Joseph Kennedy, 'Patriarch' Of An American Dynasty
By the time he turned 40, Joseph Kennedy was a millionaire many times over and the head of what would soon become one of America's greatest political dynasties. In his new biography of the senior Kennedy, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, David Nasaw charts Kennedy's life and trajectory from Boston society boy to Hollywood bigwig to controversial ambassador to Great Britain as World War II unfolded on the European stage.
And then there are the tragedies. Joe Kennedy — a devoted father by Nasaw's account — outlived four of his nine children, and struggled with the mental illness of his daughter Rosemary, whose lobotomy he personally set in motion when she was 23. He then sent her away to an institution for the remainder of her life. After she left, her name was not mentioned again in the Kennedy home.
Joseph Kennedy had wanted to exert his influence in a positive way, and Rosemary aside, he did. His children entered public service with verve and single-mindedness because that was what he raised them to do. "He told [his children] over and over again, 'I'm making all this money so you don't have to make money, so that you can go into public service,' " Nasaw tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies.
"He impressed on them that those who are privileged with money, with education, with good looks, have to give something back to those who don't have those privileges, and he truly believed that," Nasaw says. "And all of these kids grew up knowing they were not going to go into business. They didn't want to go into business. They were going to do some sort of public service and, in the end, they did."
Of course, Kennedy's motives weren't entirely altruistic, either. He was politically savvy, a master of political and social game playing. For example, when it came to encouraging support for Franklin Roosevelt among the businessmen whom Kennedy considered his social peers but who were skeptical of the president, Kennedy addressed his wealthy friends as a rich man himself.
"[Kennedy] wrote a book in 1936 called Why I'm for Roosevelt," says Nasaw. "Because he couldn't believe — even after four years — that the banking community and the Wall Street community just detested [FDR], and he said over and over again, and he put it in his book ... 'This man, Franklin Roosevelt is not a communist, is not a socialist, is not a radical; he is saving capitalism, and you should support him.' "
On Kennedy's introduction to prejudice against Irish Catholics
"Joe Kennedy grew up a privileged child of East Boston aristocracy. Everybody knew who he was, everybody knew who his family was. He was a sports star, he was handsome, articulate ... His greatest tragedy was not making the varsity [Harvard] baseball team because he was too slow. It was only when he graduates from Harvard that he begins to understand what it means to be an Irish Catholic from East Boston, whose father is a local ward leader. He wants to go into banking or finance. He cannot get a job. Cannot get an interview. His friends, who happen to be Protestant with the same degree that he has and not as good a head for numbers as he has, they have no problem getting jobs. ... So it's at that moment in 1912 that he realizes — really for the first time — that there are going to be a lot of doors closed to him, and only because he is Irish Catholic in Boston."
On how Kennedy became a Hollywood mogul
"The man understands that the nation, in the 1920s, is as divided as it is today, but not between red and blue states or Democrats and Republicans, but into ethnic tribes — ethnic religious tribes. He gets it, and when he arrives in Hollywood he presents himself not as an Irish Catholic, but as a non-Jew. And he says to the industry — and he says it over and over and over again ... 'You guys need me, a Boston banker who's not a Jew, as the face of the industry, because you're going to be in trouble. You're already in trouble. Towns and cities and states across this country are beginning to institute censorship laws because they don't trust an industry which caters to their children and is run by Eastern European Jews. And I will be the fresh face. I'll protect you.'"
On Kennedy's controversial ambassadorship to England in 1938
"A couple of his good friends tell him not to go. They say, 'You're unfit in every way to be an ambassador. You don't understand history, you don't understand diplomacy, you're the least diplomatic man that's ever lived. You've got a foul mouth, you won't follow protocol, you won't follow orders. An ambassador is a messenger boy, and you're not going to want to follow or deliver anybody's messages.'
