The story begins with a rollicking Irish Catholic clan, athletic, photogenic and as rambunctious as any crowd of kids in a Frank Capra film. They are presided over by Joseph Kennedy, a fabulously successful self-made father with connections in Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington and London, and by Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, a devout but fashionable Catholic mum, as at home on the golf links or the ski slopes as in Windsor Castle. After making millions in banking, real estate and film distribution, the father wants to devote his life to public service, and to train his sons to do the same. But they will be a new kind of public servant, designed for an emerging media age: they will be stars. It is in part a tale of rich people awakening to their responsibility for promoting the public good. But the façade of disinterested public service conceals a clannish sense of entitlement and a preoccupation with power for its own sake. The Kennedy myth, on even cursory inspection, turns out to depend on many misleading surface effects. The puzzle is how it became a compelling part of America’s collective memory.
Two recent biographies offer the beginnings of a solution, by fleshing out the original makers of the myth – Joe and Rose Kennedy. David Nasaw’s The Patriarch is a comprehensive account of Joseph Kennedy’s ascent from lace-curtain respectability to extraordinary wealth and political influence, followed by exile to the margins and vicarious achievement through his sons. Nasaw shows that the one constant in Joe Kennedy’s life – apart from his relentless pursuit of women – was his determination to create a political dynasty through expert manipulation of money and mass media. Barbara Perry’s Rose Kennedy faces the trickier task of reconstructing the conjugal partner in that enterprise, whose life often seems little more than an endless round of state dinners and high-class shopping. In the end, Perry does as well as any biographer can with a woman who kept her inner life sealed off from scrutiny. Indeed her preoccupation with surfaces may have been her deepest trait.
Joe and Rose Kennedy led separate lives: he pursued money, sex and political ambition; she strained after moral and social perfection. They were united in their obsession with keeping up appearances, their pleasure in consorting with the rich and powerful, and their boundless (if conventional) aspirations for their children – whom they indoctrinated with an ethos of winning at all costs. They suffered throughout their lives from mysterious stomach ailments, followed bland and minimal diets, and preserved a fastidious pride in their slim figures. They promoted a family ideal of disciplined achievement and emotional restraint. ‘There’ll be no crying in this house,’ Joe announced. And – except on a few occasions – there was not.
Early on, both Joe and Rose learned how to look good and seem at ease on camera; they perfected the toothy smiles that became the Kennedy trademark. (Concern with dental health was a leitmotif in their family life.) Of course there were souls to shape as well as bodies. The Church supplied mandatory milestones and required rituals, which both parents faithfully observed. Rose added her own example of strict piety and providentialist faith, combined with regular lectures on responsible behaviour. These apparently resonated with the girls. As Kathleen (Kick) said, ‘Mother … gave us our character.’ But the boys were another matter. When asked which parent was more responsible for the children’s success, JFK said to Arthur Schlesinger: ‘Well, no one could say that it was due to my mother.’
While Rose preached ‘responsibility’ to her children, Perry says, Joe became the fixer and ‘enabler of irresponsibility’ for his sons: he reassured young Teddy that ‘the insurance man will fix everything up’ when the boy crashed a rental car on a European vacation, and urged him to share ‘the beautiful women of Cape Cod’ with his recently married brother Jack. Indeed, Perry writes, Joe Sr ‘modelled the very sort of immoral behaviour that Jack and Teddy embraced’.
By ‘immoral behaviour’ Perry means Joe’s legendary philandering, which Nasaw dismisses as conduct that typically characterised ‘men of his generation and class’. This is true but a little quick. As Nasaw observes, Joseph Kennedy had sex with ‘hundreds’ of women: ‘actresses, waitresses, secretaries, stenographers, caddies, models, stewardesses and others’. The point is not to pass judgment on Kennedy’s promiscuity but to consider its significance, both for himself and for his son Jack, whose appetite for sexual conquest replicated his father’s. (Jack claimed he had to have a woman a day, or else he would come down with crippling headaches.) Nearly all their liaisons reflected unequal class relations – a pattern that suggests the sense of entitlement shared by father and son. Clannish pride reinforced the quest for power. The assumption that merely being a Kennedy elevated one above conventional moral constraints found its fulfilment in the presidency of Jack, but originated in the mind of his father.
