By Thomas Maier
767 pp. $30
A serious problem for a scholar writing about the Churchills and the Kennedys is the most basic one for any historian: trying to say something fresh. You need a Wal-Mart-size home library to collect every title about these two dynastic families. So when the fat galley of “When Lions Roar” arrived, I moaned. The book had the whiff of taking two great stars — say, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett — and cross-marketing them in a duet CD for the big cash payoff. How much new information could there possibly be about the Churchills and the Kennedys?
My skepticism was misplaced. Longtime Newsday investigative journalist Thomas Maier — author of the acclaimed “Masters of Sex” (2009) and “The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings” (2003) — delivers the goods. Weaving the life stories of nearly 30 Churchills and Kennedys into a seamless narrative, Maier smartly anchors his reportage on the clans’ larger-than-life cornerstones: Winston Churchill and Joseph Kennedy. The sheer accumulation of colorful anecdotes in “When Lions Roar” makes for riveting reading from start to finish. Although Churchill comes off as the far greater man, Kennedy is clearly a more sympathetic father.
“As if by some gravitational pull or providential design,” Maier writes, “these two dynastic families — one American, one British — seemed fated to meet, their fortunes soon intertwined forever.”
The rambunctious Kennedy was a freckled, hard-charging man driven to make a Gatsby-like fortune. At age 25, he was a bank president. From then onward, he shopped only in the world’s millionaire rows. Maier profiles the rise of Kennedy as shipbuilder, booze distributor and Democratic Party donor. He explains Kennedy’s power-driven relationship with the Catholic Church, his bizarre womanizing and his admirable raising of four sons (Joseph Jr., John, Robert and Edward) and five daughters (Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia and Jean). Paradoxically, the serial philanderer was also a loving father who established a $1 million trust fund for each child.
By contrast, Churchill, a swashbuckling British Tory politician, wildly famous for conspicuous public service as well as for writing headstrong historical narratives such as “The World Crisis” (1923), was perennially cash-strapped. Enter Kennedy and his checkbook. According to Maier, Churchill obtained a lucrative portion of stock in two U.S. companies associated with Kennedy in what reeks as influence-buying. This coincided with Kennedy’s getting a post-Prohibition franchise to ship scotch and other liquor to the United States. Both Churchill and Kennedy come off as slippery businessmen, playing just within the legal margins.
In 1933, for example, Kennedy brought James Roosevelt, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sons, along with him to England to help secure liquor contracts with Churchill’s help. At Churchill’s Chartwell Manor estate, Kennedy used his colleague’s presence to insinuate that he had a direct pipeline to the White House.
According to Maier, when U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William O. Douglas visited the White House to complain about possible shady business dealings by Kennedy, Churchill and James Roosevelt, FDR “cradled his head on his arm and cried like a child for several minutes.”
In 1938, Roosevelt appointed Kennedy ambassador to the Court of St. James — a milestone in American Irish Catholic history — despite the fact that he distrusted Kennedy’s blind-eyed tolerance of Adolf Hitler. FDR’s political strategy was to flatter and work Kennedy to keep him in the Democratic Party tent. Kennedy, an isolationist, was unworried about the rise of Germany’s Third Reich. Churchill, of course, was exactly the opposite. “Eventually critics claimed Kennedy cared more about preserving his own fortune,” Maier writes, “than the fate of Europe.”
Interestingly, Russian Ambassador Ivan Maisky suggested that “Capitalist Kennedy” was too preoccupied with his business interests to bother with the moral implications of the Nazi threat. His guiding zeal was to fully control the lucrative U.S. importation rights to Haig and Haig Whisky and Gordon’s Gin (both distilled in Britain). But Maier also offers a more admirable rationale for why Kennedy opposed the United States’ entry into World War II: fear of losing a beloved son in battle. Indeed, he was right to worry. On Aug. 12, 1944, his oldest son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., was killed on an a combat mission over England. Overnight, John F. Kennedy, suddenly the eldest son, was paternally pressured to accomplish great things. “I am now shadowboxing in a match” Jack told his friend Lem Billings, “where the shadow is always going to win.”
