The Kennedy family’s public personas and private indiscretions make for shelves of biographies and reimagined histories. Disparate efforts have produced books with conflicting narratives authored by writers unable to stipulate even the most verifiable events as irrefutable historical fact. Just mentioning the name of the family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, the focus of critical accounts as husband, father, diplomat, and businessman, can touch off a wave of conflicting sources, grudges, and perspectives.
Bespectacled banker, expert stock speculator, erstwhile movie mogul, liquor distributor, political power broker, tactless diplomat, real estate magnate, a family man with a wandering eye — Kennedy’s ad hoc quest for fame and fortune took him from Boston’s political wards to London’s Court of St. James. And like other 20th-century money-mad tycoons and princely philanthropists, Joe Kennedy’s balancing act found refuge on Palm Beach where he became one of the town’s legendary figures whose life story is most often told riddled with as many implied probabilities as facts, making for a puzzling historical maze.
Several years ago, I mentioned Rose Kennedy at the end of a lecture on the “Great Dames of Palm Beach” delivered at an Ocean Boulevard penthouse meeting room. When I touched on the Kennedy family’s club affiliations, including the Bath & Tennis Club, my talk was suddenly interrupted.
“They were not,” declared a stylish woman wearing cobalt-blue glasses. Yes, it was none other than Anne Slater. I was aware the Kennedys can be a polarizing subject at Palm Beach as some think of Joe Kennedy as no less than “El Diablo.” Even so, I decided to double-down after Slater’s comment, stating, “In 1936, Joe and Jack won a Bath & Tennis Club tennis tournament …” Again, Slater chimed, “They did not ….”
Among Palm Beach’s unspoken paradigms is that Kennedy gossip needs only to be repeated before chalked up as fact. And in Edward Klein’s The Kennedy Curse, the author quotes what “a well-known hostess told Dominick Dunne … it is a known fact the Kennedys were never accepted at Palm Beach … the Kennedys never belonged to any of the clubs.” In his book, Klein declares “Palm Beach was their seraglio, a place of licentious pleasure.” The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys may not have been born Boston Brahmins, but at Palm Beach, primary records confirm that they were always members of the resort’s top-drawer clubs.
Along with Bradley’s Beach Club and the Oasis Club, the Kennedys were members of the Bath & Tennis Club, Sea Spray Beach Club, where the boys took boxing lessons, Coral Beach Club, and the Seminole Golf Club. At the Everglades Club, Joe served on the board of governors and the president’s committee that guided the club from being syndicate-run to a member-owned club. At various times, the family golfed at the nearby Palm Beach Country Club before and after it became an exclusively Jewish group.
For this sketch of the Kennedys and Fitzgeralds at Palm Beach from 1910 until 1950, I reviewed contemporaneous Boston-NYC-LA-PB accounts with the same incidents restated in biographies and as documented by accessible archival materials. Nevertheless, I found who, what and where discrepancies about what should have been uncontestable facts. There were also disparities between timely reports and 50-year-old recollections of events that may or may not have ever happened no matter how detailed their telling.
Add to that, Joe Kennedy’s Hollywood years, considering Palm Beach of the 1920s and 1930s had become a “Little Hollywood,” a seasonal splash for Broadway and Tinsel Town producers and artists. Studio chief Joseph Schenck and his wife screen actress Norma Talmadge were among the resort’s regulars, along with Irving Berlin, Flo Ziegfeld, Adolph Zukor, Jerome Kern, Sam Goldwyn, Arthur Hammerstein, George Jessel, William Randolph Hearst, and Al Jolson. Sharing an appreciation for manufactured reality as perfected by screenwriters, publicists, and social columnists, both iconic locations are best known for historical fiction, without regard as to how accurately these stories might reflect with reality. However intriguing their eye-opening revelations, entertainers were schooled at the world’s film capital in melodrama and self-promotion rather than history. In the matter of Gloria Swanson, Kennedy family biographer Laurance Leamer writes in The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963, “Gloria was an actress, and she used all her skills in her autobiography …”
Here are extracts from when John F. Fitzgerald first brought the family to Palm Beach and Joseph Kennedy secured the family’s financial future that funded his descendant’s political aspirations and philanthropic missions.
Rose Kennedy’s father John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, and her mother Josephine “Josie” Hannon Fitzgerald were popular members of the resort’s Boston colony during the more than four decades they visited Palm Beach. A born politician, Fitzgerald was a former representative in the US Congress and two-time Boston mayor.
