Joseph Kennedy
Joseph Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

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.

“Sell ’em Ben” Smith and other raiding bears were called—with Richard Whitney, John J. Raskob, Charles E. Mitchell, J. P. Morgan, Jr., the midget, all the bullish crew—to account for their activities to the Senate Banking and Commerce Committee, but not Kennedy. “Although he was as culpable as many,” observes Mr. Whalen at his most alert. His strenuous campaigning for Roosevelt had recreated Joe Kennedy in a fresh image, pristinely detached from the funny business on Wall Street. In 1936, in a campaign document. I’m for Roosevelt, he was to write of the hearings in retrospect and no slight sense of outrage. The “amazing revelations…involved practically all the financial community in practices which, to say the least, were highly unethical. The belief that [they] were motivated by ideals of honorable conduct was completely shattered”: thus Joseph P. Kennedy. And yet, and yet…only three years before, in 1933, the author had been anticipating the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and the renaissance of the liquor business. With his new good friend Jimmy Roosevelt he sailed to England where the distillers of Haig & Haig, Dewar’s, Gordon’s Gin, delighted to know a friend of the son of the President, clasped Kennedy to their bosom as sole US distributor of their profitable fluids. And with a lesser acquaintance, Henry Day, Kennedy found a good thing in the manufacture of bottle glass, or the illusion thereof. Day’s reputation was not nice; he had been in the oil business with Harry S. Sinclair of Teapot Dome, and neither a jail term nor the passage of years had greatly chastened him: he was a manager of stock pools. Day’s plan for the Booze Boom was to sucker small investors into a market rigged for the sale of the stock of an obscure manufacturer of plate glass, Libby Owens Ford. It was easily confused with Owens Illinois Glass, which honestly did make bottles suitable for booze. Such a stunt did not escape the chief investigator of the Senate committee, Ferdinand J. Pecora, who asked: Who is this mysterious Joseph P. Kennedy? “A capitalist” replied Day In the witness chair. “My understanding of a capitalist is somebody who has considerable funds and does not have to work.”

The next year a sad surprise was in store for Pecora. Not unreasonably, he aspired to the chairmanship of the immensely powerful Securities and Exchange Commission that had been set up as the result of his immense investigative labor. All that work, and who got the plum? The mysterious capitalist who did not have to work. For months Pecora had had Kennedy’s market manipulations under sharp review. Well, that was the game—find a good robber and make him the cop. To pacify Business, Roosevelt badly needed a Conservative to preside over the four “rabid New Dealers” who might otherwise run amok in this unprecedented experiment in government control. “The days of manipulation are in the past now,” Chairman Kennedy announced to the press; meanwhile Ferdinand Pecora was to serve under him as the junior member of the Commission. “Ferdie took it pretty well.” said Jim Farley, who broke him the news.

In Roosevelt’s presence, Raymond Moley asked the Chairman if there was anything in his career that could be used to embarrass the President. Kennedy exploded, and in profane indignation he defied his critics to prove one shady act; he vowed the SEC an administration the country would be proud of. With a diligent and intelligent staff (one of the young lawyers said, “If you ask me, sir, the average small investor is a greedy son of a bitch”), and Kennedy giving full loyalty and energies to the job, he fulfilled his vow in 431 days. He was Roosevelt’s outspoken Right Wing, a welcome foil to the yes-men in the White House. Mrs. Roosevelt said, “I want you to go right on telling Franklin exactly what you think.” Suspicious New Dealers (but never Ickes, who would not have trusted him at the end of a rope) were seduced by his bluff and smiling ways. “Why the hell do you fellows hate me?” he said, and after that how could they?

That smiling, ebullient charmer; the fiery Irish, I’ll-say-what-I-Goddamplease Joe Kennedy bantering with reporters on the He de France: the jovial businessman envoy who would not wear the knee breeches (“Not Mrs. Kennedy’s little boy”) traditional to the British Court (the ‘kidding” back home would “ruin” him) was a front. Mr. Whalen has partially penetrated it, by emphasizing the bearishness of his man. The strain was central to a complex, passionate nature driven under harsh disciplines after some imperial conception of self, some manifest destiny of ego. Bearishness, a negative force on Wall Street, implies as well a defensive quality. The compulsion of the bear is to protect his own against disasters that threaten on every hand. In the vernacular of Boston, a nameless “observer” gave Mr. Whalen a rare insight: “Joe Kennedy had a hot heart and a cold head. That’s what made the steam in him.” Of necessity it was a one-man operation.

