“The Patriarch”: Joseph Kennedy Sr.’s Outsized Life

Jacob Heilbrunn on Joseph Sr., the anti-Semitic Hollywood dynamo who proves to be the most interesting Kennedy of all.


In his essay “Advice to Young Men,” H.L. Mencken explained that the “most valuable of all human possessions, next to a superior and disdainful air, is the reputation of being well to do.” Few Americans appear to exemplify that proposition better than Joseph P. Kennedy. At the outset of the 20th century, this ruthless businessman and investor capitalized on his wealth to become perhaps America’s premier social climber, an Irish-Catholic outsider who stormed the bastions of the WASP aristocracy. After amassing almost overnight scads of the green stuff on Wall Street (he dumped his stocks on the cusp of the Great Depression) and in Hollywood (he got in just as that boom was starting), Kennedy seemed to be able to do whatever he wanted whenever he chose, whether it was avoiding military service in World War I or bedding everyone from movie starlets to golf caddies or holding prestigious political positions. In schooling his children in moviemaking techniques and in conducting a glamorous lifestyle, his most lasting contribution was to anneal Hollywood glitter to the American political scene, a legacy that Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all drawn upon and furthered. But all along this empire-builder was dogged by the fear that the political dynasty he sought to found would prove his most fragile creation. His apprehensions were justified. Today only the 32-year-old Joseph Kennedy III, the great-nephew of John F. Kennedy, holds a seat in Congress, thanks to the retirement of Barney Frank.

In The Patriarch, David Nasaw, the author of biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst, chronicles Kennedy’s tumultuous life. Nasaw has had full access to family documents and scoured the archives. He seeks to clear up some myths about Kennedy—he was, for instance, never a bootlegger—and offer a truthful portrait of the man. The result is a spellbinding book.

Born in East Boston in 1888 into the family of a prosperous Irish ward boss, Kennedy enjoyed a privileged childhood that included music lessons and the best schools. All his life he played down his early years and cozy circumstances, partly, Nasaw speculates, to avoid diminishing his own later accomplishments. Though never a stellar student, he attended Boston Latin, the elite public school, and squeaked past Harvard’s entrance examinations to become a member of the class of 1912. What he displayed upon graduation was a keen financial acumen. He married Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the daughter of the mayor of Boston who would blissfully ignore her husband’s serial infidelities, and began his career as an assistant state bank examiner, a position that permitted him to become intimately acquainted with banking from the inside—he soon became an expert on bonds, stocks, mortgages, demand loans, overdrafts, and real-estate foreclosures. By 1914 he had resigned his post to become president of a small Boston bank, whose assets he quickly expanded. What’s more, with direct personal access to capital, he was able to finance his mortgage and real-estate holdings as well as purchase stocks. In an era when government oversight was almost nonexistent and laissez-faire capitalism was in its heyday, Kennedy excelled. At age 36 he traded in his Ford for a Rolls-Royce, hired a chauffeur, and moved his boys from public school to a private one.

But Kennedy first struck it really big in Hollywood, where he used his bank to finance his various ventures. Kennedy’s aim was not so much to become a movie mogul, but to consolidate several studios and then flip them, which is what he did. He was the Mitt Romney of his era, slashing redundant staff and instituting new accounting procedures. According to Nasaw, “he was not interested in making artful or even good pictures … but in making a profit by producing cut-rate ‘program pictures,’ low-budget westerns, stunt thrillers,” and so on. By 1927, however, Kennedy needed to up the ante to demonstrate that he was in control of a major studio. As part of that effort, he hired Gloria Swanson as his big star—according to Nasaw, “that they were sexually attracted to each other was the icing on the cake.” In the end, Kennedy dumped Swanson—to her lifelong fury—after her morbidly bizarre and expensive film Queen Kelly, which was directed by Erich von Stroheim, never made it to the big screen. Kennedy knew how to cut his losses. After some intricate deals with Hollywood panjandrums, he exited Tinseltown a multi-millionaire as he sold his shares in several companies even while small-time investors, who ended up losing money on common stock, cried foul.

It was in Hollywood that Kennedy’s mounting paranoia about the Jews also manifested itself. Kennedy saw everything in terms of ethnic groups, partly as a result of his own upbringing in Boston. Nasaw explains that Kennedy suggested he would be “Hollywood’s white, or non-Jewish knight and rescue it from the suspicion that its pictures were not to be trusted because they were produced by men who through breeding and background were morally untrustworthy.” All his life Kennedy would remain convinced that Jews acted as a cabal to serve their common interests—a mindset that would manifest itself most vividly in the run-up to World War II, when he blamed Jews for allegedly suborning Franklin D. Roosevelt from pursuing the nation’s best interests abroad.

