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It is close to noon on May 29, 1917, and uncomfortably cold for the time of year as Dr. Frederick Good drives through Boston to attend Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy. The streets still glisten from yesterday’s thunderstorms and the thermometer shows 48 degrees. Those children born here today will be the first citizens of a new America, for this city, part Anglican and Brahmin, part Irish and Catholic, eternally proud of being the cradle of the American Revolution, is once again at war.
Every one of the big downtown stores has a window display promoting the Liberty Loan, and in Filene’s main window stands a full-size replica of the Liberty Bell. A few blocks farther along Washington Street, Gordon’s Olympia is showing The British War. Posters outside promise “Thrilling scenes of warfare. Men steeled for battle and death, leaping into action with daring abandon . . .”
On Boston Common, red, white and blue bunting shivers at the lampposts, and the Ninth Infantry Regiment has set up a tent for enrolling recruits. Not far from the tent stands the Shepherd store on Tremont Street, with a large sign out front that reads: your old gloves—for the white glove society. every particle of the glove is used to advantage; the larger pieces are sewn together to make windproof waistcoats for soldiers and sailors . . . These days, live performances in the theaters along Boylston Street feature a fifteen-minute harangue by pitchmen rousing theatergoers to do their patriotic duty and buy the first issue of the Liberty Loan. A good pitchman can make buying a $50 war bond seem the moral equivalent of going over the top at the front. “Hang the Kaiser . . . Down with the Hun . . . Hail Columbia!”
Normal life still goes on, of course. At city hall a long-running investigation by the Finance Commission into corruption by Mayor James M. Curley and his political allies is wending its sinuous and ultimately futile way to irresolution. Curley’s defense against the accusations of corruption in awarding city contracts is “We all have friends, and if we didn’t take care of them we wouldn’t be worthy of them,” which goes straight to the tribal roots of Boston’s politics. There has been speculation lately that a weakened Curley might face an election challenge from the former mayor, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. But today’s Boston Herald states firmly that Honey Fitz has no such plans.
The newspaper story is correct, for the truth is that what Honey Fitz has his eye on these days is running for the Senate in 1918, and on this day he is preparing to go to Washington for a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson. Fitzgerald will urge him to conscript able-bodied male alien residents who have lived in the United States at least five years; long enough, that is, to become American citizens. And if they are not conscripted, they at least should pay a special tax. One way or another, they must bear part of the burden of this war. He knows that Wilson probably won’t accept his proposals, but Honey Fitz can count on winning a few headlines for them back in Boston even if they are rejected. A genuine opportunist? Yes, but also a genuine patriot.
Meanwhile, his eldest daughter, Rose, is expecting her second child. A mile south of Boston Common—within sight, in fact, of anyone who mounts the steeple of Park Street Congregational Church, and looks beyond the Common—there stands a two-and-a-half-story gray clapboard house at 83 Beals Street, in Brookline. And on the second floor of that house, in the main bedroom, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy is going into labor. The housemaid is boiling pans and kettles of water in the kitchen and carrying them upstairs.
The felicitously named Dr. Good arrives at the house to join his assistant, Dr. Edward O’Brien, and Good’s nurse. O’Brien and the nurse have been at the house for most of the past twenty-four hours, and now Good will take charge in person.
The baby’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, is not at Beals Street and won’t return until after the child is born. Kennedy is the president of the Columbia Trust Company, a local bank. Rose wants him to stay away, and he prefers it, too. He is a domineering, controlling man. When a woman gives birth these days, there is nothing for the husband to do except sit around and fret.
For Joe Kennedy, brimming with nervous energy and unbridled ambition, his time is far better spent on business, on making that first million, than clinging to the fringes of an event he can do nothing to shape. True, he had been present at the birth of their first child, Joseph Jr., a little less than two years before, but he and his wife had been vacationing together then.
For Rose, a devout woman, this second birth couldn’t have been timed more propitiously. May is the month of the Blessed Virgin. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb . . .”
Her bed has been placed next to the window, to give the two doctors as much daylight as possible, and today the sky is cloudy but bright. The fashionable approach to childbirth among upper-middle-class women in 1917 is “Twilight Sleep,” which involves injecting the mother-to-be with morphine and scopolamine. The traditional anesthetic is foul-smelling, foul-tasting, potentially deadly ether.
Good doesn’t believe in Twilight Sleep. O’Brien applies the ether. Rose’s water breaks, but by two o’clock it is evident that the baby is turned the wrong way in the womb. Gripping the Good forceps, on which he holds the patent, Frederick Good reaches in and turns the baby around. A little after three p.m., it emerges. Once the cord has been cut, the nurse wraps it gently in an embroidered blanket and places it in the bassinet beside the bed. Rose is still unconscious, but she has prepared for this moment—she has tied a rosary to the bassinet. And there he lies, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, curled up like a small pink question mark in a sunny upstairs room that smells of blood, hot kettles and ether.
