This supplemental series examines the continued obsessions many Americans have with the Kennedy political dynasty, ranging from Oliver Stone's 1991 hit movie "JFK" to the current QAnon conspiracy theorists' preoccupation with the idea that certain Kennedys faked their deaths. This episode provides background to the rise of Kennedy political family by focusing on the controversial career of Joseph P. Kennedy, Senior (the father of President John F. Kennedy). It examines Joe Kennedy's rise to wealth & power through various business ventures, including banking, stock trading, investments in the film industry, and importing liquor after the repeal of Prohibition. We also consider the most infamous aspects of Joe's life, including his decision to lobotomize his intellectually disabled daughter Rosemary, and his efforts to appease the fascist Axis powers as US Ambassador to the UK in the years immediately preceding the Second World War.Support the show
“From Boomers to Millennials” is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at each year of post-World War II American history. Welcome to Episode 16A, entitled “The Kennedys as Boomer Icons, Part I: Introduction.” This is the first in a series of short supplemental episodes reexamining the story of one of the most famous families in the history of American politics, namely the Kennedys of Massachusetts. I think many people my age & younger have been puzzled by all of the interest in the Kennedy family that has lingered on for decades after the end of John F. Kennedy’s presidential administration. Fascination with the Kennedys seems to be particularly common among Americans old enough to remember when John, Bobby, Ted, & other Kennedys were prominent national figures. One of our main motivations for doing this series is to help explain why so many Americans well over the age of 40 remain somewhat obsessed with the Kennedys. A good starting point in understanding this phenomenon is to realize that John F. Kennedy was to young Baby Boomers what Barack Obama was to many young Millennials – a young, potentially transformational leader with a charismatic wife & family, a figure who seemed “cooler” & less stuffy than traditional politicians, someone who represented a passing of the torch to a new generation of Americans. The memory of his charm & his potential is amplified by the fact that President Kennedy was murdered & martyred in one of the great national traumas of 20th Century US History. Because he died in his prime, Boomers never had a chance to become disillusioned with JFK in that way that some Millennials (especially on the Right & Far Left parts of the political spectrum) became disenchanted with Obama. What John F. Kennedy would have done with the rest of his presidency had he not been assassinated remains one of the great unanswered historical questions, & many people project a lot of their own hopes & dreams into their imaginations of what a second term for JFK might’ve looked like.
The controversies & conspiracy theories surrounding John Kennedy’s assassination have also been a source of endless fascination & speculation for every subsequent generation, but especially for Baby Boomers who actually remember the tragedy. Oliver Stone (who was born in the original Baby Boom year of 1946) famously directed a hit feature film that made some sensational & unsubstantiated allegations regarding the JFK assassination. Even in the late stages of their lives, other prominent Baby Boomer & Silent generation artists continue to return to the subject. Stephen King (who was born in 1947) published a novel in 2011 about a protagonist who goes back in time hoping to stop the assassination. In 2020, legendary songwriter Bob Dylan (born in 1941) released a 16-minute-long ballad lamenting the JFK assassination entitled “Murder Most Foul.” It seems that even almost 60 years later, many older people are still haunted by their recollections of the tragic murder of a dynamic young American president. And while JFK’s legacy has traditionally been championed by left-liberals, there are also many right-leaning Baby Boomers who retain some admiration for JFK. A 2013 book by Ira Stoll, a contributor to neoconservative Commentary magazine, argued that John F. Kennedy had actually been a relatively conservative president. Boomer conservatives often echo such arguments, emphasizing JFK’s more right-leaning policies, such as his tax cuts & his aggressive foreign policy. The controversial libertarian social theorist Charles Murray (born 1943) speculated in a 2012 book that if only JFK had lived, it would have saved America from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, which he argues made the American working class overly dependent on government benefits. Steve Bannon, the far-right-wing populist who advised ex-President Donald Trump, has often talked about growing up in an Irish-American family that revered Kennedy.
