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The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy

by David Nasaw
868 pages
The Penguin Press
Published: November 2012

David Nasaw’s “The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy” was published in 2012 and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 2013. Nasaw is an author and a professor of American history at City University of New York. Among his most widely-read books are biographies of William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Carnegie (which was a 2007 Pulitzer Prize nominee).

Nasaw began this authorized biography after Kennedy’s two youngest children (Jean and Edward) approached him to assess his interest in the project. Once he was assured unrestricted access to Kennedy’s papers and complete editorial control he spent six years researching his subject’s life – documenting his personal and professional lives and investigating a variety of alleged misdeeds.

It is unusual for a biography to captivate me with increasing intensity as it progresses – particularly a lengthy one covering someone with whom I am already quite familiar. (In this case, the dozen biographies of JFK I read two years ago furnished me with a “colorful” introduction to the famously ambitious and deeply flawed Joseph P. Kennedy.)  Yet I found Nasaw’s early chapters surprisingly mild and unremarkable while later chapters proved increasingly compelling, insightful and captivating.

With 787 pages of text, “The Patriarch” is extraordinarily comprehensive and reasonably detailed (especially relating to conversations involving Kennedy). But while Nasaw’s writing style lacks the fluidity and literary elegance of some biographers, his narrative is uncommonly easy to read and is never exhausting or tedious. And on the strength of his research he is able to meticulously reconstruct much of Kennedy’s life (particularly during his adulthood).

The book’s “Introduction” is brief but potent – and almost as good as introductory pages can be. The chapters describing Kennedy’s early days as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and his waning days as Ambassador to the UK are unusually interesting. But the revealing coverage of Joseph Kennedy’s relationship with FDR may be the book’s single greatest gift to its audience.

And yet…this biography often seems more a record of Kennedy’s daily movements and conversations than an analysis of how he shaped (and responded to) events. The reader will eventually feel as though he or she is reading a well-crafted intelligence dossier rather than re-living Joe Kennedy’s life through his own eyes. The narrative describes what he did far more than why.

Nasaw also fails to provide meaningful introductions to even the most important supporting characters. “Honey Fitz” (Kennedy’s famously effervescent father-in-law) is the first to receive short shrift but the list also includes Eddie Moore (Kennedy’s chief lieutenant and apparent best friend), Arthur Krock (a journalist whose assistance was so invaluable it begs for more explanation)…and even Kennedy’s wife. Nasaw curiously chooses to leave them bland and two-dimensional.

Finally readers will not be surprised to find the author adept at seeing the silver lining around every Kennedy-generated cloud. While Nasaw rarely fails to point out his subject’s numerous flaws and moral failings, he often soft-pedals them (somewhat in the spirit of “Kennedy just being Kennedy”) or excuses bad acts altogether on technical grounds.

Overall, David Nasaw’s “The Patriarch” is a well-researched and fluently written biography of an extraordinarily interesting man who was professionally productive, personally petulant and perennially promiscuous. Joseph P. Kennedy’s life is rich ground for any biographer and Nasaw covers his subject capably. But while this biography is satisfying in nearly every regard, it could have been exceptional.

Overall rating: 3¾ stars