Joe Kennedy’s father, Patrick J. Kennedy, was, as photographs of him in late middle age show, a large, square-built man with rimless spectacles, a huge walrus mustache and a mild gaze. He was prosperous and he looked it and all that he possessed was his own creation.
Born in Boston in 1858 to a pair of impoverished Irish immigrants, P.J. had begun with nothing but the riches of a mother’s love. His father had died before he could even walk or talk. His mother, Bridget, worked as a clerk, then as a hairdresser, and eventually became co-owner of a small notions shop. While she eked out a living for her family, her three daughters stayed at home and looked after P.J. At fourteen, he was deemed old enough to go to work and found employment as a packer at the docks.
Living thriftily and saving diligently, after a time he had enough money to open a saloon. He proved to have a flair for the business, because within a few years he had opened two more saloons and become a wholesale liquor dealer.
Bars were as integral to the political scene of post-Civil War Boston as personation, and almost any man who voted right deserved a free beer, or maybe several free beers, come polling day. Alcohol and politics—each seemed almost an extension of the other. The saloon was the workingman’s club, where politics were debated and ward bosses held court.
For P.J. it was but a short, lateral step from alehouse to statehouse. In 1885 he was elected to the state assembly, and three years later he and his wife had a son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, born in September 1888 at the family’s large and comfortable town house on Meridian Street in East Boston.
After six years as an Assemblyman, P.J. was elected to the state senate. Meanwhile, his liquor interests were paying off so handsomely that in 1895 he and a friend founded a bank, the Columbia Trust Company, with capital of $130,000, and as befitted a banker he bought a mansion, one that overlooked the inner harbor and provided handsome views across the water of Boston’s financial district. It was here that Joe Kennedy grew up, in a rich man’s house with a coterie of servants, and among the privileges he enjoyed was an insider’s awareness of how the city’s political and business life was run.
Naturally enough, P.J. brought up his son according to the light of his own experience. Life, he taught him, was struggle. “Always come first. Second place is failure.”
In those early years, Joe Kennedy’s competitiveness was expressed as a ferocious work ethic. As an adolescent, he sold newspapers, candy and peanuts down at the docks. He lighted coal fires on Saturdays for Orthodox Jews and ran errands at Columbia Trust on his vacations.
To broaden his horizons and improve his life prospects, his parents took him out of the Catholic school system and enrolled him, at age thirteen, at the Boston Latin School, one of the most prestigious public schools in the country. BLS had long been the secondary school that enjoyed the closest relationship with Harvard.
Academic standards at his new school were dauntingly high, and here was one competition that Joe Kennedy could never win. He was quick-witted rather than intellectual, often astute but never profound. His best subject was math, yet he was hopeless at geometry, which calls for imaginative powers he did not possess. Any subject that required a capacity for abstract thought seemed beyond him. He failed physics, French and Latin and had to repeat his junior year.
When he graduated from Boston Latin in 1908, Joe Kennedy stood five feet ten inches tall, a good-looking youngster with blue eyes, pale freckled skin and red hair. He didn’t smoke, drink, tell blue jokes, gamble or drink coffee. His preferred beverage was milk, and he had but two goals in life: to be a college athlete and to make a lot of money.
He applied for Harvard not because he possessed either scholarly ability or inclination but because his parents insisted he go to college, and there was nowhere better. Although his Boston Latin grades—which averaged out at a C—might seem hopelessly inadequate for Harvard, he was accepted. Harvard is a great university for many reasons, one of which is that it has never accepted applicants solely on grades or test scores. Family connections count, as does a family’s prestige, but most of all it looks for evidence of promise. An interesting applicant who appears likely to become a figure of national importance twenty or thirty years down the road stands an excellent chance of getting in, even with mediocre grades. And Joseph P. Kennedy was different. One of the few Catholics at overwhelmingly Anglican Boston Latin, he had nonetheless been elected president of his graduating class. He had also been the leading batter in the city’s high school baseball league.
Although his father was rich, Joe Kennedy always had a job. While his grades counted against him, there was a lot to be said for Harvard’s decision to accept him. He seemed to be a young man on his way to somewhere.
At Harvard he struggled academically, as before, and had to major in Music Appreciation to be certain of graduating. For the rest of his life, Joe Kennedy retained a love of music, being particularly partial to Beethoven. But his was a purely sentimental appreciation of music, the easy rapture of the overwhelming and obvious. He was not a man for works such as Beethoven’s late string quartets, brooding meditations on the inexorability of age and decay.
While edging towards his degree, he prospered as few students ever did. With a friend, Joe Donovan, he bought a secondhand bus for $600. They spent their summer vacations running bus tours to Concord and Lexington from Boston’s South Station. There was a tour operator already doing the same, and selling bus tickets at the city’s main railroad terminal required a permit. P.J. ensured that Joe and his friend got one, in effect forcing the existing operator to share the business with them.