The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded – Ronald Kessler

Kessler-sinsoffatherWhen we think of political dynasties in America, perhaps no other name has had as big of an impact as the Kennedys.  They are both admired and loathed but their importance to  the American experience cannot be understated. The patriarch, Joseph (“Joe”) P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) was once one of the wealthiest men in America.  Yet for all of his financial success, controversy followed him and his family for years after his death.  The family’s success undoubtedly reached its highest peak with second son John F. (“Jack”) Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected in 1960 as the next President of the United States.  For Joe, it was a dream come true and reaffirmed his mantra that “Kennedys don’t lose”.  To most of the public, the Kennedys seemed like figures out of a story book and the media’s creation of the term “Camelot” that was given to the Kennedy White House, further enhanced the family’s mythical status.  The image presented to the public gave the impression of a fairytale marriage that any single person would envy.  Today, we know through the benefit of hindsight that the truth is far less glamarous and behind the scenes, there were dark storm clouds gathering as infidelity, old man Joe’s influence and one foreign crisis after another made life as the first family strenuous to say the least.  Rumors have persisted over the years that Joe Kennedy provided the money for all of his sons’ political campaigns and that the money he provided was used in several places to swing the election to his son Jack.  And while there has never been documented evidence of such, statements have been made by many individuals that action were taken to give Kennedy the election.  All knowledge of what really did happen went with Joe Kennedy to the grave and I doubt that even his sons knew the whole story.  He was a master at compartmentalization and for years, remained chameleon like figure.  Ronald Kessler decided to take another at Kennedy’s life and what he found has been compiled into this book that peels back the layers that have shrouded the Kennedy family is mystique for several decades.

I should point out that the book is not about the Kennedy presidency nor is it focused on Jack’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. In fact, the murder receives only a small section in the story.  Joe Kennedy is the center of the story and the author takes us deep inside his world in a time before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) started a second world war. the stock market was less regulated, Hollywood was for the taking and the 1919 National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) turned bootleggers into millionaires.  Joe’s numerous ventures both legal and illegal are discussed in the book and show that he was not above defying the law in order to reap hugh profits.  After providing background information on the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families, Kessler shifts gears and the story picks up pace as Joe begins to implement his vision for financial success and political fame.  Kennedy had always portrayed himself as the Irishman who overcame bias and adversity to rise high in American society.  It is a moving story but there were many things he left out and Kessler leaves no stone unturned.  The real Joe Kennedy is revealed here and what we learn may prove to be more than some readers have bargained for.  If you hold the Kennedy family in high regard, then this book might cause you to re-evaluate your views of them while inducing feelings of bewilderment, sympathy and in some cases, pity.

There is no question that Kennedy was shrewd and domineering businessman, never afraid to throw his weight around.  And those abilities would bring him into the circle of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) whose relationship with Joe takes up a significant portion of the book.  Historians know very well the story of the “appeasement at Munich” where Czechoslovakia was carved up on a silver platter for Adolft Hitler by former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) with the full support of U.S. Ambassador Kennedy.  But when Hitler decided to invade neighboring Poland on September 1, 1939, it became hauntingly clear that the appeasement was a distraction from Germany’s master plan.  Kennedy’s view that England would lose the war by 1940 caused consternation and outrage in Britain and Washington.  And it would put a deep strain to develop in the relationship between Kennedy and Roosevelt. Drawing upon written correspondence and statements by those with knowledge, the book reveals the high level of contempt in which Kennedy was held by many in government. Roosevelt himself does not spare Kennedy his wrath and it is an interesting look behind the scenes as the German army rolled across Europe.  Some readers might be puzzled by Kennedy’s behavior.  One possible explanation can be found in Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts’ The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which discusses the link between Nazi Germany and American bankers and investors.   I personally wondered why Roosevelt tolerated Kennedy as long as he did.  There is a good explanation for that as well which is provided within the story, further highlighting the fact that politics is a ruthless business.   As the war rages on, Kennedy eventually moves back to the United States and like a piece of chessboard, he is moved from one position to another but never attains a position within the White House. He would live vicariously through Jack who’s victory over Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the moment Joe had been waiting for.

