restricted access Amanda Smith: Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy
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JosephP.Kennedy,thepatriarchoftheKennedyclan,was,fortheBaby Boom generation, a silent man. He was the quiet, proud father behind his son, John F. Kennedy, at the 1961 inauguration. Then, by the year’s end, an old man struck dumb by a stroke, which incapacitated him until his death in 1969. I can never remember hearing his voice. Well, I’ve heard his voice now – clear, straightforward, astute – in the long compendium of letters, diaries, notes, and telegrams that his adopted grandchild, Amanda Smith, has put together, titled Hostage to Fortune: the Letters of  Joseph P. Kennedy. But it is an incomplete title. The book is actually an epistolary biography, replete with the contemporaneous letters and writings of his children, his wife, and a variety of associates, linked together by five explanatory essays supplied by the young editor, a doctoral student in history at Harvard University. The title comes from a radio address Joe Kennedy gave on behalf of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third term presidential race, “My wife and I have given nine hostages to fortune,” he said, endorsing FDR’s reelection (while echoing Francis Bacon). FDR gave Kennedy his most Amanda Smith: Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy 197 198 public face, making him chairman of the Maritime Commission, a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and, most notably ,ambassadortoBritain.But,thisvolumemakesthepointthatitwas Kennedy himself, and his five doomed children, who were hostages to fortune. ThesilencesurroundingJoeKennedythroughoutthesixtiesisnot completely broken by this book. Some of the controversies of his life are not settled in its 764 pages: his relationship with the femme fatal Gloria Swanson, ties to the mob because of his liquor business, tales of stockmanipulation.AmandaSmithisafaithfulgranddaughter,insofar as she has done yeoman work discovering, compiling and preserving this trove of materials. Though she does display some distance on this wealth of information with judicious appraisal, she still defends her grandfather against some of the more infamous charges, one of which is that of pervasive anti-Semitism. “Nevertheless,” Smith writes, after citingafewegregiousexamples,“hewouldalwaysinsistthathisdislike was not categorical but individual.” Although he was very sensitive to slurs cast upon the Irish and Irish Americans, he could not step over some parochial divide and see his remarks about Jews as similar to those he so despised when directed at his and his family’s origins. Joseph P. Kennedy did not come from nowhere. His father, Patrick J. Kennedy, though not the dynamo Joe became (and relegated in this book almost exclusively to footnotes), was a man of modest substance, enough to send his son to Boston Latin, and then on to Harvard. (JPK’s granddaughter is just the last of a long family history with that institution.) Smith reports, somewhat grandiosely: “One estimatehasitthatthefamilythatJosephKennedygeneratedhasitself generatedmorewordsthananyoneoranyphenomenonbesidesChrist and the War Between the States.” 199 In any case, one has to go to biographies (such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’sfriendly TheFitzgeraldsandtheKennedys(1987),andthenot so friendly The Kennedys (1984) by Peter Collier and David Horowitz) for anything much before 1918, when Joe was twenty-nine. Kennedy’s first letter in Hostage to Fortune is to his draft board, making a case for an exemption from service in World War I for working in management at the Fore River Shipbuilding Company. Even by then, men of power and influence were speaking on his behalf, and his meteoric career was already well on its way. That nothing exists fit to print before Joe Kennedy was twenty-nine is an amazing fact in itself. The first and last entries of the volume are by his wife Rose, the first a reminiscence of “Early Life,” and the last an entry entitled “Thanksgiving ’61.” The first half of this epistolary biography is roiled by odd intrusions : interspersed with Kennedy’s correspondence about business matters, largely in Hollywood (where he imposed, what would be called today, a “business model” on a fractious industry) and Wall Street (where the stock market crash left him “untouched”), are the children’s writings, the youngest letters of Joe Jr., JFK, Kathleen, Rosemary, Bobby, Teddy, Eunice, Patricia, and Jean. Since there are so manyKennedy children,the kids’correspondence, which acts as an unsettling Greek chorus of the tragedies to come, keeps its youthful tones and subjects until quite late in father Kennedy’s life. There is the pathos of his daughter Rosemary’s letters, burdened with mild retardation, and then the shocking silence, following the lobotomy she receives, on both her father’s and mother’s and siblings’ part. She is never mentioned again; she just falls from...


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