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THE MARRIAGE OF JOE AND ROSE
The Kennedy family myth about JFK is that he was this kind of glorious person produced by this wonderful set of parents whose whole purpose was to bring up clean-living, honest children dedicated to public service. That is baloney. The Kennedy household was an emotional wasteland.
Joseph P. Kennedy, the self-described "youngest banker in America," and Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald could not have known what lay ahead as they stood in the private chapel of William Cardinal O'Connell on October 7, 1914, and said their marriage vows. All they knew was that they were young and in love, and shared the promise of a golden future.
It was a low-key, modest ceremony because Rose's father, John F. Fitzgerald, the recently retired mayor of Boston, was under a cloud of scandal. In the years to come, Joe and Rose would found a dynasty that would change the course of American history, but they would also create an almost century-long epic marked by more tragedy and violence than a Greek play.
Joe's father, Patrick Joseph, known as P.J., was an East Boston saloonkeeper and ward boss. By 1900 the sons of the once despised Irish Catholic immigrants had come to dominate the city's politics. P.J. was a master at behind the scenes deal making, dispensing patronage, arbitrating feuds. And he taught his son Joe everything he knew.
Born in Boston on September 6, 1888, while P.J. was serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, one of Joe's earliest memories was the day that two of his father's constituents arrived at the Kennedy house with the good news that each had cast 128 votes that day.
With an eye to the future, P.J. and his wife, the former Mary Hickey, removed thirteen-year-old Joe from the East Boston Catholic school system and placed him in Boston Latin School. From then on, Joe's education would be strictly secular and first class.
Boston Latin was one of the finest schools in the country. Its alumni included Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams, and it was also a bastion of the Protestant establishment, the Boston Brahmins.
When it was time for college, Harvard was the obvious choice. One of Mary Hickey's brothers had already gone to Harvard Medical School. At Harvard, Joe, handsome, red-haired and athletic, participated in sports and an active social life, but was ignored by the prestigious clubs, Porcellian, A.D. and Fly. (His later ally Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't make Porcellian, either.) Joe was chosen for Hasty Pudding, a significant accomplishment for a Boston Irish Catholic at that time. He graduated with the class of 1912.
The classic story told about Joe at Harvard concerns a baseball game. Joe was determined to win his letter in baseball his senior year, but he had not been permitted to play in a single game, having been beaten out at first base by Charles McLaughlin. During the ninth inning of the final game of the season, against Yale, with Harvard leading four to one, "Chick" McLaughlin, who was now pitcher and captain of the team, suddenly asked his coach to put Kennedy in for the final play, thus assuring Joe of the varsity letter he coveted.
Tradition dictated that McLaughlin, as captain, should get the winning ball, but Joe refused to hand it over.
Long after the game, when McLaughlin was asked why he ever put Joe Kennedy in for the final play, he confessed that a few days before the game, some of P.J. Kennedy's ward heelers had spoken privately to him. They were aware that Chick wanted to apply for a city license to operate a movie theater after he graduated from Harvard. Either he played ball by putting Joe in the game, or he would be out of the theatre business before he began.
And the message that stayed with Joe was that anyone and anything can be bought, even a Harvard letter. It was the beginning of sportsmanship, Kennedy style.
Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald was born in Boston on July 22, 1890, the first of six children, three of them girls.
Rose's mother, the former Josephine Hannon, shunned the limelight, and Rose, as outgoing and vivacious as Honey Fitz, became her father's companion. Together, Rose and her father toured Europe, traveled to Washington and Palm Beach, and Rose threw out the first ball at Fenway Park. When Rose, at fifteen, graduated second in her class from Dorchester High School -- and was presented with her diploma by her father the mayor -- it was front-page news in Boston.
Rose's lavish coming-out party was attended by more than 450 guests including the governor of Massachusetts, but she was ignored by the elite WASP women's clubs. Resilient Rose founded her own, the Ace of Clubs, limited to young women like herself who had studied abroad and spoke fluent French.
