During the nearly five years I spent researching and writing Last Call, the question I was asked most often was, “Do you have good stuff on Joe Kennedy?” I had always planned to write about Kennedy, but the incessant questioning almost made his inclusion in the book a matter of urgency.
So I jumped into it. After months of effort, I finally got permission to examine Kennedy’s papers in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. I found other Joe-related documents in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park; in the files of the 1927 Canadian Royal Commission on Customs; and in the archives of two British distilling companies.
I conducted full-text searches of six newspapers covering the years 1920-1940, and availed myself of a piece-by-piece, hard-copy examination of the Boston Globe conducted by a generous librarian on the paper’s staff. Through the office of the Senate historian, I also reviewed all the documents relating to Kennedy’s three different presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation.
One can’t prove a negative, of course, but in the end I believe I came as close as possible to establishing that Kennedy was not a bootlegger, that he had entered the liquor business legally at the end of Prohibition. I was also able to construct what I believe to be a convincing narrative of why and how the world came to accept the bootlegging myth, beginning with an innocuous Chicago Tribune article in 1954.
But old ideas die hard. When I speak about my book and Kennedy’s name comes up, I present my argument carefully and in some detail, and refer listeners to my documentation. But, inevitably, someone will rise to demonstrate why the practice of history can be so frustrating. “You say he wasn’t a bootlegger,” the comment usually begins, “but my cousin’s next-door neighbor’s grandfather’s roommate used to buy from him!” And how can you argue with that?
Daniel Okrent is author most recently of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. His Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in history. He was the first public editor of the New York Times, and was also managing editor of Life; editor-at-large of Time Inc.; and editor-in-chief of Harcourt Brace. He lives in New York and on Cape Cod with his wife, poet Rebecca Okrent. To read more about the author and the book, please click here.
IMAGE: “Medicinal” liquor price list from the S. S. Pierce Co. in Boston, MA, circa 1932
Congratulations to the W & M winners of this book: