It is a verity among the historically illiterate that old Joe Kennedy (1878-1969) earned his wealth through bootlegging during Prohibition. Held deeper than a religious conviction at a revival camp meeting, this belief hasn’t a scintilla of support for it.
Daniel Okrent, a former editor for The York Times, Time, and Life, presented the case against the bootlegging theory in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. After examining the evidence, he cast into the dustbin of history this closely held fable, although we are certain it will continue to thrive with next summer’s camp meeting.
In Okrent’s telling, the myth began in the 1950s when Walter Trohan, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, in an article about James Roosevelt’s impending divorce, mentioned that Joseph Kennedy, a good acquaintance James’, had imported liquor into the United States during prohibition, failing to note that it was late in the era under a perfectly legal medical license.
The story grew feet in 1960 when the St Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned in an election article that Kennedy’s detractors referred to him as a bootlegger. The reference lay fallow until the mid 1960s when it grew into a full scale urban legend with implied consort with the mob.
Okrent notes that many of the evidences for the bootlegging allegation grew from dubious sources, such as Al Capone’s 93 year old piano tuner and the St Louis Post-Dispatch. He proceeds to demonstrate that Kennedy was subject to numerous detailed investigations when he was appointed head of Security Exchange Commission, Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and to Eisenhower’s President’s Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities.
Each of these appointments offered abundant opportunities for political enemies to raise the flag of bootlegging, yet none did. This reticence is remarkable for a man of Kennedy’s standing and ability to attract enemies.
The Kennedy patriarch did enter the liquor importing business through his Somerset Importers as a result of a business deal he made in England while visiting, along with the President Roosevelt’s son James, on the eve of the repeal of Prohibition. Shortly thereafter it was perfectly legal for anyone to import liquor, and thus began Kennedy's importing business.
If Kennedy was involved in bootlegging, the evidence has yet to materialize. In the mean time, the careful historian will avoid it like an old wives' tale.
ReferenceThe Biggest Kennedy Myth, Daniel Okrent, The Daily Beast, April 26, 2010
Copyright 2013 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.