Despite inhabiting the same microscopic universe of immensely wealthy and influential Catholic American businessmen in the early 20th century, John J. Raskob and Joseph P. Kennedy apparently never crossed paths – or left much of an impression if they did. At least that is what we are to conclude from two superb biographies of the fascinating figures published in the last year.
For all their uncanny similarities – self-made financial wizards who built legendary fortunes, players at the highest levels of the Democratic Party, generous patrons of the Church, sires of scores of children – there’s scant record of any substantive Raskob-Kennedy dealings.
This absence of both anecdote and paper trail proved vexing to David Farber, author of “Everybody Ought to be Rich: The Life and Times of John J. Raskob, Capitalist.”[i]
Farber told me that the lack of any apparent Raskob-Kennedy connection is “a mystery” both he and David Nasaw, author of “The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy,” struggled to solve.
“I searched high and low for it as did David Nasaw,” said Farber, a professor at Temple University. “Family lore states that they really disliked one another …but in both the Kennedy and the Raskob papers I could find absolutely nothing. I know there is a great story there, but I could never find it.”
At a time when the Protestant establishment held firm sway over the levers of the nation’s business and political power, Raskob and Kennedy’s Catholicism made them unique among their Wall Street peers.
Reared in small-town upstate New York, Raskob came to Delaware by way of his plucky, self-confident entreaties to Pierre S. du Pont. His trustworthiness, financial acumen, eye for a good deal and stomach for risk quickly made him an indispensible man for du Pont. As architect of the DuPont Company’s acquisition of a foundering General Motors, Raskob joined a talented crew of du Ponts in building one of the most dominant and successful industrial enterprises in human history.[ii]
Raskob’s ability and ambition weren’t restricted to his work at DuPont, extraordinary as it was. He chaired the Democratic National Committee and led the 1928 presidential campaign of his friend and fellow Catholic Al Smith. He built the Empire State Building (ensuring it would surpass his rival Walter Chrysler’s eponymous edifice as the world’s tallest) and championed consumer credit and individual investment in the stock market at a time when they were foreign concepts. He also created a family foundation that has provided tens of millions of dollars to Catholic causes around the world and continues to be based in Wilmington.
Here in Delaware, Raskob was a committed civic leader, chairing multiple boards and commissions, rounding up business support for much-needed improvements in education and highways and partnering with Pierre to build the Hotel du Pont and the Playhouse Theatre. His Claymont estate, one of the most expensive homes to be built in the country at that time, is, of course, the home of Archmere Academy.
Raskob and Kennedy were famously shrewd investors and pioneers in what has become commonly known as leveraged buyouts, a practice of using often-complex debt instruments to finance acquisitions. But Kennedy was a much more ruthless and cynical operator, an aggressive speculator who didn’t much care if someone on the other side of the deal lost their shirt.
In contrast, as Farber’s book recounts, throughout his career Raskob maintained an altruistic, quintessentially American attitude about success, constantly thinking about how financial prosperity could be shared with more families of his modest, small town background.[iii]
There were other differences. Unlike Raskob – who, with a few notable exceptions, was largely happy to play a behind the scenes role in his career – Kennedy was a shameless self-promoter, leveraging a matchless understanding of the media, and generous amounts of money and chutzpa, for great personal advantage.
Kennedy made his fortune through market speculation, but also smart bets in the emerging movie business and a monopoly position on imported scotch whiskey (on this point, Nasaw sets the record straight: Politically-wired, payoff-making distributor – yes; bootlegger – no). His intrepid instincts and first-hand knowledge of market manipulation actually earned him his appointment by President Franklin Roosevelt as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Meanwhile, Raskob’s involvement with the anti-FDR American Liberty League and his association with Smith, who became a bitter FDR antagonist, made him a pariah in Democratic politics for the rest of his career. Ironically, Kennedy ended up something of a pariah himself after his controversial, loose-cannon stint as Ambassador to England.
Raskob must be one of the most influential, but least heralded men of his generation. Farber’s biography brings full feature to his rich and productive life, and Nasaw’s for Kennedy. For all their striking similarities, it is hard to fathom the lives of the two titans did not intersect.
[ii] Farber’s depiction of Pierre du Pont leaves one with the impression that he was one of the most virtuous and gifted business leaders in American history.
[iii] His stock market cheerleading and support for the nascent idea of mutual funds gained national attention with an article in Ladies Home Journal — entitled “Everybody Ought to be Rich” – that had the unfortunate timing to be published shortly before the Dow crash in October 1929.