A penetrating portrait of an American mogul

For readers who view Joseph P. Kennedy as a bootlegging, womanizing, election-stealing, Nazi-loving villain, “The Patriarch” is not their book. For readers who see Kennedy as a man whose good outweighed the considerable bad, the book is a mixed bag. However, in understanding what made Kennedy tick in public and private, “The Patriarch,” in this reviewer’s opinion, is the finest biography thus far of the ambassador and one of the best books about the entire family.

One of America’s foremost historians, David Nasaw is the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst deservedly earned critical praise and a host of prestigious awards. “The Patriarch” is no less splendid in scholarship, scope, and style. Nasaw’s narrative flows smoothly and skillfully for scholars and general readers alike.

Setting “The Patriarch” light years apart from previous works on Joseph Kennedy is the unprecedented access to source material that Nasaw was granted by the Kennedy family – on his terms. Nasaw notes: “When Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Senator Edward Kennedy…asked me to write a biography of their father, I agreed to do so, but only if I was granted full cooperation, unfettered access to Joseph P. Kennedy’s papers…including those closed to researchers, and unrestricted permission to cite any document I came across. The family accepted my conditions. No attempts were made to withhold information or to censor this book in any way.”

The proof of that is in the book. Nasaw does not shrink from either the myths that many Kennedy-haters accept as gospel or an unsparing examination of his vices and virtues. Yes, while many won’t want to acknowledge it, there were virtues in this ambitious, powerful, charismatic, and often ruthless man whose life and that of his family constitute a Boston Irish, Irish American, and American saga that is Shakespearean in triumph, tragedy, and pathos. When it comes to the bromide that Kennedy was a man who made his fortune in bootlegging, Nasaw convincingly contends that there is no hard shred of evidence to support the charge – other than Kennedy’s providing alcohol for his tenth Harvard reunion.
Nasaw does not sugarcoat his subject’s womanizing: “He enjoyed the company of other women, hundreds of them over his lifetime…” Despite that, Kennedy viewed himself as a staunch Catholic, who, according to his onetime paramour, the actress Gloria Swanson, thought he could “wipe the slate clean just by going to confession.”

Kennedy’s seething ambition in business and politics comes to vivid, engrossing life in “The Patriarch,” but so, too, does his utter devotion to his children. Of course, his legion of detractors will point immediately to his decision to have his daughter Rosemary lobotomized and then seemingly cut her out of his life and thoughts. Nasaw does not whitewash this, but simply presents the unvarnished facts.

He similarly takes on Kennedy’s legendary Wall Street dealings – many of which would have been grossly illegal today but were not in the 1920s – his anti-Semitism (even though a number of influential Jewish jurists and businessmen were his friends), his isolationist views, and all the other controversial aspects of his life and career.

Nasaw examines whether Kennedy was an appeaser “and Nazi sympathizer, a stock swindler, a bootlegger, and a colleague of mobsters.” He scrutinizes whether Kennedy forced his second son – JFK -- into the political fray and then rigged election victories – including the presidential campaign. Nasaw bores deeply into Ambassador Kennedy’s tortuous relationship with FDR, and his condemnation of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. He was against America getting involved in Vietnam, one case in which many might view his isolationism as valid.

While this reviewer is tempted to present Nasaw’s balanced, nuanced, and candid takes on all of these and more, it would be a disservice to both the author and the reader. For anyone with even a passing interest in the Kennedys and in American history, “The Patriarch” is a book not to be missed. What emerges from its pages is a word picture of a complex and towering man who was not the total rogue or villain that so many people have simplistically branded him. What emerges is a picture of a man who in many ways was all too human.

(“The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy,” by David Nasaw. Hardcover, The Penguin Press, NY, 868 pages, b&w photos, $40)