The great disappointment of Rose's young life was that she was not allowed to attend Wellesley College, where she had been accepted. At the last minute her father, influenced by the cardinal and concerned with his Irish Catholic power base, rejected her choice of a secular college and insisted she attend a convent school. Although not given to bitterness, she would return to that disappointment again and again in later years. Yet, strangely, she did not encourage any of her daughters to pursue a secular education and sent them to the same Sacred Heart convent schools she had attended.
Joe and Rose knew each other well, having spent summers since Rose was five years old in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, the crowded beach community favored by prosperous Boston Irish Catholics. Their romance began in earnest the summer of 1906. Full of confidence and ambition, Joe had, according to Rose, "the most wonderful smile that seemed to light up his entire face from within and made an instant impression on everyone he met."
Rose discovered that she and Joe shared an ambition to live life to its fullest. Together they dismissed the commonplace. Each had grown up the favored child of the family. Indulged, encouraged, nurtured, they had known only appreciation and success and they had every reason to expect to conquer the world.
They both valued family. Her father, Honey Fitz, relied so much on his six brothers, most of whom visited him at City Hall daily, that the Fitzgeralds were dubbed "the royal family" and "the Fitzgerald dynasty." Responding to charges of nepotism, Honey Fitz said, "If I were to be without their assistance tomorrow, I would not think of running for public office ever again."
After Joe graduated from Harvard, P.J. arranged a job for him as a state bank examiner, and for the next year and a half Joe traveled eastern Massachusetts reviewing bank records. When Columbia Trust, in which P.J. had a substantial interest, was threatened with a hostile takeover, young Joe managed to rally enough support and hard cash to save it. He then informed the directors, including P.J., that he wanted to be president of the bank. They proceeded to vote him in, and at twenty-six he could claim to be the youngest bank president in the country. Actually, it was more accurate to call him the youngest bank president in Massachusetts, but that phrase was not as impressive.
On Joe and Rose's wedding day only the immediate families of the bride and groom were present. The early-morning nuptial mass was followed by a wedding breakfast for seventy-five guests at the Fitzgerald mansion.
After the reception the couple left for a two-week honeymoon at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
On their return young Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy would set up house in a modest nine-room wood-frame house at 83 Beals Street in the wealthy suburb of Brookline. Rose played her piano, a wedding gift from her Fitzgerald uncles, while Joe set out to make his fortune with a brilliant and imaginative combination of stock speculation, mortgage foreclosure and war profiteering.
For Joe and Rose, a key element in the master plan was the press. When Rose gave birth to their first child, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., on July 25, 1915, Honey Fitz immediately telephoned the Boston Post with the news. "I'm sure he's going to make a good man on the platform one day," Honey Fitz announced. "Is he going into politics? Well, of course, he is going to be president of the United States."
By the time their second son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, arrived on May 29, 1917, the United States was in the middle of the First World War. While many of Joe's contemporaries enlisted in the so-called "war to end wars," Joe set about turning this global tragedy to his advantage.
Joe was hired by Charles Schwab, head of Bethlehem Steel Corporation and a friend of Honey Fitz, to work at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, where ships were being built for the Navy. Joe immediately clashed with the labor unions, and the resulting strike paralyzed the yard. It took Franklin Delano Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy, to smooth out the situation, and Joe was demoted and relieved of supervisory duties until the end of the war, when he returned to private enterprise.
The transition from debutante to suburban matron was difficult for Rose. For a while things looked up when Honey Fitz considered making a comeback. Fitz, full of confidence, was unaware that the city, and especially political circles, were abuzz with talk of his latest protégée, a blond cigarette girl known as "Toodles" Ryan. He made it clear that he planned to challenge the incumbent, his longtime rival, James Michael Curley. But suddenly Curley made an announcement:
"I am preparing three addresses which, if necessary, I shall deliver in the fall, and which, if a certain individual had the right to restrict free speech, I would not be permitted to deliver.
