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The Turbulent Life of Joseph P. Kennedy

Jack Pendergast

Joseph Patrick “Joe” Kennedy, a well-known figure in the political and business world of his day, was known to be a ruthless and shrewd operator with a talent for getting what he wanted.

He was a scion of the Kennedy family, who must be one of the most famous families in 20th century American history.

Members of this old political family have served in both Houses of Congress, as ambassadors, state legislators, and even one president, John F. Kennedy, better known by his initials – JFK.

The Kennedy family at Hyannis Port Massachusetts in 1931

The Kennedy family at Hyannis Port Massachusetts in 1931

The first of this famous American political family to make a stir was Patrick Joseph “P.J.” Kennedy, who became a prominent figure in the Boston Democratic Party in the late 1800s.

His family had come to the USA from Ireland, and P.J. would father four children, one of whom went on to become the hard-playing father of a president, and would have a distinguished business and political career in his own right.

P.J. Kennedy around 1900

P.J. Kennedy around 1900

Joe, under the shadow of his own high-achieving father, and with the legacy and wealth of an established political and business family, began his career at Harvard.

He was, of course, encouraged to work hard and set his sights high, and he quickly began to make a name for himself, excelling at baseball and putting his toes firmly on the rungs of Harvard’s social stratosphere of exclusive social clubs.

Joe Kennedy at age 25 in 1914, when he claimed to be America’s youngest bank president

Joe Kennedy at age 25 in 1914, when he claimed to be America’s youngest bank president

On October 7, 1914 Joe Kennedy married 24-year-old socialite Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald. Rose also came from a prominent Irish family, and was a committed Catholic for all of her days.

Joe and Rose had several children, but Joe was well-known for having a number of affairs throughout his life, some of which lasted for years, including with his secretary, Janet Des Rosiers, and more famously with the beautiful silent movie actress Gloria Swanson.

Rose and Joseph Kennedy arrive for dinner at The Colony Restaurant in Manhattan, November 1, 1940. At the time, Kennedy was the US Ambassador to the UK.

Rose and Joseph Kennedy arrive for dinner at The Colony Restaurant in Manhattan, November 1, 1940. At the time, Kennedy was the US Ambassador to the UK.

There were a number of fairly questionable episodes in Joe’s life. He was a and successful businessman, and such people will always attract criticism, but it’s very possible that this hard-nosed character was indeed involved in some dodgy operations throughout his long and very successful career.

According to the Yellow Magpie, notorious mob boss Frank Costello (himself perhaps not the most reliable witness) testified that Joe Kennedy had been closely involved in the bootlegging scene during Prohibition-era America.

Frank Costello, American mobster, testifying before the Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime

Frank Costello, American mobster, testifying before the Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime

During the period 1920–1933, the production, transportation, import, and distribution of alcoholic drink was made illegal, creating a huge underground import market to supply “speakeasies” – black market drinking dens. There was, of course, a great deal of money to be made, and if Joe did make a cut during this period he certainly would not have been alone!

During the 1920s, Joe Kennedy along with others also made a great deal of wealth on the stock market. This era was partly defined by the “long bull market” of the 1920s on the American stock exchange.

Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. on Time magazine cover, 1935

Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. on Time magazine cover, 1935

This was a long period of growth in prices (in stock market parlance, a “bull” market is one where prices are rising) where there was a lot of money to be made.

Today, the practice known as “insider trading” – using inside information which others don’t have access to, to make a profit in stock trading – is illegal, and can carry some serious financial and even jailtime penalties. But the laws governing this were only brought about in 1934, and according to the Yellow Magpie, Joe Kennedy made serious money on insider trading during the bull market of the 1920s; actions which, though hardly moral, were certainly not actually illegal at the time!

https://youtu.be/qVUqOpXWcSg

It was during this era that Joe got into the movie business. He made huge profits buying up and reorganising movie theatres and production studios in Hollywood, but one theatre that would not sell up belonged to Alexander Pantages.

Pantages refused an $8 million offer for his theatre chain. Not long after that, Pantages was accused of rape by 17-year-old dancer Eunice Pringle.

Joseph P. Kennedy

Joseph P. Kennedy

After a sensational trial he was found guilty and sentenced to 50 years in jail, but his conviction was overturned at appeal. Hollywood legend has it that Joe Kennedy paid Pringle $10,000 to accuse Pantages, and while this has never been proven the fact remains that Pantages’ reputation was ruined, and he eventually ended up selling his theatre chain to Kennedy for a greatly reduced price.

The “roaring 20s” ended with a bump in the great wall street crash of 1929, when the stock market plummeted, losing tens of billions of dollars in a matter of days, and leading to the great depression which gripped the whole of the western world for the next 12 years.

Joseph P. Kennedy

Joseph P. Kennedy

Directly before the crash, the stock market was weakened by a “bear raid” – a stock market tactic where investors drive down the price of a stock to make money on a selling position.

In this situation, the investor makes money if the company’s stock loses value. Negative rumours were spread about certain companies and their share price dropped, causing Kennedy and many others to make money out of the crash.

Ambassador Joseph Kennedy with Winston Churchill, 1939

Ambassador Joseph Kennedy with Winston Churchill, 1939

Joe Kennedy was given the position of Ambassador to Britain. This post had been given to him by then-president Franklin Roosevelt as a reward for Kennedy’s part in the silencing of a dangerously inflammatory Catholic priest, Charles Coughlan, who had risen to notoriety with a series of sectarian and racist radio broadcasts in the 1930s. Joe Kennedy, as a heavyweight leader in the Irish-Catholic community, was able to exert influence there.

During his time as ambassador, however, Joe did not shine. As World War Two was brewing, Joe Kennedy supported the policy of appeasement toward German dictator Adolf Hitler, as espoused and so unsuccessfully pursued by then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination of Joseph Kennedy to serve as Ambassador to the United Kingdom

Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination of Joseph Kennedy to serve as Ambassador to the United Kingdom

Acting on his own initiative, he actually tried to get personal meetings with Hitler, and in 1940, when war was already raging on the continent, Joe vocally opposed any aid being sent to Britain.

Joe had his eye on the US presidency, but his record as Ambassador to Britain was chequered with gaffes. Forced to stand down or be sacked from the role, and he chose to stand down.

Joseph Kennedy and family celebrate his birthday in Hyannis Port in 1963

Joseph Kennedy and family celebrate his birthday in Hyannis Port in 1963

The Kennedy family’s story over the 20th century was a dramatic one. By the time Joe died in 1969, he had outlived four of his children, two of whom had been assassinated.

Read another story from us: Little Edie, Jackie Kennedy’s cousin lived 20 years in a mansion isolated from the world

He was certainly a giant in the political scene of his day, and a formative figure in the history of modern America. The Kennedy family continue to be a force in American business and politics, and decedents of Joe Kennedy still hold political office today.