Politics and Government

Kennedy’s lengthy foray into Hollywood had brought him a large and significantly liquid fortune that allowed him to continue his investments in real estate, notably his personal homes in Hyannis Port and Palm Beach, as well as a share in the Hialeah race track in Miami, even as he was scaling back his activities in Hollywood and the stock market. But at the beginning of the 1930s, the real focus of Kennedy’s energies became politics. As a successful businessman, Kennedy’s expected allegiance would have been to Hoover and the Republicans in the 1932 election, but the breadth and depth of the Depression had shaken Kennedy’s faith in Republican solutions. Believing that a change to the system was necessary to preserve the system, and willing to accept the toll on his own personal wealth that might be involved, Kennedy threw his personal and financial support behind Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign. He rode on Roosevelt’s campaign train and by some accounts his intercession brought about the support of powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

In 1933, with the election won and Roosevelt inaugurated, Kennedy took a trip to Europe with James Roosevelt, the new President’s son. The end of Prohibition had been implicit in Roosevelt’s election, and Kennedy saw in it a new business possibility. While in England he obtained rights to become the U.S. agent for Haig & Haig Ltd., John Dewar and Sons, Ltd. and Gordon's Dry Gin Company Ltd. When Prohibition officially ended, with the ratification of the 21st amendment, Kennedy and his company, Somerset Importers, were poised to take advantage of the country’s rehabilitated thirst with an enormous stockpile of liquor imports. But Kennedy was not satisfied with business success; his work on the campaign had whetted his political ambitions and it was a source of disappointment that Roosevelt had not yet found a place for him in his administration. That changed in July 1934, when Roosevelt appointed Kennedy chair of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Despite widespread qualms about the appointment of an ex-speculator to an influential regulatory position, Kennedy’s tenure proved to be just the start necessary for the new agency. Kennedy knew the business community and understood the business practices he was charged with policing. Though he had been appointed for a five-year term, Kennedy resigned from the SEC in September 1935, believing that he had accomplished what he needed to do.

From the end of 1935 through 1936, Kennedy acted as a consultant in business and government. After a six-week tour of Europe in the fall of 1935, he reported to Roosevelt on the European economic situation. He followed up that work with a more formalized stint as a paid advisor to David Sarnoff of R.C.A., which had suffered dangerous setbacks in the early Depression years. Kennedy also returned briefly to the movie industry, preparing a business review at the request of Paramount Pictures.

The 1936 presidential campaign brought Kennedy back into politics. Roosevelt sought his help on the campaign, and Kennedy responded with his book I'm for Roosevelt, which he had published and made sure was widely distributed. Written with the help of his friend, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, the book presented arguments for why businessmen should support Roosevelt and the New Deal, told from the perspective of Kennedy’s own personal endorsement. The book had significant impact in the business community and after his re-election, Roosevelt appointed Kennedy chair of the United States Maritime Commission. Created by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, the Commission was expected to rejuvenate America's merchant shipping industry, which was crippled by an outdated fleet and a difficult labor situation. Kennedy spent only ten months at the Commission. In early December 1937, Roosevelt named Kennedy the new ambassador to the Court of St. James, the United States’ representative to Great Britain. Kennedy officially resigned from the Maritime Commission in February 1938.

In many respects the ambassadorship represented the pinnacle of Joseph P. Kennedy’s personal success. Accompanied by his wife and children, now numbering nine since the birth in 1932 of the fourth son and last child, Edward M. Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy was greeted with enthusiasm by the British public, and for a while Kennedy and his family were popular celebrities in England. But Kennedy’s tenure as ambassador soon ran into difficulty. European tensions were already running high when he arrived in 1938, and Kennedy’s personal aversion to war put him firmly in the appeasement camp, a position that was losing favor in Britain. When war broke out in 1939, Kennedy’s firm and outspoken commitment to U.S. neutrality put him increasingly at odds with the British Government, and eventually his own. Kennedy ultimately resigned in November 1940.

The War and Its Aftermath

The advent of war brought much grief and tragic loss to the family of which Joseph Kennedy was justly proud and for which he had worked so hard. Kennedy’s two eldest sons served in the Navy, Joe, Jr. as a pilot and John as the commander of torpedo boat PT-109. In August 1943, John was badly injured and narrowly escaped death in an attack on his boat by a Japanese destroyer. A little more than a year later, on August 12 1944, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. was killed when his plane, packed with explosives for a top-secret bombing raid, exploded over southeast England. Only a month afterwards, the second Kennedy daughter Kathleen lost her husband of just four months, William John Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, killed in action in Belgium. Kathleen herself would die a few years later in a plane crash near Sainte-Bauzille, France while traveling with her intended second husband.

As the war ended, Kennedy continued with his business interests, but became more focused on real estate; even as he was divesting himself of Somerset Importers, in one of his most inspired investments, he purchased and renovated the enormous Merchandise Mart building in Chicago, which grew to become a cornerstone of his wealth. In addition he began serious, organized philanthropic activities, largely through the recently founded Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation. Most importantly, Kennedy turned his energies to the careers of his remaining sons, especially his second son, John, convincing him to run in 1946 for the Massachusetts’ eleventh congressional district. John F. Kennedy won that election and went on to serve three terms (1947-1952) in the House of Representatives and two terms (1952-1960) in the U.S. Senate before his election as President of the United States in 1960. Joseph Kennedy also worked to advance the political careers of his younger sons, Robert and Edward, who would both become U.S. Senators.

On Dec. 19, 1961, Joseph Kennedy suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body and left him barely able to communicate, although his intellect was unimpaired. In this condition he lived another eight years, enduring through the assassinations of his sons John and Robert. Joseph P. Kennedy’s health deteriorated from further strokes and heart attacks, until on November 18, 1969, he died in his Hyannis Port, Massachusetts home at the age of 81.