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.”

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.

’The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy’ by David Nasaw (Penguin)

The squandering of Kennedy’s reputation began during his stint as ambassador to Great Britain, starting in 1938. With his breathtakingly handsome brood, Kennedy took the English social scene by storm, delighting in the “garden parties, rowing regattas, formal balls, afternoon teas, dinner dances, [and] . . . tennis matches at Wimbledon.” But practically from the start, he ran afoul of Roosevelt and the State Department with his shamefully rose-colored view of Adolf Hitler, whose dangerousness Kennedy minimized at every turn. Indeed, Nasaw makes clear that Kennedy’s tolerance for Hitler ran deeper than has been generally realized, exceeding that of Neville Chamberlain and continuing even after the 1939 invasion of Poland — and even, perversely, through the 1940 London blitz, during which Kennedy lamented the hardihood of the British because, he figured, the longer they held out, the likelier the prospects of American intervention.

Equally revealing is the depth of Kennedy’s anti-Semitism, which Nasaw makes clear. Not only did he fail to meaningfully advocate for Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s barbarism — a failure in which much of the State Department was complicit — but he privately partook of conspiracy theories that imagined Jewish power in the news media and the movie industry to be responsible for growing hostility toward Germany and increasing readiness to intervene in the war. Mingling with other isolationist anti-Semites such as the aviator Charles Lindbergh and the transplanted American socialite Nancy Witcher Langhorne (known as Lady Astor), he rationalized his loss of influence with FDR as the fault of the Jews.

Nasaw is properly scornful, although never shrill, toward Kennedy’s anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies. But he is, oddly, rather more tolerant of Kennedy’s postwar “appeasement” — as Kennedy himself defiantly called it — of the Soviet Union. In the 1940s and early ’50s, the former ambassador spoke out forcefully against Harry Truman’s Cold War policies: support for anti-communist regimes in Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, even NATO. To be sure, the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race have in retrospect made clear that the Cold War exacted terrible costs, and it’s tempting to look back favorably on those who warned as much. But the alternative Kennedy offered resembled not so much the sober realism of journalist Walter Lippmann — who argued with diplomat George Kennan over the wisdom of containment yet harbored no illusions about the Soviet Union — as the unabashed, drawbridge-raising isolationism of senator Robert A. Taft.

This was a policy also at odds with that of a rising young legislator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Although Nasaw does a commendable job of chronicling Joe Kennedy’s story without undue reference to his children — bringing them in only at pertinent moments in Joe’s life — by the 1950s this separation is no longer tenable. As JFK explodes as a national figure, he breaks away from his father, relying on Dad for money and other help but making more and more of his own political decisions — the father opposed Kennedy’s bid for the 1956 vice-presidential nomination, for example — and arriving at his own policy stances. Accordingly, the book’s narrative, too, breaks from its tight focus on the elder Kennedy as the son takes center stage. Even though Nasaw throughout the book refers to the father as “Kennedy,” it becomes jarring in the book’s last chapters to find the freestanding surname used to refer to Joe, not Jack.

Nasaw notes some similarities between the two Kennedys’ foreign policies, but it’s the differences that are truly striking. In foreign policy, JFK was notably less complacent about communism than his father, while also arguing presciently against Western colonialism, notably in the case of French Algeria. In domestic policy, a similar pattern emerged. Although Joe Kennedy supported the Democratic Party’s traditional belief in federal largesse, he was too much the businessman to call himself a liberal and too close to the Catholic hierarchy to share JFK’s belief in the strict separation of church and state. In contrast, JFK, like his brothers after him, managed to transcend his father’s parochialism and identify as a liberal — hardboiled, certainly, and disdainful of bleeding-heart sentimentalism, but proud to promote the New Frontier policies that would bear fruit under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

As with many a patriarch, the influence of Joseph P. Kennedy lay largely in the ways that his strong-minded and talented sons found to rebel.

David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He is working on a history of the American presidency and the development of spin.


The Remarkable Life
and Turbulent Times of
Joseph P. Kennedy

By David Nasaw

Penguin Press. 868 pp. $40