Nicknamed Honey Fitz, he took pleasure being away from icy winters to bask in the limelight of family and friends, whether Tammany’s Richard Croker or the town’s croupier-in-chief E. R. Bradley. In late February 1910, Fitzgerald and his wife Josie were checked-in to the Royal Poinciana Hotel for two weeks when they attended a reception honoring Irish entertainer-singer Chauncy Olcott held at the Beach Club. The Fitzgeralds spent several days in Havana before returning to Boston where Honey Fitz’s second term as mayor would be his last elected office, resulting in longer Palm Beach stays.
Soon after their return from Miami, the Fitzgeralds boarded wheelchairs, gliding over the railroad bridge to watch an acrobatic air show at a nearby landing field where developer George Currie was promoting his new lakefront Bethesda Park subdivision. The outing resulted in Rose making as many headlines as the momentous flight.
During the 1915 season, Honey Fitz was entangled in the aftermath of a gambling raid at Bradley’s Beach Club. Both he and his brother Henry were subpoenaed to testify at a Miami grand jury investigating claims that gambling was taking place on Palm Beach. The Fitzgeralds never testified. The grand jury, the fifth that had failed to indict Bradley, was the anti-gambling interest’s final effort to shut down the Beach Club. Later, when Honey Fitz lost elections for the US Senate and Massachusetts governorship, the Fitzgeralds would spend lengthier stays at Palm Beach and Miami, customarily accompanied by family members.
The Fitzgeralds, considering Honey Fitz was one of twelve children, and their extended family’s seasonal jaunts were in contrast with Joe Kennedy’s stays. In 1917, when Joe arrived with Rose, he was known as “America’s youngest bank president.” By 1920, Joe and Rose owned a Pierce Arrow limousine. Their Brookline residence was equipped with two live-in servants. In later years, as he went from a banker-financier to a movie producer to real estate developer, Joe and his entourage arrived at Palm Beach without wives. He registered at the Oasis Club, spending several weeks on the golf course, often in the company of Christopher Dunphy, Palm Beach’s master greenskeeper and golfing major domo.
For almost two decades Palm Beach Catholics worshipped at the non-denominational Royal Poinciana Chapel located on Cocoanut Row or at St. Ann Church in West Palm Beach. Then, during the mid-1920s the philanthropic E. R. Bradley made it possible for Catholic parishioners to acquire a site on North County Road site. New York architect Mortimer Metcalfe, who designed the adjacent Palm Beach Hotel, was retained to draw the church’s Spanish-Renaissance-styled plans that were embellished with stained-glass windows created by Franz Mayer, Munich. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys were among St. Edward’s founding members.
Joseph P. Kennedy presents
From Sunset Boulevard to Ocean Boulevard
Although the banner “Joseph Kennedy presents” may have headlined more than 100 films between 1926 and 1930, albeit none of them too memorable, Kennedy’s legacy as an impresario has been overshadowed ever since silent-movie star Gloria Swanson’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson was published in 1980. The book was self-described as “passionate, destructive, memorable … a long, secret, three-year romance revealed for the first time.” The silent movie star’s recollections, much of them retold in lengthy decades-old conversations as if recorded by a court stenographer’s transcripts, claimed she and JP had an affair that began in 1928 at the Royal Poinciana Hotel on Palm Beach and ended two years later in Los Angeles.
For the past more than forty years, Swanson’s confessional has become a primer for historians, said to have “reached the level of Hollywood common knowledge.” Since then, the movie star’s recollections have been incorporated verbatim into several books without regard to the fact After their Palm Beach tryst, Swanson wrote that the producer and star rekindled their affair months later in March 1929 at the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs and then continued for another year. Her memoir claimed their affair ended amid recriminations, portraying herself as a victim of Kennedy’s financial savvy.
In May 1930, Kennedy resigned from active management of Pathe and from Gloria Productions, a company formed by Kennedy and Swanson. That December, Pathe and RKO merged. Kennedy’s golfing partner Chris Dunphy, secretary at the Oasis Club, was named president of Gloria Productions. Dunphy would later head Paramount Picture’s public relations and advertising, according to published reports. Between 1930, when the final Swanson-Kennedy movie, What A Widow, was released, and Gloria’s publication of Swanson on Swanson in 1980, she had publicly only said good things about Kennedy to Louella, Hedda, and other journalists. She was “pleased and grateful,” as Kennedy cut her expenses and reduced her staff. During the next forty years, she continued to contact Kennedy for his insight into her various business ventures.
The details of the Swanson-Kennedy tete-a-tete were reported to have mostly been written in collaboration with William Dufty, Swanson’s sixth husband and a former New York Post writer. Previously, Dufty was the ghostwriter for Billie Holiday’s autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “what’s on the page doesn’t always jibe with the facts … Yet for all of its factual inaccuracies and exaggerations or which the book has been taken to task …” In her book’s Introduction, Swanson credits Dufty with “ … tirelessly helping me research and prepare all the early material.” Upon the book’s publication, Dufty complimented his wife, “She was a huge star. She was the ultimate trophy mistress.”
