He was one of the most famous fathers in history and a mythic figure in the public imagination: Wall Street tycoon, Hollywood buccaneer, notorious proponent of appeasement during World War II and, most especially, larger-than-life paterfamilias who endowed his children – John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, among them – with a sense of destiny and his own driving will. He was the ruthless outsider who charmed, bullied and manipulated his way into the corridors of power; the charismatic and intimidating magnate whose progeny, his latest biographer, David Nasaw, writes, "would complete the journey from Dunganstown, Ireland, to East Boston to the pinnacle of American political power and social prominence that their father had begun."
Joseph P. Kennedy's life, Nasaw observes, "was punctuated by meteoric rises, catastrophic falls, and numerous rebirths, by cascading joys and blinding sorrows, and by a tragic ending near Shakespearean in its pathos."
Nasaw's biography sheds some valuable light on exactly how his subject made his fortune. It provides a detailed account of his willful efforts to try to make a deal with Hitler and refutes some persistent myths. But this flat-footed, long-winded book unfortunately captures little of the extraordinary drama of his life and provides few new insights into the man himself or the complex emotional arithmetic within the Kennedy clan.
In the introduction to The Patriarch, Nasaw – a biographer of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst – says he was asked by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Sen. Edward Kennedy to write a biography of their father, and that he agreed to do so "only if I was granted full cooperation, unfettered access to Joseph P. Kennedy's papers in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, including those closed to researchers, and unrestricted permission to cite any document I came across."
They accepted, he goes on to say. "No attempts were made to withhold information or to censor this book in any way."
Certainly readers could use a corrective to Ronald Kessler's meanspirited, speculation-filled biography (The Sins of the Father), which purveyed a determinedly poisonous portrait of the man. But efforts to provide a more nuanced look already exist: most notably Hostage to Fortune, a collection of his letters edited by his granddaughter Amanda Smith, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's engaging 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, which also relied upon family cooperation for access and drew a sympathetic but tough-minded picture of the Kennedys.
Whereas Goodwin used her narrative skills to give the reader a measure of understanding of the dynamics among family members (and the psychological patterns that were handed down generation to generation), Nasaw's book does not do much to illuminate the inner lives of Kennedy or his offspring. "We know little of his boyhood in East Boston," Nasaw writes, "in part because Joseph P. Kennedy had no interest, as an adult, in looking back on his childhood, other than to recall on occasion in conversations with close friends how much he admired and adored his father." Later on he observes that "the smiling, effervescent, freckle-faced boy wonder had been transformed into a silent man of mystery, but the magnetic field around him had not diminished in the slightest" and yet offers scant insight into why this evolution occurred.
As for Kennedy's relationship with his children, Nasaw writes: "He was a near-perfect father as far as they were concerned. He never scolded or spanked, seldom raised his voice, was patient and generous. His only requirements were that they be courteous, watch out for one another, and always be on time." Never mind that his high expectations and imperious will meant that it was difficult to defy his wishes. (In his deeply affecting memoir True Compass, Edward Kennedy recalled how his father once said to him: "You can have a serious life or a non-serious life, Teddy. I'll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a non-serious life, I won't have much time for you. You make up your own mind. There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.") For that matter Kennedy was often absent from home for long stretches of time. In 1928 he refused to interrupt his regular Palm Beach vacation to be home with his wife, Rose, when she gave birth to his eighth child, Nasaw reports, and "neither wife nor children would see very much of him for the next three years," as he began spending more and more time on the West Coast, working in the movie business and pursuing an affair with the actress Gloria Swanson.
One of the few areas in which this biography does provide a window into Kennedy's thinking is his abysmal stint as Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador to Britain. In Nasaw's view Kennedy was temperamentally unsuited to being an ambassador – he "refused to be a team player because he was convinced that he knew better than his superiors" – and he was eager to do anything to avoid war because he feared that American capitalism (which had made him a rich man) would not survive the country's entry into the conflict.
Kennedy would "come to alternately revere and revile" Roosevelt, Nasaw observes. "The two could not have been more different – in temperament, religion, family background and just about everything else – but they had one critical trait in common. Each was a consummate charmer and regularly deployed his charm as a tool or a weapon to get what he wanted. It was difficult, if not impossible, to resist their importuning when they smiled their toothsome smiles, their blue eyes blazing with warmth. For the professional charmer there is a fine line between charming and dissembling. Kennedy and Roosevelt crossed it occasionally, certainly in their dealings with each other. He was 81 years of age," Nasaw writes, "and had outlived four of his nine children."