But probably the most bizarre example of conservative Boomers embracing the Kennedy legacy was embodied by the recent event during November 2021, when advocates of the QAnon conspiracy theory gathered in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, which was the site of President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. The QAnon crowd apparently expected to see the public re-emergence of JFK Jr. (who was pronounced dead after a 1999 plane crash) & possibly also even the return of JFK Sr. Some of the conspiracy theorists claimed that both men were somehow still alive & working with former President Trump. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (quote) “Experts who have been following QAnon since its inception said that even they were surprised by the number of people who showed up Tuesday [November 2nd] in Dallas” (close quote). Well, I’m sorry to disappoint anybody, but no dead Kennedys showed up alive in Dallas this month, leaving the Q crowd disappointed (although I understand some of them are still there waiting). This bizarre & troubling development, which has complicated origins (see Episode 10A on conspiracy theories), also reflects the grip that the Kennedy mythos still holds upon some Americans who remember the lives of JFK and/or JFK Jr. President Kennedy was a member of that “Silent” or “GI” generation that preceded the Baby Boomers, but he became a charismatic icon to young Boomers in particular, many of whom were entering their teenage years & first starting to pay attention to national politics during JFK’s presidency. The subsequent tragedies that befell JFK & some of his siblings (which led to the legend of there being a “Kennedy Curse”) also made the family all the more intriguing to people. However, it is interesting to note that as talented & charismatic as many of the Kennedy brothers were, it is unlikely that they would have risen to the same heights of national prominence had there not been a great family fortune that allowed them to get a head start in politics. Those riches were acquired by Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of JFK & RFK, who remains perhaps the most notorious & controversial figure in the Kennedy saga. This first episode in our series now tells his story.
Joseph Patrick Kennedy was the grandson of immigrants of modest means who came to Boston from Ireland during the mid-19th Century. His father P.J. Kennedy overcame his humble origins to become a successful saloon owner who eventually was elected to several terms in the Massachusetts State Legislature. As a result of P.J.’s successful business ventures, young Joe was born into an upper-middle class household during the year 1888. Growing up Irish Catholic in a posh Boston suburb during the late 19th Century, Joe watched his family face social slights from their WASP neighbors, which seemed to put a chip on the young man’s shoulder from an early age. From his early teenaged years, Joe Kennedy was a startlingly confident & ambitious person, but the boy actually had the intelligence, discipline, & incredible drive to back up his braggadocio. Attending a high school filled with mostly Protestant kids who were from families that had more wealth & social status than his own, Joe nevertheless rose to be captain of the school’s baseball team & was elected Senior Class President. According to historian Robert Dallek, (quote) “The social Darwinian code of the time, by which Joe was guided throughout his life, gave legitimacy to the view that the innately talented & virtuous succeeded, while the less deserving . . . fell by the wayside” (close quote). In this perceived dog-eat-dog world where only the fittest survived, Joe was determined to do whatever it took to wind up on the winning side of life. While a college student at Harvard, Joe Kennedy became determined to pursue a career in banking, because he learned from his classmates from rich families that admission into the financial sector was the most direct path to obtaining wealth & power in early 20th Century America.
Luckily, Joe had a connection to a small local bank via his father, who was one of its major stockholders. P.J. Kennedy was able to get Joe a job as an apprentice to this bank’s treasurer. The young man threw himself into the position, using his keen intelligence & tireless work ethic to scheme & hustle his way up the ranks over just a few short years until he was named the bank’s new president in 1913. Dallek reports that Joe Kennedy had become among the first Irish-Americans bankers in Massachusetts, entering a profession that had traditionally been (quote) “a preserve of some of Boston’s wealthiest & most-prominent old-school families” (close quote). The ambitious & now successful young man wed his growing wealth to established political power by convincing Rose Fitzgerald to marry him. Rose was the daughter of John Fitzgerald, a gifted Irish-American politician nicknamed “Honey Fitz” because of his gift for sweet-talking people. Fitzgerald had served in the US Congress and had recently been mayor of Boston. Joe Kennedy & Rose Fitzgerald married in 1914 and their first child Joe Junior was born the following year. In 1917, Rose gave birth to the couple’s second child, who Dallek describes as (quote) “a healthy boy named after his irrepressible [maternal] grandfather” (close quote). That lad, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, would grow up in the shadow of his older brother Joe Junior, whom he both competed with & idolized.