Joseph Patrick Kennedy was born in the Irish enclave of East Boston in 1888, the first child of Mary Augusta Hickey, the daughter of a successful builder, and Patrick Joseph Kennedy, a Democratic party official with a series of no-show government jobs and a variety of local business interests ranging from liquor and banking to real estate. By the time Joe was eight, he was ‘the leader of his pack’, organising ballgames and Fourth of July pageants. A mediocre student, he made his mark in baseball and managed to gain admission to Harvard, along with a sprinkling of other Catholics. Making his way on personal magnetism, ‘he could charm a bird out of a tree’, a friend recalled.
For years he had been attracted to Rose Fitzgerald, according to Nasaw ‘the most famous and surely one of the prettiest Catholic girls in the city’, though even the loyal Perry admits that ‘her Boston accent, and somewhat brittle voice, occasionally grated’. She was the first-born child of the Boston mayor, John Francis ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald, a ‘paunchy welterweight’ as Nasaw calls him, who belted out ‘Sweet Adeline’ at every campaign gathering and kept his daughter on a short leash. Rose returned home from convent school in 1910 to become her father’s ‘companion, hostess and assistant’, as she recalled.
Honey Fitz cast a cold eye on Joe, whose father backed a rival party faction. For two years Rose and Joe courted secretly, taking it for granted that they would be married as soon as Joe could support a family. He dated no other marriageable women but played with plenty of the other kind. On one occasion he was with his Harvard classmate Arthur Goldsmith and a couple of chorus girls when they ran into Rose at a roller-skating rink. ‘Joe, arm in arm with his “charmer”, was able to talk himself out of that one,’ Goldsmith said.
After graduating from Harvard in 1912, Joe took a job as a bank examiner for the state, a preparation for the private sector that quickly paid off. In January 1914 he was elected president of Columbia Trust Bank, where his father was on the board. It was a small bank, but he was only 25 years old. In October 1914 he and Rose married and moved into a house on Beals Street in Brookline, a middle-class Protestant neighbourhood. Joe began borrowing money to invest in real estate and stocks. Rose remembered their first ‘gleaming black Model T’, which Joe drove into a ditch and back out again with ‘no loss of nerve’. It was not a big risk for a stock market plunger.
When the US entered World War One, Joe was granted an ‘industrial exemption’ to manage the Fore River Shipyard. After the war he took a job as a trader with the brokerage firm Hayden, Stone, though he soon learned the big money was not in brokerage but in assisting business start-ups and mergers, then managing the new companies from the inside. The sources of his investment capital didn’t come from bootlegging – Nasaw lays that persistent rumour to rest – but from banks where he could get preferential loans. His experience as a bank examiner allowed him to know how far he could go juggling collateral and loans, moving capital from one account to another, one bank to another. Perfectly legal shell games could be lucrative.
Joe Jr was born in 1915, followed quickly by Rosemary and Jack. Rose was on her way to 17 years of frequent (and at first almost continuous) pregnancy – though always with abundant household help. Nappies, she recalled, ‘never concerned me’. She began using index cards to record her children’s religious milestones and medical data. As Perry says, her project was ‘creating perfect Kennedys’. She was obsessed with their diets and their IQ scores. Jack, to her surprise, outpointed Joe Jr, while Rosemary’s score was disturbingly low.
