Kingmaker: How Joe P. Kennedy Created a Political Dynasty | History Hit

Kingmaker: How Joe P. Kennedy Created a Political Dynasty

Alex Browne

13 Aug 2020
Joseph P. Kennedy, while President of the Columbia Trust Company. January 1914.
Image Credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston / Public Domain

It is hardly surprising that the Kennedy family assumed the moniker of ‘American royalty’. The patriarch of the wealthy, illustrious Kennedy clan, and the driving force of its successes in American public life, was Joseph P. Kennedy.

JPK was a remarkable figure in his own right, but he also possessed a restless desire to promote his son’s political careers. He had the means to do so, and his success in this endeavour is his enduring legacy in American political history.

Kennedy family fortunes

Born into a political Massachusetts family, Joe Kennedy graduated from Harvard with an A:B in economics and immediately set out to master the banking industry. By the age of 25, he was the self-professed ‘youngest bank president in America’.

He made his first fortune as a stock market and commodity investor, before expanding into a variety of business industries.

Throughout he demonstrated impeccable timing when it came to buying and selling businesses. Kennedy amassed a fortune in the unregulated pre-1920 stock market, and maintained it through the Wall Street Crash. In 1932 he was rewarded with an appointment as the inaugural Chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, an example of the fox being put in charge of the chicken coup.

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Having mastered and profited from various illicit techniques in stock trading, he was uniquely positioned to identify and penalise those that followed in his footsteps.

Additionally, after WW1 Kennedy had taken a leap into Hollywood film-making, gathering huge profits from reorganising and refinancing several Hollywood studios. Some have estimated that Kennedy made over $5 million from his investments in Hollywood.

He also made a killing during Prohibition, smuggling whisky into the country. When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, he consolidated this income by buying distribution rights for Scotch whisky.

The Kennedy Family photographed at Hyannis Port in September 1931. L-R: Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy, Jean Kennedy (on lap of) Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (who was pregnant with Edward “Ted” Kennedy at time of this photo), Patricia Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (behind) Rosemary Kennedy.

Ambassador Kennedy

During WWI he developed a close relationship with Franklin D Roosevelt, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. This was his first step in a burgeoning career in the Democratic Party. In 1938 he was made ambassador to the UK.

He lost the position after vocally advocating appeasing Nazi Germany, after he had repeatedly sought meetings with the Fuhrer. ‘Democracy is finished in England. It may be here’, he stated in the Boston Sunday Globe on 10 November 1940.

He was roundly disparaged as a defeatist. It also strengthened the conception of him as an anti-Semite. Kennedy allegedly told an embassy aide that, ‘[some] individual Jews are all right, but as a race they stink. They spoil everything they touch.’

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‘Get laid as often as possible’

The Kennedy family projected an image of sibling loyalty and family idealism. However, this façade concealed a murkier reality.

JPK was a pathological adulterer who was openly unfaithful around his wife, and encouraged his sons to ‘get laid as often as possible.’ Some of them clearly took this advice and ran with it. Joe Kennedy’s most famous mistress was the actress Gloria Swanson.

He also famously offered his sons $1,000 to not drink until they turned 21, such was his distaste for this traditionally Irish vice.

The patriarch of Hyannis Port

There was a dark side to the paternal relationship. He allowed his third child, Rosemary, to be subjected to a lobotomy.  She was left permanently incapacitated. According to Kennedy’s secretary. Rose ‘was never mentioned in the house’.

From left to right: Kathleen, Rose and Rosemary Kennedy on their way to be presented at court in 1938, several years before Rosemary’s lobotomy.

For Kennedy, the Presidency was the ultimate prize. His tarnished reputation meant he had to take a behind-the-scenes role in his sons’ careers – fundraising, corralling influential backers and advising on strategy.

His financial assistance was invaluable. JFK joked that on the eve before the 1960 presidential election, his father had asked him the exact number of votes he would need to win: there was no way he was paying ‘for a landslide’.

Although he brushed off the claims, JFK was indebted to his father, whose influence was a key factor in the narrowest Presidential victory of all time.

In the end, Joe Kennedy suffered a devastating stroke in 1961 and died in 1969, having outlived 3 of his sons and 2 daughters.

Tags: John F. Kennedy

Alex Browne