Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

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Joe Kennedy (Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., 1888 – 1969) was an American politician and leader of the Kennedy Family. He sponsored the political aspirations of his sons John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy; all became Senators and John became president. Joe was a major supporter of Joe McCarthy through thick and thin and a leader of the anti-communist wing of the Democratic Party.


Joe was the Harvard-educated son of wealthy Boston liquor dealer. Joe was a hale-fellow-well-met who the life of the party, but he always resented snobbish Yankees when he could not get into some elite Harvard clubs. In 1914 he married Rose Kennedy (1890-1995), daughter of a prominent Boston banker. Joe built the Kennedy Family fortune with brilliant forays into banking, shipbuilding, motion pictures, Wall Street, real estate and (just as prohibition ended in 1933), a heavy investment in upscale imported liquor. Rumors about bootlegging were false, but his scandalous social behavior in Hollywood made him a pariah in both Yankee and Irish society in Boston. He therefore relocated the family base from Boston to New York in 1927, where it remained until his son John F. Kennedy (1917-63) returned to Boston in 1946. Joe then relocated to Palm Beach, Florida, with a summer place at Hyannis Port, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Joe was noted for his fierce devotion to promoting his children, his notorious love affairs, his ruthless business dealings, and his major roles in the New Deal. He was a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who named him in 1934 to head the new Securities and Exchange Commission, and turn it into a powerful watchdog of Wall Street. Joe reached the pinnacle of esteem as Ambassador to the Court of St. James (ambassador to Britain) in 1938-40, cruising elegantly in the highest circles of London society, in contrast to his maligned reputation in American high society. Daughter Kathleen Kennedy (1920-48), became Marchioness of Hartington when she married the heir to a dukedom; she died in a plane crash.

Recalled as ambassador because of his isolationism and support for Prime Minister Joseph Chamberlain’s appeasement of Germany, Joe nevertheless endorsed FDR in the critical 1940 election. Unlike Al Smith and other prominent Catholics, Joe refused to attack Roosevelt and thereby preserved presidential options for his sons. Joe was increasingly isolated after 1941, keeping his distance from the clubhouse politicians who clustered around Honey Fitz, as well as Yankee businessmen he thought had denied him entry into the most elite Harvard circles.

Joe's business enterprises flourished, and he established daughter Eunice Kennedy Schriver (1921-2009) in Chicago, where her husband Sargent Shriver (1915- ) operated the family’s giant office building, the Merchandise Mart. The Chicago ties paid off handsomely when Mayor Richard J. Daley, boss of the city’s powerful Democratic machine, enthusiastically supported the Kennedys’ national political campaigns, especially the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Realizing his leadership status as one of the half dozen most powerful Irishmen in America, Joe played up his ties with Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, and with the nation’s most prominent Irish Republican, Senator Joe McCarthy, even encouraging the bachelor senator to date his daughters.

Joe supervised and funded JFK's campaign for Congress (1946-48-50), the Senate (1952-58), and the White House (1960). Joe's conservatism was a major reason the liberal wing of the Democratic party --typified by Eleanor Roosevelt distrusted John Kennedy. He suffered an incapacitating stroke in 1961 and could no longer speak; by the late 1960s his surviving sons Robert and Edward Kennedy (1932-2009) Ted were moving to the left.


  • Thomas Maier, The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings (2003)
  • Michael O’Brien. John F. Kennedy: A Biography (2005)
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga (1987)

Primary sources

  • Amanda Smith, ed. Hostage of Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy (2001)