10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy

Patrick Lynch - January 30, 2018

For most men, being the father of a United States president, and one of the most famous at that would mean a life spent in the background. However, Joseph Kennedy Sr. was not like most men. An exceedingly wealthy businessman, he was highly influential in the world of politics, and he unquestionably helped propel his children to the spotlight, by fair means or foul.

He was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1889 into a political family. Kennedy became very rich through savvy investment in the stock market and in commodities. Then he got involved in real estate and set up numerous businesses across the country. In the United States, you need to be wealthy to make a dent in politics and Kennedy had plenty of money, and clout, so he also had considerable power.

Kennedy served as First Chairman of both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Maritime Commission under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then, he became U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Once his sons were old enough, Kennedy used his influence to help them establish a base. To achieve success on a personal level for and his family, Joseph Kennedy was prepared to do almost anything. In this article, I look at 10 awful things he either did or was accused of doing.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy
Rose Kennedy in 1939 – JFK Library

1 – He Was a Notorious Adulterer

John F. Kennedy later gained notoriety for his womanizing, but his father was every bit as promiscuous. Despite marrying Rose Fitzgerald in 1914, Joseph couldn’t help cavorting with other women. Often described as a ‘sex addict,’ Kennedy’s affair with Gloria Swanson was one of the most famous examples of stepping outside his marriage. His fling with the star of Sunset Boulevard lasted approximately two years, and they didn’t bother trying to hide it from Rose.

For Joseph, his dalliance with Swanson was a quest to have it all. He was keen to only exist in a world where he was able to create the rules. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, it probably didn’t matter to Rose that her husband was an adulterer. Marriage seemingly satisfied her preference for sexual distance while she still retained the wealth, privilege and status that were afforded to members of the Kennedy clan.

In reality, it is likely that Rose not only knew about the Swanson affair but also had knowledge of most of Joseph’s infidelities. Her life had seemingly been filled with men just like her husband, and she sadly understood the need to ‘know her place.’ This meant that women who were cheated on had to suffer in silence and carry on. Swanson claimed that Rose never claimed knowledge of the affair, but this was just her stoic nature coming through.

Another nauseating example of Joseph’s womanizing came with his decade-long affair with his secretary, Janet Des Rosiers. He was around 60 at the time, and she was just 24 years old at the beginning of the affair. They flaunted their affair, and Rose found solace in the church and other pursuits. Joseph even shared at least one lady with JFK, details of which are on the next page. Amazing, Joseph still found time to have a total of nine children with Rose.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy
Marlene Dietrich – Wikipedia

2 – Marlene Dietrich & the Kennedys

It seemed as if there was a competition amongst the Kennedy men to see who could get to a specific woman first. If one of them ‘won,’ it didn’t perturb the other family member who would look to sleep with the lady in question anyway. It is widely believed that both John and Robert had affairs with Marilyn Monroe for example. Janet Des Rosiers claimed that John tried to bed her while she was in the midst of her affair with Joseph.

As the senior Kennedy, Joseph would have had his work cut out competing with his sons but in the case of his secretary at least, he apparently ‘held his own.’ Not that Des Rosiers was the first woman who gained the affection of John after his father had already had sex with her. Marlene Dietrich was one such lady as the movie starlet had a fling with Joseph in 1938. The elder Kennedy flaunted the star in front of John; whether he was trying to make his son jealous or merely inspire him is unknown.

John once said that Joseph told his sons to get laid as often as possible. The Kennedy men were open about their infidelity which was encouraged by Joseph. Dietrich later wrote that she enjoyed her relationship with Joe Kennedy and believed the feeling was mutual. She even claimed that she tried to change his mind over U.S. involvement in World War II. Kennedy was fighting against American interference, but Dietrich told him that America could not escape Hitler and the Nazis and had to act.

Disturbingly, John refused to retreat from his ambition to sleep with Dietrich and invited her over for an affair in 1963. Although she was now in her sixties, John brought her to his bedroom in the White House, and they allegedly had sex. When he asked her if she ever slept with Joseph, she lied and said no. John apparently replied: “I always knew the son of a bitch was lying.” Whatever strange relationship Joseph had with his sons, it was at least better than what he did to one of his daughters, Rosemary.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy
Rosemary Kennedy – Lynn Cinnamon

3 – He Had His Daughter Lobotomized & Didn’t Tell His Wife

Joseph Kennedy did many questionable things in his life but forcing his daughter, Rosemary, to have a lobotomy in 1941 was one of the worst. Rosemary was a playful and energetic girl but became more rebellious and ill-disciplined as she neared adulthood. Rosemary was prone to the occasional violent mood swing and would routinely sneak out of the convent in Washington D.C. where she was educated. As well as falling short of the high standards of family, Joseph believed that Rosemary’s recklessness could damage the political ambitions of his sons.