I have often heard of the Kennedy curse and tragedy did follow the family constantly.  The deaths of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s (1890-1995) children affect both deeply and the mantra of “Kennedys don’t cry” comes off more as a slogan than a way of life.  In spite of Joe’s antics throughout the book, there did exist a very personal side to him that was often unseen and rarely revealed.  The memories provided by his former mistress Janet DesRosiers shows him in his most humble state and also provokes more questions about the marriage between Joe and Rose which comes off as more than unorthodox.  What we learn about their union sheds light on the difference between liberal and puritanical views.  Stories of the Kennedy men and their love lives is nothing new and in the case of Joe, he certainly had his fun.  But while reading the book, I asked myself if he would have behaved in the same manner had his marriage to Rose taken a different course? We can only speculate but what is clear is that “love” is not always what we think it is and many secrets always exist behind closed doors. On occasion in the book, statements by their children regarding their childhood provide a very sobering picture of life at home and there are very few positive comments about their mother Rose, who is more like a visiting relative than full-time mother.  They do however, show the utmost respect and admiration dad Joe who emerges as the glue that holds the family together.

Far from being “Camelot”, the family was more like an episode of reality television gone wrong. However, there is no question that the Kennedy possessed enormous ambition and it propelled them to high places.  For them, losing was not an option.  And John F. Kennedy remains one of America’s most beloved presidents.  Aside from Joe, the author does discuss incidents that arise in the lives of the children, most of which are highly serious.  Ted (1932-2009) as the family called him, has a series of incidents that severely injured or took the life of someone in his company.  Yet his accidents are only a few in a long series of events in the Kennedy family that involved tragedy due to recklessness or substance abuse. And no story about the family is complete without a discussion regarding the missing sister, Rosemary (1918-2005) who outlived all but one of her brothers.  Her story is perhaps one of the most tear-jerking parts of the story and I warn readers who are sensitive or may know someone labeled as having a mental disability that this part of the book might be difficult.  But, the discussion presented by Kessler points out some things about Rosemary’s intellect that show just how primitive the mental health field in the 1940s. Today, I believe that had she been born in another era, she would have lived a far different and close to normal life. But sadly, she was born in a time where most doctors did not understand what her condition actually was and resorted to drastic measures that changed her life permanently and served as a major source of regret throughout Rose’s life.

To say that the story by Kessler is unbelievable would be an understatement. This is a raw and unfiltered look at the life of Joe Kennedy and his family whose name is a crucial part in the our nation’s past. Some readers may be surprised at what Kessler reveals and others may feel indifference.  As time moves forward, the  Kennedys will be remembered at best, a dynasty from another era that continues to fade into the distance.  Admittedly, I was aware of a good number of the facts revealed by the author and had no illusions about how fierce and ruthelss Joe Kennedy could be.  I believe it is for that reason that I was never shocked while reading the story.  However, I did learn more about the the level of dysfunction that existed within the home and how unusual family ties were.  For further reading, I do recommend that readers consider Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot  , in which the author explores many alleged family secrets. The book is controversial but overall very well written and I do believe Hersh was right about some things but not about everything. However, it is still a good read and completely breaks down the myth of “Camelot”. I have no doubt that there are many family secrets that remain carefully guarded.  In the end, no family or individual is perfect and this story is proof of that.  Further, we can have all the material items we want in life and still suffer from loneliness.  Joe comes to understand this quite well and his unguarded moments show that even those of us with a strong facade are at times highly vulnerable on the inside.  Regardless of your opinion of him, Joe Kennedy remains firmly entrenched in American history as the founder of a dynasty that once captivated an entire world.  And if you decide to read this book, be aware that there is far more to the man you may have ever imagined.


The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts

Morgan-burstIn the autumn of 1929, between the months of September and October, the world was plunged into financial uncertainty as stock markets in New York City and other places saw a massive devaluation of stocks and bonds.  Some investors lost millions in the crash and others less financially secure, saw nearly their entire market portfolio crumble before their eyes.  In the wake of the crash, America plunged into the great depression that spread misery and despair across the nation for several more years.  The crash remains to this day, one of the greatest financial disasters in history.  However, its causes are still up for debate and there is no single reason for the catastrophe but numerous factors did combine to bring the economy to a grinding halt.  Authors Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts have studied the crash and tell the story here about the “day the bubble burst”.

