Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Father Knows Best

Looking north along Amsterdam Avenue from 92nd Street. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013. Raining in New York at midnight. Not cold.

Father Knows Best.  I just finished David Nasaw’s biography of Joe Kennedy, “Patriarch, the Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy.” It was a long read – 800 pages – which is something I always consider when starting a book because I have little time to read and so many books I want to read.

There are probably forty year olds out there, most forty year olds even, who never heard of Joseph P. Kennedy. Yet his paternity and parenthood had an enormous impact on his children’s generation, and thusly the forty-something generation.

Click to order The Patriarch.
I know that seems like a big statement. It surely wasn’t how he was regarded publicly in that one brief shining moment when his second son had been elected President of the United States in January 1961.

Impact, yes: he was one of the richest men in America, he had the healthiest, bestlooking, Irish-American family on the planet, and now his boy was President of the United States. Talk about triumph. At that moment, in the public eye he was regarded as a titan, not only of fatherhood but of business and  finance. He was self-made too.

Widely regarded in the business world as powerful, he had long had a reputation for being tough, and even hated. I had lunch recently with a woman who is very bright, industrious, and successful in her business, and from Boston. When I mentioned Joe Kennedy’s name, she said: “My family was in the movie theater business up there, and they hated Joe Kennedy.”

She said it like there was still some residual umbrage still in the air. (Joe Kennedy was in the movie business, among other things.) I wasn’t surprised. I was a teenager growing up in Massachusetts when the Son was Senator running for President. There was a big division between the Catholics and the Protestants politically. A lot of the non-Catholics actually believed (and said so ad infinitum) that if John Kennedy won the Presidency, he’d turn the power over to the Pope. Old Joe had a lot of connections with the Vatican and met with all the Popes in his careers.
The man on the cover of Time magazine when he was the first head of the newly created SEC during FDR's first administration. Joseph P. Kennedy at the wedding of his son John to Jacqueline Bouvier in Newport, in the summer of 1953.
Joe Kennedy’s name had also always linked with bootlegging (not true says Nasaw) during Prohibition. The unquestioned rumor was that was how he made his first big money. Not true. Later just before Prohibition was repealed, he bought out the Scottish distiller Haig & Haig. It was an easy bet to his kind of vision.

He had that innate common sense. He made his first big money trading in the stock market throughout the 1920s. He was famous also for having got out of the market with all his profits before the 1929 Crash. Again common sense. He bought the Merchandise Mart in Chicago in 1945 for $13.2 million (with a $12.5 mlllion mortgage) and less than a million in cash. It rained mlilions annually until the family sold it in 1998 for $625 million, more than fifty times its original price.

I had many opinions about him throughout. The most favorable was that he was a wonderful father. Or what I would have thought of as a wonderful father.

He was very often away from home and hearth, even for weeks and months at a time, ironically, but he communicated with each child constantly by phone and by mail. His letters to each was addressed specifically and intimately to that child, so that each had a special relationship with their father. They were always encouraged to look after each other too. There were nine.
The man and his family at home in Bronxville, New York.
The father was direct, affectionate, confrontational when necessary, honest about his considerations, ultimately gentle and constructive in encouraging them to seek the best for themselves, and loving. His advice was always presented with the assurance that he would respect their personal choices even if he didn’t agree.

That parenting was the man’s Great Work. They were well aware of their father’s financial accomplishments and his prominence in the world. He told his children that he was making the money so that they could give their lives to service to their community and country. He meant it and so each did in his and her own ways.

They also knew he expected results, and as they grew older they had the satisfaction of returning the favor. It was his idea that the boys go into politics. It began with the first born son Joe Jr., who tragically died in a plane crash during the Second World War.
The man and his wife and their family on Election Eve in HyannisPort, November 1961. Standing from left: Ethel Kennedy, Steven Smith, Jean Kennedy Smith, the President Elect, Robert Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, Sargent Shriver, Joan Kennedy, Peter Lawford. Seated: Pat Lawford, Rose Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy.
None of this would have been possible without his wife and partner, Rose, mother of nine Kennedys. Ironically, Rose was often away from the hearth also, on trips or retreats or rest. And away from her husband too. It seems that they were frequently away from their children, and yet never together with each other for more than a total of two or three months a year. It was well known among his friends that there were a lot of “girls.” There were famous ones too, and some quite open, like Gloria Swanson and Clare Boothe Luce. None of this apparently affected the marriage. They were a powerful team as parents, and they looked after each other’s interests.

Gloria Swanson.
He was, indeed, a patriarch, and full of himself in the presence of the powerful, no matter who they were. He had a big mouth at times, and he couldn't keep it shut. He failed as an ambassador despite his talents because he couldn’t sublimate his own obsessive need for power. There is also this thread of anti-Semitism and bigotry that runs through his life and language. It was not uncommon among his generation. It is still unconscious with many because it provides a receptacle for one’s own feelings of envy and/or greed and/or political inferiority.

