I undertook it because I saw very quickly that I could use the life of Joseph Kennedy to tell a larger story about the twentieth century. Here's a man who works in shipbuilding during World War I and then is a big stock trader during the '20s boom and goes to the Hollywood as a studio when the silents transitioned to talkies, and then is a Roosevelt confidant, head of the Maritime Commission, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and ambassador to Great Britain.
Q: This is all especially remarkable considering that he was an Irish Catholic. Amazingly, that wasn't even a plus in Boston itself during his early years. How did that play out?
He was an Irish Catholic from East Boston who learned when he got out of Harvard that he was an outsider. He'd have to fight and claw his way inside, and he could trust no one along the way except family members and maybe a couple other Irish Catholics.
Fifty to 60 to 70 years ago, America was more divided than today. It was divided into ethic and religious tribes. Every group had its place in this pecking order. He lived in that world, and he had to find his way in it.
Q: And transcend it?
Yeah! The reason why he's such a great character to write about, unlike other outsiders who fight to get inside, is that once he gets inside, he refuses to play by the rules.