Joseph and Rose Kennedy
Joseph and Rose Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

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.”

Kennedy’s image-building efforts paid off in the form of admiring profiles in mass-circulation magazines, including a cover story in Luce’s Time. But the proper image required constant surveillance. When Fortune in 1937 was preparing a cover story about him, Kennedy insisted on the right to review the article before publication. Enraged by what he considered an unflattering portrait, he accused the writer of harboring either “ingrained hatred of the Irish, or a resentment against me personally.” The cowed editor capitulated by killing the draft and assigning a different writer to do a new profile.

What is interesting about Kennedy’s twelve-page letter of complaint is not so much his bluster, but his use of his ethnicity to embarrass and intimidate critics. Conveniently he could believe, or at least charge, that any criticism was rooted in ethnic prejudice against Irish Catholics. He was hypersensitive about being Irish, vaunting it proudly when it suited his purposes, and being embarrassed by it when it seemed to impede his social ambitions.

This was evident, as Goodwin writes, in a curious speech he made in 1937 at the annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner of the Irish Social Club in Boston. At an occasion at which boilerplate self-congratulation was expected, Kennedy berated his astonished audience by charging that too many Boston Irish suffered from “not possessing family traditions adequate to win the respect and confidence of their Puritan neighbors.” When there was a chorus of complaints, Kennedy blamed the press for misrepresenting his position.

But Kennedy’s Irish background was one of the reasons why FDR in late 1937 chose him as ambassador to Britain: it helped deflect charges by isolationists—some of whom, like Charles Lindbergh and “radio priest” Charles Coughlin, were close to Kennedy—that Roosevelt might involve the US in an eventual European war in support of Britain. The fact that Kennedy was a Catholic and a conservative also helped the President with two restless elements of his coalition. Since Kennedy’s press contacts had promoted him as a possible presidential candidate for 1940, it was not a bad strat-egy to buy off a potential rival with a prestigious ambassadorship. And Kennedy was vain enough to find the offer irresistible.

For Joe it was his ultimate triumph over the Boston Brahmins who had refused to bring him into their social clubs. He was now supping with real aristocrats and savoring every moment. In his diaries and letters he gushes with accounts of the important people he met and who seemed interested in him. At one dinner party, he recorded, Mrs. Winston Churchill “told me her husband liked me very much and would see me any time that I cared to see him.” Because he was an amateur he imagined that people were interested in him for who he was rather than for what he represented. For all his toughness he was an American innocent at King Arthur’s court. In later years the photographs on view in his houses in Palm Beach and Hyannis Port were almost exclusively of people he had met in England, whether he agreed with or even liked them.

The problem for FDR, however, was not Kennedy’s awe, but what Smith describes as his “diminishing ability to prevent his own convictions from coloring his reporting of events.” He became a cheerleader for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement of the expansionist Nazi regime in Germany. He argued, both to the State Department and to the opinion-makers in the US who received identical copies of his dispatches from London, that Britain could not hope to stand up to German military power and that therefore it should try to work out a deal with Hitler. This was, of course, the line he was being fed by Lindbergh and other isolationists.

Kennedy was an appeaser not so much because he admired Hitler, though he seemed to have little quarrel with him, as because he would do almost anything to avoid war. He saw it in personal financial terms because he feared that it would mean the end of capitalism and of people like himself. It might put an end to his plans for his sons. “I hate to think,” he wrote his father-in-law revealingly, “how much money I would give up rather than sacrifice Joe and Jack in a war.”

Always identifying his private interest with his nation’s welfare, he used his office to promote his own views. For a time he had some latitude to do this because FDR was under attackby isolationists at home for straying from neutrality. Thus Kennedy had some room for maneuvering. In March 1938, for example, shortly after Hitler marched his armies into Austria, Kennedy warned an Anglo-American friendship society that it would be a “dangerous misapprehension” to assume that the US would stray from neutrality should Britain be involved in war. Six months later, after Chamberlain’s sell-out of Czechoslovakia at Munich, he told the Navy League that it would be “unproductive” for “democratic and dictator countries to widen the division now existing between them by emphasizing their differences.”

Such pronouncements made him a welcome and useful guest of the “Cliveden set” of British aristocrats eager to work out a deal with Nazi Germany. But his freelancing compromised FDR’s devious efforts to bring the US into what would become a tacit alliance with Britain. Increasingly, the President circumvented Kennedy with special envoys like Sumner Welles. Roosevelt had tried to use Kennedy to disarm the isolationists, just as Kennedy had tried to use FDR to promote his own interests. But the marriage of convenience was doomed to fail, as Michael Beschloss showed clearly twenty years ago in Kennedy and Roosevelt.

To explore the possibilities for appeasement, Kennedy in the summer of 1938 had several meetings with Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador in London. In his report to Berlin, von Dirksen quoted Kennedy as saying, “It was not that we [Germany] wanted to get rid of the Jews that was so harmful to us, but rather the loud clamor with which we accompanied this purpose.” Kennedy’s own solution for Germany’s “Jewish problem” was to resettle Jews in Africa. Little about this plan appears in his papers, but it was noted in the press at the time. Kennedy, however, did promote his efforts to evacuate from Barcelona a group of Sacred Heart nuns who were threatened during the Spanish Civil War. In his diary he notes that he alerted the press to their rescue because “I wanted to emphasize that the Jews from Germany and Austria are not the only refugees in the world.”