Joseph P. Kennedy Senior was still young enough (in his late 20s) to be of a prime age to enlist in the military when the United States entered the First World War. However, he had no interest in volunteering & avoided conscription. Dallek observes that Joe (quote) “was too cynical about human nature & Europe’s traditional strife to believe that anything . . . good could come out of the fighting” (close quote). Dallek notes that Joe Kennedy would be a “lifelong isolationist” in his attitude toward foreign policy. He focused instead on building his financial empire by running a shipbuilding company during the war. Despite being successful, Kennedy never rested on his laurels. He consistently jumped from opportunity to opportunity, always seeking a chance to make even more money. According to Dallek, at war’s end in 1919, Joe obtained a high-powered gig as (quote) “a stockbroker with the prestigious Boston firm of Hayden, Stone, & Company. Believing that the greatest possibility to accumulate wealth in the coming decade would be in the stock market, Joe used his . . . job to turn ‘inside’ information into disciplined speculation that netted him nearly $2 million dollars over the next 6 years” (close quote). According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, $2 million during the 1920s is the equivalent to over $30 million dollars in today’s money after being adjusted for inflation. Joseph Kennedy was now a member of the upper class, and he was only going to get richer.
Joseph & Rose Kennedy would be parents of 9 children over a 17-year span, including Rosemary (born 1918), Bobby (born 1925), and Teddy (born 1932). Joe’s wife Rose was a religiously devout, traditional Catholic mother, someone not inclined to be a feminist trailblazer, but even she chafed at the patriarchal expectations of her domineering husband, which required her to spend almost all her time on domestic duties. Dallek reports that Rose was unhappy with Joe’s (quote) “many absences attending to business in New York & California, which threw the burden of child rearing largely on her. Despite a large retinue of household help, she was under constant pressure to attend to the need of so many small children” (close quote).
The fact that her husband was openly unfaithful to her put further strain on Rose; Dallek writes that (quote) “Joe made little effort to hide his womanizing.”. After leaving the stockbroking firm, Joe got involved with the movie business in Hollywood. On his trips to Los Angeles, he successfully pursued both lucrative business deals & young movie actresses. According to Dallek, he sometimes even brought his mistresses to visit the Kennedy home in Massachusetts, although he (quote) “served propriety by describing the young women to visitors as friends of his daughters” (close quote). A political reporter who knew Joe thought that for him, (quote) women “were another thing that a rich man had – like caviar. It wasn’t [just about] sex, it was part of the image . . . his idea of manliness” (close quote). Joe Kennedy’s cavalier womanizing was an example that some of his sons would go on to emulate. The behavior greatly embarrassed his wife Rose, but due to her strict Catholicism, she was determined to make the marriage work – in her cultural milieu at that time, divorce was not an option.
Joe Kennedy’s incredible business instincts helped him to continue getting richer, even when the stock market crash of the late 1920s reduced so many other successful men to poverty. In a famous anecdote, Joe recalled that during one afternoon amid the feverish speculation of the late Twenties, a street kid shining his shoes gave him a stock tip. It was then, he said, that he realized that the market was overvalued due to rampant & widespread speculation. He decided it was time to liquidate his assets & get out of the publicly-traded stock market. Just a couple of years later, the Great Depression began, but despite the economic crash, the Kennedys had held onto their money & were now richer than ever in relative terms. Joe Kennedy had sold most of his movie studio holdings by 1930, & his next big move was into the liquor trade, which made him yet another fortune once Prohibition ended in 1933. According to biographer Robert Dallek, the family was shielded from the Great Depression to the point that John F. Kennedy confidentially told a reporter during his 1960 run for president that (quote) “I had no first-hand knowledge of the depression. My family had one of the great fortunes of the world & it was worth more than ever then. We had bigger houses, more servants, we travelled more. About the only thing that I saw directly was when my father hired some extra gardeners just to give them a job so they could eat. I really did not learn about the depression until I learned about it at Harvard” (close quote).
