.” As for the youngest son: “Teddy was like the sunshine, lighting up everything in sight and keeping his father young.” Kathleen Kennedy was a young woman of beauty and humor with an independent spirit that made her determined to be herself rather than just another sibling in a male-dominated family. Mrs. Goodwin writes that

all was illumined by her radiantly joyous, self-confident sense of life and youth. Wherever she went, she gave excitement with her lithe figure, her violet-gray eyes, clear and quick, and her rosy complexion. Here was beauty allied with animation…. Kathleen’s range of expressions was as vast as a blue sky on a cloudless day.

Mrs. Goodwin is at her most expressive in following the later careers of the Kennedy children: the brave tragic end of Joseph, Jr., the equally tragic death of Kathleen, the most charming of the Kennedys, the emergence of Jack from the shadow of his dead brother. It is a sad, endearing tale. One has heard it told before but scarcely so movingly. For all its often intriguing details, however, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys is not as solid and encompassing as Collier and Horowitz’s The Kennedys or John Davis’s Dynasty and Disaster.

The book’s most glaring deficiency is that it evades two issues of the 1960 presidential campaign that are vital to the entire saga: the nomination contest of Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in West Virginia; and the election margins in Texas and Illinois.

In West Virginia the struggle between Humphrey and Kennedy had come to be a political barometer. Humphrey in that poor, fundamentalist state was the favorite, the workingman’s candidate. Kennedy was rich, untried, and Catholic. But far from dodging the religious issue he—personally a free-thinking Catholic—met it head on. He would not, he told the crowds, take orders from any pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest. And for all their ingrained antagonisms, the West Virginians warmed to the presence of the easy-speaking, engaging young man. In that hard-scrabble state, as Mrs. Goodwin writes,

his first encounter with hunger and misery…was so genuine that it touched a chord in everyone he met. And from here on, whenever he spoke of the need to protect the common man against the ravages of poverty, hunger and ill health, his voice was alive and his speech was infused with passion.

If he had lost West Virginia to Humphrey, his campaign might well have withered. But the impelling reason for his victory there was not, as Mrs. Goodwin would have it, his engaging presence or even the assistance of Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., a name of magic in that region. Howard Norton, a correspondent of the Baltimore Sun, in his lengthy report on the West Virginia primary, explained that:

County politicians do not care much who wins…. Long tradition has built up a system of filling the county campaign chests by almost openly “auctioning off” the support of the county machines to the highest bidder among the candidates for national office…. Once the bidding is completed, the party leaders…print up on little slips of paper the official “slate” of the candidates whom they urge the voters to accept. This may explain why the five biggest hardshell, fundamentalist, conservative, Protestant counties of West Virginia went so openly for a liberal Catholic candidate…. Fayette County, where this correspondent saw loafers at the county courthouse refuse to shake hands with Kennedy, gave him a ten-to-one margin.

The editor of the Logan Banner, Charles T. Hilton, called the primary “one of the most corrupt elections in county history,” with payoffs ranging “anywhere from two dollars and a drink of whiskey to six dollars and two pints of whiskey for a single vote.” Years later, Harry Truman told Merle Miller:

Old Joe Kennedy is as big a crook as we’ve got anywhere in this country. He bought West Virginia. I don’t know how much it cost him; he’s a tight-fisted old son of a bitch; so he didn’t pay any more than he had to. But he bought West Virginia, and that’s how his boy won the primary over Humphrey…. And it wasn’t only there. All over the country old man Kennedy spent what he had to to buy the nomination.

In the weeks between the nomination and the election Murrary Kempton remarked that Kennedy and Nixon were not men for whom one would shed tears. Whatever the enthusiasm of Kennedy supporters, public opinion stayed muted. I still recall the occasional bumper sticker: Neither One. That presidential election was the century’s closest, Kennedy winning by a plurality—not a majority—of the popular vote with only a half of one percent above Nixon’s total. About that election Mrs. Goodwin has not much to say—a mere three pages—as if she were hurrying to get to the end of her book. She has nothing to say about the alleged frauds that supposedly gave Kennedy his victory. For her it was just another close election.

Yet any impartial survey would agree that an honest count might have shown Nixon to be the winner. Of the electoral votes, 303 were for Kennedy, 219 for Nixon. But if Texas’s 24 votes and Illinois’s 27 had gone to Nixon he would have won. Kennedy carried Illinois by only 8,858 votes, though he swept Mayor Daley’s Cook County where election rigging was a way of life. A later unofficial recount in 699 of the county’s 5,199 precincts turned up a gain of 4,539 votes for Nixon, enough to have won the state. But the Daley machine blocked any official recount. When Kennedy called Daley on election night, the mayor told him, “With a little bit of luck and the help of a few close friends, you’re going to carry Illinois.”6

That same night, Lyndon Johnson told Kennedy over the telephone that Texas was “close but safe.” Kennedy carried the state by 46,242 votes and a shift of fewer than 25,000 votes would have elected Nixon. Old Texas political observers always believed that a fair count would have given Nixon that majority. Johnson, with his long experience of ballot juggling, was not one to suffer such political embarrassment in his home state. According to G. Robert Blakey, a former Justice Department attorney under Robert Kennedy, and later chief counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, of some 100,000 Texas big-city votes disqualified by the state voting commission, the overwhelming majority had been for Nixon. Blakey concluded that, “thanks to massive vote stealing in Illinois and Texas…the Kennedy-Johnson ticket eked out its razor-thin margin of victory.”7

Though there can never be complete certainty, the odds are that in an honest election Nixon would have won. He could have protested the results but chose not to, saying he did not want another Hayes–Tilden controversy. It was one of his more creditable moments. Ironically the election was to prove a tragedy for both candidates, leading the winner to that fateful day in Dallas and the loser to a belated vindication that would end in his political and moral destruction.


Did Nixon Beat Kennedy? November 10, 1988

It Rhymes with Fitz October 8, 1987

JFK’s Triumph October 8, 1987

  1. 3

    Richard Whelan, The Founding Father (New American Library, 1964), p. 68.

  2. 4

    McGraw-Hill, 1984, p. 56.

  3. 5

    The quotations from Costello and Giancana are from Dynasty and Disaster, p. 57.

  4. 6

    Ben Bradlee, Conversations with Kennedy (Norton, 1984), p. 33.

  5. 7

    Davis, Dynasty and Disaster, p. 307.

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