Columbia Point, that spit of land—once a dump—extending out into Dorchester Bay, contains an old sewage pumping station, the new overextended brick bulk of Boston’s University of Massachusetts, an ill-considered public housing project now in the process of demolition, and at the point’s very tip the Kennedy Museum and Library. Seen from the mid-distance of the Fitzgerald Expressway the museum’s confluence of gleaming white cubes and curves and dark glass set against the background of Boston Harbor is haunting. If one did not know what it was, one would want to stop to find out.
On a snow-littered spring morning I stand in the museum’s atrium, its skeletal eight stories soaring up like a glass cathedral, encompassed on three sides by the sea. Ahead of me, almost at my feet, Boston Harbor with its islands, one of the world’s loveliest approaches. Across the bay to the left the South Boston three-decker houses, masked by distance, intriguing as a toy town. Herring gulls, cormorants, a freighter moving out behind Spectacle Island, under the great arch of the sky. Here the pull of the Kennedy saga becomes almost tangible. The myth is here too, artfully contrived. As I walk through the museum my mind keeps going back to the mausoleum in Red Square, the echoing stairways, the empty passages, and finally at the core the wax simulacre of the man who shook the world. Here at Columbia Point the stairway, the passages with pointing arrows, and at the core a re-creation of the White House Oval Office just as it was on that fateful November 22, 1963.
Beyond the myth one fixes on the dynastic tragedy of the Kennedys, tragedy in the ineluctable sense. Fate: the father in his blinkered inexorable quest for power, for the royal equivalent. The hubris of power attained. Nemesis: four children of great promise to die violently. And at the drama’s close a spent old man, bereft of movement, bereft of speech, waiting for the end. The tale is, indeed, as Doris Goodwin writes, one “repeated in three generations, of great achievements followed by decline and failure—self-inflicted or at the hands of a merciless fate.”
Tourists trek to the museum as if it were a shrine. The legend persists. Boylston Street, which runs from Harvard Square to the stadium, has just become JFK Street. There is even an annual Kennedy picture calendar. Books proliferate. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys is one of the longest, its 932 pages stopping short at Jack Kennedy’s inauguration. An immediate best seller, it may well prove to be the most widely read of the Kennedy books. According to Doris Goodwin it took her ten years to write. Minutely researched, with sources unavailable to earlier biographers, her book is a labor of love. And that is its flaw. During the years Mrs. Goodwin was working on it, Peter Collier and David Horowitz were finishing their own book on the Kennedys.1 Shortly after they began their researches they learned of this other multigenerational biography already underway. They thought it no hindrance, for the Kennedy landscape seemed wide enough to encompass both books. But when they turned to the Kennedy family for cooperation they were turned down. The predetermined choice, they discovered, was Doris Kearns Goodwin. “You’ve got to understand their reasoning,” Jean Kennedy’s son Stevie Smith told a friend who had intervened on behalf of Collier and Horowitz. “They think of this historian [Mrs. Goodwin] as one of their pocket-people, whom they feel they can count on.”
Richard Goodwin, a brilliant young lawyer—first in his class at Harvard Law School—was a speech writer and strategist in Jack’s 1960 presidential campaign. He gave the name Mongoose to the secret anti-Castro operations organized after the Bay of Pigs. In 1968 he was one of those who urged Ted Kennedy to make a bid for the presidential nomination, and a year later, after Ted’s mishap at the Chappaquiddick bridge when the young woman with him was drowned, Goodwin was among those sent for to help concoct Ted’s television apologia. He married Doris Kearns in 1975, and, according to her, he “conceived the idea for this book a decade ago.”
The Goodwins and the Kennedys remained close. When in 1979 Ted finally declared himself a candidate, Mrs. Goodwin traveled with him at times to help with his speeches. While writing her book she spent a week at Palm Beach talking with Rose Kennedy. As a friend of the family she was invited to Caroline’s wedding.
That bizarre Boston politico Clem Norton—the original of Edwin O’Connor’s Hennessey in The Last Hurrah—advised a historian of one of the more sensational Massachusetts cases: “Don’t get too close.” It is a dilemma that confronts biographers such as Mrs. Goodwin. If one holds oneself apart, one is kept from access to many sources. If one gets too close one is inhibited, sometimes unconsciously, in what one can say. Well aware of this, Mrs. Goodwin makes her own disclaimer. “As the years grew,” she writes, “I felt an overriding responsibility to the book and to the craft of an honest historian, and that helped me to be as honest as I could.”
In the Kennedy Library Mrs. Goodwin discovered over 150 cartons of assorted Kennedy documents that had been moved from the attic of the Hyannis Port house. To these papers Ted Kennedy gave her unrestricted access. Within thousands of manila envelopes were letters, diaries, scrapbooks, notes, newspaper clippings, dance cards, photographs, memos, canceled checks, tax returns. To read and catalog this haphazard collection took her the better part of three years. Most of what she uncovered had never been seen by researchers and scholars. This in itself gives her book a unique status.
Yet I am somehow reminded of a brief by a skilled and conscientious lawyer that deals with awkward facts by placing the most elastic interpretation on them. What, one asks, does The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys add to the books already written about this dynastic family? I think that more than anything else it expands the background of known events and episodes by filling in with unknown, often telling, and sometimes poignant details. For example, Mrs. Goodwin gives the first full account of the Kennedy’s retarded daughter Rosemary and her medical treatment.