But would financier Joseph Kennedy risk his considerable investment by having an affair with a client who was a famous public figure? Was Joe an adulterer? Yes, apparently part of his DNA. And yet, considering his star’s box-office potential and the level of his financial exposure, what Gloria Swanson and Joseph Kennedy actually experienced in 1928 may not have been all of what she and Dufty needed to write in 1980 for her book to become a bestseller.
In 1977, Swanson gave an interview to Newsday’s Claudia Dreifus, calling Joe Kennedy “her friend,” who was by then dead for eight years. Gloria told Newsday that “I did not have anyone managing my career for me. My marriages were not successful. There was no one I could lean on …” After the success of Sunset Boulevard revived her career in the 1950s, she was reported to have approached Kennedy for advice on launching a clothing line. In February 1979, social historian Liz Smith wrote “… Swanson had snagged $500,000 for her life story authored by sixth husband William Dufty.”
Contradictions & Denials …
In response to Gloria Swanson’s allegations, Amanda Smith stated: “Written after the passage of half a century, Swanson’s autobiography … paints a scene of deepening emotional attachments and discussions of love and marriage against a murky background of troublesome financial difficulties, sorted and settled by her lover’s henchmen … Later after Kennedy left Hollywood, she would remember resenting the discovery that several items she had believed to be gifts were in fact charged to Gloria Productions.”
What happened at Palm Beach?
In late January 1928, when Gloria and husband Henri, whom she called Hank, arrived at the West Palm Beach train station, the movie queen and her French consort took on their titular names, the Marquis and Marquise de la Falaise. In Chapter 15 of Swanson on Swanson, the author has the couple checking into the Poinciana Hotel. To the contrary, contemporaneous local and national newspapers reported they were not encamped at the Royal Poinciana. Accessible accounts have the couple bedding down at the Whitehall Hotel. In between their lunches and dinners at Whitehall, the Gloria and Hank were photographed almost daily along The Breakers fashionable beach promenade.
Days later, as Swanson’s story goes, Hank went deep-sea fishing with Joe Kennedy’s associates, Eddie Moore and Ted O’Leary. It was then Kennedy entered Swanson’s hotel room at the Royal Poinciana Hotel where she opened her kimono for him. “As I stretched back in the bed … He moved so quickly that his mouth was on mine before either of us could speak … he was like a roped horse…” The Washington Post writer Tom Shales described these passages as “ … in terms as gaudy and purple as were somehow nuttily appropriate, she recalled her seduction.” According to Swanson, this was the first of several intimate encounters, always told in detailed narratives and descriptions of Kennedy’s every word and gesture.
Several news accounts verify Kennedy had arrived on Palm Beach two weeks earlier on January 10, 1928, first staying at the Oasis Club. On January 16, Joe Kennedy and Al Jolson registered at The Breakers, spending the next several days on the golf course. Kennedy’s in-laws John and Josie Fitzgerald and several Fitzgerald family members were believed to have registered at the Royal Poinciana Hotel.
On the day after Louella Parsons column announced Gloria Swanson would be making several films with Kennedy’s production company, Joe hosted Gloria and Hank at Palm Beach Country Club for lunch and golf. That night, Hank and Gloria were reported having dinner at Whitehall with no mention of other guests. New York Daily News columnist Nancy Randolph reported Hank and Gloria were seen “petting when the lights were dimmed” at the Royal Daneli Hotel’s Venetian Gardens.
On Saturday evening, February 4, 1928, Eva Stotesbury held a reception for 400 at the Whitehall Hotel for the opening of portrait artist Olive Snell’s exhibition in a Society of the Arts exhibition gallery. As reported by The Palm Beach Post, it was Eva who went “unannounced” to Gloria’s table at Whitehall, not as Swanson recounted that Joe had arranged for Eva to hold a private party in Gloria’s honor at El Mirasol. It was then Stotesbury invited the couple to a luncheon on the following day honoring her houseguest Francis Sakham Elwes Drury. Along with the forty invited guests, Gloria and Hank attended the luncheon where Stotesbury’s son James Cromwell invited the couple to the Bath & Tennis Club the following day.
What to believe? An affair? What separation? The following January, Joe and Henri were back at Palm Beach, staying at the Oasis Club, while Gloria filmed Queen Kelly in Hollywood directed by Erich von Stroheim. Gloria’s titled marriage was officially kaput in November 1931; Hank married actress Constance Bennett.
