The Chronicles of a Dynasty in the Making

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Social note from the unreal autumn of 1938, at the precipice of world war: Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy reported in his London diary that when he dined at Lady Astor's, he noticed that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had a hole in his sock.

Joe Kennedy, pirate and paterfamilias, son of a Boston Irish saloonkeeper, delighted in the company of the royals. During dinner at Windsor Castle in April 1939, Kennedy told his diary, "Somebody at table discovered a ladybug and Princess Elizabeth suggested it was good luck and sent it along to the Prime Minister. So it came along on a gold spoon, one from another, and I handed it to the Queen, and then she tried to tip it out on the Prime Minister's shoulder, most gently..."

But let American involvement end with dinners and ladybugs. Kennedy hated the idea of the U.S. being drawn into the looming European catastrophe. His patriotism was genuine but isolationist and, in the Kennedy way, tribal. Eventually, of course, he came home from London in something like disgrace, dismissed as an appeaser and defeatist.

It was in part a tribal impulse that led Amanda Smith, a 33-year-old Harvard graduate student who is a granddaughter of Joe Kennedy and daughter of Jean Kennedy Smith and Stephen Smith, to embark on the project of sifting through some 600,000 pages of Ambassador Kennedy's papers in order to produce "Hostage to Fortune, The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy" (Viking; 764 pages; $39.95). As Smith describes it, her search through the often crumbling documents (some uncatalogued at the JFK Library in Boston, some forgotten in a warehouse in Long Island City, N.Y., and others found in the attic above the room in Palm Beach, Fla., where Joe Kennedy died in 1969) has a quality of the newsreel reporter's quest for Charles Foster Kane.

Smith has not found the sled with Rosebud on it. Those who thought Kennedy an odious character will not find much ammunition, although the letters are disfigured here and there by outbursts of irritable anti-Semitism. Kennedy had multiple identities, as Smith says in a lovely introduction that is both haunted and haunting: He was father, speculator, film producer, bootlegger, chairman (of the SEC and the Federal Maritime Commission), philanderer, philanthropist, kingmaker.

His granddaughter's portrait-by-accumulation (a sort of fractured Polaroid, slowly developing) interweaves Joe Kennedy's documents with family letters, diaries and other material that supplies context and depth and a sort of jocular devotion that reflects handsomely upon the old man. From Antibes, 21-year-old Teddy cables: "Happy Father's Day having barrels of fun send money for more barrels Love Ted." From his honeymoon in Acapulco in September 1953, Jack wires: "At last I know true meaning of rapture Jackie is enshrined forever in my heart thanks Mom and Dad for making me worthy of her your loving son Jack." But the mystery of Joe Kennedy remains pretty much intact. He was a shrewdly concealed man who said, "Never write anything down that you wouldn't want published on the front page of the New York Times." His notes to his children are loving, stern, minutely involved. His messages to his wife, Rose, express tenderness and devotion. To judge by these papers, one might think the Hollywood mogul's longtime relationship with the actress Gloria Swanson was strictly business. And of his other free-lance sexual buccaneering, there is not a trace. Old Joe is the one who taught his son Jack how to keep secrets.

In her introduction, Smith writes of the Kennedy family with a sometimes rueful eloquence: "As I've grown older, I have begun to marvel... at how much of my life I have spent among ghosts. These are no malevolent presences... Rather, they are such restless spirits as only the strange twentieth-century cocktail of celebrity, technology and collective memory could produce.”

The book ends with an entry from Rose Kennedy describing Thanksgiving 1961 at Hyannisport — an essentially triumphal occasion, with Jack in the White House. Dallas was almost exactly two years in the future. Rose wrote: "Jack gets great kick out of seeing Ted dance as Ted has great sense of rhythm but he is so big & has such a big derrière it is funny to see him throw himself around—Lots of discussion about 'the Twist' — the new dance which has great vogue at the moment throw your hips around — NO one knew much about it but Jackie at end in a Schiaparelli pink slack suit gave a three-minute performance..." Then Rose observed: "Joe Sr ... is not at all himself but quiet... For first time — I have noticed he has grown old." A month later, Joe Kennedy had the stroke that incapacitated him for the rest of his life.