For most of us, the haunting image of Joseph Patrick Kennedy is one of an aged man of wealth, his face skewed by a stroke, propped up helplessly in an armchair, wearing a silk bed jacket opened to reveal a designer white shirt and tie.
That image is from the 1960s, a decade at first a deliriously triumphant one for the father of the young president. Then later, it was a decade of intense tragedy, a debilitating stroke, and the assassination of two sons at a time when Kennedy could only express his grief through tears and a single repeated word: “No!”
Despite the drama, the dark Hollywood gloominess of this scene, there is something missing. Something our parents would have recognized immediately. Something passing years and events have shrouded.
What’s missing from this portrait is the real Joe Kennedy, the Irish-Catholic fighter, the self-made Wall Street millionaire, the movie mogul, the outspoken critic of presidents and kings, the consummate showman, the “opinionated, volatile, argumentative, driven” Joe Kennedy.
That is the Kennedy historian David Nasaw brings to life in his latest biography, “The Patriarch.” Nasaw has described himself as an academic historian. In this book, even more so than in his biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst, he has produced a biography which, despite its length and thoroughness, is bursting with popular appeal.
There is international intrigue, Hollywood whispering, the all-American family, religion, politics, success and tragedy. But never despair.
The life of Joe Kennedy has it all. And while Nasaw succumbs to the natural tendency to grow fond of the subject he is studying – almost living with – for several years, the author manages to present Kennedy with all his ugly warts.
Nasaw doesn’t excuse this tough Irishman for his foul mouth, his poor judgment of geopolitics, his personal hypocrisy, or his anti-Semitic ravings. The author simply attempts to explain how these characteristics flow from the DNA of this exciting and charismatic human being.
This is a huge book about a long and event-filled life. Most of its 800-plus pages turn quickly. But the riveting years, the years in which the reader sees a powerful man fall from grace, a young man grow prematurely old, are the London years.
It is during this two-and-a-half-year span at Grosvenor Square, plus a few years on either side, that the great American success story begins to show signs of weakness, cracks in its foundation.
It is during the buildup to and the first years of war in Europe that the Joe Kennedy story takes on the tone of a Shakespearean tragedy.
The hero, through his own insatiable appetite and overwhelming ambition, sets in motion the events that will lead to his eventual downfall. And once set in motion, the events overtake the man.
In this case, Kennedy, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s go-to guys, the financial wizard named “one of the six most chic men on the planet,” the man who never fails, schemes to oust and replace Roosevelt insider Henry Morgenthau as Treasury secretary. When that fails, he asks for, and then demands, the president name him U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James.
After all, the president owes him a favor. Who raised all that money for the campaign? Who delivered the Catholic vote for Roosevelt? Who introduced the president to the future pope? Who sends stone crabs and live lobsters to the White House?
By now, those around Roosevelt recognized Kennedy as a user of men. But compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Kennedy was a piker.
Against all advice, Roosevelt sent Kennedy to London as U.S. ambassador – he’s “too dangerous to have him here.” Kennedy’s closest friends cautioned he was ill-prepared to serve as ambassador to England, privately adding his rough personality disqualified him from being ambassador to anywhere.
For the first time, Joe Kennedy was in waters over his head, and the mistakes began to compound.
Kennedy chose to hang his hat on Neville Chamberlain. Even after Chamberlain realized trusting the word of Adolf Hitler at Munich was a horrific blunder, Kennedy insisted Roosevelt should negotiate a peace accord with Hitler.
When Roosevelt tried to convince a wary public he was neutral, word leaked out that Kennedy had opened backroom channels to the war-mongering Winston Churchill.
Then, while the president was trying to find a way to aid the British, Kennedy was telling anyone who’d listen that the Brits were losers. The day the London Blitz began, a friend quoted Kennedy as saying: “I’ll bet five to one, any sum, Hitler will be in Buckingham Palace in two weeks.”
While the president toiled to convince Congress and the American people that the U.S. needed to become the arsenal for freedom, Kennedy told the press: “As far as the Untied States goes, we ought to mind our own business.”
Kennedy was clearly out of touch. After Kristallnacht, the young Joe Kennedy Jr. wrote in his diary: [The Ambassador] is alarmed that the country should get so worried up by the [Nazi] treatment of Jews.”
By now, the president was not only ignoring Kennedy’s incessant advice, he was circumventing his ambassador, embarrassing and infuriating him by keeping him in the dark on U.S. plans. At one point, Kennedy complained bitterly he had to learn what Roosevelt was doing by asking Churchill.
After only 30 months as ambassador, Roosevelt’s Brain Trust had grown to despise Kennedy, and a once-adoring American public had soured on their hero.
In exploding one of many Kennedy myths, Nasaw argues that Kennedy was neither a Nazi appeaser nor a fascist sympathizer, but that he was dedicated to keeping the U.S. out of war to save free market capitalism which he was certain would not survive a war.
Roosevelt saw it another way. He told an adviser Kennedy was “thoroughly obsessed” with saving his self-made fortune so he could pass it on to his children.
By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the U.S. into the world war, Kennedy was a man who hurt himself every time he talked, but he could not keep himself from talking, whether to national radio audiences or to Congress. So in a pout, he retired from public life and returned to the avocation he found so easy: Making money.
Over the next quarter century, Kennedy’s decline would spread from his public life to his treasured family life. He would lose three of his four sons, one to war and two to assassins. After a failed operation, his oldest daughter would be confined for life, unable to speak, in a home for the mentally retarded. His second daughter would lose her British royal husband to war, and would die in a civilian airplane crash with a new boyfriend.
And in his final years, Joe Kennedy would be confined to a chair, unable to speak but still fully cognizant of the days his son Jack was president, his son Bobby was seeking the presidency; the days further back when a president sought his help; when movie starlets answered his call; when archbishops did his bidding, and when the king of England came down to Victoria Station to welcome him to London.
The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy
By David Nasaw
868 pages, $40
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.