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Big Daddy

Joseph Kennedy lived an ironic life. Were it not for the political celebrity of his sons, he would long ago have sunk into the tenebrous depths where other speculators and moguls of the 1920s and 1930s lie. But were it not for his money and insatiable ambition, they would have led longer and more tranquil lives. And we would be deprived of the political dynasty that—in a particularly American combination of money, power, and glamour—provides us with the royal family many of us secretly yearn for.

Kennedy wanted power and could, because of his character flaws, grasp it only through his sons as surrogates. They, in trying to please him, could succeed only by detaching themselves from his tarnished reputation. The man who had so brilliantly manipulated the techniques of self-promotion could help his sons, and achieve through them his own ambition, only by self-denial. The assertion of the self ultimately depended on the public denial of the self. It was all very ironic.

Yet the life he lived, as distinct from the even grander one to which he aspired, was interesting and even dramatic. It has been recounted many times, either in itself or as part of the saga of the children he sired.1 His is an inspirational story, of sorts, that would take Orson Welles to do it full justice. Rosebuds lie strewn around everywhere. Like William Randolph Hearst, whom he used and courted, Joseph Kennedy made a fortune by playing with other men’s dreams; he used that fortune in a quixotic attempt to be elected to public office, sought immortality by buying what he craved, was defeated by his own distemper, and ended his days imprisoned in a gilded Xanadu.

The descendants of this man have multiplied greatly, and seem likely to populate our political and social culture for decades to come. Scores of books about them are published every year and, as Amanda Smith notes in her carefully edited volume of her grandfather’s letters, it is estimated that “the family that Joseph Kennedy generated has itself generated more words than anyone or any phenomenon besides Christ and the War Between the States.”2 One can easily believe it. As is the case for those other subjects, the appetite for more seems insatiable.

Why this should be so is one of the more interesting aspects of the Kennedy phenomenon, or more precisely the Kennedy industry. It rests not on the fact that the family is rich and has placed some of its members in high public office. One could say that of the Bush clan. One critical difference is that the Kennedys, thanks to Joe, mastered show business and used it to promote whatever they were selling—stocks, bonds, movies, or themselves.

Seizing in the 1920s and 1930s on the infant industry of public relations, Joe used it to drive the stocks he was manipulating on Wall Street up or down, then to sell the formulaic movies he produced in Hollywood, later to refashion (with only partial success) his public image from that of corporate raider to statesman, and finally to capture for his progeny the political power and legitimacy he could not grasp for himself.

Although Smith has done a superb job of unearthing and editing an enormous amount of material, this collection is frustrating because Kennedy was so adept at covering his tracks. The earliest documentary material dates from his late twenties, when he was an assistant manager of a shipyard during World War I. There is virtually nothing in his own files, she reports, about his more controversial activities, such as his manipulation of Yellow Cab Company stock in 1924 or his involvement in the illicit liquor business during Prohibition. In the most important cases his machinations had to be pieced together from later interviews, independent documents, or the recollections of others.

It is a tribute to her skill that, in her notes and in her illuminating introductions to each chronological section, Smith has sketched at least the outlines of the more complex picture that is the work of biography. These seven-hundred-odd pages of documents and notes are, as she says, “less an attemptto account for the life as a whole… than…an attempt to reconstruct the existing documentary record of that life from within.” But they provide a window into the carefully guarded fortress that was Joseph Kennedy’s life.

Kennedy’s is not quite the rags-to-riches story that folklore would have us believe. Rather it was one of moving from lace-curtain to high society in two generations. Kennedy’s father, an amiable saloonkeeper who became a wholesale liquor distributor and state legislator, sent him to Boston Latin, a prestigious public school, and then to Harvard. There Joe worked his way up the social ladder, establishing friendships with the swells, but not quite making it into their clubs. Shortly out of college he snagged the daughter of the mayor of Boston and, while still in his twenties, was made president of a bank his father had helped found.

Dodging the draft by pulling strings in Washington, he sat out World War I in Boston and then joined an investment banking firm. There he attached himself to an older mentor—a technique he would use later with financiers like Bernard Baruch—and learned the skills of the speculator. In 1922, on the basis of insider information, Doris Kearns Goodwin relates in her book on the family, he borrowed $24,000 to invest on margin in a firm engaged in secret merger talks with the Ford Motor Company. When the deal ultimately went through the thirty-year-old speculator pocketed a cool $675,000—a fortune at the time. As is the case with many other such dubious operations, he left no paper trail in his correspondence.3

As Kennedy grew richer, more ambitious, and adept at using others for his purposes, his methods became more sophisticated. He courted and flattered powerful older men, gave money to useful causes, befriended journalists (a technique he passed on to his sons) and put some on his payroll, provided services to well-placed politicians, and hired publicists to keep his name on the front pages. Mastering the new art of promotion and image-making he had learned in the movie business, he harnessed them to his financial dealings and political ambitions.