Prior to reading the book, I was familiar with some of the names that are critical in the story. For example, I knew of William C. Durant (1861-1947), the founder of General Motors and the legendary Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969), former owner of RKO Studios and Ambassador to Great Britain. Incredibly, Kennedy comes out of the crash with minimal loss and would go to establish his own dynasty that catapulted his son John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to the White House in the 1960 election.  But there are many others crucial to the story and their lives and actions are intertwined in the fabric of American society both past and present.

I forewarn readers that the story moves from one person to the next and then back again.  And although the book does follow a chronological order, it is actually several stories woven into one. Next to Durant, the life of Charles Stewart Mott (1875-1973) comes into focus as the authors examine his role at General Motors and actions at the Union Industrial Bank which plays a very important role in the story.   The authors also take a look as A.P. Giannini (1870-1949) the founder of Transamerica known today as Bank of America. Continuing on, Jesse Livermore (1877-1940) enters the picture as the poster-boy for the successful stock trader.  Charles E. Mitchell (1877-1955) joins the cast of characters as chairman of National City Bank, known simply today as Citi Bank.  His financial policies are believed by many to be one of the direct causes for the crash of the market. John Pierpont “Jack” Morgan Jr., (Jack Morgan) is a strong presence as well and readers will take note of a key situation involving Morgan and Joseph Kennedy that seemed to grind the latter’s gears and set him on due course to become a financial titan of his own. And finally for the New Yorkers, John J. Raskob (1879-1950) will be of high interest for his enduring contribution to the New York skyline: the Empire State Building.

One of the book’s major strengths is the explanation of the stock market provided by the authors, which is helpful to readers seeking to get an understanding of how the traders were manipulating and playing the market. Of course, the book is not intended to be a stock market guide but simple enough for the everday reader to understand in relation to the story being told.  Today, the market is just a competitive but back then, less regulation existed and traders were far more willing to engage in dubious and illegal activity as can be seen in the story.  The thirst for wealth was so contagious that traders in other countries would also play a role in the crash such as British investor Clarence Hatry (1888-1965), who some blame for ingiting the spark that caused the panic resulting in the plummeting of stock values across world markets.  The authors do not convict him in the book but leave it up to readers to decide. However, they do say this to make their point clear:

“To say that Hatry caused the Wall Street Crash would be to put it far too strongly. But to say that his downfall played no part in it whatsoever would possibly be equally misleading.” 

Undoubtedly, the crash had many causes and the number of people who deserve blame is quite significant. Greed and disregard for financial risk, allowed unrestrained investing into a market, held together by carefully adjusted interest rates and the exchange of foreign currency and other commercial goods. And a ripple in that temperamental network of world markets resulted in a crash no one thought possible yet everyone feared. From housewives to savvy Wall Street players, the impact was brutal and drove some to the brink of suicide. And today that risk is present as the market fluctuates constantly. However, in the wake of the crash, the Federal Government stepped in and imposed tougher regulations to prevent a replay of 1929.  And if there is any doubt as to the severity of the crash, this quote sets the record straight in the most sobering of ways:

“In the five hours the market had gone mad on October 29, it was later estimated that almost as much money in capital value vanished into thin air as the United States had spent on World War I. The loss was around ten times the budget of the Union in the entire Civil War.” 

Towards the end of the book the discussion shifts slightly away from New York and on to Berlin where a young Austrian named Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) is making a name for himself and using Germany’s dire situation and the crash to consolidate his power and grip of the Fatherland.  The connection between the market’s crash and Hitler’s rise to power will be of high interest to history buffs and aficionados of World War II.   And what the authors reveal about the relationship between Wall Street and Germany might leave some shaking their heads in disbelief.  There is far more to the story than I could possibly discuss here but what is disclosed explains why some elements of American society were hesitant to get involved in World War II.  The saying “follow the money” certainly does apply.

In the afterword to the book, the fates of those involved with the crash are detailed by the authors, and here we see how they ended up after devastating financial fallout.  The end result is often sad and in some cases involved criminal prosecution.  The government left no stone unturned and hardly any of the major places was ever the same again.  A few did rebound and fair quite well in later years but they are forever linked to that fateful autumn of 1929.  Some may wonder if another market crash could happen.I believe so but under extraordinary circumstances.  Regulations are far more stringent today and watchdog organizations keep a carefully trained eye on the market.  However, it is also true that if we do not know our history, we are condemned to repeat it.  The 1929 crash was nothing short of earth shattering and the repercussions were felt for decades.  This is the story of how and why it happened.  Highly recommended.