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

1 comment:

  1. Where to start, you ask. With Nasaw, I answer: has he read Bobby and J. Edgar and, if so, how on earth can his book not respond to the massive evidence of bootlegging documented in your book?

    That said, I liked your post. Proceed with caution. Nasaw's categorical denial of Joe K's bootlegging at 2:40 is featured a recent interview with him on Chicago Public Television.

    Here's the Nasaw interview:

    Interestingly, at 0:50 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.

    I'll get the Nasaw book from my public library and will then weigh in at the Amazon comments section. People read 'em!


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