"But he goes ... and within weeks of his arrival, the Germans invade Austria and declare that Austria is now a part, a province, of the Third Reich, and from the moment he arrives, the fears of the world are exacerbated day after day after day after day by Hitler's demanding pieces of Czechoslovakia, all of Czechoslovakia, pieces of Poland, all of Poland — and Kennedy, instead of following orders, instead of acting as the ambassador, follows his own agenda. He has his own foreign policy agenda, and that foreign policy agenda is appeasement."
On Kennedy's belief in a Jewish conspiracy to get the United States to enter World War II
"Kennedy believes that there is a Jewish conspiracy to go to war with Hitler. He believes that the Jews — to get revenge against Hitler and in the mistaken belief that they can defeat him and save their European Jewry — he believes the Jews are doing everything they possibly can to push the United States into war, into a war it should not, he believes, fight. And he indulges in every kind of anti-Semitic scapegoating and conspiracy myth. ...
"At one point in 1940, he goes to Hollywood — this is after Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator movie, which makes fun of Hitler — and he says, to a room full of Jewish studio executives, 'You guys are going to be responsible for pushing the United States into war against the Nazis unless you stop your anti-Nazi films, your anti-Hitler propaganda, your anti-German propaganda. When war breaks out, the American people are going to turn on American Jewry, and there's going to be an outbreak of anti-Semitism like you've never seen, because the Jews are going to be held responsible for every American soldier and the destruction of the American economy."
On the deaths of Kennedy's second and third sons, John and Robert
"It's unimaginable, you know. If this were fiction, no one would believe it. This most articulate, most domineering, most dominant man, in December of 1961 — less than a year into his son's first term as president — has a massive stroke. They perform the last rites. Nobody thinks he'll last more than 24 hours; he lasts eight years. But during those eight years, he is unable to communicate through language. He can't write, he can't speak, though he understands everything coming in. And it is during those eight years that he witnesses the assassinations — the violent deaths — of his second and his third sons. An unimaginable horror. And there's no way for him to express his feelings except to sob. And he cries and he cries and he cries, but it won't bring back those two boys."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Joseph Kennedy is best known nowadays as the head of a political dynasty, the fathers of Jack, Bobby and Teddy, a patriarch who aggressively pushed his sons' political ambitions. But Joe Kennedy was a remarkable figure in his own right. He was the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and an ambassador to England, who was so well-known in the 1930s that when he returned on an ocean liner to visit, reporters crowded the dock for interviews.
He came to be regarded as a Nazi appeaser, and by some as an anti-Semite. Our guest, historian David Nasaw, was asked by two of Joseph Kennedy's children, Ted and Jean Kennedy, to write a biography of their father with full access to his papers. Nasaw agreed, provided he had unlimited access to the archives and no restrictions on their use.
The result is his new biography "The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy." Nasaw is the Arthur M. Schlesinger Professor of History at the City University of New York, and he's written biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
David Nasaw, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, a lot of people know Joseph Kennedy as the father of John F. Kennedy, the president; of Bobby Kennedy, who was assassinated; Senator Ted Kennedy. Fewer know of his accomplishments in his own right. How well-known was he in the United States, say in the 1930s and '40s?
DAVID NASAW: He was very well-known. His - he happened to be extraordinarily photogenic. He had nine photogenic children. He loved to hobnob with the press. He was a walking soundbite, he'd give them whatever they wanted. So he was plastered all over the place. Everybody knew who this man was from, you know, 1932, when he helped campaign - when he campaigned for Roosevelt, for the rest of his life.
DAVIES: Now, the Kennedy family, of course, is known for enormous wealth and political influence. Joe Kennedy, the man you write about, was born with I guess some of both. Tell us a little about his background.
NASAW: Well, you know, he comes from a family - he is the third generation. His grandparents came from Ireland during the potato famine in the early 1850s. His father did very well for himself. His father was a very well-respected and admired politician. He was a quiet man who did most of his work behind the scenes. He was one of the leading figures in the Boston Democratic Party.
