April 28, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University
By Cathy Rainone
BEFORE historian David Nasaw agreed to write the biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, he says he warned Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who asked him to do it, that “I’m a crazy researcher and I’m going to find stuff about your father that’s going to make the family unhappy.”
The patriarch of America’s first family, Kennedy, was a complex figure involved in major events of the 20th century. He was a Hollywood movie producer, made millions during the 1920s stock-market boom, campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt, served as U.S. ambassador to London before WWII, then returned to the United States to take part in the debate over the Cold War. He was the father of a president.
But there were also stories and rumors that he made his fortune as a bootlegger and that he was anti-Semitic and a Nazi sympathizer.
Still, the Kennedys wanted Nasaw, the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Professor of History at the Graduate Center, to write the book. They placed no restrictions on him and provided Nasaw with unfettered access to Kennedy’s papers in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, previously closed to researchers.
Nasaw says the Kennedys trusted him because he had already written a biography of another controversial 20th-century figure, the powerful newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. It also helped that Nasaw was a colleague of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian who served in the Kennedy White House.
“Someone in the family read it and discovered that my biography of Hearst was a warts-and-all biography, but in the end it was fair and you got to know a man in all his complexities and contradictions,” says Nasaw.
It took more than a year to get a final agreement from the family.
“To this day I don’t know what took so long,” says Nasaw, whose book, The Patriarch: the Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, hit the shelves right before the 2012 presidential election. “It may have been someone close to the family who was wary about opening this material.”
The Patriarch was one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2012, a Times and Washington Post Notable Book of 2012 and a Booklist Editor’s Choice of 2012.
Nasaw spent six years in libraries and private homes studying thousands of documents, unpublished diaries, telephone transcripts, financial records and even the secret British Foreign Office “Kennedyiana” files. He reviewed Kennedy’s correspondence with every major figure of the 20th century from Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain to popes and Galeazzo Ciano, an Italian minister of foreign affairs.
He read letters written by Kennedy to his nine children, which is how Kennedy kept involved with them while away for long periods of time.
“Once I got full access I knew I had a treasure trove,” says Nasaw of the papers, stored in multiple cartons at the library. “My initial reaction was awe and fear. Because I’m the first historian to write about Joe P. Kennedy, I felt I had to get it right. I owed it to them. They took a chance on me.”
Despite long-standing rumors that Kennedy was a bootlegger, Nasaw was surprised to learn he was not. He went through every book that claimed otherwise and checked their sources.
“Some of these stories were ridiculous,” says Nasaw. For one of the writers, “his major source for the allegations that Joe was a bootlegger was an interview with Al Capone’s piano tuner, who claimed he had overheard a conversation between Capone and Kennedy. It’s nuts.”
Nasaw discovered Kennedy was a cautious man and would not have risked his fortune, which he made on the New York Stock Exchange, and his family’s reputation on any illegal operation.
“Part of the reason why everyone thought he was a bootlegger is because they couldn’t understand how he was able to make this much money,” says Nasaw. “Because I had access to his financial records and stock market records and accounts, I could see how he made that money.”
What did shock Nasaw was Kennedy’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior. As the U.S. ambassador to London before WWII, Kennedy violated State Department orders and took it upon himself to try to keep America out of the war. He wanted to negotiate with Hitler and accused Jews of being selfish and unpatriotic.
“I think some of the members of the family might be disturbed at the anti-Semitic stuff I found in some of the letters and diaries,” says Nasaw. “Some of it is vile, callous, cold — it’s stupid. Kennedy at a point in his life buys into all sorts of anti-Semitism. He is concerned that Jews are trying to push America into the war with Hitler.”
But, Nasaw says, despite his anti-Semitic attitude, Kennedy wasn’t a Nazi sympathizer. He was convinced that if America went to war, depression would return and it would take a century to recover from the loss of lives and resources. He wanted to prevent another war at all cost, even if it meant negotiating with Hitler.
“The fact that he doesn’t want to go to war with Hitler doesn’t mean he respects him,” says Nasaw. “He doesn’t. His mistake is not seeing that Hitler is a madman.”
The Kennedy family never tried to withhold information or censor Nasaw’s book. And while doing his research, Nasaw never told family members what he had discovered about the extent of Kennedy’s anti-Semitism.
However, Nasaw would call Edward Kennedy whenever he had a question or visit him in Hyannis Port or Washington. He also talked with Jean Kennedy Smith, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and their children and cousins.
In the end, Nasaw had so much material he had to cut out 100,000 words. The biography is still a hefty 800 pages, but he isn’t worried that its length will discourage buyers. He knows there are readers who still crave long, detailed biographies.
“It’s a way to learn history and it’s also a way to see how individuals contributed to the making of history,” he says.
The Kennedy book is Nasaw’s third biography — besides his work on Hearst, he also wrote a biography of Andrew Carnegie. At present, he has no plans to write another. And writing a biography of a living person is out of the question, he says.
“I don’t want to deal with living people’s biographies. It was hard enough to know that Ted Kennedy and Jean Kennedy were going to read this book,” says Nasaw. “When you write about a living person it’s much harder to let it all hang out when you know that the living person is going to read it.”
Although Edward Kennedy had to persuade Nasaw to write The Patriarch, Nasaw admits that “as a historian he was intrigued, fascinated about the idea of writing an alternative history of the 20th century from the perspective of Joseph P. Kennedy’s life.”
Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Edward Kennedy died before the book was published and never got a chance to read it. He did hear from Jean Kennedy Smith, the only surviving child of Kennedy’s nine children. “She congratulated me,” says Nasaw. “She didn’t go into specifics but she congratulated me. And I was delighted. Haven’t heard from anybody else.”