America needs another Kennedy book like America needs another Pauly Shore movie, but here comes Ronald Kessler’s The Sins of the Father anyway; apparently, a few bones have not yet been picked completely clean. Of course, they’re very old bones: The subject of Kessler’s exhumation is Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969). And guess what: The patriarch of this century’s great political family was a WWI draft avoider, a rumrunner with Mob ties, an emotionally repressive father, an adulterer, a venomous anti-Semite and Hitler apologist, and an unscrupulous businessman. There’s more. He was a skinflint. He bribed journalists. He hated Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And, and, and… well, to quote from the indictment: ”While he promoted the myth of being a baseball standout, according to The H Book of Harvard Athletics, there ‘were no stars’ in 1911, the year he lettered in baseball — and barely lettered, at that.”
Such perfervid accusations will doubtless shock the 15 people who still believe that Joseph Kennedy Sr. was clean as a whistle, father of the year, and an all-around nice guy. But as the rest of its readers scour this seriously intended and soberly annotated volume, they may wonder exactly what myths its author believes he’s demolishing. Kessler notes that 30 years have passed since the last major Joseph Kennedy biography — but what he doesn’t acknowledge is that countless other books, interviews, articles, and TV miniseries have since done a fine job of informing anyone who cares that Joe Kennedy was one mean SOB. As Kessler enthusiastically tills old dirt, impatient gossip junkies may cry in unison, Sell me something I don’t know.
So let’s judge Sins on two counts: What’s new, and is it credible? On the first, Kessler has managed to unearth some fresh sleaze. Briefly: Kennedy had a nine-year affair with his secretary, who gets a nice thick chapter in which she announces that Joe was ”well-endowed” and reveals that Rose was mean to servants (especially, one guesses, to the ones who were sleeping with her husband). He paid a young woman to cry rape so he could steal the Pantages theater chain from its owner. After his affair with Gloria Swanson ended, he destroyed her business. All good-‘n’-trashy info, and the chatty photo captions (”Janet Des Rosiers and Joe often had sex on Joe’s yacht, the Marlin”) are a plus.
Believability is a tricker question. Kessler scales a mountain of memos, telegrams, transcripts, and diaries to prove Joe’s Nazi sympathies irrefutably. But other slopes are slipperier. For example, Kessler starts the book by suggesting that Kennedy paid $75,000 to get his son John on a 1957 Time cover, but doesn’t say who got the money, and his single source turns out to be someone who once heard Joe, a habitual self-aggrandizer, tell the story.
It is a cheap irony, in a literary form that thrives on them, that, felled by a stroke, Joseph Kennedy was unable to speak in his last decade. He lived out the 1960s virtually mute, watching Lucy reruns and occasionally screaming ”Nooo! Nooo! Nooo!” That would undoubtedly be his review of this book. Should he be allowed to rest in peace? Given the evidence of his sins, perhaps not. But perhaps, after so many years and so many books, it’s time to think about giving the exhausted genre of Kennedy lit a decent burial.