Joseph Patrick Kennedy – father to Jack

Joseph Patrick Kennedy, father to future US president, John F Kennedy, was born on Boston, Massachusetts on 6 September 1888.  He was the eldest child and only surviving son of prominent Boston-Irish businessman and politician, PJ Kennedy, and his wife, Mary Hickey.  Having received his early education at the Catholic Xaverian School, Joe transferred to the prestigious Boston Latin School at the age of thirteen.  Despite an uninspiring academic record, he was accepted to Harvard in 1908 and graduated in 1912.


Highly ambitious from an early age, Joe began his career at the Columbia Trust Company, a banking institution which was controlled by his father. The young man’s exceptional business acumen came to the fore a few years later when Columbia, Boston’s sole Irish-owned bank, became the target of a hostile takeover bid by one of its rivals.  Recognising that the only way to fend off the takeover threat was to offer Columbia’s shareholders a better deal, Kennedy set about raising enough finance to do so.  His success in this endeavour saw him becoming, at the age of twenty-five, the country’s youngest ever bank president.

In October 1914, Joe married his long-time sweetheart, Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of another prominent Boston-Irish politician.  The couple would go on to have nine children, four boys and five girls.

Meanwhile, his business career continued apace.  During World War One, Joe worked as an assistant manager at a major shipyard, supervising the production of warships and other equipment critical to the war effort.  He later branched out into stock market trading, and avoided catastrophe by cashing in his investments before the Wall Street Crash of 1929.  Having succeeded in his stated aim of becoming a millionaire by the time he was thirty-five, Kennedy’s later business ventures, which included whiskey importation and movie production, only added to his growing fortune.


Joe first became involved in politics when he lent his support to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful presidential campaign in 1932.  In exchange for his significant financial donations, Roosevelt appointed Kennedy President of the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a newly established body tasked with regulating the financial industry, in 1934.  When asked to explain his decision, FDR reportedly claimed that ‘it takes a thief to catch a thief’,a reference to some of Joe’s allegedly illegitimate business dealings.

Kennedy’s tenure at the SEC was followed by a brief stint as Chairman of the Maritime Commission, and then in 1938 he was appointed as United States Ambassador to Great Britain.  However, his opposition to US intervention in World War Two made him unpopular with many senior British politicians, including Churchill.  He was forced to resign in December 1940 after he declared in a newspaper interview that “democracy is finished in England.”

In 1941, Kennedy, on the advice of doctors, authorized a lobotomy on his third child and eldest daughter, Rosemary.  The twenty-three-year-old was believed to suffer from mental retardation and was prone to severe mood swings. It was hoped the procedure would alleviate her symptoms.  It did not.  Rosemary was left with a permanent mental disability and was institutionalized for the rest of her life.  She died in 2005 at the age of eighty-six.


Joe Kennedy never made any secret of the ambitions he held for his family or the extent of his influence on John’s political career, particularly after the death of his eldest son, Joe Jr, in 1944. ‘I got Jack into politics’, he told a reporter in 1957. ‘I was the one. I told him Joe was dead and that it was therefore his responsibility to run for Congress. He didn’t want to do it. He felt he didn’t have the ability and he still feels that way. But I told him he had to do it.’

Joe Kennedy suffered from a stroke on 19 December 1961, which left him partially paralysed and without speech.  Further strokes followed, and he eventually died on 18 November 1969, at the age of eighty-one.  He nevertheless outlived his sons Jack and Bobby, both of whom were assassinated in 1963 and 1968 respectively.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

Read more in JFK: History In An Hourpublished by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also Sinead’s articles on Jacqueline Kennedy and the early life of John F Kennedy, his inauguration and assassination.