Joe Kennedy…bootlegger?

By Daniel Okrent

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:

Lindsey, librarypat, and Sheri


  1. librarypat says

    I won’t argue with you about Kennedy. You have done some good research. I’ll be interested in reading this book. We lived in NE New York about 65 miles south of Montreal, Canada. The rumrunners did the New York City run through our area. It was a straight shot down along Lake Champlain, through Albany, to the City. I believe my grandfather was one of them. There was talk we overheard when we were kids, but the adults wouldn’t discuss it much. They did comment once that he ditched a car in the lake once when he was being chased.
    Good luck with the release of LAST CALL. It sounds like it will be an interesting read.

    • Kat says

      I was also told that my grandfather was a rum runner for the Kennedys. His last known address was Conneticutt. After my grandmother died, he just vanished. Nobody in the family knows or will yell what happened to him. My grandmother, his wife lived in Plymouth, Mass.

  2. Sheri Knauth says

    The last call is always FREEBIRD in NY bars. Strange to think that the responsibility, privilige and right to drink was once not a FREEdom. I look forward to reading this book.

  3. Lisa Jensen says

    Book looks very interesting, and fun to read! I can say “fun” in this forum, because we are all history geeks here. I believe your research on Joe Kennedy, but I agree that old rumors die hard. Please enter my name in the drawing for Last Call. PS– In my earlier life, I was a bartender (third generation). Just felt like sharing that. :-)

  4. Kathy Petersen says

    St. Louis, my family’s home for generations, is home to one of the most famous breweries in the world. Anheuser-Busch made it through Prohibition and is still flourishing (under a new corporation, alas). So our local Prohibition stories are rife with legend. I’d very much like to read about others.

  5. Jessica B says

    Prohibition is one of my favorite areas of research and I’m always hungry to read more on the subject. I grew up in the Detroit area and always loved hearing the stories about gangs running hoses of booze through the river between Detroit and Windsor. You have to give them credit for creativity! Looking forward to reading this book!

  6. JB says

    While living in Scotland, I became interested in the history of whiskey production and the events that have lead to the globalization of its distribution. I’ve heard various stories about Kennedy’s involvement with this and I’m looking forward to reading a researched historical account of his dealings in the liquor industry/trade.

  7. says

    I enjoyed Dan Okrent’s column about Joe Kennedy and the persistent rumors about bootlegging. In writing my own history about the family (“The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings”, Basic Books, 2003, updated in 2008), I also did some digging into these rumors but, if you’ll excuse the pun, came up dry. We should keep in mind that not all of Joe Kennedy financial records are still in existence, as his granddaughter Amanda Smith notes in her fine book based on his correspondence (“Hostage to Fortune”). Despite the bootlegging rumors that people repeat with utter certainty (along with other nonsense like a “Kennedy curse”), no information I could find indicated that Joe Kennedy had been involved in bootlegging during Prohibition. I salute Mr. Okrent for trying!

  8. Susan B. says

    I loved “Last Call”! I work in a bookstore and it was one of my favorites to “hand sell”. Lot’s of really interesting and surprising information. My husband is reading it now, and I think that all that information has enhanced our enjoyment of the new “Boardwalk Empire” series on HBO. One of my favorite periods in American history.

  9. says

    My grandfather kept Joe Kennedy’s car running so he could make trips into Canada to buy and bring back liquor during prohibition. I have gotten that information from a really reliable source.


  1. […] Okrent (former public editor of the New York Times and, incidentally, a fellow UM grad) about whether Joe Kennedy was a bootlegger, Marla Miller, about the real Betsy Ross, Donald Haase, about the reevaluation of Grimms’ […]

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