Joseph P. Kennedy: The Patriarch & Maker of the Dream

Eyes on the Prize

Born September 6, 1888, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was the grandson of impoverished Irish immigrants. His father Patrick Joseph "P.J" Kennedy, was a powerful Democrat Ward Boss of Boston and a successful saloon keeper. Joseph's mother, Mary Augusta Hickey was a woman with a great ambition that she passed down to her son, Joseph P Kennedy. Mary Augusta's desire for Joseph to succeed was so great, instead of naming him in the tradition of his father and grandfather, Patrick. Mary Augusta gave decided Joseph would be his first name, leaving Patrick as the middle name. Partrick would be the telltale sign that he was Irish and Mary Augusta did not want that. As one historian noted, as far as Mary Augusta was concerned "they were Americans now" and Joseph was to have a chance in the world.

Like their fellow Irish,the famine that had struck most of Ireland in the 1840's chased the Kennedys away from Ireland. Joseph's grandparents,Patrick Kennedy and Bridget Murphy came to America in the mid 1840's. Their presence, like many other Irish, were not welcome in Boston and other parts of New England by the society called the "New England Brahmins". Nevertheless, Patrick worked hard for his three children's living, including his son and namesake, Patrick nicknamed "PJ." Patrick died early. Leaving Bridget to raise her two daughters and son P.J. She worked as a servant in other Boston homes and established a business, unprecedented for a woman of her group and time, and gave it to her son PJ. PJ, shrewd and ambitious,made his money and married Mary Augusta Hickey who was noted to have even, a shrewder ambition than he. Though PJ was a success he never wanted to leave East Boston. Mary Augusta wanted differently for her beloved Joseph. She saw the homes of the Brahmins on Beacon Hill and was determined Joseph should have the same.

Mary Augusta encouraged her only son to great heights but shuttled her two daughters off to private proper girl Catholic schools. In the Irish tradition, the hopes and dreams of success for the family were to lie on the men, not on the women. The women were raised to be good wives to their husbands and mothers who encouraged their children to greatness. A pattern that would repeat itself in the Kennedys for generations. If Joseph wanted to be the best, he would have to go to a school of Protestant distinction with all the little Brahmins. Mary Augusta sent him to the Boston Latin School. It was one of the elite schools for rich Protestant boys. Boston Latin's alumni included Samuel Adams, one of the fathers of the American Revolution, famous American author Ralph Waldo Emerson and the pioneering President of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot. With the his father's shrewd understanding of people and his mother's ambition young Joe did not waste his opportunities.

He was not a scholar. It made no difference to Joseph as scholastics was not the markings of a true man. Playing sports, knowing politics and business, dressing well, and schmoozing with money was what it took. Joseph was a baseball player of legendary repute with a batting average of .667. He was colonel of the Cadet Corps at Boston Latin, President of his Class and was named by his class as a man who would eventually earn his fortune "in a very roundabout way". Young Joe was a man who aspired to be the pinnacle of American life with the sons of the Brahmins of Boston. And where would the son who aspired to the American elite go, but Harvard University.

"No university has ever dominated the intellectual, social, and athletic life of an American city the way Harvard dominated Boston in the early years of the 20th century", remarked Kennedy historian, Laurence Leamer. And he was right. No university since that time has captured the imagination of American intellecutal, social, and athletic life. Football was big at Harvard, most of America's presidents went to Harvard, only America's social elite went to Harvard. And some of the greatest intellectuals of the day had graduated from Harvard.

It was the university for America's elite, particularly the Boston Brahmin boys. These boys were called the Gold Coast Men during their years at Harvard, because of the private dorms in which they chose to reside. These boys motto was "Three C's and a D and keep out of the newspapers". As Brahmin boys they also believed in beneficence. For "great charity was the natural noncomitant of great wealth". Joseph Kennedy Sr. glimpsed this life and knew that Harvard University was where he was supposed to be

Although as the son of a prominent Boston Catholic politician, he was supposed to go to the new Boston College as a demonstration of looking down on Harvard's secular world, Joseph wholeheartedly rejected the idea. Harvard was the place for the place for important people. So therfore Harvard was the place he had to go. At Harvard, he imitated the Brahmin's dress, eating style, conversation, accents, mannerisms and social attitudes and was always aware never to betray his Irish Catholic past. He even set out to join an elite club--a private club, where all refined Harvard gentleman, drank, ate, and conversed. Joseph knew that having money and class were the only way to achieve any type of notoriety or attention in American life. He saw it in the social registers published in the daily papers and in the fact, half his classmates families were those names on the social registers. He knew for them Harvard was a stopover before going on to own and control some of the more important and expanding businesses and corporations in the country. Seeing the realm of acceptance and power within his grasp, Joseph struggled to eliminate anything in him as Irish. The Brahmins hated the Irish and all immigrants.

