Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE PATRIARCH by David Nasaw (non-fic)

The sub-title of this biography is The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, an apt title as Joe Kennedy did indeed live through turbulent times which affected both his country and his personal life.  The story of the Kennedy family and the hubris of its patriarch is well known;  yet none of the family is as fascinating as Joseph Kennedy.  Shakespeare could have written a great tragedy based on his life.  David Nasaw, who has written an excellent biography of Randolph Hearst ( a great friend of Kennedy through the war years), has again written a masterful study of a complex and puzzling man.  Nasaw's hefty book covers every aspect of Kennedy's life in an objective manner,
the good, the bad and the ugly.  Joe Kennedy is no easy study, but he left his mark on the family and country and there is plenty of material from which to draw.

Joe Kennedy was born in East Boston in 1888, the grandson of Irish immigrants. The ward politics in the Irish ghetto, as well as the prejudice of  Boston Yankees against the Irish, shaped Kennedy's future and his overriding ambition.  His determination to defeat all odds helped make him a man of many contradictions.  He made his money as a banker, an entrepreneur, a Wall Street mogul, and a Hollywood producer.  Her was a womanizer, yet a loving father and family man who taught his children the value of family ties and loyalty.  He amassed a huge fortune that allowed him to realize the ambitions he bred in his sons and daughters.  Kennedy was a life-long Democrat, yet a conservative business tycoon.  In present day, he would no doubt be a Republican.  Kennedy made huge profits (contrary to rumor, he was not a bootlegger) by investing in property and turning it over quickly.  Much of his business dealings and insider trading would be illegal today.

Joe Kennedy was a micro-manager in every aspect of his life.  He was a strict father, yet his children were independent thinkers, all far more liberal than their father, and they weren't afraid to disagree with him, sometimes incurring his wrath.  Kennedy had a fierce temper and a short fuse, he was a bit of a blow-hard, yet had an easy way with people and a great sense of humor. He was a manipulator of others, but was never to get his way with Franklin Roosevelt.  His love/hate relationship with the President was one of mutual respect and dislike. 

Kennedy was a disaster as Ambassador to England in the years leading up to World War II.  He hated Churchill and admired Neville Chamberlain, and later, Anthony Eden.  Kennedy was an isolationist, and his misreading of Hitler was puzzling. He did a lot of damage to America's image in Europe until he was recalled by Roosevelt. By that time no one in the State Department was listening to anything he said.  Most of the State Department business was conducted of his head. His opinions were studiously ignored on almost every issue. As an intelligent man, one wonders how he could have been so wrong in his analysis of events leading up to the war.

Besides his years as ambassador, the most interesting parts of the book are those describing his relationship with his family.  His love of his children is clear, but his relationship with his wife Rose, remains cloudy.  We know she was a devout Catholic and enjoyed all the privileges that money brings, but after all, Rose and Joe did not spend much time together until after his stroke.  As is well known, the drama and tragedy of the final years of his life would fill a book of its own.  He outlived four of his nine children.  He died in 1969, heartbroken and bereft despite his material comfort and great wealth.

The Patriarch is an outstanding biography that I heartily recommend to those interested not only in the history of  the rich era Joseph Kennedy's life encompassed, but also to those interested in the tragedy of human relationships and family dynamics.  There is a wealth of material for book clubs to discuss and ponder over.

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