Lecture preview: Biographer recounts Kennedy patriarch's ambitions

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Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr., father of America's famous political family, was a child of privilege while growing up in Boston.

But even after earning a Harvard degree in 1912, he remained an outsider because of his unfashionable East Boston roots, Irish ancestry and Catholic faith.

"Although none of the Boston banks or Wall Street firms offered him a position when he got out of Harvard, he was going to show them," said David Nasaw, author of "The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy."

David Nasaw

Where: Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

When: 7:30 tonight.

Tickets: $15 to $35, available by calling 412-622-8866 or by visiting www.pittsburghlectures.org.

Mr. Nasaw, 68, also author of an Andrew Carnegie biography published in 2006, speaks at 7:30 tonight in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall. His speech is presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.

A multimillionaire by age 40, Kennedy started out in banking and finance. He bought and sold and profited handsomely in the nation's Wild West of a stock market during the 1920s. His quest for financial security was rooted in an ardent desire to ensure his children's futures.

"If he wasn't going to make it himself -- if he wasn't going to enter the promised land -- he was going to make damn sure his children did. The only way to do that was to provide them with the financial backing so they could enter politics or public service, so they could become American gentry," Mr. Nasaw said in a telephone interview.

Kennedy financed and stage managed his nine children's lives and careers. He realized how politicians could use the power of television to their advantage and rehearsed his second son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, for the cameras. He also encouraged his daughters to work before getting married and continue working afterward.

The many roles Kennedy played included Hollywood producer, lover of movie star Gloria Swanson, first chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission.

While serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938 to 1940, Kennedy was labeled an isolationist and Hitler appeaser; at one point, he thought it was possible to buy off the dictator. He was such a blunt and cocky ambassador that President Franklin Roosevelt and his Cabinet members did end runs around him to keep him out of the information loop.

While serving in England, Kennedy "did come up with a plan to save the Jews in 1938. There were headlines about it," the author said, adding that when he began his research, he thought he might find that Kennedy was no more anti-Semitic than any other government employee in Roosevelt's administration.

"I was quite disturbed by the extent and the virulence of the anti-Semitism. He swallows every anti-Semitic myth about the Jews from 1938 on. He believes the Jews are the enemy of peace because there's this worldwide conspiracy to start a world war and bring down Hitler," the author said.

Mr. Nasaw, who is Jewish, said Kennedy "had lived through anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice that was as ill-founded as that against the Jews," and, given his intelligence, should have seen through the fallacies in those myths.

The Irish entrepreneur and political operative was a conservative bear who believed that entering World War II would endanger American democracy.

"Joe Kennedy, having amassed his millions, was overcome by fear that not only would he lose his millions but that capitalism and democracy were fragile entities," Mr. Nasaw said.

Kennedy feared that "war and depression and hardship would push the United States toward Soviet Communism or towardNazism or fascism," Mr. Nasaw added.

One of the biography's best moments is on Jan. 20, 1961, inauguration day for John F. Kennedy. Joseph Kennedy and his wife, Rose, watched the inaugural parade and as their son passed, the elder Kennedy tipped his hat to his son and the handsome, young president did the same in return.

"Their father never tipped his hat to anybody, not presidents or popes. And suddenly, he's doing it to his son. For his other children, it was a remarkable moment," the author said.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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