The Fitzgerald chronicle, chiefly of Rose Kennedy’s father John Fitzgerald—known more familiarly as Honey Fitz—occupies the first and fresher third of Mrs. Goodwin’s book. About him, Mrs. Goodwin tends at times to lapse into the idiom of a Horatio Alger story:
At the age of fourteen, Johnny was full of the most unshakeable self-confidence. He was a sturdy youth, courageous and defiant, a bright boy with a bright face, a ruddy complexion and clear blue eyes. He had a curious, receptive mind and was forever asking questions with an intense desire for an intelligent reply. The world seemed an exciting place where something interesting was always happening to him.
From newsboy to ward heeler to boss of his native North End, that was Johnny’s progression. In the days before the welfare state, ward bosses, as Mrs. Goodwin points out, formed a shadow government. One of the best of them, Martin Lomasney, known as the Ward Eight Mahatma, explained their function:
Is somebody out of a job? We do our best to place him and not necessarily on the public payroll. Does the family run in arrears with the landlord or the butcher? We lend a helping hand. Do the kids need shoes or clothing, or the mother a doctor? We do what we can, and since, as the world is run, such things must be done, we keep old friends and make new ones.2
Fitzgerald made the North End his fief where even the dead rose annually from their graves to vote for him. Fitzblarney or the North End Napoleon, he was sometimes called until he got the name Honey Fitz through singing “Sweet Adeline” at public and private events, open-air rallies, everywhere in fact except at funerals.
Twice elected mayor, he was one of the most flamboyant characters yet to appear on the Boston political scene. The city in those pre–World War days had never seen anything like his whirlwind campaigns. He invented the motor cavalcade, speeding from rally to rally with flaring torches in a fire-engine-red touring car and followed by what he called his lancers. In his two terms as mayor he built a city hall annex, schools, a zoo, an aquarium, parks, municipal buildings, a multitude of public lavatories. And from whatever was built, he took his cut. “Burglars in the House,” John Cutler called his chapter on the mayor’s first term in “Honey Fitz“, perhaps the best account of Boston’s ward and city politics of that era.
In his first term Honey Fitz is estimated to have attended 1,200 dinners, 1,500 dances, 200 picnics, 1,000 meetings, made 3,000 speeches, and danced with 500 girls. He was, in the lingo of the day, a skirt chaser. On one of his tours north of Boston he happened on Elizabeth “Toodles” Ryan, an overbosomed hostess and entertainer at the Ferncroft Inn, in Mrs. Goodwin’s words, “a triumphantly beautiful woman,” and about the age of his daughter Rose. From that happening they grew intimate. They were spotted together so often in places like the Edwardian Woodcock Hotel that it gave rise among local pols to the jingle,
A whiskey glass
And Toodle’s ass
Made a horse’s ass
Of Honey Fitz.
After Honey Fitz announced that he would run for a third term, his upstart rival, the rising James Michael Curley, let it be known that he would shortly give three public lectures, the first on “Graft in Ancient Times versus Graft in Modern Times,” the second on “Great Lovers from Cleopatra to Toodles.” Before Curley could deliver his second lecture, Honey Fitz withdrew from the race “because of ill health.” Mrs. Goodwin holds that Honey Fitz’s encounter with Toodles was innocent enough, or almost so, a casual meeting on a convivial evening, a few kisses openly exchanged. Nothing more. She does not mention the jingle and she accepts the alibi of Honey Fitz’s illness. Without the Toodles threat, the resourceful Curley could probably have beaten Honey Fitz in any case.
But from then on Honey Fitz’s career slowly declined. He never held office again. He did live long enough to see Curley dead and to clamber on a table to sing “Sweet Adeline” after his grandson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been elected to Congress. That Honey Fitz, if he had not been undercut by the Toodles scandal, had the potential of becoming a national political figure, as Mrs. Goodwin claims, is simply not so. Essentially he was a mountebank, a shrewd, obstreperous local politician. “Sweet Adeline” was not only his theme song but his swan song.
If the story of Honey Fitz seems to come from an off-color version of Horatio Alger, Joseph Kennedy’s was straight out of Balzac. I picture him as a student crossing on the penny ferry each morning from East Boston on his way to the Boston Latin School, a young Rastignac viewing the city with its gold-domed State House as a rich hive from which he was resolved one day to extract the honey. He was a mediocre student—in fact he had to repeat a year—but he was captain of the baseball team and colonel of the school cadets, the latter appointment, although Mrs. Goodwin does not say so, arranged by his father, the boss of East Boston and one of the four Boston bosses known as mayor makers. Golden threads ran from the political bosses to more proper Bostonian offices and banks and stores and industries. Favors demanded. Favors returned. When Joe was at Harvard his father’s long arm reached out again to see that he, as a part-time substitute in his senior year, received his baseball letter, awarded only to those who played in the Yale game. A few days before the game a stranger approached the Harvard captain to let him know that if he wanted the license he had applied for to run a movie theater, he had better see to it that Kennedy got his letter. Substitute Joe was sent into the game in the last inning.
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.
April 23, 1987
The Kennedys (Summit Books, 1984). ↩
See John Cutler’s “Honey Fitz”: Three Steps to the White House (Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), p. 46. ↩
Richard Whelan, The Founding Father (New American Library, 1964), p. 68. ↩
McGraw-Hill, 1984, p. 56. ↩
The quotations from Costello and Giancana are from Dynasty and Disaster, p. 57. ↩
Ben Bradlee, Conversations with Kennedy (Norton, 1984), p. 33. ↩
Davis, Dynasty and Disaster, p. 307. ↩