Although Rosemary was diagnosed as mentally handicapped at the time, it is far more likely that she was depressed. With the right medical expertise, it would have been possible to calm Rosemary down and help her enjoy a fruitful life. Instead, the ruthless Joseph wanted her out of the picture for good, so he authorized a lobotomy. She was only 23 years old at the time and was being forced to undergo a dangerous and relatively unknown form of ‘treatment.’ As of November 1941, only 80 lobotomies had been performed in the United States, 80% of them on females.

Dr. Walter Freeman used ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of people who had apparently undergone the procedure. There is every chance that Freeman lied about the pictures, but it was enough to persuade Joseph to give his consent. Dr. James Watts carried out the procedure with Freeman in attendance. Rosemary was strapped to a table, numbed with Novocain, and mildly sedated because she needed to be conscious during the surgery so she could respond to Watts’ commands. The front of her head was shaved, and the two doctors operated on her frontal lobe. The surgeons asked her to sing ‘God Bless America’ and estimated how far to cut based on her response. When she became incoherent, they had gone far enough.

Just like that, any spark of intelligence Rosemary possessed was extinguished. The terrible procedure was an utter failure as the unfortunate woman’s intelligence was reduced to the level of a two-year-old. Rosemary was now incontinent and unable to speak or walk properly. She became the archetypal ‘madwoman in the attic’ and was kept out of sight. Even Joseph’s secretary said that Rosemary’s name was never mentioned. With this ‘problem’ out of the way, Joseph could now help one of his sons become President. He had the influence, and he certainly had the wealth; not all of which was gained legally.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy
Young Joseph Kennedy – John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Museum

4 – He Made a Fortune during Prohibition

By 1957, Joseph Kennedy was named as the 12th wealthiest man in America according to Fortune magazine. There is a great deal of speculation, and mystery behind how he made so much money. Joseph joined Hayden, Stone & Co, in 1919. The job paid a handsome salary of $10,000 a year, but this was only the beginning for Kennedy who had already worked as a bank manager at Colombia Trust Bank. His position afforded him the unique opportunity to learn about the stock market and more importantly, to make a lot of money in the process.

For all his stock exchange wizardry, there is a strong suggestion that he earned a significant sum of money by bootlegging liquor during prohibition. He was never caught of course, and most of the evidence against him is anecdotal. For instance, classmate Richard Whalen said that Joseph supplied all the liquor for the class’ tenth reunion in 1922. Raymond Wilkins was another classmate and said Kennedy brought the liquor in via boat.

One of Meyer Lansky’s lieutenants, ‘Doc’ Stacher, said that Joseph was involved in the hijacking of a whiskey shipment that had been sent to Boston from Ireland in 1927. According to Conspiracy in Camelot, Joseph once attempted to ship his bootlegged whiskey through Detroit without the requisite underworld permissions. The Jewish ‘Purple Gang‘ ordered his assassination, but Joseph was able to get his contacts in Chicago to cancel the hit. He was relieved but now owed a debt to Frank Costello. When Costello called in the debt, Joseph refused, and another contract was put on his life.

On this occasion, he escaped with the help of Sam Giancana but he owed the mob boss a significant debt. Costello later told writer Peter Haas that he was in the bootlegging business with Joseph Kennedy. To put Kennedy’s reputation in perspective, Giancana once described him as “one of the biggest crooks who ever lived.” Bootlegging liquor wasn’t the only illegal venture that helped Joseph grow his fortune.

Read: Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy
Joseph, Rose and 5 of his kids – New York Times

5 – He Made a Fortune from Insider Trading

There is no doubt that Joseph Kennedy was an extremely bright individual with a strong work ethic. He was the youngest president of a bank in America at the age of 25, and he knew how to make money from the markets. Had Joseph played fair, he would probably have become a multi-millionaire but he wanted it all, and he wanted it as soon as possible. That’s why he became involved in the nefarious practice of insider trading.

He specialized in using this information to help drive down the price of stocks or to increase the price artificially. One of his earliest ‘successes’ came when the principal stockholder of the Pond Creek Coal Company, Galen Stone, confided in him. Stone told Joseph that he was selling his huge interest in Pond Creek to Henry Ford as the great industrialist was planning to expand his already huge empire.

Never one for half measures, Joseph borrowed an estimated $225,000 and purchased shares in Pond Creek at $16 apiece. Once news of Ford’s imminent acquisition reached the newsstands, the price of Pond Creek shares rocketed to $45, and Joseph sold his stake for a profit of $435,000; which became $210,000 after he repaid the loan. He began to make obscene sums of money in ‘stock pools’ while other unfortunate investors were financially ruined.