Joe worked long hours and was often away all night. Rose never asked where he had been, any more than her mother had asked Honey Fitz. But at some point in 1920 she moved back to her parents’ house for several weeks. After attending a religious retreat, she returned to Beals Street determined to fulfil her wifely and maternal duties. In 1921, they found a bigger house in the same neighbourhood with a private bedroom for Rose. Soon they began taking separate vacations. Years later, when their granddaughter Caroline asked how they handled their differences, Rose explained: ‘I would just say “Yes, dear,” and then I’d go to Paris.’
The children’s religious education divided along gender lines. The boys (except Robert) were never as devout as the girls. When Rose told five-year-old Jack that attending first Friday Mass for nine months assured a ‘happy death’, he said he would rather pray for ‘two dogs’. Joe Jr and Jack both started at Dexter, an exclusive elementary school that catered to the Wasp elite. Joe’s plan to remove the boys from the Catholic ghetto was underway. In 1928 he bought the summer house in Hyannis Port where the family would assemble for decades, and the year after a mansion in Bronxville (just north of New York City) where, he believed, they could escape Brahmin prejudice for good.
In 1925, Kennedy dived into the movie business, cranking out low-budget ‘programme pictures’, tightening up costs and cultivating relations with the trade press. He successfully posed as the ‘white, non-Jewish knight’, convincing Photoplay that he would ‘endow the febrile motion-picture industry with an atmosphere of Americanism and substantiality’. After three years juggling three companies, he sold nearly all his holdings and took $2.5 million in profits (about $30 million today).
He couldn’t quite disentangle himself from Hollywood, however. In November 1927 he met Gloria Swanson. They had complementary business interests: he needed her prestige to raise his studio’s; she needed someone to put her financial concerns in order. Mutual sexual attraction sweetened the deal. In January 1928 they began an extended affair. Still in charge of Pathé Pictures, Kennedy produced The Trespasser, Swanson’s first talkie. It was a huge success. After the London opening, Swanson, Rose, her sister Margaret and Joe all sailed back to New York together. Whenever other men stared at Gloria, Joe spluttered angrily at them like a jealous lover, which he was. Rose ignored this behaviour. Swanson recalled: ‘He believed you could wipe the slate clean just by going to confession. It worked for him like sleeping pills for other people.’ This may have been a typical Catholic attitude, but Joe was not a typical Catholic. According to Swanson, he believed his confessors were ‘all after his money’ so would just give him a few Hail Marys for penance. Swanson recalled that ‘Joe always had a confessor handy’ – in Beverly Hills, Hyannis, even on the boat from Europe – and he ‘usually knew in advance what the penance would be. He never wanted to take a chance on running into some smarty pants priest there in a dark confessional from some poor diocese where he didn’t have any real estate holdings.’ Money brought spiritual as well as secular entitlement.
After getting out of Hollywood, Kennedy took advantage of insider information to locate overvalued stocks and sell them short. Between 1930 and 1932, he busied himself by betting against the nation’s largest companies, correctly anticipating that their value would continue to fall. In 1932 alone, he doubled his net worth. He must have looked like a magician to men who had lost their shirts.
Kennedy seemed the perfect candidate to chair the new Securities and Exchange Commission. But some complained about FDR ‘inviting a former Wall Street plunger to regulate the other plungers’, in Nasaw’s words, so FDR’s advisers arranged a meeting between Kennedy and Arthur Krock, a writer for the New York Times, who became a crucial player in the making of the Kennedy myth. He wrote speeches for Joe, then praised them in his columns; he ghostwrote Kennedy’s I’m for Roosevelt campaign book and rewrote Jack’s meandering senior thesis into the slightly less meandering Why England Slept. Krock never acknowledged this intimacy to his employers or to the readers of the Times: it was the paradigmatic relationship between the Kennedys and the press.
Krock’s publicity campaign went well, and Kennedy impressed Congress with his can-do attitude. His appointment confirmed, Kennedy rented a Maryland estate, entertaining powerful guests (including FDR) with lobsters, clams and Scotch, and getting down to the business of restoring confidence on Wall Street. This he did, with upbeat speeches and new regulations against insider trading – about which, of course, he knew quite a bit. He resigned in September 1935. But he still sent FDR a bottle of Haig & Haig for Christmas.