The Swanson version has been repeated in countless biographies. According to Cari Beauchamp, author of Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years, the Swanson-Kennedy affair has been “taken verbatim by many biographies.” Beauchamp wrote in 2010 that although Swanson’s book is “exceedingly well-written, events are occasionally out of order and actions slanted to position herself as the better of the two.” Beauchamp does question whether Swanson’s encounter with Cardinal O’Connell happened as Gloria claimed. An observation shared with several other historians, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, who speculated that it was highly improbable, if not impossible, that O’Connell asked Swanson to break off the affair with Kennedy.
Goodwin references Palm Beach’s “celebrated architect Harry Mizner.” Harry? An unknown relative of Addison Mizner’s? And, although Swanson spent fourteen pages on her November 1927 meeting with Kennedy at the Barclay Hotel, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes, “Joe Kennedy first met film actress Gloria Swanson in the Renaissance Room at the elegant new Savoy Plaza Hotel.” While Goodwin does question the veracity of the Swanson-Cardinal O’Connell meet-up, she retells Swanson’s detailed account of Kennedy’s “first stolen kiss …” at the train station and her luggage being sent to the Royal Poinciana Hotel. Goodwin also recounts Swanson’s version of events that “Joe arranged for a welcoming party in her honor at El Mirasol …” when Palm Beach columnists reported a different set of facts. For Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joe took “… the opportunity to enjoy his affair with Gloria for many months without feeling the need to choose one relationship or another.” Hmmm?
For biographer David Nasaw in his book The Patriarch, “Gloria Swanson was his mistress, but she was also his business property.” Nasaw writes “Kennedy and his friends were not members of the Everglades Club or Palm Beach haute society.” While true Kennedy may not have been among the club’s first 125 subscribers in 1919, Kennedy would have then only been 30 years old, but he and Rose were longtime members of the Everglades Club.
Since 1993, a local Palm Beach newspaper has published numerous versions of an anecdote that Joe Kennedy and Gloria Swanson locked themselves into a bathroom at Ta-boo Restaurant on Worth Avenue despite the alleged Swanson-Kennedy affair ended in 1930 and Ta-boo did not open until 1942. There does not appear to be a record of the event in Gloria Swanson’s voluminous papers and archive at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center. Gloria Swanson did make brief stops at Palm Beach with her children and friends during the late 1930s and 1940s. There is no accessible information that Joe Kennedy was also on Palm Beach at the same time. In April 1939, when the Kennedys were ensconced at the ambassador’s residence in London, Swanson arrived at The Breakers with Gustine Schermer and Harold W. Zerneck. On the weekend Joe and Rose were houseguests at Windsor Castle, Swanson and her entourage were being entertained at a Bath & Tennis Club luncheon hosted by Mrs. John Charles Thomas. Swanson was also photographed fishing on the Palm Beach Pier and the Sun & Surf Club.
1095 North Ocean Boulevard
During the 1931-1932 season Joe and Rose leased a house in Midtown at 220 Clarke Avenue. The following fall, they bought the Addison Mizner-designed Rodman Wanamaker II house at 1095 North Ocean Boulevard. They retained Treanor & Fatio to make substantial additions and updates to the house. According to Nellie Bly’s The Kennedy Men: Three Generations of Sex, Scandal and Secrets the house was “full of ghosts of three generations of dynastic dreams.”
Diplomacy & Politics
During the early 1930s, Joe Kennedy divested his interests in film studios, becoming a financial consultant for RCA and Paramount. He kept his chain of New England movie theaters. At that time, he was also one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign advisors. FDR’s victory led to presidential appointments. In July 1934, Joe was appointed to the Securities & Exchange Commission where he was selected chairman. The following year, he was on the cover of TIME magazine.
After a hiatus from governmental positions, Joe Kennedy was sworn-in to the Federal Maritime Commission in April 1937 where he served until the following winter when he was appointed US Ambassador to Great Britain. As one of President Roosevelt’s closest advisors, Kennedy succeeded Robert W. Bingham as the US ambassador.
As 1950 approached, Joe and Rose were among the 700 guests at the Everglades Club hosting family dinner parties at the club’s New Year’s Eve balloon drop. On January 11, 1950, the family announced an early summer wedding for Robert Kennedy and Ethel Skakel. The following week, the Kennedys were among the boxholders for the opening of Hialeah Park. In the spring, the couple’s 32-year-old son Congressman John F. Kennedy spent Easter week with his parents.
That October, Rose’s father John F. Fitzgerald died. It was Honey Fitz who first brought Rose to Palm Beach And when Joe became a member of the family in 1914, it was Fitzgerald who brought Kennedy into E. R. Bradley’s exclusive inner circle. Among the 3,500 mourners at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Fitzgerald’s grandson and namesake, Congressman Kennedy. Born with his grandfather’s charisma, Jack Kennedy shared his grandfather’s regard for Palm Beach. A decade later, Congressman Kennedy was elected President of the United States, placing the family and Palm Beach center stage in the world’s spotlight.