The ambassador’s own lack of diplomatic discretion inspired increasing criticism from those who were offended by his advocacy of appeasement and his ties with men like Lindbergh and Coughlin. His response was to blame leftists and what he called the “Jew influence in the papers in Washington.” Although Kennedy had carefully cultivated ties to prominent Jews like Felix Frankfurter and Bernard Baruch, he brandished the kind of ethnic stereotypes that he found so offensive when applied to the Irish.

He passed on his prejudices about Jews to at least one of his sons, Joseph Jr. In letters from Germany in the mid-1930s the aspiring young journalist reported to his father that the recently enacted sterilization law, “which I think is a great thing,” allows the Germans to “do away with many of the disgusting specimen of men which inhabit this earth.” As for racial legislation, he explained, “this dislike of the Jews, however was well founded,” and although some decent people might suffer, “it would be practically impossible to throw out only a part of them.” Joe Sr. replied that his son’s observations “show a very keen sense of perception, and I think your conclusions are very sound.” However he noted that it was “possible that Hit-ler went far beyond his necessary requirements in his attitude towards the Jews.”

Kennedy could never view Nazism in moral terms, and thus showed no signs of being offended by it. So long as it posed no threat to his financial interests—as communism did—he seemed un- disturbed by it. He was a perfect appeaser, but he remained in London at a time when appeasement was tested and found disastrously wanting. Although Roosevelt kept Kennedy at his post for two-and-a-half years, he had few illusions about his ambassador’s loyalties, and increasingly confined him to the sidelines. Kennedy was not invited to accompany the King and Queen of England on their tour of North America in the summer of 1939, and was never officially informed of FDR’s clandestine correspondence with Winston Churchill. The critical destroyer-bases deal of 1940, which made the US a virtual ally of Britain, was negotiated largely through the British embassy in Washington.

Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and Britain’s declaration of war made appeasement irrelevant. Feeling ignored and unappreciated, Kennedy returned to the US in October 1940. At that moment FDR was engaged in a hard reelection fight for an unprecedented third term. Much as he distrusted Kennedy, Roosevelt needed his help with conservative Catholic voters. With his usual guile and flattery, the President, a skilled and duplicitous diplomat, won his ambassador’s endorsement.

Kennedy, oblivious to the disrepute in which he was held in London, assumed that he would be rewarded with another high post. But he soon torpedoed his own chances with a notorious interview he gave to the Boston Globe. Never discreet, he inexplicably gave vent to all his frustrations and resentments. “I’m willing to spend all I’ve got left to keep us out of the war,” he said. “There’s no sense in our getting in. We’d just be holding the bag…. People call me a pessimist. I say, What is there to be gay about? Democracy is all done…. Democracy is finished in England. It may be here.” Warming to his subject, he went on to make personal comments, not always flattering, about the Queen and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Since he was still officially ambassador to Britain, his diatribe—which does not appear in this volume—made headlines around the world. It also marked the end of his government career. He was self-damaged goods. Characteristically he blamed not his own self-indulgent intemperance but the usual culprits: leftists and Jews.4

Compounding his provocations, a few days after the interview was published he went to Hollywood, where he addressed a group of film executives. According to the report of the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., he declared that

the Lindbergh appeasement groups were not so far off the mark when they suggest that this country can reconcile itself to whomever wins the war and…threw the fear of God into many of our producers and executives by telling them that the Jews were on the spot and they should stop making anti-Nazi pictures or using the film medium to promote or show sympathy to the cause of the democracies versus the dictators.

Denied the political rewards he sought, he became increasingly cranky and isolationist. He opposed the postwar loan to Britain and the Marshall Plan, and provided support for the demagogic activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy. His only hope for influence lay through his sons. When Joe Jr. was shot down over Germany during the war, he turned to Jack, orchestrating his campaign for Congress and the presidency.

“I got Jack into politics, I was the one,” he boasted to an interviewer. “I told him Joe was dead and that therefore it was his responsibility to run for Congress. He didn’t want to do it. He felt he didn’t have the ability and he still feels that way. But I told him he had to.” Responsibility to whom, one might ask. But one answer is obvious: to the father’s thwarted ambition.

John Adams said that he studied politics and war so that his sons could study philosophy and the arts. Joseph Kennedy started from one step further back. He studied money and celebrity so that his sons could study politics and war. In the end he got what he had wished for. One of his sons made it to the White House. But then he was murdered. So was another. A third, groomed for a life in politics, was killed in the war. One daughter died in a plane crash. Another was mutilated in a lobotomy he ordered to make her more “normal.”

Yet Joe was in many ways a good father, and his children seemed devoted to him. As this book reveals, he wrote each of them with great frequency and affection, overseeing both their moral and their intellectual progress. His fierce devotion to his family was his deepest passion, and his remarkable children—particularly the sons, about whom we know the most—were his finest achievement.

Although he was a deeply conservative man, his sons were not. Jack and Bobby, even while respecting their father, responded to the social and political crises of their times by pursuing a liberal agenda. Most remarkable of all has been the youngest son, Ted. The conscience of the Congress, he is a man who has steadily and with great conviction labored to achieve programs of social justice and equity that his father would have considered deeply suspect. Senator Kennedy has become an indispensable defender of American liberalism. And his example is being followed in the successor generation of Kennedys. That Joe’s sons have established a family tradition of liberalism may be the greatest irony of his extraordinary career.

This Issue

October 18, 2001