The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty by Neal Thompson

“I wonder if the true story of Joe Kennedy will ever be known,” an aging Eleanor Roosevelt once said to Gore Vidal, hinting at malevolences undetected even by close students of the diablerie of the Hyannis Port Faust.

Joe’s bargains purchased the White House for the Kennedys, but at a devilish price. With his compulsive sex predation and “second-best is a loser” nihilism, the patriarch warped his offspring.

Joe himself lived to see the wreckage culminate in the midsummer night’s revels of Ted at Chappaquiddick in 1969. The old man died four months later.

Now comes Neal Thompson, who in his splendidly heterodox The First Kennedys shows that before the lurid patriarchy of Joe there was the winning matriarchy of Bridget. Her idea of success leavened with decency, as inculcated in her son Patrick Joseph “P. J.” Kennedy, shaped much that was worthwhile in the family’s achievement.

Patrick Joseph “P. J.” Kennedy, photographed in the 1890s by Charles M. Conlon.

An unmarried woman in her 20s, Bridget Murphy left Ireland at the height of An Gorta Mór, the great hunger caused by successive failures of the potato crop. But she was not in any literal sense starving. Her family were tenant farmers in Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland, a region less dependent on the potato than the western counties, where fewer cereal crops were cultivated.

A “different kind of hunger,” Thompson believes, drove her to cross the ocean to America. Surely there was more to life than tending peat fires, boiling oats, and babysitting pigs. But she escaped the “dreary existence” of the Irish peasant only to discover, in urban Boston, that the work of a “biddy,” or maidservant, in Yankee households had its own drawbacks.

Then she met a handsome lad called Patrick Kennedy. A cooper by trade, he too came from Wexford. They married, but Patrick died young, ravaged by consumption. He left Bridget with four young children in a tenement in East Boston: an unpropitious start for a dynasty.

But “the widow Kennedy,” as Bridget is described in surviving records, was enterprising. She eventually got a job as a hairdresser at Jordan Marsh, one of America’s new department stores. It was a step up from domestic service, and an education in the possibilities of retail.

P. J. Kennedy, second from left, seated, hosts a card party in his home in Boston. Fourth from left is William Grainger, the doctor who would deliver P.J.’s grandson John F. Kennedy.

Bridget learned the lesson, and, venturing a little capital saved from earnings, opened a convenience store in “Eastie,” as her East Boston neighborhood was called. She prospered, becoming “one of the most successful immigrant women in all of East Boston.”

Patrick Kennedy left Bridget with four young children in a tenement in East Boston: an unpropitious start for a dynasty.

The small cushion of capital afforded her son, P.J., a start in life. He was still in his 20s when he acquired a couple of saloons, almost certainly with Bridget’s help. He went on to take larger stakes not only in the pouring trade but in real estate, coal, banking, and politics: a “modest empire,” in Thompson’s words.

P.J.’s rise was complete when he took his seat among the Brahmins in the Massachusetts statehouse, first as a member of the House of Representatives and later as a senator. He was, all sources agree, “nonconfrontational, generous, patient, and thoughtful.” Photographs bear witness to a pensive, kind-faced man.

Henry Adams, who knew Irish-Americans primarily as people of “genial Celtic nature” who obligingly cleaned up after WASPs, opined that compassionate matriarchy is essential to civilization. He puzzled over why the notion of “Woman” as a source of life-nurturing sex “force”—business as usual in the Old World—was “unknown in America.”

The force lived in Bridget.

P.J. survived his mother, who died in 1888, by some 40 years. But he remained to the end his mother’s son. He was, Thompson writes, a “softy, generous and empathetic, willing to offer a free drink to someone with empty pockets, some food to a street kid hanging around outside, a few dollars to someone down on his luck.”

From a Kennedy-family scrapbook, Joseph Kennedy, then ambassador to the court of St. James’s, relaxes at his Palm Beach home.

When those who experienced his kindness asked how they might repay him, he would reply, “In your prayers you may wish to remember my departed mother.”

P.J.’s son, Joe, born just before Bridget died, benefited through his father from Bridget’s enterprise. At 25 he became president of the Columbia Trust, a bank in which his father had an interest. But if Joe inherited “his father’s business acumen,” he did not, a friend lamented, inherit “his soul.” He developed a style of swaggering masculinity very different from that of P.J., and he criticized his father for having been a little too free with charity.

Thompson brilliantly illuminates the strain of Mariolatry in the Kennedys that Bridget embodied. If it went into eclipse with Joe, it appeared, in an altered form, in his sons Jack and Bob, who, though they could not escape Joe’s morbidities, were able to put themselves in other people’s shoes.

If Joseph Kennedy inherited “his father’s business acumen,” he did not, a friend lamented, inherit “his soul.”

But Thompson goes wrong in framing the Kennedy story as a melodrama of Irish grievance. The most piercingly obvious fact about the family is that they were keen to join established elites. P.J. sent Joe to the Boston Latin School, a Brahmin citadel, and afterward to Harvard College. Joe himself had no patience for the Catholic seminaries favored by his wife, Rose. He placed his boys at Choate and Milton in preparation for Harvard. When his daughter Kick married Billy Hartington, heir apparent to the Cavendish dukedom of Devonshire—an Anglo power syndicate much like those of the Grosvenors, Cecils, Russells, and Windsors—Joe was pleased.

Ahead of inauguration ceremonies, president-elect John F. Kennedy shakes hands with Father Richard J. Casey after attending mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, January 20, 1961.

His son Jack carried on the assimilationist tradition, becoming the most WASP-oriented of modern presidents, more respectful of WASP mores than the maverick Roosevelts or the transplanted Bushes. Dave Powers, one of Jack’s fixers, was amused by his boss’s fondness for WASPs, though he admitted that Leverett Saltonstall, the senator from the Porcellian Club, was quite personable and must have been Irish “on his chauffeur’s side.”

No other president surrounded himself with so tight a preppy cabal. McGeorge Bundy, C. Douglas Dillon, W. Averell Harriman, G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams—the Social Register names go on and on. Joe Alsop and Ben Bradlee were some of Kennedy’s favorite journalists; his wife, Jacqueline, though she was not, indeed, an Episcopalian, had been educated at Chapin, Miss Porter’s, and Vassar, and was the stepdaughter of Hugh D. Auchincloss—the WASP-iest Catholic bride Jack could very well have found.

WASPs were, to be sure, still “them” to Jack, not quite “us.” But the line was blurring. He had more in common with “Benjy” Bradlee than with Gene McCarthy, whom he dismissed as an Irish-Catholic pol ostentatiously reading his missal in the trolley car. He kept his distance from the Irish premier Éamon de Valera (who wanted to draw him into Northern Ireland), but he delighted in Harold Macmillan, the Etonian grandee who seemed like a character out of one of his favorite books, David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne, a brief for the Whig aristocracy that long lorded it over Ireland.

Bridget Murphy, the Kennedy matriarch indirectly responsible for Jack’s good side, would have understood. Nothing wrong in aspiring to a less dreary existence. Just don’t be an asshole about it.

Michael Knox Beran is the author of several books, including The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy and, most recently, WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy