He was one of the most famous fathers in history and a mythic figure in the public imagination: Wall Street tycoon, Hollywood buccaneer, notorious proponent of appeasement during World War II and, most especially, larger-than-life paterfamilias who endowed his children – John F Kennedy, Robert F Kennedy and Edward M Kennedy, among them – with a sense of destiny and his own driving will. He was the ruthless outsider who charmed, bullied and manipulated his way into the corridors of power; the charismatic and intimidating magnate whose progeny, his latest biographer, David Nasaw, writes, “would complete the journey from Dunganstown, Ireland, to East Boston to the pinnacle of American political power and social prominence that their father had begun”.
Mr Nasaw’s biography sheds valuable light on exactly how his subject made his fortune. It provides a detailed account of his willful efforts to try to make a deal with Hitler and refutes some persistent myths. But this flat-footed, long-winded book unfortunately captures little of the extraordinary drama of his life and provides few new insights into the man himself or the complex emotional arithmetic within the Kennedy clan.
In the introduction to The Patriarch Mr Nasaw – a biographer of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst – says he was asked by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Senator Edward Kennedy to write a biography of their father, and that he agreed to do so “only if I was granted full cooperation, unfettered access to Joseph P Kennedy’s papers in the John F Kennedy Presidential Library, including those closed to researchers, and unrestricted permission to cite any document I came across”.
They accepted, he goes on to say. “No attempts were made to withhold information or to censor this book in any way.”
Mr Nasaw’s book, however, does not do much to illuminate the inner lives of Kennedy or his offspring. “We know little of his boyhood in East Boston,” Mr Nasaw writes, “in part because Joseph P Kennedy had no interest in looking back on his childhood, other than to recall on occasion in conversations with close friends how much he admired and adored his father.” Later on he observes that “the smiling, effervescent, freckle-faced boy wonder had been transformed into a silent man of mystery, but the magnetic field around him had not diminished in the slightest” and yet offers scant insight into why this evolution occurred.
As for Kennedy’s relationship with his children, Mr Nasaw writes: “He was a near-perfect father as far as they were concerned. He never scolded or spanked, seldom raised his voice, was patient and generous. His only requirements were that they be courteous, watch out for one another, and always be on time.” Never mind that his high expectations and imperious will meant that it was difficult to defy his wishes.
For that matter Kennedy was often absent from home for long stretches of time. In 1928 he refused to interrupt his regular Palm Beach vacation to be home with his wife, Rose, when she gave birth to his eighth child, Mr Nasaw reports, and “neither wife nor children would see very much of him for the next three years,” as he began spending more and more time on the West Coast, working in the movie business and pursuing an affair with the actress Gloria Swanson.
One of the few areas in which this biography does provide a window into Kennedy’s thinking is his abysmal stint as Franklin D Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain. In Mr Nasaw’s view Kennedy was temperamentally unsuited to being an ambassador – he “refused to be a team player because he was convinced that he knew better than his superiors” – and he was eager to do anything to avoid war because he feared that American capitalism (which had made him a rich man) would not survive the country’s entry into the conflict.
The most compelling portions of this very long volume deal with Kennedy’s contentious relationship with Roosevelt, whom he had campaigned for and who had made him the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Mr Nasaw contends that Joseph Kennedy was never the same after the death of his eldest son, Joe Jr, who in 1944 volunteered for a dangerous bombing mission and never returned. His fourth child, the high-spirited Kathleen, would die in a plane crash over France four years later.
In 1941 Kennedy agreed to let doctors perform a lobotomy on his eldest daughter, Rosemary, who had been born mildly retarded. The operation deprived her of her memory and her speech; she would spend most of the rest of her life in an institution in Wisconsin.
By the time his son Jack was assassinated in 1963, a stroke had left Joseph Kennedy largely incapacitated.
His health declined sharply after the assassination of his son Robert in 1968, and he died on November 18, 1969, in Hyannis Port.
“He was 81 years of age,” Mr Nasaw writes, “and had outlived four of his nine children.”
©2012 The New York Times News Service
The Remarkable Life and Turbulent
Times of Joseph P Kennedy
The Penguin Press; 868 pages; $40