Customer Reviews: The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy
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on December 1, 2012
I am a history junkie and I've read several biographies of Joseph P. Kennedy. This is by far the best. It is a warts and all depiction that portrays his naked ambition, infidelity and epically bad service as U.S.Smbassador to the Court of St. James. At the same time, he was a devoted father, took care of his children when they were sick and their mother was shopping, and tried to prepare them to fulfill his ambitions. It's hard to reconcile the two sides of this complex personality:cruel and unfaithful to his wife, disloyal, controlling and self-promoting in his professional life, and a loving father who was wildly supportive of his near-delinquent offspring. This book is long but very well written and provides new information and insight on the life of this man, even as well--documented as it has been. I recommend it highly.
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on December 1, 2012
The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. KennedyCaring for the clan was Joseph P. Kennedy's instinctive impulse. Family, or more precisely, the welfare of his nine children came first. Their needs were followed by those of his Catholic brethren and his countrymen. This left everyone else beyond the pale for a man who was often on the front pages during the middle of the American century. Tribalism defined Kennedy and was the root of all his troubles.

It's easy to understand why Kennedy had problems with others. The grandson of an immigrant to Boston who had fled the Irish potato famine, Kennedy grew up in a City where Protestants - all those Cabots, Lodges and Saltonstalls - occupied the upper reaches during a time when it was considered an oddity for a Catholic to attend Harvard or work at one of the major, downtown banks. Kennedy was reared as an outsider and no matter how successful he became, it was a sensibility he never shook off.

David Nasaw's stupendous 868 page life of Kennedy - `The Patriarch, The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy' - is a large portrait mixed from a palette of original research which dispatches some of the myths about its subject while retaining a calm and dispassionate air. Nasaw convincingly dispels the ugliest of the rumors, accusations and innuendo that have sullied Kennedy's reputation. He finds no evidence that the father of a President, an Attorney General and a Senator - not to mention the progenitor of any number of familial tragedies, scandals and calamities - was a bootlegger or swindler. What emerges is the picture of a man possessed of energy, ambition and endless reserves of self-confidence who played by most of the rules of his time.

Kennedy assembled the foundation of his wealth quickly and by the 1950s was listed by Fortune as the fifteenth richest person in the United States. Kennedy did not make his fortune by invention or by building an enduring company. He was a deeply conservative trader, blessed with a knack for developing relationships, who was inclined to protect his principal rather than go prospecting far afield. After short stints as a bank examiner and commercial banker he turned to investment banking and was quick to recognize the potential of Hollywood. More importantly, he understood the virtues of ownership as opposed to income from fees and became the proprietor of movie theaters and, after journeying to Los Angeles, a studio. Later, after the end of prohibition, he became an importer of whiskey. He was unsentimental about disposing of both his movie and liquor businesses when he thought the time opportune, escaped the savages of the Depression and eventually fastened on the steady rents from large, commercial real estate holdings, in both New York and Chicago, as the best way to guarantee a profitable night's sleep.

During his twenties and thirties Kennedy spread his seed. In little over 16 years Rose, his wife and the daughter of a former mayor of Boston, hammered out nine children. Kennedy wandered far from the busy marital bed and throughout his life had many affairs - which included leading lights such as Gloria Swanson and Clare Boothe Luce. Rose seems to have gone MIA for long stretches of Kennedy's life though there were the essential couplings, and much photographed family occasions, public events and papal audiences. There are plenty of letters between the two but they spent months at a time apart, usually went on separate vacations and, at least in this book, Rose is less visible than the wallpaper. The distance between husband and wife did not exist between father and offspring. Kennedy was a doting father - constantly fussing and fretting over their nursery and health and, as they grew older, their education, military service, public life, spouses and children. When they got into scrapes (cheating on exams, failing admission to the military, having affairs with Nazi sympathizers) Kennedy bailed them out. This was his clan and he was their protector, ring-master, cheerleader and financial provider.

The Kennedy clan was woven into the threads of the east coast Irish Catholic political and religious hierarchies. Curleys, Hurleys, Priests, Bishops and Cardinals all people the pages of this book and plenty of churches, seminaries, and parochial schools gradually were recipients of Kennedy largesse. Other clans - particularly high church anglicans and Jews - were viewed by Kennedy with great suspicion.

