Joseph Patrick Kennedy was a very successful banker and film executive, born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 6, 1888. Considered by many to be America’s version of the “royal family,” the Kennedy’s of Boston, Massachusetts have enjoyed triumphs and seen tragedy during the 20th century. As the family patriarch, Joseph Patrick Kennedy instilled values of commitment to public service, determination to succeed, and loyalty to family.
His father, Patrick Joseph, was a prosperous saloonkeeper. Patrick also was active in Boston politics, as Irish ward boss, a five time state representative, and state senator. Kennedy’s parents were anxious for their son to succeed, however in the Boston social environment of the time, success was difficult to achieve for people of their Irish-Catholic background. It was Kennedy’s mother, Mary Augusta, who decided that her son should be called Joseph Patrick rather than Patrick Joseph, after his father. She feared that “Patrick Kennedy” sounded “too Irish.” Mary Augusta believed that in elitist Brahmin Boston, being Irish and Catholic would obstruct entry into “better” society.
Mary arranged for her son to work for a millinery shop, delivering hats to affluent women. She instructed her son that, if asked his name, to reply simply “Joseph,” so as to avoid drawing attention to his ethnic background. Both parents were aware that entry to the higher levels of Boston society dictated that Kennedy mix with those outside his Irish community. They sent their son to Catholic schools for his early education, but when he was older he attended Boston Latin School and Harvard University, to be educated with Boston’s elite Protestant families.
Although Kennedy made a few friends at Harvard, especially among the minority of Irish students there, and was popular with young Irish women, Kennedy never was accepted by a majority of the students—anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment was strong. One friend warned Kennedy to be very careful in his behavior because Boston Brahmins were watching for any sign that would justify their prejudices. Kennedy’s determination to ingratiate himself with the socially prominent Protestants was viewed by some as distasteful and pretentious. He was never invited to join any of Harvard’s “better” clubs. Friends indicated what they felt was one of Kennedy’s more commendable qualities: his faithfulness to the tenets of his religious upbringing. His Catholic faith was important to him and he attended mass regularly.
Kennedy was extremely financially shrewd. He showed an entrepreneurial spirit and an appreciation for money at an early age, and held a number of jobs as an adolescent, including candy vendor, newspaper merchant, and play producer. He also performed jobs for Orthodox Jews, whose faith prohibited them from working on their holy days. During his student days at Harvard, he and a friend bought a bus and began operating sightseeing tours. Kennedy negotiated with another tour operator to share working hours. He was successful at this, earning $5,000 over the course of several summers.
In 1914, two years after his graduation, Kennedy accepted a job as president of Columbia Trust Company Bank. At 25 years of age, he was the youngest bank president in the United States. During that same year, he married Rose Fitzgerald, daughter of Boston’s mayor. Kennedy and Rose bought a small home in Brookline, Massachusetts, and started their family. In all, they had nine children: Joseph Jr., John (Jack), Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Robert (Bobby), Jean, and Edward (Ted). Several of his children went on to develop distinguished political careers, including two U.S. senators and one U.S. president.
Kennedy supported his large family through numerous successful business ventures. He joined an investment banking firm, bought a chain of New England movie theaters, gained control of a film production company, bought and sold many properties in New York, invested in the stock market, and controlled the Somerset Company, a franchise on Scotch whiskey and British gin. All of these ventures proved profitable. He may have earned as much as $5 million in only three years from his motion picture work. He earned $8.5 million when he sold the alcohol franchise, which he had purchased for $118,000 just 13 years earlier. Kennedy constantly made a substantial profit on the properties he bought and sold.
Kennedy’s career as a motion picture executive earned him high regard from some observers. He was sensible enough not to meddle with a company that already was profitable. In 1926, Kennedy’s company FBO produced 50 films. In Hollywood, Kennedy became friends with many distinguished actors, Gloria Swanson among them. He became her adviser, consultant, and lover. Swanson named her adopted son after Kennedy. Their relationship lasted several years, but was broken off abruptly, according to Swanson, because she “questioned his judgment” and “he did not like to be questioned.”