"One of the addresses is entitled: 'Graft, Ancient and Modern,' another: 'Great Lovers from Cleopatra to Toodles,' and last, but not least interesting, 'Libertines, from Henry VIII to the Present Day.' "
Taking the hint, Honey Fitz announced the next day that he would not be a candidate for mayor after all.
Gone was the glory of life as the mayor's daughter. And the joy of a bride was soon gone, too, as Rose discovered she was married to a money-mad workaholic, who was away from home for months at a time.
But she still had her children and the only thing she ever really shared with Joe: her dream of a dynasty.
"Years ago, we decided that our children were going to be our best friends and that we never could see too much of them," she told an interviewer in the late thirties. "Since we couldn't do both, it was better to bring up our family than go out to dinners. The Kennedys are a self-contained unit. If any of us wants to sail or play golf or go walking or just talk, there's always a Kennedy eager to join in." It was this tight-knit closeness that would be the political strength of the Kennedy men. Ultimately, it would also be their undoing.
On September 13, 1918, Rose gave birth to her first daughter, Rose Marie, who would always be known as Rosemary and who would become the most troubled and tragic of the Kennedys.
In years to come, Rose Kennedy would be held up as an example of a devoted, selfless mother buoyed by her profound religious faith. The truth is that Rose suffered all the exhaustion, depression and conflicts of any mother, especially one who bore a child almost every eighteen months for seventeen years, and got little emotional support from her husband. Even with a household staff and a generous budget, the loneliness, responsibilities of motherhood and social obscurity were finally too much for Rose. In January 1920, eight months pregnant with her fourth child, she packed her bags and moved in with her parents, leaving her three young children behind with Joe and the servants.
The catalyst for Rose's daring move was Joe's philandering. Almost from the beginning of the marriage, Joe had romanced other women, mostly glamorous chorus girls, not unlike his father-in-law's onetime favorite Toodles Ryan. Among his conquests was the beautiful blond star of silent films, Betty Compson, whom he wooed with diamonds and furs on his frequent trips to New York.
Rose found little welcome in her old home. Honey Fitz pressured his daughter to resume her duties. And after three weeks, informed that two-and-a-half-year-old Jack was ill with scarlet fever, Rose reluctantly returned to Beals Street in time to give birth to a second daughter, Kathleen, on February 20.
Materially, Rose wanted for nothing. Just before her fifth child, Eunice, was born on July 10, 1921, the family moved to a larger house at 131 Naples in Brookline. Because of Joe's increasingly risky activities, the house was put in Rose's name.
Rose's theory of child-rearing was simple: "I always felt that if the older children are brought up right, the younger ones will follow their lead."
As the first son, Joe, Jr., took precedence. Rose explained: "It was easy for all of the children to look up to Joe, Jr., because he was a good scholar, a good athlete, and popular with girls as well as men in every neighborhood where we lived."
Rose chose to ignore young Joe's bullying, immortalized in a 1921 family photo posing young Joe, Jr., and Jack together, where it is clear that Joe, Jr., is squeezing Jack's hand so hard Jack is grimacing.
In Brookline in the early 1920s Joe was considered a hell-raiser, the kind of boy who "couldn't pass a hat without squashing it or leave an unprotected shin unkicked. He was cracked on the head by the Sisters with a catechism book so often, it was a wonder the top of his head wasn't flatter than a pancake."
According to psychohistorian Nancy Gager Clinch, author of The Kennedy Neurosis: "Joe's constant attempts to dominate his younger brother and his apparently insatiable need for stardom strongly suggest a deep-seated ego lack, a need for public reaffirmation, identity and applause. Such a probable lack is not hard to understand in view of the constant parental pressures, the ceaseless criticism (although tempered with praise), and the example of a father who established that ruthless activity is the sure route to success."