While the Great Depression led to chronic unemployment, poverty, and suicides, Joseph Kennedy used stock market manipulation to increase his impressive fortune. During the stock market crash of October 1929, Joseph made millions of dollars by short selling. There is a suggestion that he helped to manipulate the market into crashing. It is not that far-fetched a theory given his knowledge of the markets and complete lack of morality. With a fortune available to back up his political ambitions, he was able to make large contributions to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign in 1932. With his foot in the door, Joseph became very powerful, but his dubious political affiliations resulted in more controversy.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy
Joseph Kennedy and his Family – The Daily Beast

6 – He Was an Unabashed Anti-Semite

Joseph became the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom in March 1938, and things got off to a fine start. The other diplomats were terrified of him, and the British press were clamoring to learn more about the Kennedy family. By this time, Adolf Hitler was threatening war and Joseph had no desire to see his nation involved. He favored the appeasement strategies of British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and had no faith in Britain winning a conflict with Germany.

According to Harvey Klemmer, who worked with Joseph at the Maritime Commission, Kennedy was a casual anti-Semite. He apparently said: “Individual Jews are all right, Harvey, but as a race, they stink – Look what they did to Hollywood.” During a fiery meeting with German ambassador, Von Dirksen, Joseph said: “They brought it on themselves.” Although his views softened after the Kristallnacht attacks, Joseph hoped the Nazis could be bought off to ensure that America did not have to enter any war.

Joseph allegedly had a plan to ship every Jew in Germany to Africa, or to a British or American colony. Roosevelt shut the idea down, but Kennedy refused to change his stance on Jews. It is notable that he wasn’t particularly interested in the plight of the Jews. His main hope was that the Nazis wouldn’t follow through on their awful plan because of a fear that public opinion in America would turn against Hitler.

Joseph’s later attempts to clear his name were a complete disaster; none more so than a 1944 interview with two journalists by the name of Joe Dinneen and Lawrence Spivak. He began his defense thusly: “It is true that I have a low opinion of some Jews in public office and private life.” He went on to say that despite his obvious dislike of them, he didn’t think they should be wiped off the face of the earth. Kennedy concluded by saying his dislike was colored by his business dealings with them.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy
Kennedy and Churchill – Time Magazine

7 – He Claimed That Democracy Was Dead

If you are a proud American, one of the last things you should believe is that democracy is dead. Someone forgot to mention this to Kennedy because when he was serving as ambassador in the United Kingdom, he said: “Democracy is finished in England. It may be here as well.” His opinion may have been based on his dim view of Winston Churchill, the man who succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Kennedy said of him: “Never trust a man who is always sucking on a whiskey bottle.”

He uttered his democracy statement when the Luftwaffe was trying to bomb England into submission. Kennedy feared that Hitler couldn’t be stopped in his rampage through Europe even before the UK entered the war. Once Britain became involved, Kennedy said: “It’s the end of the world – The end of everything.”

Kennedy’s anti-Semitism reared its ugly head once again as he told Von Dirksen that President Roosevelt was influenced by Jews. At that stage, he truly believed that the Jews were about to take control of the United States. He was also quoted as saying that “the Democratic policy of the United States is a Jewish production.” An increasingly desperate Kennedy attempted to meet Hitler in September 1940 without the approval of the State Department. He was dismissed by the British populous as a coward when he fled to the London countryside in a plane during the Blitz.

Finally fed up with Kennedy’s utter defeatism, along with low view he was held in by the British public, the Roosevelt administration put pressure on him to resign. Finally, Kennedy gave in and submitted his resignation in November 1941. His reputation was in tatters, and a number of people believed that there was more to his defeatist statements than met the eye.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy

8 – He Was Accused of Being a Nazi Sympathizer

Joseph Kennedy Junior is often classified as the son who was most like his father, and they shared the same ‘admiration’ for Hitler. Young Joseph saw Hitler speak in 1934 and was impressed by the dictator’s calls for Germany to unite against a common enemy. Joseph Junior wrote that while it was a shame, the Nazis were persecuting the Jews, but added: “The dislike of the Jews, however, was well-founded.”

As I’ve previously mentioned, Joseph Senior also disliked the Jews and had a seemingly favorable opinion of Hitler and the Nazis. As well as hoping that America would make a peace pact with Germany and trying to keep Chamberlain in office, Joseph Senior sought approval for a personal meeting with Hitler on two occasions. During his reign as Ambassador to the United States, a lot of British people believed his sentiments went beyond appeasement and actually represented a form of Nazi sympathizing.

Perhaps Joseph was merely guilty of underestimating the threat of the Nazis. The fact they tormented the Jews, a group he disliked immensely, possibly blinded him to what was happening. He was a great admirer of the German work ethic and believed they were the ‘logical’ leaders of Europe. Kennedy also thought the Jews were exaggerating their plight.