Sizing up earlier than others the potential of the nascent film industry, he negotiated a set of bold deals and mergers that made him a major player both in Hollywood and New York. Learning from the movie trade even as he grew richer on it, he used image-makers to enhance his own star power, paid writers to make flattering references to him in their articles, used celebrities to promote his various businesses and generate publicity, and hired a clipping service to track articles referring to him. He became a master of spin. As he told his son Bobby in 1955, “Things don’t happen, they are made to happen in the public relations field.”

Even while dealing in Hollywood and on Wall Street, he kept his hand in the liquor business. Although nothing about these activities appears in the correspondence, it is well known that he supplied liquor for the twentieth reunion of his Harvard class in 1932, when Prohibition was in effect. The following year, with repeal imminent, he went to England with the President’s son, James Roosevelt, and locked up American distribution rights for leading brands of Scotch and gin. On the day that the last necessary state ratified the repeal amendment, he was ready with thousands of cases of liquor brought into the country for “medicinal purposes.” He never missed a trick.

Bringing the young Roosevelt into his business deals was just one of the ways that Kennedy tried to ingratiate himself with the new President. He gave generously to the 1932 campaign, helped persuade Hearst to back FDR in his newspapers, and made himself useful both financially and as a link to conservative Catholic voters. Once FDR was elected he worked as a member of the President’s entourage. Shortly after the inauguration he approached Raymond Moley, a Columbia professor who had become a key adviser to Roosevelt. Suggesting that a man of Moley’s caliber could not live comfortably on a government salary, Kennedy unsuccessfully offered to slip him money on the side. What he wanted from Moley was support for his ambition to be named secretary of the treasury.

He also tried the direct approach of simple flattery. During FDR’s inauguration Kennedy wired the President that at his daughter’s school he observed that “the nuns were praying for you,” and that one of them had declared that “since your inauguration peace seemed to come on the earth; in fact it seemed like another resurrection.” An evasive FDR, perhaps recalling what had immediately preceded the resurrection, thanked Ken-nedy for his “awfully nice telegram” and suggested that he “let us know when you are going through Washington and stop off and see us.”

His hopes for a cabinet position blocked by his nemesis Henry Morgenthau, who got the job, Kennedy went back to Wall Street. There he joined a pool of insiders promoting the stock of Libbey-Owens-Ford in order to sell it short when suckers jumped for the bait. This was precisely the kind of manipulation FDR had pledged to outlaw. Unsurprisingly, accounts of this maneuver do not turn up in Kennedy’s correspondence, but they surfaced during a Senate committee’s investigation of such shady practices.

Ultimately Kennedy wore FDR down. Despite the opposition of key advisers, the President decided, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, that it would be better to have Kennedy inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. In 1934 FDR put him on the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission, and he took over as chairman. To put a notorious Wall Street speculator in charge of regulating the stock exchanges was a bit perverse even for FDR. The President dismissed protests from reformers with a wink. “Set a thief to catch a thief,” he retorted. He was betting that Kennedy, having made his fortune, would now try to clean up his reputation. He was right. When Joe stepped down a year later he was credited with being fair and effective.

While much of the applause was real, it was not all spontaneous. Kennedy was not the kind of man to wait demurely in the wings for his bows. He tirelessly cultivated anyone he thought could be of use, bombarding them with flattery, invitations, gossip, and inside dope. His list included the pundits Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop; publishers Henry Luce, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Cissy Patterson, William McCormick, and Lord Beaverbrook; journalists Arthur Krock and Herbert Bayard Swope; and gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell. He impressed this technique on his sons as they moved into politics. “I would suggest,” he wrote Jack in 1952 on his first run for Congress, “that from now on you write a personal note to any magazine or newspaper making a kind reference to you.”

  1. 1

    Among the more notable accounts are: Richard J. Whalen, The Founding Father (New American Library, 1964); Michael R. Beschloss, Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance (Norton, 1980); and Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (Simon and Schuster, 1986).

  2. 2

    And the tide rolls forever on. Being published this fall is The Kennedy Men, 1901–1963, by Lawrence Leamer (Morrow), who earlier gave The Kennedy Women (Villard, 1994) the star treatment that the subject invites. Here, with plenty of stories about President Kennedy’s sexual adventures and medical problems, he portrays the triumphs and tragedies of the male side of the family melodrama with appropriate flair.

  3. 3

    Goodwin, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, pp. 327–329.

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