As previously mentioned, Joseph Kennedy seized on the chance to profit from the decriminalization of liquor sales during the Thirties. However, contrary to popular belief, Kennedy had not been involved in bootlegging prior to the end of Prohibition. The claim that the Kennedys were bootleggers has often been used in order to discredit their family fortune & to portray this famous Democratic political dynasty as having criminal origins. This persistent historical slander is misleading for multiple reasons. First of all, it’s untrue, but even if Kennedy had been involved in bootlegging, it would not mark him out as a uniquely horrible figure. After all, a very large proportion (probably a majority) of the American population violated the law to some extent during the Prohibition Era. Millions & millions of people either frequented illegal “speakeasies” or purchased contraband in the form of homemade “moonshine” liquor. Even President Warren G. Harding (who claimed to support enforcement of Prohibition laws) was known to have a well-stocked liquor cabinet at the White House during the early 1920s, so it seems arbitrary to shun Joe Kennedy for this particular reason. Secondly, just because what Kennedy did to make his fortune was technically legal does not make it any more ethical than bootlegging. He famously engaged in insider trading & other shady practices to obtain wealth from the stock market. Most of these actions were not illegal at the time, but they would be once the New Deal completed its efforts to reign in unfair dealings on Wall Street.
Interestingly, Joe Kennedy biographer David Nasaw points out in an interview with history.com that (quote) “The rumors of ‘Kennedy the bootlegger’ didn’t surface until the late 1960s & 1970s . . . when conspiracy theorists were looking for reasons why the mafia might have played a role in the assassination of JFK. The theory was that the president’s father had made enemies in the underworld during his days as a bootlegger” (close quote). Nasaw notes that Joe Kennedy was too careful & too smart to get involved with something blatantly illegal; he did not want to recklessly put his fortune at risk or to damage the political prospects of his sons. Nasaw concludes that (quote) “He had other ways to make money. He knew where the line was between legality & illegality” (close quote). Of course, Joseph Kennedy had zero qualms about profiting from people’s alcohol habits once selling booze again became completely legal in the USA. The Nasaw interview reveals that (quote) “Kennedy used his already substantial wealth & political connections to land exclusive contracts to import high-end Scotch whiskey & gin from the United Kingdom” once Prohibition ended (close quote).
Despite all of this financial success, the Kennedy family had its difficulties. Joe’s daughter Rosemary was born with mental handicaps. This may be due to the fact that in her birth year of 1918, medical personnel were in short supply because of the Spanish flu pandemic (sound familiar?), & a nurse physically delayed the child’s birth so that the belated doctor could arrive. This botched delivery process deprived baby Rosemary of oxygen for a time, which probably damaged her brain’s development. At an early age, it became clear that she struggled with developing childhood physical & mental skills that came much easier to her siblings. Journalist Sue Woodman observed in the British newspaper The Guardian that Joe Kennedy kept Rosemary’s condition secret, (quote) “not just from the public, but from friends & distant family as well. He believed the truth could harm his sons’ political aspirations & tarnish his family’s shining aura” (close quote). Historian Robert Dallek notes that (quote) “In the 1920s & 30s, mental disabilities were seen as . . . an embarrassment best left undisclosed” (close quote). Woodman notes that Rosemary Kennedy was home-schooled by governesses, but she was allowed to attend social functions when accompanied by her brothers & sisters. She was not physically disabled, & observers often commented that she was the most good-looking Kennedy sister. Rosemary could speak well enough to exchange pleasantries at social gatherings. With the tutelage from her family, she was able to appear fairly normal, although in reality, her intellect did not advance much beyond a grade-school level.