FDR was adept at getting what he wanted from Kennedy and not giving too much back. What he wanted – and got – was the public support of a prominent Irish Catholic who was also at home on Wall Street. What Kennedy wanted was to be Treasury secretary; the best he could get, in January 1938, was to be appointed Ambassador to the Court of St James. It was a strange appointment, especially given FDR’s inclinations towards intervention and Kennedy’s belief that appeasement was the only way to keep the peace, a view he had held long before he arrived in London. He occasionally consorted with crypto-fascists and anti-semites, but his anti-interventionist motives were less ideological than personal. As he said at the dedication of a church in Scotland in September 1938: ‘I should like to ask you all if you know of any dispute or controversy existing in the world which is worth the life of your son, or anyone else’s son?’ If Hitler backed away from the Sudetenland, Kennedy told the German chargé d’affaires, he would be hailed by the world as a ‘benefactor of mankind’. The Munich Agreement brought Kennedy temporary relief and in its wake he managed to squeeze in a tryst with Clare Booth Luce, who cabled him on her return to New York: ‘Golly that was nice.’
Such distractions were no solution to the most intractable problem – the Jewish refugees begging for asylum from Nazi persecution. Roosevelt asked Kennedy to mention the issue to Chamberlain, but neither Roosevelt nor Kennedy pressed the point. In autumn 1938, Kennedy met with Chaim Weizmann and other Zionists, who were impressed by his sincerity and good will, if not by his conviction that being nice to Hitler was the only way to get the Jews out of his clutches. When Kristallnacht shattered what was left of that hope, the ambassador announced the Kennedy Plan, urging the British to open territory for Jews somewhere in their empire (but not in Palestine). Though administration officials had floated similar ideas, FDR knew nothing of Kennedy’s plan until he read about it in the newspapers. He was not pleased.
Meanwhile Rose was having the time of her life. She and her family were a tabloid sensation. Everyone was agog at her ‘marvellous figure’. She kept a ‘meticulous daily diary that reflected the essence of her personality’, Perry writes. ‘No superficial detail eluded her observation.’ The rule-bound atmosphere of aristocratic social life satisfied her own appetite for precision. ‘I must be dreaming,’ she rhapsodised to her diary after an evening at Windsor Castle. The high point was an audience with the new pope, Pius XII, who ‘talked to her so much and so kindly and intimately I thought she would faint’, her husband said. Rome was for spiritual exaltation, London for social excitement and Paris for shopping. War was a vague rumour.
But not to her husband. Tensions between Kennedy and Roosevelt intensified as word of the ambassador’s views drifted back to the US. As late as August 1939, Kennedy was still advising Chamberlain to buy off Hitler with trade agreements, in effect to reward his aggression. After the war started, he urged FDR to negotiate privately with Hitler – FDR called it ‘the silliest message to me I have ever received’. Opening back-channel negotiations with Churchill, Chamberlain’s expected successor, Roosevelt began to ignore his ambassador, who told a companion en route to a bomb shelter on the first night of the Blitz: ‘Hitler will be in Buckingham Palace in two weeks.’ FDR kept Kennedy at his post, pretending to praise him even as he went behind his back, eager in spite of everything to win his endorsement for the 1940 campaign. Roosevelt got what he wanted.
After Roosevelt’s re-election, Kennedy offered his resignation, then gave a disastrous interview to the Boston Globe. ‘Democracy is all done’ was his leitmotif. The ambassador had become ‘drunk on his own verbosity’, an aide said. It was the beginning of Kennedy’s descent into political purgatory. He had always wanted to be an insider but had never known how to make a sacrifice for the good of the team. His primary concern remained the promotion of his sons’ political ambitions. ‘My energy from now on will be tied up in their careers rather than my own,’ he told David Sarnoff, the head of RCA, in 1942.