In his first position in the Roosevelt administration, however, Kennedy acquitted himself ably. As head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he was already familiar with the various financial chicaneries that had helped precipitate the Great Depression since he had participated in a number of questionable transactions himself. On the venerable theory that it takes a thief to catch one, Roosevelt had appointed him to run the fledgling SEC, and one of Kennedy’s first moves was to crack down on insider trading. According to Nasaw, he also outlawed abuses known as pools, corners, wash sales, and match orders. Kennedy had supported Herbert Hoover in 1928, but he now feared that the financial calamity menaced not only his personal fortune, but also the stability of America itself. He had no truck with the nonsense spouted by many of his peers about Roosevelt leading a Bolshevik crusade against big business and the American way. Instead, Kennedy had campaigned hard for FDR in the 1932 election, accompanying him on a trip to California.

Habitually unable to contain his choleric temper, Kennedy cut loose when addressing his former Harvard chums in 1937. Nasaw observes that Kennedy had received the highest honor that his Harvard chums could bestow upon him, an invitation to speak at their 25th reunion. Kennedy had hardly been a standout student, but his financial acumen had transformed him into a fellow plutocrat. The after-dinner talk was Kennedy’s chance to show that he had become part of the Harvard establishment. But unlike most of his classmates, Kennedy, who also ran the Maritime Commission, scoffed at the notion that the Roosevelt administration was destroying capitalism and turning America into a socialist bulwark. To the horror of his listeners, Kennedy did not deliver a chatty speech about their days as young swells, but, rather, delivered himself of a wholly partisan address defending Social Security and big labor. “And then, to add provocation to provocation, he praised John L. Lewis, the principal organizer of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and perhaps the single most hated man in banks, boardrooms, and Harvard clubs,” writes Nasaw. Kennedy concluded, “Without wishing to appear in a ‘Pollyanna’ role, I frankly see nothing which justifies the hate and the despair which are all around us.” Of course he was right. This was Kennedy at his best, a clear-eyed realist dispensing with conservative pieties. The reactionary bilge that his classmates were indulging in may have been emotionally satisfying, but it bore no relation to the dire reality of an economic crisis that Roosevelt was attempting to master anymore than the contemporary malarkey, to use Vice President Joseph Biden’s favorite word, about President Obama’s putative socialism does today.

Kennedy’s proclivity for sounding off, however, would lead him grievously astray as Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain, a position that he had obtained in part as reward for his services to the administration and, not least, in the belief that it was best to keep Kennedy abroad during the presidential election so that he could not entertain any thoughts of the nomination for himself. Roosevelt also figured that Kennedy, as an Irishman, wouldn’t get seduced by the British aristocracy and “go native.” Here Roosevelt got it wrong. Although Roosevelt was a shrewd old bird, even he could not have anticipated the extent to which Kennedy would run amok in London, including consorting with the Cliveden set, Britain’s notorious circle of Jew-hating aristocratic appeasers, led by the egregious Lady Astor. His disreputable behavior sorely tested the limits of both the State Department’s and Roosevelt’s patience.

Difficulties were perhaps presaged by a visit of his first son, Joe Jr., to Nazi Germany in 1934. In a letter to his father, he pronounced himself most impressed by the changes that Adolf Hitler had implemented over the past year; he hailed the sterilization law as “a great thing.” He further noted, “a great deal of brutality was on private lines” but that Hitler now had “Things well under control. The only danger would be if something happened to Hitler, and one of his crazy ministers came into power, which at this time does not seem likely.” The old man was quite pleased by this missive, writing back to Joe Jr. that his “conclusions are very sound.”

Sound or not, Kennedy became ambassador in 1938, the year that Germany marched into Austria to create the Anschluss. Kennedy was unfazed. His biggest fear was not that Hitler would be stopped, but that the West would try to stop him. A second world war, he believed, would have calamitous effects, including imperiling his own children. Better to try and buy off the Fuhrer who would surely prove in the end to be a reasonable chap. Kennedy’s view of events in England was thus similarly blinkered. He idolized Neville Chamberlain and viewed Winston Churchill as a dangerous adventurer, a view that he never deviated from even after World War II had ended!

