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HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy; Edited by Amanda Smith; Viking: 764 pp., $39.95

February 04, 2001|CARI BEAUCHAMP | Cari Beauchamp is the author of "Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood."

We speak of the Kennedys, en masse and individually, as if they were neighbors who have lived next door to us for years. We are quick to judge as we monitor their comings and going and bear witness to their accomplishments, misdeeds and sorrows. After all, we know them so intimately.

Of course we don't really, but if it feels that way it is understandable for, as Amanda Smith notes in her introduction to "Hostage to Fortune," the family has "generated more words than anyone or any phenomenon besides Christ and the War Between the States." Yet though we have granted his progeny an immediate place in our collective consciousness, the patriarch of the clan, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, has remained an elusive presence. We imagine him in singular terms: as a vote-fixer, an "America first" isolationist, a man who made his fortune manipulating stocks--or was it by selling liquor during Prohibition? And we are not alone for, as Smith says, she was nudged into learning more about her grandfather after a dinner party companion called him a "bootlegger."

"It struck me as unfortunate that any life, especially one as varied and momentous as his own (however exemplary or contemptible) could be reduced to a single word." She goes on to say that though, yes, he was indeed a bootlegger, he was also "a father, speculator, film producer, chairman [of both the SEC and the U.S. Maritime Commission], ambassador, appeaser, philanderer, philanthropist and kingmaker."

Joe Kennedy was each of those things, but to label him as one, or even all, does not begin to describe the man we understand after reading "Hostage to Fortune." Until now, what we have known about him has been filtered through other peoples' opinions and conclusions; with "Hostage to Fortune," we see him as he saw himself. The Joe Kennedy who emerges from his own letters, memos and diary entries--almost all made public here for the first time--is a man who invented himself several times over with a blinders-on determination. He flirts with secretaries, flatters studio heads, cajoles editors and variously tells Franklin D. Roosevelt what he really thinks and what he thinks Roosevelt wants to hear. Kennedy fluctuates between unctuous charm and nail-spitting anger--and everything in between--to get what he wants. He reveals a paper-thin sensitivity to the use of "Irish" as a descriptive term (finding even "joyous Irish laughter" offensive) and an eye that rarely wavers from the bottom line.

As revealing as the letters, memos and diary entries are about Kennedy himself, they simultaneously tell a personal story of the 20th century. The Kennedys were high-perched witnesses and participants in two world wars, the early years of Hollywood, the Depression, the New Deal and the road to Camelot. Their communications feature an impressive cast of characters that includes Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, William Randolph Hearst, Clare Boothe Luce, Louis B. Mayer, J. Edgar Hoover and dozens of other supporting players. Though it may sound facetious to call attention to the footnotes, they are one of Smith's finest achievements. With pith and accuracy, she unobtrusively guides the reader by identifying literally hundreds of individuals who cross the paths of the family in the course of 50 years. The devil is in the details, and she has conquered them.

Although the cover page reads "Edited by Amanda Smith," "editing" hardly describes what she has accomplished. As the granddaughter of Joe and daughter of Jean Kennedy Smith, she had unfettered access to the "over 200 linear feet of documents, largely uncataloged and in advanced state of decay" known collectively as "The Joseph P. Kennedy Papers." Most of these were deposited at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston in the 1970s and formally deeded to the National Archives in 1995 but remained, with rare exception, inaccessible. Smith's research added many more linear feet of documents to the collection and today, in large part because of her initiative, many of the boxes have been archived and organized and there is a process, albeit a strict one, in place for scholars who wish to study the material.

The collection in "Hostage to Fortune" has been carefully chosen to show the breadth and depth of Kennedy's activities, and Smith does not stint on including entries that show him in a negative light. She doesn't veil; she doesn't blink, and though her own writing is limited to the introductions and chapter openings, it is packed with information and insight, remarkably devoid of bias. The result is an extraordinary accomplishment for a scholar, let alone a relative.

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