The Irish-Americans have a lot of that, and Joe Kennedy’s generation (same as my father who was twelve years younger) carried a Big chip on his shoulder. However, although I probably would have found him intolerable to listen to at times, I liked the man.

This is an inadequate review of this book because it was a big, far-reaching life of abundance and high interest. Reviled by many who dealt with him, he was nonetheless a very smart man, a sensible, practical businessman who loathed the idea of fighting a war and losing a life. The inevitable chip he wore on his shoulder was also his achilles heel.

He had a series of strokes shortly after John Kennedy was inaugurated, and he lost most of his motor abilities and couldn’t speak. The morning after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Rose Kennedy broke the news to her husband in his room. He moaned and sobbed on hearing. That was the final scene in this fascinating biography. I sobbed with him. He died a few months later.
Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, and moving away from tycoons and politics, but keeping on the subject of books and history: tomorrow afternoon in Wellesley, Massachusetts at Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall at Wellesley College, New York’s very own Barbara  Goldsmith (Barbara Lubin Goldsmith ’53), will receive the Wellesley College 2013 Alumnae Achievement Award.

Barbara Goldsmith.
Achievement is a good word to describe Barbara. She is a best-selling author, social historian, literary activist, and philanthropist, mother and grandmother, art collector and friend to many.

For more than four decades since graduating from Wellesley, Barbara has had an illustrious career as journalist, novelist, screenwriter and biographer.

She has researched, written articles, published books, influenced legislation, and promoted worldwide freedom through her establishment of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award to support persecuted writers around the globe.

She has recognized the issue of deteriorating paper and galvanized the country’s leading writers and publishers into signing a declaration that they would only use acid-free paper, thus preserving our cultural heritage. 

She has funded a program in the New York Public Library for restored deteriorating book. In 1990, Barbara was instrumental in advocating for the U.S. Permanent Paper Law (1990), which requires the U.S. government to use acid-free paper for all federal records.

In 1975, she completed her first book, The Straw Man, a novel about the New York art world that quickly moved up to #1 on bestseller lists. Her nonfiction books have been meticulously researched and have provided rich portraits of key characters and eras in our history. Little Gloria … Happy at Last, became both a Paramount Pictures film and a NBC television mini-series, winning two Emmys for Goldsmith in the process.  
Barbara personifies industry. She has been recognized as a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy. She has garnered an Order of Merit from the Republic of Poland, obtained an Authors Guild Award for Distinguished Literacy Achievements, and served on numerous commissions and boards, including the Wellesley Centers for Women.  She is a trustee at New York Public Library and the American Academy of Rome. She serves on the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers Advisory Board and the Presidential Commission on Preservation and Access. She received honorary doctorates from Syracuse University, Pace University, and Lake Forest College, and has received a presidential citation from NYU and Brandeis Library Trust award for outstanding writing. Oh yes, she started out an English major at Wellesley.
Jill Krementz reports: Last night, the New York Public Library's Live from the NYPL hosted a conversation between Dick Cavett and best-selling author George Saunders. Mr. Saunders was recently profiled in the New York Times Magazine by Joel Lovell.

The Times Magazine cover story — featuring a photograph of a fortune cookie on the front page — hailed the writer's new collection "Tenth of December" as the best book you'll read this year. It's a prediction a lot of people apparently agree with.
Dick Cavett and George Saunders last night at Live from the NYPL.
Andy Ward (Saunders's editor at Random House) and Paula Saunders. George and Paula met when they were students in Syracuse University's writing program. He proposed after a three-week courtship and they married in May of 1988.
Joel Lovell, author of the New York Times's cover story on Saunders, and writer Mike Paterniti, who has also written for the Times Sunday magazine where Lovell is a full time editor.

Paterniti, who lives in Portland, Maine, writes both fiction and non-fiction. His latest book will be published July by Random House: "The Telling Room--A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese."
Two back-packers ICM's Esther Newberg (George Saunders's agent) and writer Mike Paterniti.
At the end of the evening there was a line a mile long waiting for George Saunders to autograph copies of his collection.
Lifetimes. On a sad note, word comes from out West that Betsy Pickering Kaiser, one of the great photographer’s models of the second half of the 20th century, has died. Betsy Pickering was a student at Sarah Lawrence when she signed on with Ford Models in the 1950s. Her lifelong friend and Montecito neighbor, designer Luis Estevez who often used her in his collections’ ad campaigns, said that she was “one of the most beautiful women in the world, and one of the most stylish.”

Pickering was married three times, firstly to designer Herbert Kasper, then to Harry Theodoracopulos, with whom she had two sons, and Michael Kaiser. She had a great career that extended well into the 1960s, which she eventually left behind for education, marriage and family. A longstanding member of the Best Dressed List, she and her husbands were popular social figures on both coasts. She will be sadly missed.
Betsy Pickering, one of the most famous models of the 1950s and '60s.

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