One summer day in the early 1960s, Joseph Kennedy was sitting in his wheelchair in front of his Hyannis Port home,as a marine helicopter lifted up from the lawn. He had suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak.
Inside the helicopter were his son, President John F. Kennedy, and his son’s friend, Chuck Spalding. Kennedy looked down, pointed at his father and said, “He made the whole thing possible.”
Joseph Kennedy did indeed make his son’s presidency possible. He had made a fortune and served in high office himself, all while founding the Kennedy political dynasty. From 1946, when Jack began serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, to 2011, a child or grandchild of his served in public office.
The gods gave Joseph Kennedy much — money, fame, power. They also took much away. He outlived four of his nine children, and a fifth Rosemary, suffered a botched lobotomy that forced her institutionalization.
Joseph, Jr., died in action during World War II. Kathleen died in a plane crash. John, known as Jack, was assassinated in his third year as president, and Robert was killed on the verge of winning the Democratic nomination for president. Pat married move star Peter Lawford and Eunice founded the Special Olympics, Jean served as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, and Ted was one of the longest tenured and most effective members of the U.S. Senate.
Joe himself suffered a stroke in 1961 and died on Nov. 18, 1969.
Many stories have been told about the larger-than-life Joseph Kennedy, some true, some partly true, some complete nonsense. Here are seven true ones.
1. Joseph Kennedy, Pampered Son
Born Sept. 6, 1888, he grew up in comfort, but didn’t let anyone know. His grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, had immigrated from Ireland, worked in the East Boston shipyards and died at 35, like many Irish immigrant men. But his father, P.J., bought a saloon for a song and prospered with it. He opened more saloons, got lucrative, no-show patronage jobs and won election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. P.J. also won a seat in the state Senate but left after one term because he preferred being a ward boss.
Young Joe grew up on an elegant tree-lined street in a large waterfront house. His mother, who came from a lace-curtain Irish family in Brockton, spoiled him. “Joe did not come in on a raft,” said his niece. “His life was very comfortable.”
But he loved Horatio Alger books, and wanted people to think he alone was responsible for his success.
2. No Scholar
He got lousy grades in high school, Boston Latin, and had to repeat his senior year. But he excelled at sports, which mattered more to him. He was captain of the tennis team, played basketball and excelled at baseball. He batted an astonishing.667 as a senior, winning the Mayor’s Cup in the high school league. Mayor John Fitzgerald, presided over the ceremonies in which he accepted his trophy.
He didn’t do well academically at Harvard, either, and didn’t quite dominate in sports the way he had in high school. But he managed to marry the mayor’s daughter, Rose Fitzgerald.
3. Joseph Kennedy, Draft Dodger
He dodged the draft in World War I. Though married with two children (Joe, Jr., and Jack) he didn’t qualify for a deferment based on marital status. Instead, he got a job as assistant manager of the Fore River Shipyard, and qualified for an Industrial deferment.
Kennedy had served as president of Columbia Trust Co., a small East Boston bank. He boasted of being the country’s youngest bank president, though he had a step up — his father had helped found the bank.
At Fore River, he wrote a long letter to the draft board describing his responsibilities. It worked. He didn’t get a deferment, but he didn’t get drafted, either.
One of his tasks at Fore River was to manage the influenza pandemic at Fore River. Two thousand cases broke out among the shipyard workers. He turned dormitories into infirmaries to isolate the sick, and stayed away from home to protest his family from the flu.
4. Joseph Kennedy, Serial Philanderer
Even as a relative newlywed he didn’t always come home at night. He worked long hours, often through the weekends, and slept in his office. Or with someone else – secretaries, waitresses and actresses, including Gloria Swanson.
Rose left him
when she was pregnant with Kathleen, their fourth child. She moved home to her father and mother in Dorchester. Her father told her she couldn’t get a divorce, so she turned to medication to deal with her husband’s infidelity.
Joseph Kennedy also took separate vacations from Rose beginning when Jack, their second son, was five years old. He wanted to relax and play golf in Palm Beach. She wanted to go to Europe and buy clothes.
5. Nurturing Dad
He, not Rose, cared for Jack during his many illnesses. In 1919, two-year-old Jack came down with scarlet fever, which often killed children. Rose had just given birth and was bedridden for three weeks. Joe got him into Boston City Hospital and spent every night and afternoon at his bedside.
“During the darkest days I felt that nothing else mattered except his recovery,” wrote Joe to Jack’s doctor. He vowed he would give half his money to the Catholic Church if Jack lived. When he did, Joe wrote a check for $3,740 to the Guild of Saint Apollonia, which gave dental care to Boston children.
6. But Not a Bootlegger
Despite the rumors, biographers haven’t found much solid evidence that he made his fortune through bootlegging. Unethical stock deals, yes. Kennedy bought stock on inside information, then legal but frowned upon. He also engaged in stock pools, where a small group of investors would target an inactive stock and trade it back and forth among themselves to create an illusion that the stock was a good, rising investment.
He made his real money in Hollywood, reorganizing and refinancing several studios that became RKO.
Not until the end of Prohibition did he invest in the distribution rights to Scotch whiskey. He diversified his investments, buying (among other things) the Chicago Merchandise Mart, then the world’s biggest office building.
7. Bow-legged Joe
President Franklin Roosevelt found him annoying. In 1935, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau suggested Kennedy for the post of Allotment Board chairman, where he would oversee the government’s purchases of gold to stabilize the market. Roosevelt said no. “The trouble with Kennedy is you always have to hold his hand,” Roosevelt said. He regularly “calls up and says he is hurt because I have not seen him.”
Roosevelt did appoint Joseph Kennedy as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and later as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. But before nominating him, Roosevelt called him into his office and asked him to drop his pants. Kennedy complied, and Roosevelt burst into laughter. Roosevelt said, “Someone who saw you in a bathing suit once told me something I now know to be true. Joe, just look at your legs. You are just about the most bow-legged man I have ever seen.”
It mattered, explained Roosevelt, because he’d have to wear knee breeches and silk stockings during his induction ceremony as ambassador. He’d be a laughingstock. Joe, however, won permission from the British to wear tails and striped pants.
Joseph Kennedy became ambassador to the United Kingdom.
With thanks to JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 Fredrik Logevall and THE PATRIARCH: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw. Morgenthau anecdote from Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded by Ronald Kessler.