But he still had Rosemary’s problems to sort out. While he was ambassador, Rosemary attended a convent school in Kensington Square; she stayed there after the war started and the rest of the family went home, shining a little more brightly in their absence, peppering her father with pathetic notes, longing for his approval, promising to lose weight. But when she returned to Washington in autumn 1941 and was enrolled in another convent school, she became physically aggressive and verbally abusive, and took to wandering the streets of Washington alone at night. Fretting about her safety, Kennedy was talked into arranging a lobotomy by Walter Freeman, head of neurology at George Washington University and chief evangelist for the procedure. Freeman insisted that it could cure Rosemary’s tantrums, irritability and violence; in fact the operation was a disaster. Rosemary lost all memory and speech, and only gradually recovered the ability to function even minimally. For the rest of her life she would remain hopelessly dependent. ‘I will never forgive Joe for that awful operation he had performed on Rosemary,’ Rose later wrote. ‘It is the only thing I have ever felt bitter towards him about.’ Joe’s ambition for his sons required Rosemary to disappear. So he hid her away in institutions and forbade anyone, even her mother, to see her. Failure and weakness could not be allowed to intrude on the Kennedy myth.
After Pearl Harbor, Joe Jr and Jack wanted to serve on the front line and Kennedy was eager to help them – if only to boost their postwar political prospects. Joe Jr became a navy flyer; Jack, underweight and frequently hospitalised, could hardly have hoped to get into the military at all, but for his father’s intervention. Jack landed a commission in naval intelligence, but was quickly booted out when federal investigators discovered he was having an affair with Inga Arvad, a Danish woman suspected of being a Nazi spy. Once again dad stepped in, hushed any scandal, persuaded his son to break off the affair and landed him an assignment on a patrol torpedo boat. When it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and split in two, Jack managed to get himself and another crew member to safety. This required genuine courage, but Joe made sure that his son’s heroism was embellished in subsequent renderings.
The next summer the big blow came. Joe Jr had volunteered for a nearly suicidal mission to destroy a V-1 rocket launching site in Belgium. He was to fly a B-24 bomber, packed with explosives, towards the Channel, then parachute to safety while the plane proceeded to its target by remote control. The plane blew up over the English countryside before he could bail out. The heir apparent was dead. ‘All my plans for my future were tied up with young Joe, and that has gone smash,’ Kennedy wrote to a friend. Rose retreated to prayerful solitude every afternoon for months. Joe, for the first time, felt paralysed by loss.
Jack would have to pick up the baton. But before he was well launched the Kennedys would sacrifice another child to their household god of risk. Kick (to her mother’s horror) had married the Protestant Billy Hartington, Marquess of Cavendish, in 1944; he was killed a month after Joe Jr. Several years later she began an affair with Peter Fitzwilliam, an older married man ‘widely known as something of a bounder’, according to Nasaw. He was also a risk-taker: in May 1948 he insisted on his pilot flying from Cannes to Paris in spite of a thunderstorm that had grounded all commercial flights. Kick was with him when the plane went down. Rose’s faith sustained her, but according to one observer, Joe looked ‘crumpled just like the suit’ he was wearing at Kick’s funeral. It was getting a little harder to keep up appearances.
Still, politics demanded it. Kennedy had engineered Jack’s upset election to the US Congress in 1946, stage managing the campaign with tricks he had learned in Hollywood and from the Roosevelt campaigns, spreading philanthropic gifts around the district, ‘branding his son as the fresh-faced, charming young war hero, with a bit of glamour and a wholesome, down to earth quality’, as Nasaw writes. Maintaining this brand required suppressing Jack’s diagnosis with Addison’s disease in 1947, but Joe was an old hand at keeping secrets.
