Sprawling, highly readable biography of the dynast and larger-than-life figure whose presence still haunts American political life.
Working from his subject’s extensive archives, Nasaw (Andrew Carnegie, 2006, etc.) pieces together a sometimes-sympathetic, sometimes-critical view of Joseph P. Kennedy (1888–1969), father of John F. Kennedy and most definitely a man of parts. Born into wealth, he learned the ropes in the banking business before heading to Hollywood to try his hand at filmmaking. In the last pursuit, he charted only some successes, but he made great use of the perks of the job in bedding starlets, notably Gloria Swanson. Kennedy left Hollywood to return to finance, moving among several palatial homes in Florida, New York and Massachusetts and building a massive fortune thanks to what Nasaw calls “an almost uncanny knack for being in the right stock.” His children, including future politicians John, Robert and Edward, grew up surrounded by opulence, though the patriarch took care that they not become spoiled by too much too soon. Yet, by Nasaw’s account, when the Depression hit and reduced his fortune along with everyone else’s, Kennedy’s mood seemed to turn, and he spent the rest of his long life in brooding and contrarian turns, courting plenty of trouble along the way. Accused, as Nasaw notes, of various crimes and moral failings, ranging from bootlegging to anti-Semitism, Kennedy nevertheless instilled in his family a sense of dedication to service and of the necessity of hard work. As he writes, Jack Kennedy recognized that despite the advantages of wealth, he had obstacles to overcome that were at least due in part to his father: “If I were governor of a large state, Protestant and 55,” he said, “I could sit back and let it come to me.”
It did not, and nothing came easy to any of the Kennedys, that tragic clan, who continue to fascinate. Exhaustive yet accessible, Nasaw’s book illuminates.