The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Although in many ways a brilliant psychoanalytical portrait, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s first book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), relied so heavily on extensive interviews with the former president that it was colored by Johnson’s subjective memory. Eight years in the making, Goodwin’s new book is meticulously researched, combining oral history with a thorough combing of primary and secondary sources.

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys is very well organized—not only in its overall conception but also in the selection of which episodes to emphasize and which details to accentuate. Add to these strengths Goodwin’s graceful style and her acute historical insights, and the result is an engrossing, definitive book.

Goodwin is one of a growing number of social historians who have recognized the legitimacy of interviews as primary source materials. Her book touches on such important subjects as the immigrant experience, the role of the Church and of political machines as socializing agencies, the growth of American business, and the changing nature of the family.

“American Dream” would have been a fitting subtitle to Goodwin’s second book, as well as her first. Instead the phrase “An American Saga” appears on the dust jacket, implying an edifying narrative of almost legendary proportions—containing elements of glory and degradation, triumph and tragedy. In Goodwin’s words, this family saga “was both symbol and substance of one of the most important themes of the second century of American life: the progress of the great wave of nineteenth-century immigration, the struggle of newcomers to force open the doors of American life so zealously guarded by those who had first settled the land.”

The American Dream meant different things to the male and female members of these two Irish clans. Goodwin describes the environmental and cultural influences which allowed male talents a wide orbit, while women were expected to nurture the bonds of family—no small task in the face of the disintegrating forces of modern society. Consequently, while this saga describes a family’s rise from obscure poverty to the center of the world stage, it also documents the tension and trauma caused by the male-oriented cult of competition and success.

The book’s central character is, in fact, Rose Kennedy. Her complex relationships with her father, her husband, and her children are the threads that tie the narrative together. Often portrayed by the media as virtually a saint, Rose Kennedy emerges here as multifaceted—feisty and free spirited, devout and devoted to her offspring, yet pragmatic and not totally selfless.

Beginning with the baptism of John Francis Fitzgerald, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys spans almost a hundred years, culminating with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president. Book 1 documents the rise of the Fitzgeralds from the poverty of Boston’s North End to the political triumphs and travails of the president’s maternal grandfather. Book 2 concentrates on the marriage of Joseph P. (Joe) and Rose Kennedy, the amassing of the family fortune, and the mixed results of Joe Kennedy’s forays into government service. Book 3, entitled “The Golden Trio,” focuses on three of the four eldest Kennedy offspring—Joseph, Jr., John, and Kathleen. Daughter Rosemary was retarded, and Goodwin’s account of how she was lobotomized and institutionalized is one of the most harrowing parts of the book.

With such a large cast, Goodwin does well to make the central family members come alive by concentrating on the character-molding aspects of their lives. Thomas “Cocky Tom” Fitzgerald was a fish peddler, one of that small minority of Irish immigrants who made slow progress out of the tenement slums. With the help of his brother, he opened a grocery and groggery; in time he became a property-owner and slum landlord. His wife Rosanna gave birth to twelve children and was again pregnant at the age of forty-eight when she apparently died of shock after hearing a false report that her family was in a train accident. No photographs of her survive. Writes Goodwin: “Hers is the familiar story of countless immigrant women who defined their worldly possibilities entirely through their husbands and their children. She was indispensable in life, but only vaguely remembered in death.” On her tiny cemetery marker is the simple epitaph “Mother.”

Tom and Rosanna Fitzgerald’s son John overcame physical and intellectual inadequacies with energy and charm. A newsboy, he obtained the best corner in Beacon Hill, home of Brahmins such as Henry Cabot Lodge, whose palatial home he examined after helping the cook with her packages. The beautiful wooden toys he beheld in the Lodge children’s room symbolized a world he longed to enter. After his father’s death, Fitzgerald went to work for neighborhood boss Matthew Keany, “the most respected man in the district,” who dispensed aid and advice like a spider spinning a web. Heeler, checker, speaker, and ever the loyal lieutenant, Fitzgerald had no compunction at betraying a friend’s uncle who dared vote against the machine candidate. Taking over Keany’s turf when the boss died, Fitzgerald was a congressman by age thirty-one and mayor by age forty-two.

Josephine Fitzgerald, John’s wife, was a withdrawn woman molded by Catholic dogma, Victorian ideals, and childhood tragedies which cast a dark shadow over her personality. Bitterly resentful over the demands of politics on her husband’s time, she was also jealous of his utter devotion to their headstrong daughter Rose. When his administration was embarrassed by revelations of corruption, Fitzgerald bowed to pressure from the bishop and sent Rose to the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Rose’s heart had been set on going to Wellesley College; it was the most bitter disappointment of her life. Later Rose’s father would oppose her courtship with Joseph P. Kennedy—even arranging a Florida vacation to coincide with Harvard University’s Junior Dance—because he regarded the suitor as “a dark threat to his exclusive attachment to her.”

The flagstone contract scandal, which cost Fitzgerald reelection, involved the noncompetitive awarding of contracts in violation of city regulations and, in some cases, at twice the necessary cost. At the trial of Superintendent of Supplies Michael J. Mitchell, Fitzgerald provided damaging testimony that contributed to his old friend’s incarceration. As Goodwin concludes, Fitzgerald “was one of those rare men who could demand sacrifice of others without making them feel he was using them for his own ends.” Mitchell died...

(The entire section is 2753 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Boston Magazine. LXXIX, February, 1987, p. 74.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, December 1, 1986, p. 1775.

Library Journal. CXXII, February 15, 1987, p. 142.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 1, 1987, p. 4.

The New Republic. CXCVI, March 16, 1987, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, February 15, 1987, p. 11.

Newsweek. CIX, February 9, 1987, p. 72.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, December 12, 1986, p. 46.

Time. CXXIX, February 16, 1987, p. 69.

The Wall Street Journal. March 24, 1987, p. 24.