David Nasaw, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (New York: Penguin, 2012), 896 pp., $40.00.
THE PATRIARCH is a thorough and balanced biography that illuminates American public policy from the time of Herbert Hoover to the brief era dominated by the subject’s sons. David Nasaw, an accomplished writer, explores all of the controversial high points of Joseph Kennedy’s career meticulously, and the record is usefully set straight in many places. For the most part, the narrative is absorbing.
It is well-known that Kennedy’s father and father-in-law were prominent Irish Boston figures. It is less widely known that his father, Patrick J. Kennedy, a prosperous financier, gave him an upbringing similar to what upper-middle-class Protestant East Coast families generally provided, including Boston Latin School and Harvard. Joseph Kennedy made no bones of the fact that he did not see it as his role to fight “for the British” during World War I, although he seems to have been too pugnacious a character to have believed that the United States should accept passively the German submarine sinkings of American merchant ships on the high seas. He was no pacifist, as he amply demonstrated after Pearl Harbor, and was certainly not a coward. But Kennedy used political connections to obtain a draft-exempt position in the ship-building industry after America’s entry into the Great War.
After the war, Kennedy joined a Boston merchant bank, Hayden Stone, and largely fulfilled his early ambition of cracking the Boston Brahmin financial establishment. Previously, he had been head of the Columbia Trust Bank, where his father was a director and substantial shareholder. He took this company over as almost a private bank for his stock and investment plunging at Hayden Stone. Kennedy proved a preternaturally agile investor and was almost always successful in generating gains, yet not always with complete probity. Though well established at Hayden Stone, Kennedy saw that he would never be entirely accepted. As the Roaring Twenties began in earnest on Wall Street and across the land, he shifted his sights to the immensely larger New York financial market.
Kennedy soon saw that motion pictures were a growth industry, chronically mismanaged by fly-by-night impresarios who knew nothing of administrative economies, whatever their talents at cinematic artistry and marketing. It also was a glamorous industry. He set out to achieve fame and fortune and accomplished no less. He began with film distribution in New England but quickly moved on to industry-wide arrangements and production. “Joseph P. Kennedy Presents” became a familiar tag on film credits, and Kennedy helped amalgamate several film houses in the manner of new industries that consolidate swiftly.
Nasaw estimates that Kennedy quintupled his net worth between 1926 and 1929—to perhaps $30 million in today’s money. Using his own trust company to make loans to himself (a bold but perfectly legal move), Kennedy bought a growing number of movie theaters and soon took control of the Film Booking Offices of America, Keith-Albee-Orpheum, Pathé Films and First National Corporation. He also conducted extensive negotiations with David Sarnoff of Radio Corporation of America. Then he withdrew from them profitably as they consolidated into Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO).
Despite his ostentatious Roman Catholicism, Kennedy was proud of his extensive sex life and his many attractive companions—including, over decades, legions of assistants, secretaries, masseuses and even young female golf caddies. But in Hollywood, he was able to fish greedily in the pool of starlets and aspirants to stardom. Here Nasaw strays into the swirling waters of surmise and mind reading. He assumes Kennedy’s Catholicism actually enabled him to commit such egregious serial infidelities against the mother of his nine children. Nasaw asserts this theory through the memoirs of Gloria Swanson, one of the greatest and sexiest stars of the 1930s, with whom Kennedy had a torrid affair, notorious in Hollywood but studiously ignored by his wife, Rose, who professed not to notice. Nasaw does effectively debunk, by barely referring to it, the Swanson allegation that Boston’s cardinal William O’Connell, a notoriously imperious and abrasive man, attempted to order Swanson to desist from the relationship.