His mother came from a well-respected, old, East Boston family. The thing to remember about them is that they're from East Boston. And East Boston in that day and age was separate from Boston. It was part of the same municipality, but it was a separate island with a separate culture, a separate establishment that was all Irish-Catholic.
DAVIES: And so he grew up as part of an Irish, Democratic political machine, which had its influence and also felt discrimination.
NASAW: Joe Kennedy grew up a, you know, a privileged child of the East Boston aristocracy. Everybody knew who he was. Everybody knew who his family was. He was a sports star. He was handsome, articulate. He went to Boston Latin, the best school in Boston. His girlfriend was pretty, vivacious and happened to be the mayor's daughter.
He led a charmed life until he got to Harvard, and then at Harvard he did fine. His greatest tragedy was not making the varsity baseball team because he was too slow. It was only when he graduates from Harvard that he begins to understand what it means to be an Irish-Catholic from East Boston whose father is a local ward leader.
He wants to go into banking or finance. He cannot get a job, cannot get an interview. His friends, who happened to be Protestant, with the same degree that he has and not as good a head for numbers as he has, they have no problem getting jobs at First Boston, at Shawmut National Bank. But the only way he can get into banking is to take a civil exam as a state assistant, not even a state examiner, assistant state banking examiner.
So it's at that moment in 1912 that he realizes really for the first time that there are going to be a lot of doors closed to him and only because he is Irish-Catholic in Boston.
DAVIES: Now he does make his way into banking and finance. There's a bank that his father is associated with, right, and he gets work there, does very well, and then in the late '20s, I guess mid-'20s, goes out to Hollywood. How did he get there? What did he do in Hollywood?
NASAW: He goes into the moving picture business because as a man who wants to make deals, financial deals; as a man who wants to control something, own something; the way to do it in Boston is moving pictures because now of the Boston Brahmins, none of the banks, none of the financial houses want anything to do with the moving picture, which they think are, you know, going to go away tomorrow.
He thinks they're friendly. He gets into moving pictures exhibitions. He owns a couple of theaters, distributes films to New England, eventually ends up as the studio head of a minor studio, goes to Hollywood as the owner of FBO, which had been a British company, and immediately makes his mark.
The man understands that the nation in the 1920s is as divided as it is today, but not between red and blue states or Democrats and Republicans, but into ethnic tribes - ethnic religious tribes. He gets it. And when he arrives in Hollywood, he presents himself not as an Irish-Catholic but as a non-Jew.
And he says to the industry, and he says it over and over and over again, he says it in the trade press, he says it in private, he says it in public: You guys need me, a Boston banker who's not a Jew, as the face of the industry, because you're going to be in trouble. You're already in trouble.
Towns and cities and states across this country are beginning to institute censorship laws because they don't trust the industry, which caters to their children and is run by Eastern European Jews. And I will be the fresh face. I'll protect you. And he does. He does very well. He gets hired by studio after studio to run their enterprise.
DAVIES: And because he understands finance and how you cut costs and manage budgets, he helps the studios be successful, he makes a fortune and also has this fascinating relationship with the film star Gloria Swanson. Tell us about that.
NASAW: Well, when I began this project, I remember having long conversations with Senator Kennedy and telling him, you know, you don't want me to do this because I'm a crazy researcher. I'll only do it if I have complete independence, no censorship, and I'm going to find stuff the family doesn't want out there.
And Senator Kennedy said, well, everybody knows about Gloria Swanson. And everybody does, to a good extent. Gloria Swanson is the sex-symbol actress of her day. Everybody - she's as popular, as famous as Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks. She is a tiny woman who has an independent streak and cannot stand being controlled by Hollywood studios that are run by Eastern European Jews.
And Kennedy enters into a business relationship with her that soon becomes a romantic relationship. They form an intense relationship, which lasts only as long as Kennedy is in Hollywood. When he leaves Hollywood to go east again, he drops her like a hot potato. They remain in touch, but their romantic attachment is gone. And he's the one who ends it.
