The Biggest Kennedy Myth

In an exclusive excerpt from Last Call, his history of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent writes that long-held beliefs about Joe Kennedy’s bootlegging business are bunk.

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On September 26, 1933, the same day that Colorado became the 24th state to ratify the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition, the 45-year-old Joseph P. Kennedy was aboard the S.S. Europa, bound east with a younger friend and their wives. Their primary destination was England, where the seeds of Prohibition’s most enduring legend were about to be planted.

The younger man was an insurance agent named James Roosevelt. As he was also the eldest son of the new president, he was, said the Saturday Evening Post, “something like an American Prince of Wales.” Kennedy’s fondness for his 25-year-old shipboard companion was such that he sometimes referred to himself as Roosevelt’s “foster father.” During their stay in London, one or the other of them met with Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and two of his eventual successors, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. Together they had lunch with the managing director of the Distillers Company conglomerate. If Joe Kennedy wanted to open political doors or commercial ones, he could have done worse than travel with the son of a president.

One writer, citing an interview with Al Capone’s 93-year-old piano tuner, actually has Kennedy coming to Capone’s house for spaghetti dinner to discuss trading a shipment of his Irish whiskey.

By the time he returned from the U.K.—his wife had continued on to Cannes, and then to Rome with the Roosevelts for an audience with the pope—Kennedy had concluded all-but-final agreements with Distillers to become the sole American importer of three of its most valuable brands, Dewar’s, Haig & Haig, and Gordon’s Gin. These contracts were the crucial third leg of an enterprise that was also balanced on medicinal liquor permits—legal throughout Prohibition —that Kennedy had obtained in Washington, and the bonded warehouse space he had lined up. Shipments began arriving in November. On December 5, Utah’s legislature became the 36th to ratify the Repeal amendment, rendering Prohibition officially dead. The next morning, before the national hangover from the previous night’s revels had entirely subsided, Somerset Importers was in business, founded on an investment of $118,000. Kennedy’s firm took its name from the Boston men’s club that barred its doors to Irish Catholics, and it owed its creation to Kennedy’s friendship with Franklin Roosevelt’s son. Somerset emitted the pungent air that hovered around most marriages of politics and commerce, but it was in every respect perfectly legal.

That last part—“perfectly legal”—was something that Walter Trohan, the longtime Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, failed to include in an article published some 20 years later, when Kennedy’s son John was serving his first term as U.S. senator from Massachusetts. In that 1954 article on James Roosevelt’s impending divorce, Trohan also related the story of Joseph Kennedy’s Roosevelt-assisted entry into the liquor business. After a brief description of Kennedy’s deal with the British, Trohan added, “At the time, Prohibition had not been repealed.” This was true, as far as it went—but it did not acknowledge that the pre-Repeal liquor Kennedy imported in November 1933 entered the country under legal medicinal permits, and was at first stored in legally bonded warehouse space. From such acorns, nourished by a lifetime’s accumulation of rumors, enemies, and vast sums of money, arose the widely accepted story of Joseph P. Kennedy, bootlegger.

Except there’s really no reason to believe he was one. The most familiar legacy of Prohibition might be its own mythology, a body of lore and gossip and Hollywood-induced imagery that comes close enough to the truth to be believable, but not close enough to be… well, to be true. The Kennedy myth is an outstanding example. The facts of Kennedy’s life (that he was rich; that he was in the liquor business; that he was deeply unpopular and widely distrusted) were rich loam for a rumor that did not begin to blossom until nearly 30 years after Repeal. Three times during the 1930s, Kennedy was appointed to federal positions requiring Senate confirmation (chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission, Ambassador to Great Britain). At a time when the memory of Prohibition was vivid and the passions it inflamed still smoldered, no one seemed to think Joe Kennedy had been a bootlegger—not the Republicans, not the anti-Roosevelt Democrats, not remnant Klansmen or anti-Irish Boston Brahmins or cynical newsmen or resentful Dry leaders still seething from the humiliation of Repeal. There’s nothing in the Senate record that suggests anyone brought up the bootlegging charge; there’s nothing about it in the press coverage that appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, or The Boston Globe. There was nothing asserting, suggesting, or hinting at bootlegging in the Roosevelt-hating Chicago Tribune, or in the long-dry Los Angeles Times. Around the time of his three Senate confirmations, the last of them concluding barely four years after Repeal, there was some murmuring about Kennedy’s involvement in possible stock-manipulation schemes, and a possible conflict of interest. But about involvement in the illegal liquor trade, there was nothing at all. With Prohibition fresh in the national mind, when a hint of illegal behavior would have been dearly prized by the president’s enemies or Kennedy’s own, there wasn’t even a whisper.

In the 1950s, another presidential appointment provoked another investigation of Kennedy’s past. This time, Dwight Eisenhower intended to name him to the President’s Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities, an advisory group meant to provide oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency. The office of Sherman Adams, the White House chief of staff, asked the FBI to comb through Kennedy’s past associations and activities. The fat file that resulted touched on nearly every aspect of his life, including his business relations with James Roosevelt. But nowhere in the file is there any indication of bootlegging in the Kennedy past, or even a suggestion of it from Kennedy’s detractors.