In his early forties Kennedy, by then on first-name terms with many of America's leading businessmen, newspaper proprietors and politicians turned his energies to politics. He supported Roosevelt during his first run for the presidency and in 1934 was rewarded by being named the first Chairman of the SEC. This might have been a case of appointing a fox to mind the chicken coop but the newly minted guardian of the public trust instituted strict regulatory filings for companies and stock exchanges and outlawed many of the abuses of the 1920s. There followed two other public offices - the first a short stint as head of the Maritime Commission. The second, as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, ruined his reputation.

Barely could a man have been less suited to the position of being an American president's emissary to the Court of St. James. The imperious, outspoken and hard-charging individualism that made Kennedy a success in Hollywood and Wall Street, were not the traits required for smooth diplomacy. To make matters worse, Kennedy arrived in London as Europe geared itself for the beginnings of World War II. Kennedy viewed the prospect of war with Germany as an unmitigated disaster. He felt that America had no responsibilities for Europe or Britain and that the former Colony would comfortably weather any storm because of its size and natural wealth. Kennedy gravitated towards the Lindberghs, Mitfords and Chamberlains and harbored nothing but contempt for warmongers such as Churchill. It did not take long for the intemperate and headstrong Kennedy to ruin his ties with the State Department and Roosevelt and before long he found himself bypassed and irrelevant. Shortly after Churchill became Prime Minister, Kennedy resigned and his brief life as a political insider was over.

As World War II drew to a close (having cost him the life of his eldest son and the lifelong pain associated with a botched lobotomy on his eldest daughter, Rosemary) Kennedy devoted his time to furthering the lives of his children. He made the occasional speech and provocative remark, was unafraid of speaking his mind to Truman and Eisenhower, had a perpetually bleak view of America's prospects, continued to seeth and gnash his teeth at the slightest affront and was on the outside looking in. But spurned and jilted by the insiders, Kennedy subsequently concentrated on the political career of his sons and the public service of his daughters.

When John Kennedy began his life in politics, his father largely withdrew from public view fearful that his reputation as "Chamberlain's umbrella man" (the colorful phrase used a decade later by Lyndon Johnson) would ruin everything. But Kennedy Sr. was far from absent. He bankrolled successive political campaigns, insisted on editing the advertising copy and, at least during the early battles, was the force behind the scenes.

By the late fifties, he was still working his rolodex, contributing money and voicing his views on everything, but his three sons were running the political show. Kennedy travelled between Hyannis Port (his family's luxurious riff on Levittown), Palm Beach (where he enjoyed sunbathing in the nude coated in coconut oil) and the South of France (where he liked to putter around with an attractive female caddie).

When JFK ran for President he had accumulated the credentials of the ultimate insider: Choate, Harvard, a glittering War II record, a Pulitzer prize, years in both Congress and the Senate, an absurdly fetching wife and a large trust fund. But there was a snag. He was a Catholic at a time when many Americans were still terrified that Papal encyclicals would be channeled through the White House and incense would emerge from its chimneys. Even worse for Kennedy Sr, was the fact that some Catholics - particularly New York's Cardinal Spellman - despite decades spent supping at the Kennedy trough not only refused to campaign for JFK but actively tried to torpedo his candidacy. The Father's ire knew no bounds. It was inconceivable to him that a member of his clan had turned against his family. Opposition from Protestants and Republicans was one thing but he could not fathom the humiliation of a Catholic repudiation. Outsiders were supposed to stick together. Kennedy was still seething over the betrayal of his clan when a colossal stroke, months after JFK's inauguration, rendered him speechless for his nine remaining years.
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on December 10, 2012
I was reluctant to read "Patriarch" because it is 800 pages, and I wanted to know only 200 pages about J. P. Kennedy. But I got hooked, and there you have it.

Nasaw spends a lot of time presenting Kennedy in his early and mid years up to when he had to resign as ambassador to the UK on October 22, 1940. His last 29 years were covered in only 120 pages, and most of that centered on the political careers of his three sons. But those years were at least as important to modern Americans as his career up to 1940.

-- The Mob

There were some major issues during that period that Nasaw chose not to cover. One is the ongoing love/hate relationship between the Kennedy clan and J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover's name comes up only a half dozen times, and each of those is about a minor event. There's no doubt that Hoover's obsession with surveilling the Kennedys and his accumulation of secret files on the Kennedys were major considerations to the Kennedy family, and the facts that have come to light have important implications about the Kennedy boys and the father. But Nasaw discusses none of this.

