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The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy Hardcover – November 13, 2012
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From Publishers Weekly
The father of Jack, Bobby, and Teddy (plus six others) was not a bootlegger, nor does any evidence link him to the Mafia, writes Nasaw, refuting two longstanding rumors. But Joseph P. Kennedy (1888–1969) was possibly the worst U.S. ambassador to Great Britain ever, so committed to appeasing Hitler that FDR cut him out of the diplomatic loop. Kennedy won the post because he was one of the few businessmen to support the New Deal, creator of pioneering financial regulations as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He knew all about manipulating stocks, having parlayed the modest affluence of his father, an East Boston ward heeler, into a fortune in the market. Kennedy was a wonderful father himself, although he and his wife, Rose, led almost completely separate lives. Nasaw (Andrew Carnegie), a history professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, does a fine job of capturing Kennedy's fiery personality and his eventful, ultimately tragic life, watching Jack rise to the presidency, suffering a stroke but living long enough to see two of his sons assassinated. But the book is much too long and oddly focused; Kennedy's three-year ambassadorship occupies more than 25% of the text. The reams of fascinating material would have been better served by more careful shaping. Agent: Andrew Wylie, the Wylie Agency. (Nov.)
*Starred Review* What’s considered common knowledge about historical figures often gets a biographical rewrite, and to some degree that’s what happens in this heavy (literally, sometimes figuratively) look at Joseph Kennedy. When one reads in the introduction that Nasaw was asked by the Kennedy family to write this biography, the obvious question is, How did the request affect the finished product? Nasaw was granted access to papers denied to other researchers and worked for six years on the project. Some of his conclusions clash markedly with what has been written about Kennedy (Nasaw dismisses rather lightly the long-held conclusion that Joe made part of his fortune as a bootlegger). But he gives readers a much fuller look at various accusations made against Kennedy, especially the charge that he was an anti-Semite. Through quoted letters, it is clear that Kennedy did have a grudge against the Jews, mostly because they interfered with what he wanted, be it getting a foothold in the movie industry or keeping the U.S out of WWII. His isolationism never really wavered. He believed that “victory over Hitler had cost much and accomplished little.” Perhaps the key element to Kennedy, Nasaw suggests, is that rather than being larger than life, he was much smaller. He was all about protecting his family and his fortune. Though fortune remained, the family shattered, cutting Kennedy, in many ways, adrift. The book becomes more fascinating the farther one gets into it, and while there may be areas for dispute here, there’s no doubt it makes a major contribution to Kennedy history. --Ilene Cooper
Top customer reviews
Joe Kennedy lived through a majority of crucial events that shaped the 20th century and was heavily involved in almost everything that was going on from Hollywood to Washington. I was amazed by the amount of issues which I found myself agreeing with Kennedy's positions, as I admit I was one to buy into the stories that he was just a bootlegger and angry loudmouth. Above all else, he was a family man and while I might not agree with the ways he went about making his fortune. I truly admire his motivations and the way he chose to use his influence. He dreamed of making enough money so that his children would be able to devote themselves to serving their country. Kennedy was able to do exactly that and was rewarded by the tragic deaths of half of his large family. But in a world today where the majority of the rich seem to have little concern for anyone besides themselves, this story is an important reminder of the obligations of those who are most rewarded for living in a free society.
Overall, It is good read and particularly interesting for anyone that is interested in the Kennedy family and early-mid 20th century history more generally.
Things I learned about JPK that I didn't know before I read the book:
He chaired the first SEC
He may have pushed his children hard, but he was their biggest supporter - they turned to him when they needed to be cheered up
He was a terrible ambassador
He and his wife, Rose, spent more time apart then they did together during their marriage, but that seemed to suit them both
The Patriarch is meticulously researched - Nasaw relies heavily on primary sources, as any good historian should. My issue with this book is that he presents the historical records but offers very little analysis or insight into JPK's motivation. Nasaw offers very little speculation about why JPK was the person he was. It seemed like the available primary sources for JPK's childhood were pretty slim, so there is not much attention paid to that time of his life, but I'm guessing that played a big role in shaping who he was. Nassaw also did very little to address some of the well-known rumors about JPK because there isn't much on the historical record to prove or refute them. For example, he gives JPK's potential time as a bootlegger about a paragraph of attention at the end of a chapter and basically says, "There is no evidence that he did that." Well, right - there is very little evidence that anyone was a bootlegger or speakeasy operator, but how did that rumor pop up and why does it persist? Some insight into that issue would have told the reader a lot about JPK and his place in the American landscape.
I wonder if Nasaw swings so hard towards the historical record because there is so much speculation and rumor about the Kennedy family? As annoyed as I got with his repeated, "Well, there's no evidence he did that" explanations, at the same time I was thinking that it would be nice to read a book about John F. Kennedy that was less hysterical or fawning and more analytical.
Anyways, overall, this was an interesting, albeit long, read. JPK was such an interesting person and lived such a varied life - it's hard not to be fascinated. And getting the background on how the Kennedy family got its start provides some additional insight into everything they've done (right or wrong) since then.
In a nutshell: As a history buff, I thought this was a good read, but it might not be the best pick for someone who has a passing interest in biographies - get ready for 800 pages of meticulous research, followed by 150 pages of footnotes. Three and a half stars.