Joe Sr. was a fiercely ambitious businessman who thrived on competition. Feeling himself an outsider because of his immigrant Irish roots, he was fixated on joining the ranks of America’s upper class establishment. After graduating Harvard University in 1912, Joe Sr. turned to a career in finance, and quickly made a large fortune in the stock and commodity markets, real estate and in a wide range of industries. During World War I, he was an assistant general-manager of Bethlehem Steel and developed a friendship with Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy. In another career move, Joe Sr. moved to Hollywood and made huge profits from reorganizing and refinancing several Hollywood studios and also was a film producer. After Prohibition ended in 1933, Joe Sr. made an even larger fortune as the exclusive American agent for Gordon’s Gin and Dewar’s Scotch. Soon he owned the largest office building in the country, Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, giving his family an important base in that city and an alliance with the Irish-American political leadership.
He became a leading member of the Democratic Party and was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the inaugural chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He later directed the Maritime Commission. In 1938 he became Ambassador to Great Britain, a post he greatly enjoyed and one, he thought, would lead him to the White House. But Joe Sr. believed in appeasing Adolf Hitler and urged the United States to stay out of the war, even while bombs fell on London. He made speeches contrary to American foreign policy and so he was fired as Ambassador in November 1940, ending his personal political ambitions.
But he continued to build the financial and political fortunes of the Kennedy family. Joe Sr. strategically constructed his family’s image towards the public. He believed that “image is reality,” and that the ultimate prize for a Kennedy was the American Presidency. He wanted this job for his first son, Joseph Kennedy Jr., but when Joseph Jr. died in the war, Joe Sr. turned his attention and ambitions to his second-born, John F. Kennedy.
From behind the scenes, Joe Sr. drove John’s campaign for Congress, Senate and then for President. He planned strategy, fundraising, and built coalitions and alliances. He worked the phones tirelessly, cajoling local and state party leaders, newsmen, and business leaders to help get the votes out. Joe Sr.’s connections and influence were turned directly into political capital for the senatorial and presidential campaigns of John, Robert and later Edward (Ted).
Throughout the years he expanded the Kennedy Compound at Hyannis Port, which was the major center of family get-togethers. After a disabling stroke in 1961 at the age of 73, Joe Sr. lost all power of speech, used a wheelchair but remained mentally intact. He died in 1969 at the age of 81.
“People talk about the curse that seems to echo down the generations of the Kennedys and in a certain sense it’s true,” says Tom Wilkinson. “And if you are going to see it in the kind of Greek tragedy sense, there isn’t a better sort of patriarchal figure than Joe Kennedy because his world view was extreme. His world view was: ambition, money and family. It’s almost medieval in its simplicity … but almost everything else went by the boards.”
“Joe and Rose were not your modern, touchy-feely, caring and sharing-parenthood-type of parents. He was distant and domineering. And Rose was rigidly and extremely Catholic… They were the boss and whatever they said you did and if you didn’t do it you got punished. They were axioms of parenthood in that era. And there is a sense in our story that Joe continued to bully both Jack and Bobby as adults,” says Wilkinson.
“I think Joe’s biggest flaw was that he pushed his children into positions they really didn’t want to be in. His other flaw was the attitude that there were the Kennedys and the rest…and the rest weren’t worth anything,” Wilkinson says.