Although his work as a motion picture executive meant that he was repeatedly away from his wife and children for long periods of time, Kennedy’s concern for the physical and emotional welfare of his children remained constant.
Kennedy’s own political involvement began in 1932, when he supported the Democratic presidential nomination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He worked as campaign contributor, lender, and fundraiser. In return, President Roosevelt rewarded him with the position of first chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission, a decision that was not popular in some circles. Still, Kennedy did a thorough and honest job at his post. Despite his wish to become secretary of the treasury, Roosevelt appointed him chairman of the Maritime Commission. Kennedy eventually resigned; weary of dealing with unions and ship-owners. In 1938, Kennedy was appointed ambassador to England. During this sensitive period preceding World War II, Kennedy made a number of unfortunate mistakes. He was an isolationist, and gave speeches that implied agreement with policies designed to appease Hitler. He announced plans to resettle 600,000 German Jews in other parts of the world, a strategy he had not discussed with President Roosevelt. There also was speculation in some newspapers that Kennedy was thinking of a run for the Presidency in 1940, speculation that irritated Roosevelt, although Roosevelt may have planted the story. Amidst mounting pressure, Kennedy was forced to resign his post in 1940.
Kennedy’s life was fraught with tragedy during the 1940s. His eldest son Joseph Jr., was killed in action during World War II. His favorite daughter, Kathleen, was killed in a plane crash four years after the death of her husband and his son Jack was seriously wounded when his boat was attacked by the Japanese.
After World War II, Kennedy concentrated his efforts on getting his sons elected to political office. He began by working on Jack’s campaign for representative in the 11th District of Massachusetts. Kennedy was a quiet but effective campaigner. He contacted every powerful person he knew to assist him with votes and campaign contributions. The tactic and his personal $50,000 contribution proved successful. Kennedy employed the same successful strategy in 1952, when Jack ran for the state Senate.
Kennedy’s next project, getting his son elected as the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, was launched in the late 1950s. His strategy caused considerable controversy during his son’s run for the presidency. Kennedy was accused of influencing delegates at the National Democratic Convention and of buying the nomination for his son. Jack himself once observed, “Dad is a financial genius all right, but in politics, he is something else.” Kennedy distanced himself from his son during the period prior to and during the nomination process, and did not return to Massachusetts until the election took place. His wife, Rose explained: “He has been a controversial figure all of his life and he thinks it’s easier for his sons if he doesn’t appear on the scene.” Jack Kennedy won the presidential election in 1960, fulfilling his father’s dream. But Kennedy’s reaction was modest: “I have a strong idea that there is no other success for a father and a mother except to feel that they have made some contributions to the development of their children.”
Despite suffering a stroke in 1961 that left him incapable of speech, Kennedy remained active and interested in the lives of his grown children. However, tragedy continued to curse his last years. His son Jack was assassinated in 1963, before completing his first term as president. His son, Robert, was shot and killed in 1968, while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. His youngest son, Ted, was involved in a scandal with a young woman who drowned while in his company.
Kennedy bore his sorrows with stoicism and courage until his death on November 19, 1969, at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The words of his longtime friend, Cardinal Cushing, seem to best express Kennedy’s importance in American life: “His exceptional abilities were generously placed for many years in the service of his country. He instilled a sense of pride in his family so that all its members extended their increasing maturity into careers of unparalleled public service and achievement.”
When Joseph Kennedy was named chairman of the Hollywood studio Pathe in 1926, many industry insiders took an immediate dislike to him. “What’s Kennedy doing in the movie business?” rival mogul Marcus Loew asked one day, “He’s not a furrier!”
After making his fortune on and off Wall Street, Kennedy was one of the first Eastern businessmen to take hold of the potential of the movie business. By the mid-1920s, the American film industry was turning out 800 films a year and employed as many people as the auto industry. After buying a chain of thirty-one small movie houses, Kennedy realized that the way to make real money was on the production side and moreover, he was attracted to the glamour of Hollywood. Not only could he influence the way films were made, he could meet dazzling young women.