Right. They were both, of course, married while they carried on this affair.
DAVIES: But it's also - the fascinating post-script is that they were - also had a financial relationship, and she felt ripped-off by him and said so in her memoirs.
NASAW: Well, you know, Kennedy believed that all's fair in business. You know, he's going to try to take advantage of you, you're going to try to take advantage of him. He's got his lawyers and accountants; you've got your lawyers and accountant. And, you know, may the better businessman or businesswoman win. In this case he won everything.
He put together a company called Gloria Productions and - to produce her films, and unbeknownst to her, every time he bought her a gift, or he redecorated her studio bungalow, he charged it to her. She thought, my God, isn't this a generous man? Look at all these gifts he's buying me. And only after the relationship ended did her accountant show her the books and that she had paid for every gift she got. She was not a happy woman.
DAVIES: So Kennedy does well in finance, goes to Hollywood, does even better, (unintelligible), and plays the market very well in the Roaring '20s. How did he do in the crash of 1929?
NASAW: He did - you know, he made out like a bandit. He knew the market. He knew the market was oversold. He knew a crash was coming. He made gazillions. He made enough money to set aside a million-dollar trust fund for each of his nine children and his wife. That's $10 million in 1920 money. And he did it by demanding stock options whenever he worked for a studio and then forcing up the price of those options when he was ready to sell them and, you know, making millions.
But he understood the way the market worked, that there was no relationship between a share price and the value of the company that it represented. And he knew that, you know, the bubble was going to burst. He got out in 1928, well in advance of the crash, put his money into safe investments, waited for the crash to come. And then after the crash when Hoover told the country don't worry, prosperity's coming back, nothing to worry about, Kennedy knew that there was plenty to worry about.
And for a couple of years, he made money by selling American companies short. In other words, he bet that the stock was going to go down. And he made a dollar for every dollar that the stock went down. And again his millions of dollars became tens of millions of dollars.
DAVIES: We're speaking with David Nasaw. He has written a new biography of Joseph Kennedy called "The Patriarch." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is historian David Nasaw. He's completed a biography of Joseph Kennedy called "The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy."
So we have this man who's been remarkably successful in business, Joe Kennedy. He's been in private life and believed in capitalism, has this big family, supported Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election. But when the Depression comes, he thinks we need a change, ends up with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. How did he help FDR, and how did that relationship develop?
NASAW: He was very important in the campaign, but more than that, he exaggerated his importance in the press so that he was mentioned, prominently, after the election was won, as a future Cabinet position, as one of the insiders. The truth was that he had connections, which the Democrats didn't have and Roosevelt didn't have.
He was friendly with William Randolph Hearst. He was friendly with the Hollywood producers and studio moguls who had a lot of money and a lot of influence - and all Republicans. And he had a direct line to Wall Street and to the Irish-Catholic and Irish-American communities.
That was invaluable for Roosevelt, and Roosevelt used it, and he in turn used Roosevelt. The relationship between these two men was remarkable. These were two of the most savvy personal politicians. They were good at political - at politics on a private level, on a public level.
They could charm anybody they wanted to be on their side and do it with consummate good grace, so you didn't know what was going on.
DAVIES: Did he give Roosevelt credibility with, you know, the elite financiers and industrialists of the country, that he needed?
NASAW: He tried to. He tried to. But he - it wasn't enough. The class war, and it really was, in effect, a class war, in 1932 and through the early years of the New Deal, he was one of the only bankers. There were a handful of bankers who supported Roosevelt in 1932 and then again in 1936. He wrote a book in 1936 called "Why I'm For Roosevelt" because he couldn't believe, even after four years, that the banking community and the Wall Street community just detested this guy.
And he said over and over again, and he put it in his book, he said this man, Franklin Roosevelt, is not a communist, is not a socialist, is not a radical. He is saving capitalism. And you should support him. And he laid out the facts and figures.