A major example of this is Nasaw's neglect of Sam Giancana, a Mafia godfather in Chicago. The FBI and others maintain that Joseph Kennedy met with Giancana in Chicago and New York during the 1960 campaign to arrange a deal to deliver Chicago to the Kennedy ticket. Chicago did in fact vote for Kennedy, which seems like a miracle in light of how the Kennedy brothers had relentlessly attacked mob leaders in the McClellan Committee hearings. Nasaw's total analysis of all the allegations about this issue is:

-- "Statistical analysis of the actual vote demonstrates, on the contrary, that labor union members in Chicago, suburban wards, and those districts and states that were supposedly Mob-influenced did not vote `unusually heavily Democratic in the 1960 presidential election'."

That's it. That's ALL Nasaw says. I have no idea about Kennedy's actions or about the Mob's actions, but this is not a credible investigation of the issue.

-- The "Official" Biography

Nasaw gave a terrific presentation on C-SPAN's Book TV, which I found riveting. He said that once he had agreed with Edward Kennedy to do the Joseph Kennedy biography, it took another year and a half before they had a legal agreement negotiated. That sounds like a lot of contentious details and a lot of compromising. On page xxiii of the Introduction of "Patriarch," Nasaw writes:

-- "When Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Senator Edward Kennedy, on behalf of their family, asked me to write a biography of their father, I agreed to do so, but 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. The family accepted my conditions. No attempts were made to withhold information or to censor this book in any way."

"Full cooperation" would refer to the Kennedy clan. The JPK papers in the JFK Library would also not likely turn up anything too damaging. And if the Giancana link represents the depth of Nasaw's scrutiny of external sources, he wouldn't probably turn up much to censor.

Since I'm not any kind of Kennedy expert, I have to give the benefit of the doubt to Nasaw. I just thought these were interesting observations.

And I really did enjoy the book--all 800 pages.
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on March 10, 2014
Nasaw has made a great contribution to academic biography and, at the same time, provided the public with a very readable story of one of the 20th century's most famous American families. As JP Kennedy's official biographer, Nasaw had unprecedented access to the private papers and correspondence of Kennedy and his family. He combines this with extensive research in the papers and writings of people Kennedy interacted with and the media archives of the period. Having done his homework, Nasaw then transforms it into a 750 page book that reads like a gripping historical novel.
Rather than outline J P Kennedy's life, as earlier reviewers have done most competently, I am going to focus on things I learned from THE PATRIARCH that surprised me.
1. What a good parent he was. He raised his nine children to be independent and creative thinkers -- not necessarily the m.o. of a "patriarch". He encouraged them to work -- even his daughters. He also nudged them toward public service. all nine seem to have adored him and treasured the time he spent with them. During his many absences, he wrote them frequent, individually-focused letters. Rose Kennedy undoubtedly deserves more credit than she is given in this book for how the Kennedy children turned out, but Joe's effectiveness as a parent surprised me.
2. How effective he was at public relations and at cultivating the media. Even before he reached Hollywood, he had learned to use Boston and New York newspapers to advance his business interests. Later, he maintained personal relations with Hearst, Drew Peason, and Lord Beaverbrook. By the time JFK entered politics, Arthur Krock of the NYT was essentially on the Kennedy payroll.
3. That his antipathy to war as a solution to international problems was not limited to his pro-appeasement stance toward Hitler. He thought Truman was wrong to get involved in Korea and that Eisenhower should avoid entangling the US in southeast Asia. I daresay he would have been against invading Afghanistan and Iraq, had he still been with us.
4. Kennedy's efforts, while Ambassador to Great Britain, on behalf of Jewish victims of Hitler. He lobbied both Neville Chamberlin and President Roosevelt unsuccessfully to permit and promote emigration. We don't know whether this stemmed from genuine concern for the Jews or was an attempt to stave off the Armageddon he feared, but it was the right policy at the right time.
5. That he had a sense of humor. My mental image of him was that of his dour, bespectacled, photos from the 1950's. Nasaw demonstrates that he was a tease and a kidder with those close to him and used a caustic wit on those who were not. It occurs to me that he chose "Somerset" for the name of his whiskey importing business as a backhanded compliment to the Somerset Club of Boston, an exclusive WASP establishment that would not have admitted the younger Joseph P Kennedy.
6. His break with Cardinal Spellman and others in the Roman Catholic hierarchy because they sat on their hands during JFK's campaign for President. It is fun to speculate at the fireworks JPK might have sparked within the church, had he not suffered a stroke so soon after the inauguration.
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on December 6, 2012
A well-written biography of an enigmatic figure in the politics of the 20th century. Straight-forward descriptions of the events surrounding this figure and his prejudices and reactions to issues that had immense significance for the nation and the world at that critical period. Book offers a critical and honest insight into the man and is very provoking: was his opposition to US engagement in the war his fear of the economic and political consequences he foresaw or was it based on prejudice? Author makes a convincing case for the former. The many family tragedies surrounding this figure are put in some perspective and one cannot read this biography without a tremendous sense of the huge price he and his family have paid in the pursuit of political success and in the sincere desire to be of service to the nation.
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on December 26, 2012
THE PATRIARCH is more than a biography of Joseph P. Kennedy. It is a fascinating review of history in the pre-World War Two era as well as the war years and beyond. Anyone who is interested in background on the Kennedy clan will be assured of an in depth analysis of the beginnings of their wealth and power. Joseph Kennedy himself is a figure to be admired, emulated, derided, envied and despised. Sometimes the politics of the reader will influence which of these descriptions is the most accurate, but objectively, all apply.
The research is detailed and richly footnoted. Newspaper articles, State Department dispatches, various transcripts, and the personal correspondence of the individuals involved is the basis for a complete understanding of many sides of the diplomatic and political events of the times. Private thoughts come to light and offer an excellent insight into the psyche of Joseph P. Kennedy. Members of the family are included in the picture of the Kennedys rise to wealth and prominence. Like 'em or not, the background presented in this book will confirm or deny your personal opinions. It's all in how you interpret it!
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VINE VOICEon December 29, 2012
I hesitated to buy this book, because I knew about Kennedy's clashes with Roosevelt and Churchill during the Second World War, and willingness to negotiate with Hitler, and such behavior and attitudes were repugnant to me. Nonetheless, I can't resist a good, long, well-researched biography, particularly about someone who, like Kennedy, played an important role in the New Deal. I was pleasantly surprised to find this biography to be objective, informative and no hagiography. While the author clearly does not dislike Kennedy, he pulls no punches in describing Kennedy's defeatist, concessionary attitudes, not merely at the outset, but during the early years of the War. In addition, however, because the author is a good historian, he provides us with a basis on which to understand the conflicting opinions that prevailed at the time as to what was in Britain's and the US's long-term interests, as well Kennedy's reasons, both personal and political, for believing, as he did, that victory over Hitler, whom he despised as a dictator, was impossible.