While his wife Rose was in Boston, pregnant with their eighth child, Kennedy was in Hollywood engaged in his notorious liaison with the superstar Gloria Swanson, who was by no means Kennedy’s first extramarital escapade, but she was his first real affair. She was the ideal trophy to symbolize the great worldly success he had achieved.
In 1926, Kennedy convinced a patron of his brokerage firm, Guy Currier, to finance his plans to enter the movie business. Using insider information he received as a broker at Hayden Stone, Kennedy bought the Film Booking Offices of America (FBO), sight unseen, from its British owners; and then received a commission of $75,000 from the trading company for the deal. Kennedy quickly changed the studio’s focus to making cheap Westerns and dog pictures that could be turned out in a week for $30,000 to $50,000 each. Although they lacked artistic merit, the pictures sold, and FBO profits ballooned.
The following year, Kennedy used the profits from FBO to purchase the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) who had a new system for making motion pictures with sound. Now that Kennedy headed a studio, he wanted to buy a theater chain to distribute his pictures. This desire would eventually lead to the infamous “Pantages Scandal.”
In February 1929, Kennedy made an offer to buy the Pantages theater chain, the second biggest in California, from its owner Alexander Pantages, a Greek immigrant who had built the chain from scratch into a multi-million dollar business.
Kennedy’s inherent arrogance was now rampant, and when Pantages rebuffed his offers, Kennedy threatened him by boasting of his influence in the banking and movie businesses. Soon, Pantages found his theaters were being denied first-run blockbuster features from major studios.
On August 9, 1929 in Pantages’ flagship theater, the Beaux Arts in downtown Los Angeles, a hysterical lady in red emerged from the janitor’s broom closet on the mezzanine screaming: “There he is, the Beast! Don’t let him get at me!” She pointed to the silver-haired Alexander Pantages in the office next to the broom closet.
The girl was Eunice Pringle of Garden Grove, California, and she told police that she had come to Pantages looking for work as a dancer. Instead of offering her a job, he had pushed her into the broom closet, wrenched her underwear loose and raped her. Pantages insisted that he was being framed, and that the young woman had torn and ripped her own clothing.
Pantages was convicted and sentenced to fifty years, but the verdict was overturned on appeal, on the basis that it was prejudicial to Pantages to exclude testimony about the morals of the plaintiff. The court found her testimony “so improbable as to challenge credulity.”
At the new trial, Pantages’ lawyers reenacted the alleged rape and showed that it could not have occurred in the small broom closet the way Pringle had described it. The jury was also shown how athletic Pringle was; casting doubt on her claim that she could not fight off advances by the slightly built Pantages.
The second jury acquitted Pantages, but because of the notoriety, his business had plummeted. A few months after Kennedy’s final offer of $8 million, Pantages was forced to sell out to Kennedy’s RKO for $3.5 million.
Two years after the acquittal, Pringle told her lawyer she wanted to come clean. Stories began circulating that she was about to blow the lid off the rape case and name names. Suddenly, she died of unknown causes. The night she died, she was violently ill and red in color, a sign of cyanide poisoning. On her deathbed, Pringle confessed to her mother and a friend that Joseph Kennedy had set up Pantages. In exchange for their perjured testimony, Kennedy had paid $10,000 to Pringle and her agent and lover Nicolas Dunaev. Kennedy had also promised he would make her a star. Pringle, however, never became a star, and Dunaev never gave her the share of the money.
Kennedy had also purchased KAO (Keith-Albee-Orpheum Theaters Corp), a chain with 700 movie theaters in the US and Canada, and more than 2 million patrons daily. Edward Albee, the founder of KAO, had initially refused to sell out, but when Kennedy promised that he would remain in control of the chain, Albee agreed to the offer. But once the papers were signed and Kennedy was chairman, he said bluntly, “Didn’t you know, Ed? You’re washed up. Through.”