DAVIES: So after Roosevelt is elected in 1932, he has a job for Joe Kennedy, heading - being the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a novel idea that stock markets needed regulation. How well did Joe Kennedy fit into the role?
NASAW: When Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced that the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission was going to be Joseph P. Kennedy, the outcry from the New Dealers, left, moderate and right, everybody in Washington was just - they couldn't believe it. And Roosevelt said: You watch. This is going to work out.
And it did work out. After 15 months as the chairman of the SEC, Kennedy had established so many rules and regulations that, when he left the SEC, he had to stop trading stocks because all of the tricks of the trade that he had used - selling short, using insider information, engaging in pools to pump prices up and down and sideways - he had outlawed all of these tricks so that he could no longer invest in stocks. So he didn't know how to make money in any other way.
He put his money instead into real estate. He was an enormous success because he understood. He understood that capitalism was threatened. Unless the average American had faith in the stock market, faith in the stock exchanges, faith in their brokers, American capitalism would never be the same because people would withdraw their money from the market.
DAVIES: So the left, the New Dealers, thought Roosevelt was handing this important regulatory task to someone who would serve the stock manipulators, when in fact what he was doing was using his own information as a stock manipulator to crack down on them.
NASAW: He did, but Kennedy was also so savvy politically, while he's part of the Roosevelt administration, he reaches out to people like Hearst, who have gone into the opposition to the New Deal. And he says to them: Look, I'm not one of those guys. I'm one of you guys. I'm a agent for, you know, banking and industry inside the New Deal. And I'm getting the best deal we can from Roosevelt and from these lefties.
So he is able to play both sides of the New Deal against one another and does it brilliantly.
DAVIES: So becoming powerful, politically, and influential among the nation's media. How does he build his reputation? Does he do it by giving them good stories, or does he pay them off? How does his influence in the newspaper world grow?
NASAW: A little bit of both. He - he's grown up in a political family. He understands the importance of the press. And everywhere he goes, he is free and easy with information. He brings in the press. He makes friends with every Washington columnist, with every Washington bureau chief, with every major Washington reporter.
He wins and dines them. When he moves to Washington, he, you know, leases this mansion on the Potomac in which he has luxurious parties. He doesn't drink, himself, but he brings in lots of wine and champagne from Palm Beach or from Hyannis Port, depending on the season.
And more than that, he knows what the press wants. The press wants a good story with insider information and colorful language. And he gives it to them. He makes friends with Arthur Krock, and this was an extraordinary story. I don't think anyone has uncovered this before me. Arthur Krock is the New York Times bureau chief in Washington and has his own column - one of the most influential, if not the most influential, reporter-columnists in the country.
And he puts Krock on the payroll. For the rest of Kennedy's life, Arthur Krock is being paid to write speeches for Kennedy, which he then comments on in his column. He says, wasn't that a great speech that Joseph Kennedy gave? It was a speech that he, Krock, had either written himself or edited. He makes sure, Krock, that Kennedy is in the papers all the time.
Krock helps with Jack Kennedy's career later. And all the time he's on the payroll. When he's not on the - he's on the payroll, and he's being wined and dined, taken on vacations, fawned over in Hyannis Port, in the South of France when Kennedy moves to the South of France, and Palm Beach.
GROSS: David Nasaw will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Nasaw's new biography is called "The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with David Nasaw, author of the new biography "The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy." Before he became best known as the father of Jack, Bobby and Teddy, Joe Kennedy made a fortune in finance and in Hollywood, and was appointed by FDR to serve as the first chairman of the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission.
DAVIES: So Joe Kennedy heads the Securities and Exchange Commission for little over a year, then serves as chair of a maritime commission, trying to shape up the city's merchant fleet. And then gets this very important ambassadorship to England. This is an incredible moment. He goes to England in 1937 or '38?
