Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy II


So here we are, wading through the last few days of 2012.  Christmas is behind us; most of us have survived the Holiday Goose.  Will we be so lucky with the fiscal cliff?

My last blog, in which I questioned the apparent determination of David Nasaw, in his current biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, to maintain that Joe was innocent of any involvement with bootlegging or any of the nastier underworld honchos of his time, has stirred up quite a lot of comment.  Perhaps the shrewdest arrived from Steve Sewall, who cited Nasaw's "categorical denial of Joe K's bootlegging" recently on Chicago Public Television, following which "Nasaw boasts that he was virtually commissioned by the Kennedys to write about Joe: after being 'approached by Jean Kennedy Smith' he had lunch six months later with Senator Kennedy."

The truth is, too many contemporary biographies amount to carefully confected public-relations puff jobs, produced largely to project the image that the supporters or the friends or the heirs of the subject would prefer.  One principle I have always held to in my work is never to permit the people I am writing about to see the result until after the book or magazine piece is out.  I tell my subjects that it is really in their best interest not to go over the manuscript prior to publication -- whatever I say is certain to offend somebody in their world, and, having reviewed the material, they too will be tarred with resentment.  I also tell them that I have enough editors already.  Mostly they attempt to live with this, although they always maintain -- Ted Kennedy was no exception -- that they only hope to pick up on any mistakes before the book goes to press.  I always say no, and usually they can live with the result.
The one -- to me -- regrettable exception was Paul Mellon.  Over several years, during which I saw or heard from Mellon every week, we developed a genuine friendship.  Paul was a very graceful and utterly honest individual -- he gave his huge fortune away, mostly through enormous philanthropic endeavors like the East Building of the National Gallery.  He had his human susceptibilities, and -- in keeping with my responsibilities -- I touched on those, observing at one point in The Mellon Family that, like J.P. Morgan, Paul remained devoted to Old Masters and Old Mistresses.  I also took a selective blowtorch to his parents' sticky divorce and some of the deserving Pittsburg relatives.

When the book came out Paul was evidently furious, and vented in an interview in the the Pittsburgh newspapers.  I had abused the extraordinary access he had granted me.  I did not respond.  Then, years later, Paul himself wrote an autobiography, Reflections in a Silver Spoon.  It was a solid book, characteristically adroit, which dealt with many of the same details that upset him when I opened them up. Then he wrote me a letter, admitting that pretty much everything I had dealt with needed to be included, and apologizing for his tantrum at the time.  Still -- foolishly -- miffed, I never wrote him back.

A few years ago Yale gave a banquet in celebration of Paul Mellon's centenary -- he had died eight years earlier.  I was invited.  There were many speeches, but I suspect that of the perhaps one hundred celebrants at that dinner, the shrewd and generous-spirited Englishman who helped Paul assemble his wonderful collection of English art for Yale, John Baskett, and I were the only guests who actually knew the man.  Paul had built a museum for this outstanding collection in New Haven and donated the paintings and drawings and sculptures to the University.

My point here is that the treatment of any important historical subject that is likely to endure is one that is not compromised by prior commitment, implicit or explicit, to the subject of the work.  The heirs are not interested in a vivid depiction of their ancestor -- the last thing they want, as the poet says, is the truth with the bark off.  I would be more than curious about whether Jean Kennedy Smith demanded and got the opportunity to go over and "correct" Nasaw's manuscript before it was published.  Did money change hands?  Apart from the sanitized remains of Joe Kennedy's selected papers in the Kennedy Library, what sources did Nasaw trust?  In Bobby and J. Edgar I worked the entire waterfront, careful to validate whatever I found and key the reader to the authenticity of every source in close to seventy pages, thousands of careful, tightly packed notes.

I haven't gotten to Nasaw's biography yet.  When I do, you will hear.

Warmest wishes for the New Year,

Burton Hersh 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy


Again, a trip under the lights for several reviews and commentaries, all suggestive of the fact that what turns up in print is too often a long way from what really happened on the ground.

On The New York Times op-ed page of December 1,  Paul Finkelman compares the unfailingly laudatory treatment of Thomas Jefferson in Jon Meacham's recent, prizewinning biography of the statesman with results derived from the work of Jefferson scholar Henry Wiencek.  Wiencek's research would have it that Jefferson was particularly reactionary when it came to his judgement of blacks, whom he kept enslaved in large numbers, impregnated, refused mostly to liberate in his will, and regarded as no better than children, "pests in society," and "inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind."  Jefferson was, Finkelman concludes, "a creepy, brutal hypocrite."

All this is tough on Jefferson, and surprising to find in The Times.  More relevant to my efforts has been the Times' treatment of the current biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, The Patriarch, by David Nasaw.  A lot of the press Nasaw has been getting revolves around his assertion in essence that Kennedy was not a bootlegger at the start of his career and that he never affiliated himself with the kingpins of organized crime.

Now -- where to start.  Having myself written a long and meticulously researched book -- everything in it is carefully sourced -- that tracks in great detail the history of the Kennedy family, Bobby and J. Edgar (Carroll and Graf, 2007), which focuses especially on how Joe Kennedy's dependence on mob resources and the intervention of major criminal personalities from Al Capone and  Frank Costello to Sam Giancana led to the assassination of John Kennedy, I had to be astonished at Nasaw's conclusions. 

Nasaw makes a great point during interviews that his material was largely derived from unlimited access to the Joseph P. Kennedy papers in the Kennedy library, which -- unsurprisingly -- made little mention of Joe's criminal connections.  Having myself had unlimited access to these same documents, I assure the reader they were mostly, not entirely -- see Joe's exchange of letters with Carroll Rosenbloom, who was heavily mobbed up, here and in Havana  -  well sanitized before innocents like Nasaw got a look. 

But I was also given unlimited access to FBI records on the Kennedy family by J. Edgar Hoover's right-hand man, Deke DeLoach, who remembered well Joe's mob involvement.  Based in the documents alone  many of the cross-connections became apparent.  Experts like Gus Russo helped fill in the gaps, along with individuals involved in Joe Kennedy's practical affairs.  Credible insiders from Peter Maas to Gore Vidal, a shirttail relative of the Kennedys, have spelled a great deal out.  Unmistakably, Joe did have regular arrangements with mob leaders his entire business life, and was in fact a co-owner with Sam Giancana, the gangster who reportedly gave the go-ahead to shoot Jack, of the Cal-Neva Lodge at the time the president got shot.

When Bobby and J Edgar came out a number of the most important Kennedy historians immediately recognized its accuracy.  Richard Whalen, whose seminal biography The Founding Father opened up the subject, wrote that my book constituted "a major contribution" to the Kennedy literature, since my "original research on [Joe's] mob connections and his bootlegging career, among other revelations, shed important new light on this mystery-shrouded subject."  Richard Reeves was generous in his appreciation.  Facts are facts.

Go buy Bobby and J. Edgar yourselves and see what you think.  A new edition, concurrent with the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting of JFK, with a startling new Preface, will be coming out next year,
 courtesy of Basic Books.

Meanwhile, y'all, cheers.  And a Merry Christmas.

Burton Hersh