Eunice recalled her big brother: "...he was very good, but he had quite a strong temper and would be cross as a billy goat and would blame somebody else when he didn't win."
At thirty-one Joe went to work for Galen Stone of Hayden, Stone. Here he was exposed to the inside information that informed his stock market speculation and established him as a plunger. Joe made his real money in ethically questionable stock pools, inflating cheap stocks through rumors and erratic but well publicized buying and selling. The "action" was calculated to impress naive investors. When the price of the stock was inflated sufficiently, the pool would sell short for huge profits. The humble investor would be left holding the bag when the stocks went down.
The cash that fueled Joe's speculating came from bootlegging. The Eighteenth Amendment -- prohibition -- had passed in 1919 and since then Joe had been actively involved in illegally importing liquor. He formed alliances with crime bosses in major markets, among them Boston, New York, Chicago and New Orleans. These would come in handy years later when his son was running for national office. Among his mob associates was Frank Costello, former boss of the Luciano crime family, who bragged, "I helped Joe Kennedy get rich." Sam Giancana, who would later figure prominently in Jack's presidency, called Joe "one of the biggest crooks who ever lived."
The bootlegging business called for guts and nerves of steel, which Joe had in spades. But his hot temper brought him into a nearly fatal scrape with Detroit's Purple Gang. Joe had moved bootleg rum through their territory without their permission. Fearing for his life, Joe had to turn to Diamond Joe Esposito of Chicago to intervene.
Joe's access to bootleg whiskey made him a popular guy in other circles, too. It was Joe who supplied all the liquor for his Harvard class's tenth reunion in 1922. "It came ashore the way the pilgrims did," one classmate recalled.
In spite of her burgeoning family, Rose refused to be tied down and continued to travel widely, sometimes to the distress of the children. Perhaps it was a way of striking back at Joe for his own frequent absences from the hearth. One famous episode demonstrating Rose's wanderlust occurred right after Easter Sunday, 1923, as Rose prepared to leave with her sister Agnes for a three-week trip to California. It was Jack who protested: "Gee, you're a great mother to go away and leave your children alone." But Rose left anyway.
Jack, the more sensitive of her two older sons, later told his roommate Lem Billings that he cried every time she packed her bags, until he realized it did no good. "Better to take it in stride," he concluded.
In 1923, at thirty-five, while still maintaining his affiliation with Hayden, Stone, Joe set up his own office as "Joseph P. Kennedy, Banker." By the mid-1920s, he had built a fortune estimated at two million dollars.
As a businessman and investor, Joe liked to bet on sure things. He bought and sold stock as an insider, profiting from friendships and knowledge to plunge into Wall Street pools and manipulate such stocks as Chicago Yellow Cab and Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass.
Joe also took steps to properly educate his two oldest sons. It was one of the few areas in which he seriously disagreed with Rose. His own people had embraced the mainstream, sending him to the nonsectarian Boston Latin, while Rose's remained almost tribal in their attachment to their Irish Catholic roots. Joe once exploded when a Boston paper referred to him as Irish American. "How long do you have to live in this country before you become an American? We've been here for two generations. Isn't that enough?"
Joe let Rose send the girls to convent schools, but he insisted that Joe, Jr., and Jack join the mainstream, which to him meant the Protestant establishment. In the fall of 1924 he enrolled his two oldest sons in the prestigious Dexter School, where they were the only two Catholics.
Joe was much less involved with the girls. When Rose gave birth to their fourth daughter, Patricia, on May 6, 1924, in Boston, Joe was miles away in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, where he was attempting a takeover of the Yellow Cab company. "I woke up one morning exhausted, and I realized that I hadn't been out of that hotel room in seven weeks," he recalled. "My baby, Pat, had been born and was almost a month old, and I hadn't even seen her."
By the time Joe's third son, Robert Francis, was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Joe was making plans to move his entire family from Boston to New York.
Copyright © 1996 by Nellie Bly