In this issue:
The Athenaeum will be closed July 4th for Independence Day.
From the Executive Director:
The POWEL HOUSE played a vital role in our nation's early history both during the Revolutionary War and during the Constitutional Convention. Samuel Powel, the "Patriot Mayor," served as the last mayor of Philadelphia under the Crown and was the first mayor of the city after the creation of the United States.
Date: Thursday, July 4
Time: 10:00am -6:00pm Open House with Guided Tours Available, 3:00-6:00pm Cocktail Party and BBQ
Location: Powel House, 244 South 3rd Street, Philadelphia
Donation: $25/person, $50/person includes Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks Membership Sign-Up at Individual Sponsorship Level
Bonaparte Fans: If you enjoyed the Charlene M. Boyer Lewis book talk here in October 2012 on Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic, you may want to take a trip to the Maryland Historical Society to see their new exhibition on Betsy Patterson Bonaparte. "Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy" includes silver, porcelain, paintings, textiles, jewelry, manuscripts and furniture associated with Elizabeth and her descendants.
The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012, 787 pp.
Review by Stephen Greenberg
I would like to begin this review with a little family story. In 1960, I was a freshman at Rutgers College in New Brunswick, NJ, and a rabid supporter of John F. Kennedy for President. I was also a reporter for the Rutgers Daily Targum, and I covered a JFK campaign stop in New Brunswick. The report that I wrote about that event must have been one of the most biased newspaper articles even written about a politician. I was so proud of myself, I went home with a copy of my article wearing my big Kennedy-Johnson campaign button. My father literally refused to read the article or let me wear the button in our house—that is how much he despised Joseph P. Kennedy and his family. It was an article of faith in the Jewish community at that time that Kennedy was an anti-Semite, pro-Nazi and a defeatist of the worst kind. With this background, I approached David Nasaw’s excellent biography of Kennedy with a great deal of trepidation. Was Kennedy as bad as my father and his friends pictured him, and if so, how could he have been the father of three liberal icons? After plowing through the almost 800 pages of this biography, I discovered that the truth was a little more nuanced than I had come to believe.
First, was Joe Kennedy an anti-Semite? Yes, in the abstract sense. He blamed FDR’s Jewish advisors for leading the country astray and he indulged in some of the anti-Semitic stereotypes that were common in the US for many years. But, he had Jewish friends and business associates, and one of his closest friends was Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Baltimore Colts football team. Was he a defeatist when he was ambassador to the Court of St. James. Certainly. He fervently believed that the entry of the US into the European war would be the end of American democracy and capitalism, and that England was bound to be defeated by Germany no matter what we did. Was he pro-Nazi? Not exactly. But he admired German “efficiency” and how Hitler pulled Germany out of the depression. Most of all, for a very smart man Joe Kennedy was terribly naïve in many ways. Practically to the time that Germany declared war against the US, he believed that there was a deal to be made with Hitler. And he was an ardent admirer of Neville Chamberlain right up to Chamberlain’s death.
Maybe, FDR had the best understanding of Kennedy. He saw Kennedy as a money grubber whose main interest in life was the preservation of his fortune so that he could leave each of his nine children with a large inheritance. Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary under Chamberlain, had a somewhat similar view. He believed that the only thing that concerned Kennedy was his “pocketbook”. Both thought that Kennedy’s main objection to American involvement in the war was his fear that he would lose his money are a result of the war, probably an oversimplification about the motivations of a very complex man who was full of contradictions.
Nasaw’s biography delves in Kennedy’s fascinating life in tremendous detail, but he is always fair to his subject and never dwells on the lurid details. While the book is very long, it is very well written and kept my interest throughout. In the end, it is difficult to view Kennedy as anything other than a tragic figure who outlived four of his nine children. A fifth child was the victim of a botched lobotomy and spent the rest of her life in an institution. When he was in his early seventies and seemingly in good health, he suffered a debilitating stoke that left him unable to walk or speak for the rest of his life.
Joe Kennedy’s life covers many of the great events of the 20th century: WWI; the boom times of the nineteen twenties; the growth of the motion picture industry, which he was part of; the great depression and the New Deal; the events leading up to WWII and the commencement of the war; the election of his son as the first Catholic President; and the horrible assassinations of two of his sons. Kennedy spent his life essentially as a pessimist. After reading this book, it is difficult to deny that a great deal of his pessimism was justified.
The Athenaeum is open three Saturdays per month from 11:00am-3:00pm (excluding July and August).
Please check the Athenaeum website for Saturday opening dates.
219 S. 6th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
The building is accessible to persons with disabilities.
Group tours and research visits are by appointment only.
The Athenaeum does not share this mailing list.
To read past issues, visit the Newsletter Archive.