However, Rosemary Kennedy’s behavior became more concerning by the time she reached her early 20s, when she appeared to have her intellectual disabilities compounded by some mental health issues that made her quite temperamental. Dallek reports that (quote) “After years of effort that had produced small gains in her ability to deal with adult matters, Rosemary turned violent at the age of 21, throwing temper tantrums & raging at caretakers who tried to control her” (close quote). She also started running off & was sometimes found hanging out with boys. Sue Woodman observes that (quote) once she “began to sneak out at night . . . the family feared she might come to harm – or get pregnant” (close quote). Joe Kennedy feared that his daughter could be a danger to herself or possibly to others, but he was also very worried that if she publicly got into trouble, it could damage the family’s social standing & political prospects. He decided to take drastic action to (quote-unquote) “help” his daughter & (quote-unquote) “solve” the problem of her misbehavior. Without telling his wife Rose, any of his sons & daughters, or warning Rosemary herself, he arranged for her to have a recently-invented medical procedure called a prefrontal lobotomy, which (in Woodman’s words) was an operation that (quote) “involved cutting fibers in the brain, [which was] intended to calm severely mentally ill patients” (close quote).
Historian Robert Dallek’s biography of John F. Kennedy is very well-regarded, but he really misses the mark on this Rosemary issue. It doesn’t match up with what I see from other sources, and he seems to make excuses for Joseph Kennedy Senior’s reckless decision to force this dangerous surgery upon his daughter. Mr. Dallek, if you’re listening, and I know you aren’t, shame on you for making it seem like Joe Kennedy had no choice but to order the lobotomy of Rosemary. While Dallek states that (quote) “contemporary medical understanding recommended [the lobotomy] as the best means for alleviating her agitation,” journalist Sue Woodman rightly points out that (quote) the “procedure had [only] been performed on perhaps 350 to 500 people by then, all but one of them [both] older & sicker than Rosemary” (close quote). Indeed, there is evidence that some doctors that he consulted warned Joe against getting the experimental procedure performed on his troubled daughter, but he pushed for it anyway.
The execution of the lobotomy may have been botched, & in any case, the operation did not help. Woodman notes that (quote) “it caused Rosemary to regress into a childlike state in which she sat for hours staring at the walls, [while] her [bouts of] rage stayed unabated” (close quote). Essentially, Joe Kennedy’s hasty actions had mentally destroyed his daughter, who had been generally cheerful & talkative despite being intellectually slow & emotionally impulsive. She also had physical problems after the surgery; even walking became very difficult. The lobotomy transformed Rosemary into a person who was in a near-vegetative state & who could not care for herself at all. Joseph Kennedy responded to this disaster by institutionalizing Rosemary in a Wisconsin nunnery, where she would spend the rest of her life, & he never visited her again. Joe also tried to deceive the public about what had happened to Rosemary. According to Woodman, Joe’s wife Rose Kennedy eventually did visit her daughter at the convent after several years of absence, but Rosemary barley acknowledged her mother anymore. Some family members claim she did have some small improvements over time in the years that followed, but Rosemary remained completely unable to take care of herself until the day she died in 2005. This incident is the first of several tragedies that would famously befall the Kennedy children, and this one was not a random act of nature, but rather the result of a cruel mistake that can only be blamed upon Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. himself.
There is one silver lining that has emerged out of this very sad story of Rosemary Kennedy. During the 1960s, the Kennedy family went public with the fact that they had an intellectually disabled sibling. Shortly thereafter, Eunice Kennedy, one of JFK’s other sisters, founded a charity to assist the disabled. That organization eventually founded the Special Olympics, which were first held during 1968 in Chicago. Today, Special Olympics organizations provide opportunities for disabled people to take part in athletic events & competitions within 107 countries all around the world.
Joe Kennedy’s story so far has been one of considerable self-serving ambition. However, during the 1930s, his interests moved in a surprising direction, away from private gains & toward public office. Irish Catholics had been loyal members of the Democratic Party coalition (particularly in Northern cities) for almost a century. Both Joe’s father & Rose’s father had been elected to local political positions as Democrats. For these reasons, Joseph Kennedy Sr. kept faith with the family tradition of Democratic affiliation, in spite of his own mostly conservative political views. Once again demonstrating an uncanny ability to sense the shifting direction of national mood, Joe decided to support the 1932 presidential campaign of liberal reformer Franklin D. Roosevelt. An article from the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, which is hosted on George Washington University’s website, notes that Joe Kennedy (quote) “diligently supported FDR . . . lobbying friends, raising funds, & persuading [fellow financial magnate] William Randolph Hearst to shift his support to [Franklin Roosevelt]” (close quote). It is probably not surprising that there was an element of self-interest & personal ambition behind these efforts; Kennedy wanted the job of Treasury Secretary in FDR’s administration, & he was bitterly disappointed when he was passed over for that Cabinet position.
