"Boundless talents, magnetic charm, relentless energy and unbridled ambition" is how David Nasaw describes Joseph Patrick Kennedy (1888-1969) in his new biography. The life of Kennedy, a flawed pessimist with an ego "as big as the Ritz," is monumental and analytic of small detail, all at once.
Mr. Nasaw has the rare ability to see the big picture and frame the detail with careful scholarship -- all the while making room for elements that do not fit -- which in Joe Kennedy's case is quite a lot.
Penguin Press ($40).
Joseph P. Kennedy was the father of President John F. Kennedy and Sens. Robert and Edward Kennedy, as well as Joseph Patrick Jr., Rosemary, Kathleen "Kick," Eunice Mary, Patricia "Pat" and Jean Ann.
JPK has the reputation, earned or unearned, as a bad guy. Tales of his immoralities abound, but Mr. Nasaw says they need to be seen in the context of a larger, more complicated history.
"My goal in 'The Patriarch' has been to narrate the life story of a remarkable man and the history of the turbulent times he lived through, the events he participated in, the men and women with whom he came into contact," he writes, concluding that the story of JPK is "the retelling of the history of the 20th century."
This seems an overbroad claim, but not by much.
How did Kennedy's story begin? He was an outsider from East Boston who became a millionaire, a Hollywood studio head, a broker, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a New Deal presidential adviser and ambassador to England. He was an interloper who became a Washington insider who wore out his welcome with constant policy complaints and his own presidential ambitions.
Kennedy grew up the son of a powerful East Boston ward heeler by the same name. JPK went to Boston Latin, one of the best secondary schools in the country. There he was admired as an athlete, class president and swain of Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, Boston's mayor. When he graduated and traveled across the river to Harvard College, he found himself, as an Irish Catholic, "odd man out."
It was at that point that Kennedy realized that even if he was the smartest guy in the room (even if he wasn't that sharp in class), he'd have to make his own way to get ahead, rather than rely upon old Boston connections unavailable to him.
Mr. Nasaw's is a literate and searching exposition of the patriarch's life that offers the reader compelling answers to questions about JPK. For example:
• Was Joseph P. Kennedy really a bootlegger? No, but he marshaled his resources to compete for the right to import Scotch whisky as soon as it was legal to do so, in early December 1933.
• What kind of father was he? He was a remarkably attentive, loving, caring father. "When he was home, which was seldom, his door was always open to his children, who would spend time with him, sprawled on his sofa bed."
• How could he have been a good father when he had affairs with Gloria Swanson, Clare Boothe Luce and many other women? Mr. Nasaw writes that Kennedy "enjoyed the company of other women, hundreds of them ... actresses, waitresses, secretaries, stenographers, caddies, models, stewardesses, and others." (Swanson concluded that for Kennedy, a Catholic, the sacrament of penance for him was like a sleeping pill: "It wiped the slate clean.")
What was the glue that kept Joe and Rose together? "Strange as it might seem," Ted Kennedy recalled in his memoirs, "Dad and Mother never fought." When, much later, Caroline Kennedy asked Rose how she had handled "differences" with her husband, Rose replied, "I would always just say, 'Yes, dear,' and then I'd go to Paris." For Rose, the consummate Catholic, theirs was a mirage made in heaven.
Why was he almost alone among bankers, brokers and millionaires in support of Roosevelt in 1932? He did so because he feared that without new leadership American capitalism -- including his personal fortune -- might go down the drain. A conservative, he successfully headed the SEC as its first chairman, outlawing the same stock transactions that enabled him to be a multimillionaire.
Was he an appeaser and isolationist? "Yes" is the answer. He sent Charles Lindbergh to fly to London from Paris and prepare a report on German military supremacy, which he thought would frighten Britain and the United States into agreeing with Hitler's demands in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Nasaw writes, "He should have been removed [from his ambassadorial post] and replaced by someone the president could trust." FDR kept him on for a time, figuring that what harm he did in England was less than hearing him complain at home.
Was he a Nazi sympathizer or an anti-Semite? He was neither, according to Mr. Nasaw. However, he "blamed the Jews" for his being scorned and criticized as an "appeaser."
Why did he have his daughter Rosemary lobotomized? It was his last resort of treatment thought to be 66 percent helpful at the time. Earlier he had her receive special "gland" injections and put her in Sacred Heart convent (published with a strangely revealing typo on page 222 as "Scared Heart convent"), but nothing worked.
How extensive was his influence on JFK as a candidate? It was major, from 1945 on, making him in many ways responsible for JFK's win in the 1960 presidential debates. Mr. Nasaw notes that the Catholic Church, in the patriarch's view, had stood in JFK's way.
Mr. Nasaw, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize with his biographies "Andrew Carnegie" and "The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst," is the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Professor of History at the Graduate Center for the City University of New York. If "The Patriarch" doesn't scoop up some serious accolades for the writing of American history, the fix is in.
Michael D. Langan, a retired U.S. Treasury enforcement official, has written for the BBC, Boston Globe and Buffalo News over the past 35 years (firstname.lastname@example.org).