Time and time again, Kennedy was wrong. Yet we learn in this bio that he was no Nazi-sympathizer. Instead, he was a businessman and congenital pessimist who did not understand the moral and political consequence of appeasement. He was also, it appears, an anti-Semite who blamed Jews for escalating the conflict with Hitler -- unbelievable, but that's what he thought -- even as he tried to persuade a reluctant Roosevelt and Chamberlain to pressure Hitler to allow Jews to leave Germany for safer ground.

The story of the Kennedy family has been told over and over again, and of course plays a central role in this biography. Despite his infidelities, Kennedy appears to have loved his wife, Rose, and adored his children. His marriage was odd, to say the least -- the couple spent little time together -- but both parties to the deal seemed to have been content. Moving is the account of what happened to Rosemary, the Kennedy's mildly retarded daughter, who fell victim to medical science and her father's attempt to help her.

I would have liked to learn more about Kennedy's involvement with the Truman administration and Cold War politics; the depiction of that period is a bit dry, lacking the drama and detail of the sections devoted to the Depression and Second World War. Nonetheless, this biography is a winner, and has increased my understanding of a complex man who played an important role in the history of the last century.
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on December 19, 2012
I first took Patriarch out from the library, to see if it was worth buying. After less than 200 pages into it, I decided it definitely was, ordered it, and received it from Amazon this week. This is a very readable book, interesting and informative and not at all pedantic like some biographies. I read the one-star reviews here, and find them uniformly ridiculous. Complaining about the price is not a review of a book. If you can't afford to buy books, then get a library card. If you don't like the subject of a biography, then you are not going to have many biographies to read. Joseph Kennedy, like him or dislike him, is an important enough historical figure by himself, and this book very adequately tells about who he was, where he came from, and his mindset and his motivations. The Kennedy family is huge in modern American politics. Joe's children included three senators, one of whom became president, one attorney general, two assassinated. His daughters were strong leaders. A son-in-law was vice-presidential candidate in 1972. Several of Joe's grandchildren have carried on the legacy of public service and politics. This book is about where that started. Come on--aren't you interested in how the Kennedy wealth came to be and how a person who had generated such wealth was able to sidestep the market collapse of the Depression and retain it? I found that fascinating. Equally, his connections with FDR, and frustrations, and how he ultimately came to be an ambassador. And got it wrong about Nazi Germany (as well as Chamberlain.) Triumphs, tragedies, and flaws, philandering, and loyalty. In 800 pages you do find out who this guy was. My only wish is that there were more pictures. In any case, this book solidly merits a five-star review. I cannot helpo but think that the one-starrers wrote theirs whining about the price of the Kindle version just to bring the average down. That is far friom an ethical way to review, in my book, and I think Amazon would be better served by deleting those reviews. They have nothing to do with the fine biographical work that Nasaw produced.
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on November 16, 2012
I am a fan of the biography genre and love nothing more than a lengthy, copiously researched, well-written tome such as this. I am also an aficionado of books about the Kennedy family as well - since I am of Irish descent, follow politics closely and am from Boston there is a natural curiosity. I started the book this morning and have only put it down to start a review - it is a great book. I read the author's previous work on Andrew Carnegie and it is well-deserving of its high-praise - I foresee that same level of praise for this piece as well. I read about twenty (20) biographies a year and the Andrew Carnegie biography is one of the best of the lot; so far The Patriarch is shaping up to be on par with the Carnegie book ... or possibly surpassing it in its quality.