However, he eventually persuaded Roosevelt to pick him as the first head of the newly created Securities & Exchange Commission, which was charged with reigning in Wall Street’s abusive practices. Many progressives were appalled by the choice of Joseph P. Kennedy, alleging that it was akin to putting the fox in charge of guarding the proverbial hen house. However, FDR retorted that sometimes one needs to (quote) “set a thief to catch a thief.” Given what we have told you about Joseph Kennedy so far, one could hardly be blamed for thinking he was a real piece of shifty character traits. However, the brilliant & unscrupulous businessman turned out to be a surprisingly fair & capable SEC Chair. The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers note that most contemporary observers agreed that he (quote) “excelled in the position, gathering widespread praise for his management of the agency & enforcement of securities regulation” (close quote). He took the job seriously, using his knowledge of the tricks he had used to manipulate the market in order to prevent others from doing the same thing.
However, Joseph Kennedy’s increased respectability & political influence after his stint at the SEC would evaporate at the end of the 1930s because of his misjudgments during the next major stage of his public career. Joe realized foreign policy was becoming central to US politics, because the storm clouds of another world war appeared to be gathering. Kennedy lobbied for a prominent ambassadorship, & he eventually convinced FDR to appoint him as Ambassador to the United Kingdom. This was a great moment of triumph for the scrappy Irishman who had once been looked down upon by his snobby Anglo-Saxon Protestant neighbors; now a Kennedy would be rubbing elbows with British aristocrats & royals, something his WASP neighbors could only dream of. However, his approach to foreign policy soon alienated many Britons & Americans because he insisted that the English-speaking countries must “learn to live with” aggressive fascist powers instead of risking another great war. Joe Kennedy became a close associate of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, supporting his efforts to appease the Nazis. According to journalist Clive Irving, he dismissed future prime minister Winston Churchill as a “drunk” & a “warmonger.” Kennedy consistently insisted that Britain would stand no chance against the Axis blitzkrieg, & Irving reports that he even made the implausible & offensive suggestion that war could be avoided if Britain agreed to let Germany deport its Jewish population to the British Empire’s African colonies. In any case, it became clear that all efforts at appeasement had failed once the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia & Poland in 1939. The UK then entered the international conflict in order to stop further Axis advances on the European continent. As the bombs began falling upon Great Britain, Joe remained very pessimistic that the Germans could be stopped, & he even resisted FDR’s efforts to assist the British war effort. An American newspaper published an interview that quoted Kennedy as saying democracy was finished in England & might soon also disappear from the United States. In reaction to these shocking comments, both the president & the press pressured him to step down. Joe resigned his ambassadorship in disgrace & returned to the United States for good in late 1940.
From then on, notes JFK biographer Robert Dallek, Joseph Kennedy Sr. carried the unfortunate label as (quote) “an appeaser, isolationist, & anti-Semite – or at least someone ready to accommodate himself to Nazi domination of Europe” (close quote). As a result, Joe’s political career came to an end with the US entry into the Second World War, and his sons would eventually have to distance themselves from their father’s reputation for isolationism & defeatism in order to keep their own political aspirations afloat. US entry into World War II also brought some of Joe’s sons into the US military. The bloody global conflict would tragically end the promising career of one son, while it would help launch the political career of another. However, that is a story for the next episode in this supplemental series on the Kennedy saga.
The "From Boomers to Millennials” podcast is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Logo design by Camie Schaefer & Erin Rogers. Written and narrated by Logan Rogers. Please subscribe to our show & give us a favorable review on your favorite podcast platform. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can reach out on Instagram or Twitter. Here at the “From Boomers to Millennials” podcast, we hope that no one in your family sticks their foot in their mouth like Ambassador Joseph Kennedy by forcing their unpleasant & unwelcome political opinions upon everyone at the Thanksgiving dinner table. We wish everyone the best during this holiday season and thank you as always for listening.