Biographies tend to be either deadly boring or deeply engrossing. David Nasaw's biography of Joseph P Kennedy, the father of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is one of the engrossing sort. Enough time has gone by and enough actors in the Kennedy family tragedy have died that most of the papers of most of the Kennedys and of the people they wrote to and received letters from, as well as everybody's journals, are now available, primarily at the Kennedy Library in Boston. Nasaw has taken advantage of these newly released materials to fill in many of the blanks that remained in the Kennedy story.
Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, was far more prominent in American public life before World War II than I had realized. He started his fortune working for a family bank and investing in a stock market that was notoriously easy to game. By performing trades that were unethical but not illegal he amassed a large fortune, which he increased with his adventures in Hollywood. He sensed the 1929 disaster was coming and put his money into safe securities and real estate and then made another fortune shorting stocks as the crash unfolded.
When Franklin Roosevelt needed someone to head the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission who better to write the rules than a man who had used every possible technique to play the market? Kennedy was immensely successful as SEC chairman, partly because he had another talent: self promotion. His name became a household word. He moved on to the newly-formed Maritime Commission and when he resigned from that post expected to be named secretary of the treasury.
Roosevelt may have made a disastrous error naming Kennedy as ambassador to England, but he wasn't so foolish as to make Kennedy treasury secretary. Kennedy and his family arrived in England to a riotous welcome. His popularily was at its peak. But it didn't take long for him to strike out on his own, giving speeches which contradicted the foreign policy to which the state department and Roosevelt expected him to adhere.
In the years immediately before the war he was an ardent appeaser, a close friend of Neville Chamberlain, and a strong proponent of treaties with Germany. He was deeply worried at the idea of a war and even when Hitler had demonstrated that he would comply with nothing he had promised to do, still Kennedy advised England to make peace with Hitler.
By the time Kennedy came home and resigned his position he had made an enormous number of enemies in England and in the United States. His unpopularity put him in a position where Roosevelt was unwilling to give him any significant job when the US finally entered the war. He was offered the chairmanship of the Small Business Administration, at which he scoffed.
Still he hated the war and wanted the British to capitulate and the US to sign a treaty giving Hitler the continent in order to get us out of the now expanded and bloody war. He became increasingly anti-Semitic and increasingly outspoken about it. When his eldest son, Joseph P Kennedy, Jr, his son-in-law, Billy Hartington, and his daughter, Kathleen, were killed he became extremely bitter and began to talk of a conspiracy in which Roosevelt had purposely created a climate in which the war was inevitable. Kennedy became a pariah.
With the death of his eldest son and most beloved child, Kennedy turned to his second son, JFK, and began engineering his political career. JFK had been in poor health since birth and it is now thought that he had undiagnosed Addison's disease. He had serious back problems and a case of malaria that was not diagnosed until very late. But his father ignored all of this and pushed him into politics and eventually into the presidency. It's questionable whether JFK really wanted this career for himself but in the face of a bitter, disappointed, ambitious, and thwarted father he had no choice.
This is an authorized biography and it's no surprise that Kennedy comes up smelling like a wild Irish rose, but there are some things he has been accused of, but of which he is innocent. He was not a bootlegger. He did not make his fortune in the liquor business. He may have lied about unethical conduct but he never, as far as the biographer could determine, intentionally broke the law. He was devoted to his children and spent as much time with them as he could, especially when they were small. He was a gifted administrator and performed a string of difficult jobs with brilliance. But his ego tripped him up and he died a broken-hearted man after the additional deaths of JFK and Bobby Kennedy.