The author was pursued by the Kennedy family over a decade ago to write the biography of the family's patriarch and he refused - he does not write authorized biographies. Only after much negotiation would he acquiesce - and only with the conditions that nothing could be redacted or blocked and that he would have access to ALL of family's archives. He was also able to interview several family members that have since died: Senator Kennedy, Eunice and Sargent Shriver, Patricia Lawford, etc. This makes for an exciting book - one in which the author has unlimited access to resources and can use all of them.

The Patriarch begins in Ireland with Kennedy's grandfather deciding to depart for the United States - he is not escaping the famine but rather the economic downturn that accompanied it. He was a realist that knew - since he was not the first-born son - he would not inherit land: this meant a great life could only be found someplace far away. He emigrates on a 'coffin ship' and finds himself in East Boston, Massachusetts - and quickly employed. He marries and one of has several children - one of which will be Patrick Kennedy's father. We then segway to the marriage into a respected family and the birth of the book's main character. All the while we get a look at an integral aspect of Kennedy's life: Boston politics in the early twentieth century. Kennedy's years at the prestigious Boston Latin Academy are quickly covered and he moves on to Harvard. At the same time an important figure emerges: Rose Fitzgerald.

Writing about JPK's youth is a difficult task - Kennedy was a forward thinker: he did not dwell on the past although he appears to have had a somewhat ideal childhood. The book moves quickly to the more important times in Kennedy's life starting with his days at Harvard. JPK was not an A student - he was more interested in keeping busy making lifetime contacts and earning money. A long-held myth about Kennedy stealing a game ball (as reported by, among others, Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book about the Kennedys) is debunked and dismissed.
JPK graduates from Harvard and embarks on a business career. At first he was a bank auditor, then a bank president, then a ship-building executive, he then moves into the world of Wall Street. Several long-standing and erroneous assertions about Kennedy are challenged: he was not in fact a bootlegger (the author traces the origins of this rumor) and he did attempt to manipulate the stock of Hertz BUT only to increase its share price from rogue short sellers trying to drive it down. We see a very different Kennedy than depicted in previous works: a driven and hard-working man (sometimes to the point of exhaustion requiring in-patient care) who was a shrewd dealer who knew how to capitalize on opportunities. All of his business dealings appear to have been entirely scrupulous - the image of a man who made a fortune manipulating stocks is summarily dismissed. This fervent ambition in business is juxtaposed with an image of a truly caring, albeit oft-absent, father.
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on December 5, 2012
He was a successful businessman, a womanizer, a very devoted father, a notorious anti-Semite, a naive and myopic diplomat who believed that the world had to compromise with Hitler. In addition he thought that Communism played no danger for the USA. He liked and disliked Roosevelt and thought that the Jews were to blame for having too much influence in the President's administration. His times were indeed turbulent and dynamic. The main focus and forte of this very well researched book is on the realtionship between Koe Kennedy and Roosevelt. His personal tragedies are broadly described.
So why only four stars? Because one feels that Nasaw has perhaps missed some points, because he does not describe in much detail the relationships between Joe and his children, while a lot of emphasis was put on Rosemary's tragedies.
However, this book reads like a 19th century long novel. If you have the time for it.
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