No Crying in This House

Jackson Lears

  • The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw
    Allen Lane, 896 pp, £12.35, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 14 312407 8
  • Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch by Barbara Perry
    Norton, 404 pp, £20.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 393 06895 5

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in