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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.