And so the record remained, apparently, until his son’s presidential campaign. That’s when the word “bootlegger” first attached itself to Kennedy’s name in prominent places—for instance, in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article dated October 15, 1960, where Edward R. Woods wrote, “In certain ultra-dry sections of the country, Joe Kennedy is now referred to as ‘a rich bootlegger’ by his candidate-son’s detractors.” A quiet period followed, and then the suggestion started showing up again after the 1964 publication of the Warren Commission Report. Supporters of the theory that John F. Kennedy was murdered by the Mafia suggested the assassination had something to do with the aged resentments of mobster Sam Giancana, who was, as one writer later claimed without evidence, “a former partner in Joe's bootlegging business.”

Meyer Lansky, who’d had plenty of chances to talk about it before, suddenly claimed a pre-Repeal Kennedy connection.

Then the mob stories burst into bloom. Meyer Lansky, who’d had plenty of chances to talk about it before, suddenly claimed a pre-Repeal Kennedy connection. In 1973, Frank Costello told a journalist (with whom he was collaborating on a book) that he had done business with Kennedy during Prohibition; the inconsiderate Costello proceeded to die a week and a half later. Another mobster, Joe Bonanno, repeated Costello’s assertion on 60 Minutes 10 years after that—while promoting a book of his own. By 1991, a drama critic for The New York Times could refer to Kennedy as a bootlegger, without any elaboration, in a theater review. The same year, a potential juror in the rape trial of one of Kennedy’s grandsons could assert without challenge, during voir dire, that the family fortune had been founded on bootlegging. By then it had become nearly impossible to ask a reasonably informed individual to name a bootlegger without getting “Joe Kennedy” as a reply.

Some of the less reputable Joe-as-Bootlegger assertions are based on “evidence” as flimsy as one man’s recollection that he’d seen Kennedy on the docks near Gloucester, gazing out to sea, waiting for his next shipment to come in. Never mind that during the 1920s, when he was an extremely successful stock market trader and the hands-on owner of a major motion picture studio, Kennedy might have had more productive ways to pass his time. One writer, citing an interview with Al Capone’s 93-year-old piano tuner, actually has Kennedy coming to Capone’s house for spaghetti dinner to discuss trading a shipment of his Irish whiskey for a load of Capone’s Canadian. Looking backward, many find convincing evidence in the booze Kennedy provided for his Harvard 10th Reunion—something any 33-year-old sport could have done in 1922, especially one whose father had been a legitimate tavern owner before Prohibition and retained the right to own his remaining stock.

Others have chosen to leave shards of evidence insufficiently examined—for instance, the biographer who found a 1938 letter from Kennedy to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, in which the new ambassador mentions his 20 years of doing business with Great Britain. The investment industry and the movie industry could have provided Kennedy with plenty of opportunity for trans-Atlantic commerce in those years. Additionally, had the biographer realized that Hull was a life-long and active Dry, he might have been less eager to conclude that Kennedy could have been referring to absolutely nothing else but the bootlegging business. Others have uncovered the name of a Joseph Kennedy in the transcripts of hearings conducted by the Canadian Royal Commission on Customs in 1927, but do not mention that the “Joseph Kennedy Export House” was based in Vancouver; that its eponym was identified at the time as fictitious; and that the operation in fact belonged to Henry Reifel, a notorious British Columbia distiller who, according one prominent Canadian journalist, had simply appropriated the name of a waiter in a Vancouver bar.

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Even the most reputable investigators have been unconvincing. Trying to nail down Kennedy’s putative bootlegging career, one of the finest reporters of the last 40 years tried and tried to overcome what he called “the remarkable lack of documentation in government files.” Having failed, he chose to retail a batch of second- and thirdhand stories from people who had been suspiciously silent for generations. A noted scholar of the Scotch Whisky industry based his case for Kennedy’s illegal activity on the memory of a Scotsman he interviewed more than three decades after Repeal—a man who not only might have been remembering the liquor-importing Joe Kennedy of 1934, but who also, as it happened, asked his interviewer not to reveal his name, not even after his death.

One can exonerate the old Scot of malicious intent. The Kennedy family’s rise to prominence, compounded by the increasing appearance of stray rumors in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, surely made dimly recalled encounters from the distant past suddenly seem more meaningful (or, as the aspiring litterateurs Costello and Bonanno may have hoped, more profitable as well). But it’s harder to forgive writers who stretch logic and research standards as if they were Silly Putty —for instance, the author of a Kennedy family biography who, unable to find substantive evidence of bootlegging, reaches a particularly dubious conclusion: “The sheer magnitude of the recollections,” he writes, “is more important than the veracity of the individual stories.”

One cannot prove a negative. Perhaps there’s a document somewhere, or even a credible memory, that establishes a connection between Joseph P. Kennedy and the illegal liquor trade. But all we know for certain is that Joe Kennedy brought liquor into the country legally before the end of Prohibition, and sold a great deal of it after. Along the way, the “legally” somehow fell off the page, as it had in Walter Trohan’s 1954 article. Given nearly eight decades of journalism, history, and biography, and three trips through the Senate confirmation process, and the ongoing efforts of legions of Kennedy haters and Kennedy doubters (and even Kennedy lovers who venerated the sons but despised the father), one would think that some scrap or sliver of evidence that he was indeed a bootlegger would have turned up by now.

But Joe Kennedy didn’t have to be a bootlegger. After all, nearly everyone else was.

Copyright © 2101 by Last Laugh, Inc. From the forthcoming book LAST CALL by Daniel Okrent to be published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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Daniel Okrent is the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. He was the first public editor of The New York Times, editor-at-large of Time Inc., and managing editor of Life magazine. He was also a featured commentator on Ken Burns' PBS series, Baseball , and is author of four books, one of which, Great Fortune, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in history.