How Did the Kennedys Make Their Money?

The Kennedy family is an iconic political dynasty that stretches back to their ancestors first immigrating to the U.S. in the early 1800s. It culminated in John F Kennedy becoming the 35th President and subsequently being assassinated. That wouldn’t be the last of the Kennedy clan in American politics – in fact, they’re still there today.

The story of the Kennedy family is intermingled with wealth and mystery, so how did the Kennedys make their money?

JFK’s wife Jackie defined fashion of her era by wearing a pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat the day her husband was shot and killed in front of her with the entire nation watching. But the story of the most tragic romance in political history extends over a century earlier.

Patrick Kennedy was born in Ireland’s County Wexford in 1823. He sailed to Boston from Ireland with his fiancé Bridget Murphy in 1849. He became a barrel maker, and they married and had five children. Their youngest son P.J. was the first Kennedy to enter American politics, serving the Massachusetts state legislature for a decade from 1884 to 1895.

This is just the start of what’s sometimes referred to as the Kennedy curse and legacy.   

How the Kennedys Got Started

Early American Kennedys were blue-collar workers. P.J. worked as a dock worker and saved money to buy a saloon. Soon, he had a chain of local bars and his own whiskey-importing business. He continued buying stakes in businesses and held notable interest in a coal company and bank upon his death.

He was so successful that his son Joseph Patrick married Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald’s daughter. In fact, Joseph P Kennedy Sr. was the first Chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchanges Commission during his successful political career.

Joseph didn’t lean on his father for money – he made his own fortune by reorganizing and refinancing early Hollywood studios into Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Studios. He also owned Chicago’s Merchandise Mart and a distribution deal that brought Scotch whisky to U.S. shores.

If that wasn’t enough, he was a U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. and the 1st Chair of the U.S. Maritime Commission. This made him an influential person, but he was also controversial, especially heading into WWII. His anti-semitism and isolationist views led to him throwing his hat in with Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Kennedy didn’t want to get involved in the war, but he was regarded as a financially savvy. He was the man who would eventually raise JFK and use his network to make him President over Richard Nixon.

How Did the Kennedys Make Their Money?

The American Kennedys were always successful in business and were heavily involved in shipping and whiskey. JFK’s dad greatly increased the family fortune during the 1929 stock market crash. America’s lowest moment was Kennedy’s shining moment.

His fortune was estimated around $4 million during the stock market crash. By 1935, he increased it to $180 million ($3.5 billion when adjusted for inflation in today’s money) through real estate investments and insider trading.

Joseph Kennedy got that initial $4 million from investing in early Hollywood. He saw struggling studios and provided financial help. Over the 1920s, he bought and consolidated the struggling studios and theaters to create a vertically integrated entertainment business.

It also didn’t hurt that FDR established the independent SEC agency in the aftermath of the market crash, placing Kennedy at the helm. He himself pulled his fortune out of stocks at the advice of friends and avoided the market crash with real investments. That was the key to generating all the wealth we associate with the Kennedy family.

How Much Are the Kennedys Worth Today?

Joseph laid the groundwork for his nine children to succeed in politics. And many of them did – Robert and Ted became prominent U.S. Senators, while John became President. Ted is the only of those three sons who wasn’t assassinated. He died in 2009 after a series of seizures.

John’s oldest brother Joseph Jr. died in WWII, so he put aside his journalism ambitions to fulfill his dad’s expectations.

Even the Kennedy men in the next generation (Joseph Sr.’s grandchildren) had short life spans. Robert’s son David overdosed, while son Michael was in a skiing accident and JFK’s son JFK Jr crashed a plane. All died before the year 2000.

It only affects the men – JFK’s daughter Caroline is alive in 2021, and her daughter Rose Schlossberg followed the family tradition of graduating from Harvard before becoming an actress. She is one of the youngest living heirs to the Kennedy fortune, which was last estimated by Forbes at $1.5 billion in 2015.

Let’s further break the numbers down.

What Was JFK Jr Worth?

It’s not easy to pinpoint how much each individual Kennedy is worth. He never inherited his father’s fortune, which was estimated around $2.2 billion when he died ($3.36 billion at its peak).

That’s because JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963. His dad died November 18, 1969 and outlived four of his own children. Because of his financial wizardry, Joseph hid the family’s fortune through a series of trusts managed by Joseph P Kennedy Enterprises.

JFK Jr benefited from this and lived a playboy lifestyle before his early death. His net worth was estimated anywhere from $30 million to $100 million around the time of his death.

These trusts are credited as the reason the Kennedy fortune is still alive, accessible, and anonymous today. 

Were the Kennedys the Richest Family in the World?

The Kennedys were never close to being the richest family in the world. Names like Walton, Koch, and Mars have more generational wealth than the Kennedys, but that doesn’t mean that the Kennedys are by any means suffering.

Joseph’s foresight and expertise in financial matters protected his family’s wealth for generations. Cursed or not, they’ll never want for anything.

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