Maier documents the two patriarchs’ ups and downs during the war quite well. It rains espionage, skullduggery, adultery and parlor gossip in the World War II chapters. But it’s Maier’s ability to substantiate various bold claims with original Cold War-era research that is most impressive. His most startling revelation has to do with Churchill’s clamor to drop atomic weapons on the Soviet Union in the early Truman years. Sen. Styles Bridges of New Hampshire, a conservative Republican, told the FBI that Churchill approached him about leading a charge on Capitol Hill for the Anglo-Americans to obliterate Moscow. Churchill “pointed out that if an atomic bomb could be dropped on the Kremlin wiping it out,” Bridges told the FBI, “it would be a very easy problem to handle the balance of Russia, which would be without direction.”
Although estranged during World War II, Churchill and Kennedy became Cold War allies in their searing distrust of the Soviet Union. Maier writes brilliantly about Churchill’s historic visit to Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., on March 5, 1946. Wearing the honorary cap and robes of an Oxford don, Churchill unfurled the phrase “Iron Curtain” to illuminate the division between Western powers and the area controlled by the Soviet Union. Some critics of Churchill’s Missouri speech were scathing. Walter Lippmann, for example, postulated that President Harry S. Truman had made an “almost catastrophic blunder” in allowing Churchill such a high-profile lecture platform. Kennedy, by contrast, wasn’t in the boo-hiss chorus. He wrote a brazen article for Life magazine arguing that because Churchill was wholly right about the Iron Curtain, the United States needed to keep its Armed Forces mobilized and build a fist-like Western Alliance.
By the 1960s, the drama shifts to Churchill’s son Randolph, as well as Kennedy’s son Jack. Maier does an admirable job of documenting JFK’s lifelong obsession with all things Churchill. As a boy suffering from scarlet fever, Jack read Churchill’s writings and was hooked. When Kennedy published “Profiles in Courage” in 1956, it was, in essence, a prose tribute to Churchill-style bravery in American political history.
At long last, JFK met his idol in 1958. Churchill heard that the Democratic senator from Massachusetts was going to make a White House run in 1960. “They tell me he is presidential timber,” Churchill explained to Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, on whose yacht the meeting would take place. “I’d like to meet this presidential timber.”
It was an awkward meeting. Churchill wasn’t at his sharpest, and Kennedy seemed tongue-tied. With Onassis flirting with Jackie Kennedy and her husband lamely calling his Catholicism the biggest obstacle to winning the presidency, the event was a bust.
“I felt sorry for Jack that evening because he was meeting his hero, only he met him too late,” Jackie recalled. On that evening of disappointment, she tried to ease her husband’s pain. “Maybe he thought you were the waiter, Jack,” she teased.
Portraits of Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and Kennedy’s wife, Rose, are well rendered in “When Lions Roar.” Ditto for the lively cameos of press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, financier Bernard Baruch and writer Clare Boothe Luce. But the scene-stealer is Kay Halle, a vivacious Cleveland journalist, socialite and Office of Strategic Services intelligence operative. Her torrid affairs with Joseph Kennedy and Randolph Churchill make for juicy, tabloid-like reading.
Both Joseph Kennedy and Winston Churchill are knocked off their pedestals (a bit) in “When Lions Roar.” While Kennedy’s philandering was a private matter, his rank appeasement of Hitler was a public miscalculation, one that doesn’t play well in the 20th-century-history sweepstakes. And Churchill’s reactionary Cold War enthusiasm for dropping an A-bomb on Russia makes the Nobel Prize winner (for literature) seem as deranged as Gen. Curtis “Bomb Them Back Into the Stone Ages” LeMay. But it’s always best to let the erudite Churchill have the last word. “We are all worms,” he once told a friend. “But I do believe that I am a glow worm.”