The wisdom of the bear is compounded of congenital distrust and fathomless pessimism. The propensities which served Kennedy well in the realm of finance in politics were his undoing. If he had dreams of the Presidency, they never survived the Ambassadorship. His jaunty arrival in London finished in debacle. His rapport with Chamberlain—a Birmingham industrialist, descendant of tradesmen, gifted Chancellor of the Exchequer: for Hitler the epitome of a Nation of Shopkeepers—was all but idyllic. (“Why, Franklin himself isn’t as confidential with me.” There was an unwitting wisdom in the words.) The Ambassador was at home with the great financiers of the City, at Clivedon, most anywhere people had the bearish view of Hitler: appease, be sensible; Europe can’t survive a war; business can’t survive a war. Through the Anschluss, Munich, the guarantee of Poland, through dreams of Peace in our Time, and of a Nazi Bolshevik war of double suicide, he stood with Chamberlain. On September 3, 1939, when Great Britain declared war, he freely wept at the Prime Minister’s message: “…everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed in ruins.” The hot heart overcame the cold head for once. “It’s the end of the world…” he told Roosevelt on the telephone, over and over. The President could not soothe him; the dauntless optimist could not prevail over a temper black as the Valley of the Shadow, and the mutually beneficial alliance began to fray. “I can’t go against the guy,” he said. “He’s done more for me than my own kind.” He stood by his benefactor for one last test, then resigned quietly and bitterly, and without so much as a “Dear Joe” letter from Franklin for his pains.

A private citizen again, he commenced to speak his mind, and indeed so lucidly that his sons, as liberal Democrats, are dogged by his utterances to this day. A group of Jewish movie makers were counseled against denouncing Nazi Germany openly, lest people get the impression this was a “Jewish War.” Louis Lyons of the Boston Globe was told in an interview that Democracy was “all done” in England and would be so here as well if we got into the war. Lyons’s story broke on a Sunday, as fate would have it, the day Neville Chamberlain died; its repercussions on Right and Left, foreign and domestic, were “quite enough to demolish Kennedy’s reputation.” He departed from public life, his name anathema to interventionists, liberals, leftists, from Joseph Alsop to Joe Curran. The day of Pearl Harbor he immediately offered himself to Roosevelt, but nothing came of it; there was too much animosity against him in the Cabinet and liberal press. He went back to making money (oil wells, real estate) and he reared his family.

A virtue of Mr. Whalen’s book is that superficially, but with little of the treacle which the subject usually evokes, and in a year which hails Edward Albee as its foremost delineator of American Family Life, it presents Joseph Kennedy as the sympathetic patriarch of a family whose cohesiveness seems downright medieval. It has been conjectured that all Kennedy’s acts, his success and his blunders, were motivated by a fiercely protective love of family. Is that what underlay all the brashness and loud pessimism? In every crisis, unfailingly his public statements made mention of his children. In the Depression years he had morbid fears of revolution; he would gladly surrender half his wealth, he said, to be sure that his children might safely have the rest. He was an isolationist to a degree that he had rather be wildly damned for an anti-British, Jew-baiting, Germanophilic ogre than jeopardize his children’s future in a war which would destroy the economy.

Instead, the war took from him his first and favored son, and, as the unforseen consequence of a wartime marriage, his beloved daughter. The same war, far from laying waste to Private Enterprise, boomed it and helped make Kennedy one of the world’s richest men—a far remove from the early Dreiseresque chapter in which Mr. Whalen describes the agony of Boston’s first Irish immigrants, their unconscionable exploitation by the Yankees. But other writers have looked more deeply into this last and found affinities between the harsh Calvinist soul of the first Bostonians and that of the later settlers who brought from Ireland a bleak, uniquely puritanical strain of Catholicism (which theologians have traced to Cromwell’s time and the exposure of exiled Irish priests to the heresy of Jansenism). For these poor Irishmen Boston, “cold and drear, the three hilled city of the Puritans,” was not so forbidding a refuge as it had been say, for the Quakers. In the hard climate of their spirit, where poverty and suffering were virtuous, and false assumptions about the perfectibility of man were the devil’s work, these immigrants enjoyed a perverse compatability with the ghosts of the departed Puritans. In this environment, where love of family flourished and with it the instinct to acquire and pass on property to the son, we draw near the psychic root of conservatism, with all its possibilities and perils. The climate is all repression here, as in the New England insurance industry; one inhabits the region distrustfully, defensively, where disaster threatens on every hand.