In 1928, Joe was asked to serve as a special advisor on the board of Pathe Exchange Inc., a production company who produced a weekly newsreel. Kennedy soon became chairman of Pathe and began implementing his own ideas, beginning by slashing the salaries of the employees. The cost-cutting applied to others, however, and not to himself – he was drawing a salary of $100,000 from Pathe.
Later that year, Kennedy merged FBO with his chain of theaters (KAO) to form the famous RKO. Kennedy then had RCA trade its FBO stock for stock in the new company, a deal which brought him $2 million.
Joseph Kennedy had become so entranced by Gloria Swanson and Hollywood that when his father Patrick Joseph Kennedy died in May of 1929, that he would not leave California to attend the funeral. His cousin Joseph Kane later confronted him saying, “You son of a bitch, you didn’t even go to your father’s funeral. You were too busy on the West Coast chasing Gloria Swanson around.” To which Kennedy replied, “I couldn’t leave. If I left for two days, the Jews would rob me blind.”
A friend Kane Simonian, observed, “Joe Kennedy didn’t attend his father’s funeral….When someone doesn’t go to his father’s funeral, you can believe he would do anything.”
Certainly, nothing so much illuminates Kennedy s character as his decision to remain in California while the rest of the family and many of Boston’s most notable citizens paid their last respects to the man who had been responsible for so many of Joseph’s early successes. From his entry into Harvard, to his job as bank examiner and designation as president of Columbia Trust, Patrick Joseph had always been there to help his son. Now that his father could do nothing more to help him, Joseph was too busy in Hollywood to say good-bye.
In 1931, Joseph Kennedy plundered Pathe Exchange. He arranged for RKO to pay Pathe insiders like himself $80 a share. The rest of the stockholders would receive just one dollar and fifty cents a share. Favoring insiders to such a degree was nothing more than robbery. Since Kennedy had acquired the stock for $30 a share, he more than doubled his investment in fewer than two years. Stockholders filed suit, but nothing came of it.
Since Kennedy was in a position to dictate the terms of the deal, he was able to craft the transaction to enrich himself. Moreover, he took advantage of privileged information from the files of major stockholders in the movie companies who were clients of Guy Currier, his partner at RKO. While Currier was on vacation in Italy, Kennedy pillaged his files for inside information such as the size of holdings of other stockholders and their financial condition. He then used the information to further his own interests. When Currier returned, he discovered that RKO’s value had plummeted, and he and his fellow investors had been betrayed. Joseph Kennedy “did not behave in an honorable way,” said Anne Anable, Currier’s granddaughter. “Unfortunately, my grandfather didn’t realize how corrupt Kennedy was,” she said.
Years later, Wisconsin Congressman John Schafer took to the floor of the House to denounce Kennedy as the “chief racketeer in the RKO swindle.” Another congressman, William Sirovich of New York, said the “inside group at RKO had committed fraud by unloading their stock, making millions.” He called for an investigation of the movie industry, but by then Joe had become close to key congressional leaders as well as to President Roosevelt, and the probe was mysteriously halted.
In Kennedy’s papers, Doris Kearns Goodwin found letters from anguished stockholders of Pathe. Anne Lawler of Jamaica Plain in Boston said she lost her life savings. “This seems hardly Christian-like, fair or just for a man of your character,” she wrote. “I wish you would think of the poor working woman who had so much faith in you as to give all their money to your Pathe.”
Joseph Kennedy had been chairman of FBO for two years and nine months, chairman of Keith-Albee-Orpheum for five months, special adviser to First National Pictures for six weeks, special adviser to RCA for two and a half months, and adviser to Paramount Pictures for seventy-four days. In all, Kennedy had made an estimated $5 million in the movie business.
