Joseph Patrick Kennedy was a complex man, as David Nasaw's bio, The Patriarch, makes clear. Joe was the father of JFK, and -- both psychologically and practically -- he enabled his son to become perhaps the most personally beloved president of the Post-War period, or of the twentieth century for that matter. Jack loved and was devoted to his father. In fact, JFK and Kennedy's other eight children were perhaps more devoted to him -- and he towards them -- than they were to Rose, their mother (about which more later).
This is the more amazing since Kennedy was largely an absent husband and father. Joe made his first fortune (followed by stocks and booze) in Hollywood films, where he repaired to screw starlets and secretaries -- and silent screen star Gloria Swanson. Kennedy's affair with Swanson, in which they also worked together, ended badly. But he was to have a much better, constructive, long-term affair with another famous woman (about which more later).
First, Nasaw's book has to labor against Kennedy's unpopular isolationist worldview, and particularly his insistence as ambassador to Great Britain at the outbreak of World War II that the US not engage against Hitler. You can see where that would leave a bad taste -- on top of which, Kennedy's battles with Jewish commentators and public figures in response to his isolationism comes awfully close to anti-Semitism.
Okay, now that we've gotten some big negatives out of the way, Kennedy's isolationism continued in the anti-communism era, which has come to make him look like something of a seer. From the earliest days of the Post-War period, Kennedy argued against engaging in the policy known as "containment" with the Soviet Union. Kennedy foresaw that communism wasn't a monolith, that Russia would fight with its satellites and with China, and China with its satellites (Kennedy opposed any American involvement in Vietnam), and that we would spill our country's coffers out in the Cold War instead of investing in infrastructure and industry -- which too has come to pass.
But this post is about Kennedy's family and love life. Although Kennedy paid detailed attention to each of his children -- advising, admonishing, supporting each according to his or her needs -- he was only occasionally in the same place as they were. Instead, he preferred to hang out in Palm Beach with his cronies and rich people, playing golf and doing whatever. Oddly, one of the few times he lived for a period with his children was when he moved the whole family to London during his ambassadorship. But that was short lived, since he had to return everyone but himself to the States with the outbreak of the war and the subsequent bombing of London.
But this post isn't so much about Kennedy as parent, which is affecting and heat breaking: Kennedy was never the same after oldest son Joe Jr. was killed on a suicide mission early in the War; Kennedy was constantly attentive to Rosemary, his mentally challenged daughter, until he had her lobotomized on medical advice -- after which he (and the rest of the family) wouldn't see her. Yes, Rose abandoned Rosemary too. Rose did quite a bit of absentia parenting herself (without the screwing). What's more, Rose practically disowned daughter Kathleen ("Kick") for marrying a Protestant (thank God he wasn't a Jew!), while Kennedy made peace with his daughter's "rebellion" (soon after which, tragically, Kick died with her husband in a plane crash).
Throughout these events and others, Kennedy maintained a positive -- even a loving -- relationship with Rose. In his memoir, Ted Kennedy said he never saw his parents quarrel. Joe often wrote Rose longing, emotive letters, even as they rarely spent much time together. Oh, Kennedy's affairs. Kennedy's best-known mistress, Swanson, resented that Kennedy profited from their association while she fell into financial ruin, for which she never forgave him. But Kennedy had a satisfying, productive, and mature long-term affair with another world figure. This was Clare Boothe Luce, actress, playwright, congresswoman, ambassador to Italy, and wife of Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life (as well as Fortune) when these were America's most influential popular periodicals.
Henry and Clare were sexually incompatible -- or at least non-exclusive -- and Kennedy became acquainted with Clare (and her husband) in London. The time when Kennedy met Luce, after a lifetime of triumphs (among many, Kennedy had been successful as the first director of the SEC and was one of Roosevelt's most trusted advisors), was to be devastating to Kennedy's reputation and life. He first lost Franklin Roosevelt's -- then the nation's -- respect due to his isolationism, which was followed by the death of his son.
And Luce was there for him. They met in various international destinations, sought advice from one another, and even traveled together with Rose! I know -- Rose was a saint. But she seems to have been genuinely untroubled by the relationship. Luce's cable telling Kennedy she was returning to Europe for the opening of her hit play, The Women, expresses ardor, practical planning, and consideration for Rose: "You're an angel. Make life so exciting for me. Sailing June first for Paris, then London until June thirtieth. Will you be there? Cable. Yes, do. Love to Rose."
But that's only the mind-bending beginning of that triangle. When Kennedy returned to England from the States, he wrote Rose that by some strange coincidence, Luce was on the same ship! As Kennedy wrote in his unpublished memoir, the journey was marred by "bad weather and poor food. Happily, Clare Luce was on hand. . . . Her gay conversation was a contrast to the greyness of sea and sky."
Kennedy then spent Easter of 1940 in England with Luce. During this trying period Kennedy's reputation crashed on both sides of the Atlantic. Kennedy was sure the Germans would overrun Britain with little trouble and argued vociferously that the US should remain aloof from the debacle -- not a popular position in London. Both Rose and Luce worked to rescue his reputation -- to which Luce brought to bear the resources of Time. What a winning way Kennedy must have had with women -- if not with his countrymen and the British. Perhaps Kennedy's piece de resistance was returning to the States on the same ship with both women, which Rose took without any sign of perturbance!
Throughout this period and later, Kennedy maintained a trusting relationship with Luce in which he often sought her advice and help. Luce was particularly concerned about JFK (although she was herself a Republican). In regards to Kennedy's pessimism about the war, she advised Kennedy to go easy with Jack: "It alams . . . and dispirits him." When Jack went missing after his PT boat sank, Kennedy naturally turned to Luce for help in locating his son's whereabouts and in arranging for his recuperation. For his part, Kennedy -- with his considerable political resources -- undertook a survey of her district when Luce successfully ran for Congress.
How was an ardent Catholic and devoted family man able to broaden his conception of intimacy to allow Luce to enter his heart, yet to maintain a largely separate -- but consistently supportive and helpful -- liaison for years with a woman nearly as powerful and quite as intelligent as was Kennedy himself? Unfortunately, Kennedy never discussed or provided any inward view of their affair, so we are left to imagine how he accomplished this psychologically, which might have been among his most noteworthy accomplishments.
Follow Stanton of Twitter