In Joseph Kennedy’s lifetime a quiet revolution has taken place in Massachusetts. The descendants of the recent immigrants have overwhelmed the WASP on his ancestor’s soil. But to outnumber the WASP is not to vanquish him, nor outmaneuver him; when the old majority becomes a new minority on his home ground, something new and prophetic has happened. The melting pot has melted very little; religious and “ethnic” identities may grow or shrink, they do not dissolve. A supreme politician in the Kennedy camp spoke this indisputable truth about Boston: “The voting blocs are like rocks grinding on each other. We [the Irish] are the big rock now and the Italians are grinding on us. But people never change. We ground the Yankees down, but you won’t see Teddy getting elected to the Somerset Club.”

Joseph Kennedy contended with this knowledge all his life—ingratiating himself with WASPs; introducing himself to the Prince of Wales on the glorious pretense that they had actually met before at “Bayard Tuckerman’s reception at the Myopia Hunt Club” (“Wasn’t that a grand party?”); seeing his wife and daughters bitchily snubbed by the ladies of proper Boston. Often he reacted—getting mad when Football Coach Harlow did not give Joe Jr. his “H”; getting mad because Charles Francis Adams of the Harvard Corporation determined that an ambassadorship was not of itself sufficient qualification for an Honorary Degree. His sons, “acculturating” in OK Episcopalian boarding schools, in not quite top drawer Harvard clubs, had it easier; still they must have been as acutely aware as a John O’Hara hero that for all their courage, energy, and shy, WASP-oriented charm, there was one impotent little world they would not make, that they were, as certain genteel ladies of the Eastern Seaboard say, NQOCD (“Not quite our class, dear”). The wonder of the Kennedys is not that they rose above that nastiness but that they created an OCD of their own, out of greater wealth and power than the old Adams “dynasty” would have dreamed of. Don’t get mad, get even.

Grievously absent from this book is a serious attempt to explain the triumphant fatherhood of Joseph Kennedy. How did he do it? To say “with his money” or “by driving his kids” is simple-minded. Our society, in which any boy is as good as any other boy, has never lacked for ruined progeny of the ascendant rich and mighty who had intended their boy to amount to something bigger still. The wonder is that not one of Joe Kennedy’s boys turned out a wreck; each one was able, in a fetching phrase of the family, to “go far.” What was the intangible which Kennedy gave his sons? Sheer love of family? The admirable balance between reproof and reward? The competitive disciplines of youth?—infusing moxie into the Episcopalian schoolboy game of touch football? Into the impeccably Bostonian sport of sailboat racing? (And none of that malarkey about “It matters not to win or…” The missing verb does not exist in this lexicon. Not even the Bay of Pigs was a defeat. For Joe Kennedy, it was the fault of CIA. “I know that outfit and I wouldn’t pay them a hundred bucks.”) Every parent is of course an embarrassment to his children. Was this father more of a trial than most? Mr. Whalen answers none of these questions but the last. The most starting but curiously moving of the anecdotes he has assembled was told by a distinguished Boston lawyer who has championed liberal causes since the Sacco-Vanzetti trials. In 1952 this lawyer won the support of hitherto distrustful labor unions and the ADA for Jack Kennedy as the liberal candidate for the Senate against Henry Cabot Lodge. Believing the candidate should, accordingly, take a liberal stand, he prepared a newspaper ad: COMMUNISM AND MCCARTHY: BOTH WRONG. Joe Kennedy’s rage was such that others in the room feared he would physically assault the lawyer. “You’re trying to ruin Jack. You and your sheeny friends are trying to ruin my son’s career,” he bellowed on and on “…you and your sheeny friends.” The next day Jack Kennedy tried to placate the insulted man. “How do you explain your father?” the lawyer asked. “I guess there isn’t a motive in it which I think you’d respect,” said Jack, “except love of family…And more often than not, I think that’s just pride.”

These proud men inhabit an overworld where grief is born in silence and all rivers flow in one direction—to “where the power is.” Power. Getting, losing, getting back Power. The power of Power. Power, the ultima ratio mundi. The difficulty with a consuming passion is that it can consume itself and its energies be lost for us. Power is an instrument of Government, but it is not Government; no more than personal magnetism and a lust to win are “Leadership.” The murdered President by the fact of his martyrdom did more to get a torpid nation “moving again” than was possible while he, his mythic virility, and electric presence were with us. One day his brothers in New York and Massachusetts, maneuvering to recapture the castle, having merged the Empire State with the Bay State in a new Power Base, may face the same problem. An exasperating riddle of ends and means: all the fighting, the driving will, the ego—what will they avail? And whom?

This Issue

March 25, 1965