In the prime of his life, Joseph Patrick Kennedy was known not as the father of a president and two great contenders, but as a frequently named presidential possibility himself. A self-made multi-millionaire, the elder Kennedy reined in Wall Street chicanery as the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, then became ambassador to Great Britain at the dawn of World War II. “Had Joseph P. Kennedy not been the patriarch of America’s first family,” writes David Nasaw in his engrossing and perceptive new biography, “his story would [still] be worth telling.”
Still, it’s doubtful we would have this book had Kennedy’s second son not become a beloved hero the world over. Joe Kennedy conceded as much. “As I sit in my office and try to dig out from all the correspondence, I am realizing how insignificant it is compared to the fact that I am now the father of the President of the United States,” he wrote in 1961. “I will probably just let the history of my life stand as it stands, and I am quite sure that nobody will care a damn.”
(Penguin) - ’The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy’ by David Nasaw
Nasaw certainly does. A historian at the City University of New York and biographer of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst, he reminds us in “The Patriarch” of the importance of the elder Kennedy’s life apart from the triumphs of his more famous sons. Unlike the newsmagazine editors and cable-news hosts who write most best-selling biographies these days, Nasaw delves deep into archives, reconstructing virtually from scratch a multifaceted and ambiguous portrait of a figure who was for decades near the center of power in Hollywood and Washington, finance and diplomacy.
Nasaw highlights Kennedy’s bottomless ambition and capacity for hard work — often at the expense of his large family — as he ascended from the wards of Boston politics to the rarefied world of banking and investment. (But not, alas, the world of bootlegging, contrary to rumors that many Kennedy disparagers will be sad to see debunked.) In the 1920s, while in his 30s, Kennedy went to Hollywood, where he not only struck up a romance with Gloria Swanson but multiplied his riches many times over. “He had entered the industry a rich man,” Nasaw writes, “but he departed a multi-millionaire with more than enough money in his and [his wife] Rose’s accounts and in the children’s trust funds to support them all comfortably for the rest of their lives.”
Kennedy parlayed the fame, wealth and influence he achieved in Hollywood into a spot in Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle in the 1932 presidential campaign. Despite the long-standing ties of Irish Catholics to the Democratic Party, Kennedy in 1928 had voted his engorged pocketbook, supporting Herbert Hoover. Now, however, worried that without radical action, the Depression would dissipate his millions, he switched his loyalties. FDR rewarded him, after a frustrating hiatus, by naming him to run the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission — enraging many liberals, who saw it as a classic case of fox-and-henhouse. But Kennedy ended up earning high marks for integrity and efficiency from businessmen and New Dealers alike.