During the 1920s the American film industry developed into a strong oligopoly. Ownership of a large theater circuit provided each vertically integrated Hollywood firm with significant monopoly power. Since patrons were willing to pay high prices to see first-run films, the large film producer-distributors purchased theater chains to control access to their customers. However, motion picture capitalists sought profit and growth, and hence were quite conscious of costs. During the 1920s the U.S. film industry became a complete “big business” by adopting the strategy of the chain store. Hollywood-owned circuits increasingly presented a more standardized product, on a national level, at decreasing cost, all directed by a central authority in New York. Exhibition was the branch of the industry which could most easily adopt “big business” practices, and thus accumulate the greatest excess profits. Sam Katz, president of the Publix circuit, pushed most strongly for the chain-store system, and by 1929 Publix had become the most powerful theater organization in the United States.
Another defining change in the motion picture industry was the public’s enthusiasm for sound film. “Now in a panic,” the production companies rushed into the production, distribution, and exhibition of talkies, “hoping to make up for lost time.” The remainder of the year of1928 was filled with “chaos, conjecture, and confusion.”
The 1920s and 1930s was the true beginning of what would later be known as the Hollywood Studio Era. In the post-World War I period the production genius of such men as Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, and Jesse L. Lasky, and the innovative talents of Cecil B. De Mille, Erich Von Stroheim, and Ernst Lubitsch were dominant. Another defining change in the motion picture industry was the public’s enthusiasm for sound film; and sound effects and music. “Now in a panic,” the production companies rushed into the production, distribution, and exhibition of talkies, “hoping to make up for lost time.” The remainder of the year of 1928 was filled with “chaos, conjecture, and confusion.” That same year, the first all-talking picture, Lights of New York, was shown. With the talkies new directors achieved prominence: King Vidor, Joseph Von Sternberg, Rouben Mamoulian, Frank Capra, and John Ford. Sound films gave a tremendous boost to the careers of some silent actors but destroyed many whose voices were not suited to recording. Among the most celebrated stars of the new era were Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, W. C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers.
Also in 1927 The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences was formed and began an annual awards ceremony. The prize, a figurine of a man grasping a star, was later dubbed Oscar. These awards did much to confer status upon the medium in that they asserted a definable quality of excellence analogous to literature and theater, other media in which awards are given for excellence. The Academy Awards also offered the bonus of gathering many stars in one place and thus attracted immediate and widespread attention. The star system blossomed as actors were recruited from the stage as well as trained in the Hollywood studios.
From the 1930s until the early 1950s, the studios sponsored a host of talented actors, foremost among whom were Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, Barbara Stanwyck, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, James Cagney, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, James Mason, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly. Producers and directors such as David O. Selznick, Darryl F. Zanuck, Mervyn LeRoy, William Wyler, George Stevens, and Billy Wilder made significant contributions to cinematic art.
The medium of film had converted many legitimate theaters into movie houses. Later, during Hollywood’s golden age, thousands of sumptuous movie palaces were erected all over the United States, and drive-in movie theaters became popular outside urban centers. Since their inception the movies have always been termed an industry, with good reason. In 1938 there were more than 80 million single admissions per week (65% of the population). To meet the huge box-office demand, more than 500 films were produced that year.
The industry in its heyday (1930-49) was managed by a number of omnipotent studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, RKO, Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Universal. They produced endless cycles of films in imitation of a few successful original types. The range of themes included the criminal underworld, behind-the-scenes newspaper dramas, westerns, musicals, costume romances, and character series such as the Charlie Chan films, prison stories, mysteries, comedies, and Broadway shows. Because of their enormous investments and gargantuan rewards (the film industry’s gross income for 1946, its best year, was nearly $2 billion); the studios were encouraged to repeat conventionalized formula pictures.
Today, the motion picture industry is an always changing, ever thriving business. Media corporations seem to be replacing true media moguls, buying out all aspects of the entertainment industry and forming one large conglomerate operating everything from radio to television to print to motion pictures. This semester I learned that the coming years will demonstrate a transformation of the motion picture and entertainment industry, not seen since its inception over a century ago.