NASAW: Thirty-eight. Yeah. He goes in March of '38. A couple of his good friends tell him not to go. They say you're unfit in every way to be an ambassador. You don't understand history, you don't understand diplomacy, you're the least diplomatic man that's ever lived.
NASAW: You know, you've got a foul mouth. You won't follow protocol, you won't follow orders. An ambassador is a messenger boy and, you know, you're not going to want to follow or deliver anybody's messages.
But he goes and within weeks of his arrival, the Germans invade Austria and declare that Austria is now a province of the Third Reich. And from the moment he arrives, the fears of the world are exacerbated day after day after day by Hitler's demanding pieces of Czechoslovakia, all of Czechoslovakia, pieces of Poland, all of Poland - and Kennedy, instead of following orders, instead of acting as the ambassador, follows his own agenda. He has his own foreign policy agenda, and that foreign policy agenda is appeasement.
DAVIES: Right. He became a great friend and defender of Neville Chamberlain who, of course, condemned in many historical accounts as the guy who foolishly tried to appease Hitler rather than standing up to him. Tell us what motivated Kennedy's view on this.
NASAW: There is a logic to Kennedy's behavior. We've got to remember that the Soviet Union was out of the picture during this, so that no one imagined that Hitler would ever have to fight a two front war. After Hitler invades Western Europe, conquers Scandinavia, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, France, it is Hitler who now controls most of Europe against Britain. And Kennedy is convinced that there is no conceivable way that the British are going to come out ahead.
DAVIES: Now, of course, the other thing that was happening in the late '30s here in addition to Hitler's aggression and territorial demands was the increasingly well-known persecution of Jews in Germany and other areas occupied by the Reich. And Joe Kennedy doesn't come out too well on this, as history has written, either. I mean what were his views about the role and influence of Jews in the United States in these events and their persecution in Europe?
NASAW: Well, there are two parts to this story and they contradict one another. In part one or the first aspect of Kennedy's relationship to the Holocaust and to the Jews of Europe in the United States is that he wants to get the Jews out of Germany. After Hitler moves into Austria and then soon after at Kristallnacht, it becomes abundantly clear not that the Jews are going to end up killed in concentration camps, nobody knows that, but they're being reduced to the most inhumane and brutal of conditions. And Kennedy believes that he's got to get the Jews out because as long as the Jews are being persecuted no Western power is going to feel that they can negotiate with Hitler. Right? So once you remove the Jews, then it'll be easier to reach a modus vivendi with Hitler.
DAVIES: So it was as much a pragmatic as a humanitarian approach?
NASAW: Exactly. But you can't discount the humanitarian. Kennedy knows what's going on over there and no one except the most vicious and brutal anti-Semites - and he's not one of those - wants to see human beings, who happened to be Jewish , suffer the way the Jews of Germany and Austria and then Czechoslovakia and Poland were suffering. So again, Kennedy is a realist. That's part one of this story. Part two is very different and very disturbing.
Kennedy believes that there is a Jewish conspiracy to go to war with Hitler. He believes that the Jews - to get revenge against Hitler and in the mistaken belief that they can defeat him and save their European Jewry - he believes the Jews are doing everything they possibly can to push the United States into war, into a war it should not, he believes, fight. And he indulges in every kind of anti-Semitic scapegoating and conspiracy myth. He writes and he tells his friends that the Jews control the media and the media is making it impossible to make a deal with Hitler because they're demonizing Hitler. He knows well that the Jews don't control the American media. William Randolph Hearst and Colonel McCormick are his friends, the two most important newspaper men in the country. And he believes and he says over and over again that the Jews have taken over Washington, that Frankfurter is the power behind the throne and is telling Roosevelt what to do.
DAVIES: Felix Frankfurter, yeah.