Joseph was determined to go against the grain and prove the Brahmins and most Americans they were wrong about the Irish. That he, Joseph Kennedy, was in fact as American as they were. He began by not drinking, at all. Therefore easily sidestepping the stereotype of the drunken belligerent Irish. As a matter of fact, he was in such a deathly fear of fear of drinking--and alcoholism. When his sons came of age, he offered his sons more money in their inheritances, if they did not drink until they were 21 years of age--and then he pleaded for them to drink in moderation. Joseph was also relieved when his family moved from East Boston to the prestigious seaside suburb of Winthrop.

Though there were tangible stereotypes he could alter. Joseph could not change his ancestry. And so therefore never brought it up. Joseph never challenged his professors and classmates who were vocal about their hatred of immigrants and the immigrant influx. One classmate, a Brahmin boy, a Wendell, remarked that many of his classmates had contemplated suicide "because of the immigrants".

In any case, Joseph was determined not to be defeated. Joseph actively involved himself in Harvard's social stratosphere. He joined the finance committee of the Freshman Smoker at Harvard. A place were many Gold Coast boys associated. He was one of 15 ushers for the class dinner. He adapted the ideals of the Brahmins concerning wealth and beneficence. Athletics were traits of true men, so he vigorously played baseball at Havard and was one of the star players. Since he could not play football, the elite sport at Harvard he befriended members of the football team. One such friend, a Robert Potter, was sophomore class President and a Brahmin. Since his friends were from affluent Brahmin families,this helped him move in the social circles of those Brahmins at Harvard.

In Joseph's eyes, he had done everything right, joined the right organizations, made the right friends, made the gentleman "C", in his academics. His final step, and highest goal at Harvard, was to join a private club,(what is considered now a fraternity) for which you had to be extended a bid from a member. As the story goes, Joseph and his roommate paced in their rooms as the bids starting being handed out at dawn. They kept pacing and waiting nervously until the sun was in the lower part of the sky. By the end of the day, his roommate was extended a bid. Joseph P. Kennedy was not. He was the star of the baseball team, son a of prominent man, but he was still an Irish Catholic and not suitable to join the Brahmin's private social clubs. It infuriated him and left bitter memories that resonated with him for the rest of his life.

Joseph had not been slighted for his attitude. Joseph, had in fact, done everything right to make himself socially acceptable. But with Joseph, the Brahmins assumed that "his Irish uncouthness" would appear after this slight. Joseph was not stupid and refused to give them any such satisfaction by picking a fight. He doggedly continued his work at getting into a final club before he graduated. He joined the elite Junior Dance Committee, which held three important Brahmins, a Lowell, a Frothingham, and his good friend Potter. His final year he was allowed into one of the lesser of the final clubs, DKE or Delta Kappa Epsilon. Mostly because he had lettered for his star performance in baseball. And not because the Brahmins had had a change of heart. Not at that point did Joseph care much about being in DKE, as he had tired of Harvard and their attitudes. He petitioned to leave Harvard mid his senior year and was denied due to his grades. His grades lacked any stellar quality having several C's, D's a few F's and barely any B's. One of his D's was in social ethics. Joseph did graduate, with a degree in music appreciation, the only major he could get through Harvard with. For Joseph P. Kennedy it was not a minute too soon. He was out and ready to make his own fortune and dynasty.

Joseph for all his desperation to be in the Brahmin world, did not want a Protestant for a wife. He wanted a Catholic woman, preferably Irish. And of course if he was going to marry another Irish Catholic woman. Joseph went after the best Boston had to offer. Her name was Rose Fitzgerald. And she was the daughter of the first Irish Catholic mayor of Boston, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. She was also the most eligible Catholic and Irish woman in town. Rose, a budding individualist female intellectual by all accounts, was prepared to go to Wellesley, until her father and the Cardinal of Boston intervened and admonished her for thinking of going to no other school but a convent for her higher education. Rose's teachings from the convent schools she had attended made her a pious and devout Catholic woman. Her need for propriety as the daughter of a politician; a strong Catholic faith; and a strong belief in a motherhood that champions and encourages children, made her an excellent wife who complimented Joseph's ambitions perfectly. They wanted to see their children have everything. They did not want them barred from social life as they had been because they were Irish and Catholic.

Other Links:

The Irish in America: 1840's-1930's|Joseph P. Kennedy|The Kennedys:Making of a Dynasty
John F. Kennedy |Camelot:The Kennedy White House|The Post Camelot Years