Kennedy’s Early Life and Education
Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888–1969), was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Patrick Joseph Kennedy, a Boston-born businessman and politician.
Kennedy’s grandfather, also named Patrick, had immigrated to Boston from County Wexford in southeastern Ireland.
In 1908, Kennedy graduated from the then-exclusive Boston Latin School, where he was elected class president.
Kennedy then attended Harvard College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1912. While at Harvard, Kennedy was invited to participate in the prestigious Hasty Pudding Club.
Two years later, Kennedy married the daughter of Boston’s mayor, John F. Fitzgerald.
After graduating from Harvard, Kennedy joined the Massachusetts state bank-oversight department, working as a bank examiner. In this job, he was able to obtain information about an upcoming hostile takeover of a bank, Columbia Trust Bank, in which his father held a large share.
In 1913, Kennedy borrowed money from family and friends to buy a majority of the bank’s shares, enabling him to gain control.
Kennedy’s intervention was rewarded by the board of directors, who made him bank president. He later bragged to a journalist that, at the age of 25, the youngest bank president in the country.
During the latter stages of World War I—the US first sent troops to France in 1917—Kennedy saw an opportunity to make a lot of money, even though he was personally opposed to America’s entry into the war.
From his perch as an assistant general manager of Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, Kennedy oversaw the production of warships and transport vessels. It was at this time that he first made the acquaintance of future US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
By the age of 30, Kennedy had become wealthy man in his own right.
After the war, in 1919, Kennedy embarked upon a career in investing, joining the then-prominent Boston stock brokerage firm of Hayden, Stone & Co., where he learned the ropes of investing in the environment of the unregulated stock market of the day.
In 1923, Kennedy established his own investment firm.
Kenney was extremely successful as an investor, both in the stock market and in commodities. He was also canny about reinvesting his earnings into real estate and a variety of industries.
Kennedy was so adept at playing the stock market that he understood the problems leading to instability in the late 1920s. As a result, he took “short” positions in his portfolio, which led to his making a killing when the Stock Market Crash occurred in October of 1929, while many other investors were literally killing themselves.
It has been estimated that between 1929 and 1935, Kennedy’s fortune grew exponentially from around $4 million to about $180 million.
For a long time, testimony from the gangster Frank Costello and rumor had convinced the public that Kennedy owed at least a portion of his fortune to illegal bootlegging activity during Prohibition.
Modern scholars have concluded this was guilt by association—Kennedy’s father had indeed imported whiskey from Ireland—and that no credible evidence exists pointing to Kennedy’s own involvement in illegal bootlegging.
In 1926, Kennedy moved to Hollywood, with a view to doing business financing and reorganizing motion picture studios. His first acquisition was Film Booking Offices of America (FBO), a small studio, which specialized in Westerns produced cheaply.
Kennedy then proceeded to acquire a vaudeville and motion picture theater chain, Keith-Albee-Orpheum Theaters Corporation (KAO), which owned over 700 vaudeville theaters across the country that had been converted for silent film exhibition. Subsequently, he purchased Pathé Exchange, an independent American film production and distribution company, which began life as the American subsidiary of the great French film studio, Pathé.
In 1927, Kennedy merged his two Hollywood companies with Cecil B. DeMille‘s Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC). However, Kennedy’s alliance with DeMille fell apart almost immediately.
The following year, in 1928, Kennedy merged his companies FBO and KAO. With financial backing from David Sarnoff’s Radio Corporation of America (RCA), he created a new film studio, Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures (RKO).
Kennedy attracted some of the best acting talent of the day, notably the distinguished silent film star Gloria Swanson, with whom he carried on an extended affair.
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Kennedy turned his hand to the family business of importing Scotch whiskey, using his profits from that business to invest in major commercial and residential real estate developments in New York City, Chicago, Florida, and elsewhere.
In 1932, Kennedy supported Roosevelt in his run for the presidency. In return, Roosevelt appointed Kennedy as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) when that agency was created in 1933.
Kennedy served at the SEC for two years. In 1937, he was appointed the first Chairman of the United States Maritime Commission.
n 1938, with clear indications of war with Germany on the horizon, President Roosevelt named Kennedy as the US ambassador to the UK (technically, the “Court of St James’s”). Kennedy was highly ambitious politically and seems to have intended to run for president at the end of Roosevelt’s second term in 1940.
In the end, of course, Roosevelt broke with tradition and ran for (and won) a third term, and then a fourth one.