Kennedy’s last public intervention in debate was a challenge to the Truman Doctrine, the president’s pledge to assist any country resisting communism, anywhere, anytime. Kennedy argued that the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union was an ordinary clash of nations, not an apocalyptic struggle for world domination. Walter Lippmann found this thesis compelling and Senator Robert Taft picked up its themes in a speech against sending arms to Europe. Where this left Congressman Jack Kennedy was unclear. In a brilliant dodge, he left for a fact-finding mission the day after Taft’s speech. This would set a pattern. Throughout the 1950s, JFK steered between his party and his father. Meanwhile his father continued to stage manage his campaigns. He loaned the editor of the Boston Post $500,000 on the eve of the 1952 election, ensuring an endorsement from the normally Republican paper. He discouraged his son from criticising the redbaiter-in-chief, Joseph McCarthy, a favourite among Irish Catholic voters and a family friend. He pressed the use of television, having taught his sons to be as comfortable on camera as he was.
His chief role was to perfect the transformation of politics into public relations. Announcing that ‘things don’t happen, they are made to happen in the public relations field,’ he enacted that aphorism in the orchestration of Jack’s reputation. His old friend Krock lobbied hard for JFK’s Profiles in Courage to win a Pulitzer Prize – not an unusual practice, except that the book had been put together by several hands, as if it were a political speech. Even by the standards of the Pulitzer committee, it was disingenuous to claim that this book’s author deserved a prize for writing. But the book and the prize were important steps on the road to the presidency.
In the run-up to the 1960 election, Krock performed more yeoman service, using his perch at the Times to promote Jack’s candidacy. Joe worked the phones from Palm Beach, calling in a lifetime of contacts, organising Protestant clergymen’s committees to defuse the religious issue, and pouring cash into the campaign. In the key primary states of Wisconsin and West Virginia, Nasaw reports, ‘money arrived in satchels’.
What ultimately triumphed in 1960 was not a particular set of policies but a particular conception of politics – Joe Kennedy’s conception, which emphasised the manipulation of shimmering surfaces, the bringing of Hollywood to Washington. Jack’s inaugural address embodied the interventionism Joe had spent his career attacking, as the president promised to ‘pay any price, bear any burden’ in the cause of global freedom. This was the kind of rhetoric that had sickened the elder Kennedy when it came from Truman. But as he sat behind the podium on that bitter January day, he felt just fine. He finally had what he wanted: a son in the White House.
‘Have you ever seen so many attractive people in one room?’ JFK asked at the inaugural gala. ‘I’ll tell you Dad knows how to give a party.’ It was the old man’s last hurrah. Less than a year later, at 73, he was felled by a stroke. As Nasaw writes: ‘He was in an instant transformed from the most vital, the smartest, the dominant one in the room to a gnarled, crippled, drooling, speechless, wheelchair-bound, utterly dependent shell of a man.’ There were nine more years of shrinkage. Ted told his father of JFK’s murder; Rose told him of Robert’s. The old man cried, alone, for hours and hours. Stoicism had its limits.
Rose soldiered on. After her husband became a silent invalid, Perry writes, ‘Rose’s voice strengthened.’ She helped contain the fall-out from Teddy’s self-inflicted scandals and became a prominent public advocate for the mentally retarded. She had always preferred isolation to the cacophony of the assembled clan, and the children were glad she kept her distance. ‘I think she made them all very nervous,’ Joe’s doctor observed. In Perry’s account, Rose emerges as a fault-finding control freak, reacting against the absence of control in her own life. Jacqueline Kennedy once witheringly observed of Rose that ‘her little mind went to pieces’ monitoring the minutiae of life – the towels in Hyannis, the placemats in Palm Beach, the silverware in Bronxville. Still, it would be a mistake to settle for that dismissal. Even Jackie softened her attitude later in life. Rose was more vulnerable than the Kennedy myth acknowledged. When Robert was killed, she could only repeat ‘my son, my son’, until she finally resigned herself to the mysterious ways of providence. What was involved in that resignation we can only guess, but we may permit ourselves to imagine that it was more than mere surface effects.