I have stated many times my life-long interest in the Kennedy family, which I inherited from my parents and my paternal grandmother. I have a substantial library of books on them, and though I no longer buy that many on the family, I found this one on Net Galley and received it in exchange for an honest review. [I do not make any money off this blog. Even my Amazon links are merely for readers’ convenience.]
Joe Kennedy’s story is well known–father of the famous Kennedy sons: President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General/Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his namesake, Joe. Jr–killed in World War II He is equally well-known for his daughter Kathleen (“Kick”) who married their heir of Duke of Devonshire, “Billy,” Marquess of Hartington, Eunice who founded The Special Olympics, Pat who married British actor Peter Lawford, Jean married to the head of the Kennedy business empire, Steven Smith, (and mother of the once-notorious William Kennedy Smith) and Rosemary–the daughter he tried so hard to protect, yet agreed to lobotomized. Until the lobotomy, however well-intentioned it might have been, being Rosemary’s father was perhaps Joe’s most admirable role. He loved her so.
Joe Kennedy’s best-known trait was his ruthlessness. This book does an excellent job of showing that. He was also a pioneer in the use of public relations. Americans knew of that big family of Joe and Rose Kennedy before he became head of the new SEC or Ambassador, let alone before Jack became a Senator or President, because of his relentless self-promotion.
Today we would say that the “optics” were good for Joe Kennedy to serve as Ambassador to the “England” [The Court of St. James]–the gregarious big Irish-Catholic American family not only showed America’s love of home and family but also showed that an Irish Catholic was as good as anyone else. Even as late as the 1930s this was not always the case. The family was interviewed sailing for England–the very young Bobby and Teddy being the stars of the interview. Rosemary and Kick were shown leaving with Rose for their debut at Buckingham Palace–a move that delighted Irish Catholic Americans only a generation or two removed from what they saw as British treachery in Ireland. Equally engaging was the image of little Teddy with his family after receiving his First Holy Communion at the Vatican. Joe Jr, “Kick,” and Jack all became darlings of the aristocratic social round–Kick even bagging one of the most eligible bachelors of her generation. The Irish Catholic Kennedy family were “society,” not servants.
Sadly, Ambassador Joe Kennedy was often more an embarrassment than an asset. In terms of policy, Joe was more interested in his own growing reputation than in the interests of the administration he represented in London. He allied with “Peace in our time” Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain instead of with Churchill [out of office then] or other politicians more in tune with FDR’s policies. Joe Kennedy was not a man for details. He meddled, badly, took credit for the ideas of others, and used his friendship with Clare Booth Luce of Life Magazine to hype his own views and proposals, including his so-called “Kennedy Plan” for Jewish resettlement. He would later turn defeatist on the UK’s chances of winning the war. FDR’s staff decided he was dangerous and his stint as Ambassador was ended.
This was an easy, but engaging read. There is some new (new-er) information that has not been seen much before The author, happily, does not dwell on the entire Kennedy saga which has been told in great depth too many times. She focuses solely on Joe’s professional life (i.e., the building of his fortune through liquor imports, Hollywood, and the stock market) then on his tenure as Ambassador. She adds enough family details to give a good portrait of the man.
The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court at St. James, 1938 to 1940 by Susan Ronald will be released on August 3rd. It is available now for pre-order.