Nasaw’s account of Kennedy’s machinations in London form some of the most exciting passages in his volume. It is hard to read them without a growing sense of disbelief, shock, and sheer disgust. Kennedy’s depravity was almost boundless. He apparently informed the new Nazi ambassador to London Herbert von Dirksen that the Jews were too powerful in America and that he sympathized with the Nazi attempt to extrude them from German high society—“It is clear from the transcripts,” says Nasaw, “that Kennedy was doing his best to ingratiate himself with the German diplomats … while telling them what they wanted to hear about American anti-Semitism and Jewish media dominance, he was not saying anything he did not believe to be true.” With his belief in the omnipotence of Jewish media power, Kennedy thought it was essential to arrange for the rescue of European Jews from the clutches of the Nazis; otherwise, they would deploy their tremendous propaganda arsenal to lure America into war against Germany. Nasaw drily observes, “the fact that there was no organized or unorganized effort by American Jews to push America into a war with Germany had no effect on his increasingly hysterical thinking.”

To Roosevelt’s incredulity, Kennedy also sent messages back to Washington explaining that the moment was nigh for America itself to adopt preemptively a fascist-style economic program, one that would, as Nasaw explains, “provide a few wise businessmen such as Joseph P. Kennedy with more authority.” Roosevelt largely ignored Kennedy’s increasingly overwrought telegrams as Britain and Germany drew ineluctably closer to war. But after he saw a draft of a speech in which Kennedy announced that when it came to the fate of Czechoslovakia he could not “see anything involved which could be remotely considered worth shedding blood for,” FDR lost it. “Who would have thought,” he said,” that the English could take into camp a red-headed Irishman? … The young man needs his wrists slapped rather hard.” Once at war, British officials, too, became disgusted with Kennedy’s behavior: “Mr. Kennedy is a very foul specimen of double-crosser and defeatists,” wrote Sir Robert Vanittart, a chief diplomatic adviser to the war cabinet. “He thinks of nothing but his own pocket. I hope that this war will at least see the elimination of his type.” At bottom, Kennedy was simply delusional: “His sense of his own wisdom,” Nasaw writes, “and unique talents was so overblown that he truly believed he could stake out an independent position for himself and still remain a trusted and vital part of the Roosevelt team.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

If Kennedy displayed execrable judgment during the war, he did nothing to redeem it after the conflict had ended. Instead, he carried on with his blinkered views and remained an isolationist. During the cold war he was, in a sense, on the left—he regarded it as a profligate waste of American resources. Just as America should have reached an accommodation with Hitler, it should have reached out to Stalin. But John F. Kennedy wisely distanced himself from these views. His father’s main contribution was to help shape his image as a political candidate.

Nasaw shrewdly observes that Kennedy “had learned how to spend money and sell a `star’ in Hollywood … Now he focused those skills on branding his son as the fresh-faced, charming young war hero, with a bit of glamour and a wholesome down-to-earth quality; a Harvard man and a man of the people; a book-writing intellectual who was everyone’s friend.” Kennedy had recognized that his own political aspirations would go nowhere during the postwar era. He became a cranky opponent of American intervention, views that his son John prudently distanced himself from as a congressman and senator. Once he became president did the father become at peace with himself? Not a bit of it. While elated at his ascension to the Oval office, Kennedy was dismayed that too many Democratic Protestants had voted against his Catholic son. It wasn’t enough to win; Kennedy wanted acceptance. His whole life was devoted to using his fortune to smooth his family’s entry into the mainstream of American life. Still, the old boy had some tricks left up his sleeve. Nasaw reports that he played a key role at the inauguration: “Ever alert to the possibilities of combining entertainment and politics, he had arranged for the entire gala to be filmed and for the rights to belong to him exclusively.” Among the stars who showed up were Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Milton Berle, Nat King Cole, Tony Curtis, Ella Fitzgerald, Laurence Olivier, and a host of others.

But Kennedy was not done. His next instrument for political success was Teddy Kennedy, who would run for the Senate in Massachusetts when he turned 30, the minimum age to serve. According to Nasaw, “Like Jack before him and with the family fortune at his disposal, Ted spent the two years running up to the election touring the state and lining up support.” But Kennedy’s role as patriarch came to a swift and brutal end when he suffered an incapacitating stroke in December 1961. Confined to a wheelchair, he was no longer the commanding captain of the Kennedy frigate but a passive and suffering bystander as he saw two of his sons brutally murdered. Nasaw somewhat predictably calls his ending “near Shakespearean in its pathos,” but perhaps the saga of the Kennedy clan and its founder carries with it more than a whiff of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Its fortunes have proven almost as evanescent as the “minute and faraway” green light at the end of the dock, the “orgastic future” that continually recedes into the past.