NASAW: Felix Frankfurter, who would soon become a Supreme Court justice. And he blames the Jews. And at one point in 1940, he goes to Hollywood - this is after Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" movie, which makes fun of Hitler - and he says, to a room full of Jewish studio executives, you guys are going to be responsible for pushing the United States into war against the Nazis unless you stop your anti-Nazi films, your anti-Hitler propaganda, your anti-German propaganda. When war breaks out, the American people are going to turn on American Jewry, and there's going to be an outbreak of anti-Semitism like you've never seen, because the Jews are going to be held responsible for the death of every American soldier and the destruction of the American economy.
DAVIES: Once the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor then the United States was in the war, Joe Kennedy lost his oldest son, Joe Jr., in the war. He was on a bombing mission. And throughout the war he, you know, continued to hold the belief that it wasn't necessary that there might have been a way out of it, that all this suffering didn't have to happen. Did he ever come to regret either his statements about the war, his views of Hitler or about Jewish influence?
NASAW: As time went on and the events of the war and of his time in London receded, he became more and more and more convinced that he had been right. That all that had happened, and he told Churchill this, and Churchill said I'm so sorry about your son. And Kennedy said, what did we get from this war? It's been a disaster. And Kennedy went on to say that, you know, what difference does it make? Now instead of Hitler threatening liberties and capitalism, we've got Stalin and the Soviet Union. What did we gain? He till his dying day believed that the United States should stay out of the affairs of any nation outside the Western Hemisphere. If Brazil or Argentina was threatened by the Soviets or by the Nazis then we should intervene but we shouldn't go fighting wars in Asia and we shouldn't go fighting wars in Europe.
DAVIES: We're speaking with David Nasaw. His new book about Joseph Kennedy is called "The Patriarch."
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with historian David Nasaw. His new book about the life of Joseph P. Kennedy is called "The Patriarch."
I want to talk just a little bit about this man and his relationship to his nine children. And I thought I would introduce it with a wonderful little anecdote you tell. This is 1942. Bobby Kennedy, who is pretty young, writes to his mother and says Dad just phoned from New York and said he's going to go down to Washington with Jack to see the president tomorrow, which sounds pretty exciting for the president.
DAVIES: And this is just, if ever there were a capsulization(ph) of what different lives these kids led. I mean they grew up not just in wealth, but boy, I mean when they traveled to Europe after they left college, Joe and Jack, they weren't just tourists, they had audiences with the pope. They met with high-level diplomats. Talk to us a little bit about Joe Kennedy and what he expected of his kids and what their relationship was like.
NASAW: Joe was a remarkable father. When he was away from home he would write each of his nine children separate letters, and in each of those letters he would refer to particular parts of their lives as individuals. They all felt they had special relationships with him and they did. He determined very early, and he told them over and over again, I'm making all this money so you don't have to make money so that you can go into public service. He impressed on them that those who were privileged with money, with education, with good looks, have to give something back to those who don't have those privileges. And he truly believed that. And all of these kids grew up knowing that they were not going to go into business. They didn't want to go into business. They were going to do some sort of public service. And in the end they did.
And, you know, we forget, we know about the men who went into politics, but Eunice Kennedy Shriver I think 50 years down the road is going to be as remembered or should be as remembered as her brothers were because she invents, she constructs the disability rights movement. Jean Kennedy Smith is the ambassador to Ireland during the critical time in which the English negotiate a new relationship with Northern Ireland that ends the troubles. Each of the children embarks on a career in public service, because they knew that's what their father wanted and because they knew that's what they owed him and the owed nation that had been so kind to all of them.
DAVIES: He was so involved with the kids, and yet he would take long vacations by himself away from his wife, away from the kids.
NASAW: He would work himself into a, you know, into absolute physical exhaustion and then have to take long vacations. And he loved nothing better than having one or two or three or four of the kids come to see him in the south of France or in Palm Beach when he was there. His greatest moments and his greatest happiness was at Hyannis Port when he was surrounded by all of them and they loved, respected and admired him.