Kennedy supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of Germany. Throughout 1939 and into 1940, he sought a personal meeting with Adolph Hitler, but without success.
During the Battle of Britain, in the summer and fall of 1940, Kennedy took his family to the countryside to avoid the nightly bombings of London—an act that did not endear him to the British public.
Kennedy was not shy about his sharing opinions with whoever would listen. In a manner most unsuitable to a top diplomat, he gave several interviews and made public speeches around England urging US neutrality in the war. In a particularly unguarded moment, he was even quoted as saying, with reference to Britain’s chanced of resisting Hitler, that “democracy is finished.”
In late 1940, when Roosevelt—who abhorred Hitler and strongly supported the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s policy of resisting Nazi aggression—got wind of Kennedy’s remarks, he recalled him immediately US shores.
Embittered by this experience, Kennedy’s political sympathies moved further right. For example, during the early 1950s, he supported Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s investigations into the extent of communist infiltration of the US government and society.
With his own political reputation in ashes thanks to his widely reported defeatist remarks,” after the war Kennedy concentrated on furthering the political careers of his sons.
Kennedy’s eldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., on whom his highest hopes had been pinned, had served in the war as a bomber pilot for the US Navy and had been shot down over the English Channel and killed in 1944.
Kennedy then turned to his second-oldest boy, John F. Kennedy, helping to steer him first, in the general election of 1946, into the US House of Representatives as a member from Massachusetts, and then, in the election of 1952, to a seat in the US Senate.
In 1953, Kennedy also cajoled his friend Joseph McCarthy into accepted his third son, Robert F. Kennedy, known as “Bobby,” then 27 years old and two years out of law school, as a senior staff member. However, Bobby soon fell out with McCarthy and resigned from his position on the investigation committee the following year.
Kennedy’s fourth son, Edward M. Kennedy, or “Teddy,” was too young to be pushed forward at this time. Teddy was first elected to the Senate in 1968, following the traumatic events of both his brothers’ assassinations and the year before his father’s death.
Kennedy had suffered a stroke in 1961, which, while not affecting his mental acuity, left him unable to speak clearly or walk easily. He lived out the remaining eight years of his life mostly in seclusion at the Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, on the southern shore of Cape Cod.
In 1957, a US magazine estimated Kennedy’s fortune as amounting to between $200 million and $400 million.
Selected Works Authored or Edited by Kennedy
I’m for Roosevelt (1936).
Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy, edited by Amanda Smith (2001).
The Story of the Films: As Told by Leaders of the Industry to the Students of the Graduate School of Business Administration, George F. Baker Foundation, Harvard University, edited by Joseph P. Kennedy (1927).
Selected Books About Kennedy
Beauchamp, Cari, Joseph P. Kennedy’s Hollywood Years (2006).
Beschloss, Michael R., Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance (1980).
Derbyshire, Wyn, Six Tycoons: The Lives of John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Joseph P. Kennedy (2008).
Duncliffe, William J., The Life and Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (1965).
Gullan, Harold I., First Fathers: The Men Who Inspired Our Presidents (2004).
Jensen, J.A., The Kennedy Plan (2019).
Kessler, Ronald, The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty he Founded (1996).
Koskoff, David E., Joseph P. Kennedy: A Life and Times (1974).
Leamer, Lawrence, The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family (1994).
Leamer, Lawrence, The Kennedy Men: 1901–1963 (2001).
Leamer, Lawrence, Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty (2004).
Maier, Thomas, When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys (2014).
Martin, Ralph G., Seeds of Destruction: Joe Kennedy and His Sons (1995).
McKean, David, Watching Darkness Fall: FDR, His Ambassadors, and the Rise of Adolf Hitler (2021)
Nasaw, David, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (2012).
Ronald, Ross, The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St. James’s 1938–1940 (2021).
Russell, Francis, The President Makers: From Mark Hanna to Joseph P. Kennedy (1976).
Schwarz, Ted, Joseph P. Kennedy: The Mogul, the Mob, the Statesman, and the Making of an American Myth (2003).
Vieth, Jane Karoline, Tempting All the Gods: Joseph P. Kennedy, Ambassador to Great Britain, 1938–1940(2021).
Whalen, Richard J., The Founding Father: The story of Joseph P. Kennedy (1964).
Wilson, Page, Carnage and Courage: A Memoir of FDR, the Kennedys, and World War II (2015).