One of his great fears was American involvement in the war so ‘Jittery Joe’ tried everything he could to prevent it from happening. He failed in his goal, and worse was to come when his son, Joseph Junior, enlisted in the Navy. John also served in the Navy during World War II. While Joseph Junior had a lucky escape in 1943, he was killed in action the following year. As well as losing his eldest son, Joseph Senior had lost his first hope of a Kennedy president. He turned his attention to John and Bobby. When John returned from the war, his father informed him that his political career was about to begin. Joseph pulled as many strings as possible and didn’t allow his own affiliations to stop John from reaching the White House.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy
Joseph McCarthy – Wikipedia

9 – He Was a Friend of Joseph McCarthy

Today, Joseph McCarthy is viewed with disdain as one of America’s most hated senators. But at the height of his power in the 1950s, McCarthy was the most visible public face of anti-communism in the United States. He alleged that communists and Soviet spies had succeeded in infiltrating the American government, film industry, and universities, among other facilities. The term ‘McCarthyism’ was given to the process of smearing someone’s name with an accusation of treason without providing evidence.

Like McCarthy and a number of prominent Americans at the time, Kennedy hated Communism and was a fervent supporter of McCarthy. He even persuaded his son Bobby to join McCarthy’s staff in 1953. Kennedy had several things in common with McCarthy besides their shared loathing of communism. Both men were Roosevelt Democrats for example, and Kennedy would invite the Wisconsin Senator for drinks in his Palm Beach house.

McCarthy even dated two of Kennedy’s daughters, Eunice and Patricia, for a brief period and was known to be fond of the bottle. Bobby served McCarthy loyally until he had a personal falling out with Roy Cohn, the chief counsel of the Subcommittee on Investigations, and quit. However, Bobby remained close to McCarthy and defended him in the press. John Kennedy was also a supporter and backed the Communist Control Act, a piece of legislation even more severe than McCarthy had ever suggested.

When John finally ran for president, he claimed to be against McCarthy and his methods and was backed all the way by Joseph. Once the public turned against the Senator, John was in a tough spot because the Democrats voted to censure McCarthy. When one senator tried to get John to sign a statement that condemned McCarthy, Joseph told the man to get lost and to stop trying to ‘ruin’ his son. With his son so close to his ultimate goal, Joseph Kennedy was prepared to do anything.

10 Undisclosed Facts of Joseph Kennedy
John F. Kennedy – History.com

10 – He Allegedly Rigged the 1960 Election among Others

I have to use the term ‘allegedly’ here because there is no conclusive evidence, but there is a theory that Joseph Kennedy requested the help of the mob to rig votes in Chicago. In what amounts to a conspiracy theory, the suggestion is that the mobsters used the names of dead people to vote for JFK. According to Earl Mazo, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, there was a dilapidated house in Chicago that apparently contained 56 voters for Kennedy. Kennedy carried the state of Illinois by just 8,858 votes.

Nixon would not have won the election if he had taken Illinois, but there were also allegations of voter fraud in Missouri and New Jersey among other states. While it is not outside the grounds of possibility that Joseph would be involved in such activity, it is important to note that he was a fan of Nixon’s. Before John won the Democratic Primary, Joseph told Nixon: “Dick, if my boy can’t make it, I’m for you.”

Perhaps a more relevant accusation of electoral fraud against Joseph Kennedy can be attributed to John’s 1946 Congressional campaign. A former Boston City Councilman named Joe Russo believed the inexperienced Kennedy would be easy to defeat, but he was warned not to run. He alleged that Joseph Kennedy found another man named Joe Russo and convinced him to run in the election too. The goal was to confuse the electorate and hopefully split the vote as people would end up voting for the wrong Russo.

It was a cunning scheme, but the Kennedys were not finished yet. They tried to bribe the front-runner, Mike Neville, out of the race. He was offered a $25,000 a year salary for life to work in the Kennedy Foundation. Neville rejected the overture so Joseph Kennedy called on the big guns. He got his friend, newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, involved. Hearst ensured that his Boston American newspaper didn’t run a single Neville ad in the 60 days leading up to the vote. Before the election, Kennedy offered $50 to large families to help out at the election. John easily won the primary with almost double the votes of Neville who was the nearest rival.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment – Emily M. Brown

Marlene: Marlene Dietrich: A Personal Biography

The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women – Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff

The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster – John H. Davis

Conspiracy in Camelot – Jerry Kroth, Jerome A. Kroth

Listverse: 10 Terrible Things Done By JFK’s Father – Mark Oliver

A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel – Steven Weisenburger

Bad Blood: Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Tumultuous 1960s – Jeffrey K. Smith

Coup d’Etat – Barry Jones

Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator – Arthur Herman

Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America – Chris Matthews