You know, there are these stories throughout that I found when after the Bay of Pigs when Jack Kennedy cannot be consoled because he's sacrificed the lives of brave men who have been killed or captured by the Cubans because he thinks his political career is over, he and the attorney general are gathered in the Oval Office at some point and Bobby says to Jack, let's call Dad, he'll make us feel better. And the two of them place - the president and the attorney general place a call to Palm Beach. And their father gets on the phone and he says boys, you did what you had to do. And then he says Jack, you were right to take responsibility for this disaster. He said the American people will respect that and he said and your polls will go up, I guarantee you. And then he said to both of them, he said and you're really lucky that this fiasco happened in the first months of your first term. By the time you have to run for re-election the American people will have forgotten it. And they hung up the phone feeling better as they knew they would have because their father had cheered them up.
DAVIES: And not so longer after he had a debilitating stroke, Joe Kennedy did, right?
NASAW: It's unimaginable. You know, if this were fiction no one would believe it. This most articulate, most domineering, most dominant man in December of 1961, less than a year into his son's first term as president, has a massive stroke. They perform the last rites. Nobody thinks he'll last more than 24 hours. He lasts eight years. But during those eight years he is unable to communicate through language. He can't write. He can't speak, though he understands everything coming in. And it is during those eight years that he witnesses the assassinations, the violent deaths of his second and his third son. An unimaginable horror and there's no way for him to express his feelings except to sob. And he cries and he cries and he cries, but it won't bring back those two boys.
DAVIES: And of course, that wasn't the first children that he lost. His oldest son died in the war and then he had a daughter, Kathleen, who died in a plane crash in the '40s.
NASAW: And he had a fifth child who suffered the consequences of a botched lobotomy and ended up unable to communicate or speak, as her father later did from the stroke. So when Kennedy dies, Kennedy has outlived four of his children. A fifth is in an institution and only four of the nine are healthy.
DAVIES: You mentioned it was Rosemary who had the mental retardation and then had the botched lobotomy. And I was stunned to read in your book, that after she was institutionalized following that, I mean, she did regain some ability to communicate and speak, I think, but Joe Kennedy didn't see her for, what, 20 years?
NASAW: Joe Kennedy never saw her for the rest of his life because he had made a dreadful decision. It was the decision the medical authorities pushed on him. I mean, the lobotomy was the approved treatment for depression and anxiety, and he believed that his daughter could not cope with her retardation, could not cope with the idea that she was going to be watched over and institutionalized for the rest of her life as a, quote, "retarded" young lady.
So he agreed with the doctors that they would do this operation and she would accept her condition. It went terribly wrong and I don't think he ever forgave himself and never wanted to see evidence of what he had done to his beloved daughter.
DAVIES: I want to come back, briefly, to what you were saying about how he had expected the children to be involved in public service. And at the same time he, Joe Kennedy had, you know, dozens if not hundreds of extramarital affairs, was a very, very tough businessman and could be at times ruthless in the way he used power.
I think some would look at the Kennedy family and say that these were kids that also grew up with a deep sense of entitlement and some moral shortcomings. And I'm interested in your take on that.
NASAW: I would not disagree with that, though who among us doesn't have, you know, moral shortcomings in one way or another. What distinguishes the Kennedy family and why they remain part of the American life and the American scene, is that they were truly dedicated to public service. And, you know, these kids, all of them, could have led the lives of the idle rich, and instead Ted Kennedy becomes the hardest-working senator and the longest-serving senator in the country.
Bobby dedicates his life to public service, even though he knows that he's a target for assassination, as his brother was. And his brother Jack, who was in pain every day of his life, goes into public service and becomes president. The girls in the family, as well. And I think that is something that Americans cherish, whether they agree or disagree with the Kennedy politics.
DAVIES: David Nasaw, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much.
NASAW: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: David Nasaw spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Nasaw's biography of Joseph Kennedy is called "The Patriarch." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by pop star Ke$ha. This is FRESH AIR.
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