'It’s all about the money' -- The Dysfunctional Biden Family Legacy

Adam Entous in the The New Yorker of August 15, 2022 wrote with dispassionate detail the travails of four generations of Bidens -- President Biden’s grandfather and father, Joe himself, his brother Jim, and his son Hunter. Most of the article provides information on the President’s father, Joe Sr., and his grandfather, Joseph Harry.

The family’s relentless pursuit of money to bring them superior social status would make a great F. Scott Fitzgerald novel or perhaps a play by Arthur Miller like his Death of a Salesman. The stresses and strains of that quest betray the desperation of Captain Ahab and his need to kill the White Whale at all costs.

But the story is, at heart, an American Irish one. It is the social climbing ambition of “shanty” Irish immigrants to become “lace curtain” Irish living in style like the Protestant Ascendency in Ireland or their WASP cousins in the United States.

It is the story of Joseph P. Kennedy. It has its counterpart in the ambition of some White trailer trash southerners to become gentry and live in a “Big” house. Think of Slick Willy Clinton.

At one point Joe Sr. had a lot of money. He also went fox-hunting in Maryland with gentry “swells.” Joe Jr. wrote about opening a closet and finding his father’s polo mallet, riding boots and breeches, and red hunting jackets made by the Pink company in London.

I can relate to this because my Great Uncle, Wilbur Ross Hubbard, was a Master of Foxhounds in Chestertown, Maryland. I remember as a boy visiting the family’s house Widehall, seeing Uncle Wib in his red coat (made by Pink and so called a “Pink” coat) dressed in riding boots and jodhpurs leaving early in the morning for a hunt.  Our Hubbard line had started with one Humphrey Hubbard who had arrived in Maryland in 1670.  Uncle Wib was Maryland gentry through and through.

But then Joe Sr.’s money vanished and he found work as a car salesman but one who went to work attired in a sport coat with ascot. He would also show up at work wearing “a suit, a silk tie, and a pocket square -- folded to four crisp points.” 

Joe and Jimmy’s grandfather -- Joseph Henry -- had worked for AMOCO. It seems Joseph Henry’s first job for the company was driving a wagon dispensing kerosene from a steel tank. He made a success of himself and in 1930 bought a house. But then in 1934 he failed to pay his property taxes and the house was sold at public auction.  That year he was demoted by AMOCO and sent to its branch in Scranton.

Joe Sr. would later tell his son that “…a job is a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about your place in your community.”

Joe Sr. then hitched his wagon to the fortunes of a maternal uncle-in-law, Bill Sheene, Sr. who had married the sister of Joe Sr.’s Mother. Joe Sr.’s “country squire” tastes, and access to horses, airplanes, and yachts, were financed by his uncle.  He bought Joe Sr. a Buick roadster.

After World War I, Bill Sheene, Sr. had started a company making waterproof grave vaults. His partner was a bootlegger.  In 1941 the Federal Trade Commission would accuse the company of deceiving its customers in that the vaults were neither “waterproof” nor “air-tight.”

When World War II started, Joe Sr. became the top employee for his uncle in a new company putting asphalt shields on the sides of Navy cargo ships to better protect them. Joe Sr. was put in charge of the Boston division.  The company’s made a lot of money off Navy contracts.  The owners took a profit of 23% during wartime.  The grave vault subsidiary booked a 48% profit margin. Joe Sr. bought a house in Newton, Massachusetts and “splurged” on fur coats and fine china. (The Kennedy’s lived in neighboring Brookline)

According to Joe Jr., after the war, Joe Sr. “lost everything he had built up.”

Joe Sr. then moved to Old Westbury, Long Island (Jay Gatsby country), near a cousin -- Bill Sheene Jr., who did have a lot of money and a 20-room house with stables, a squash court, and a tennis court.  Joe Sr. was the “life of the party” when his cousin entertained. He had the blarney.

Joe Sr. started a crop-dusting company but it failed. He had to move his family in with his in-laws back in Scranton, who disparaged his social-climbing pretensions. He now found cash by cleaning boilers for a heating-and-cooling company and sold pennants and knickknacks at a weekend farmer’s market. Eventually he got a job as a car salesman and moved his family to Delaware.

Joe Sr. would drive his family through the wealthy neighborhoods. Joe Jr.’s brother, Jimmy, recently revealed as sharing proceeds from foreign entities with other family members, said that Joe Sr. had “felt we should have been in there, and that what he was doing was something less than he wanted to do for us.”

A February 2022 article in the Wall Street Journal had the headline: “In his own words, Joe Biden was ‘seduced by real estate.”  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Hunter Biden later recalled that his father, Joe Jr., would also drive him and his brother Beau through wealthy neighborhoods after church. ”They would sneak into empty estates that were either abandoned or on the market. If the front door was locked, the boy’s father would hoist them through a second-floor window, and they would run downstairs and let him in. If a real-estate agent arrived when they were there, Biden, who at this point was a senator, would charm the agent into giving them a tour.”

In 1975 Joe Jr. bought a large house originally built by a member of the DuPont family -- real American social royalty -- for $185,000 when his annual salary as a U.S. senator was $44,000 in real terms. In 1996 he sold the houses to the vice chairman of the credit-card company MBNA for $1.2 million.

In 1996 Joe Jr. bought a four-acre lakeside lot for $350,000 and there build a large home.

In 2017, after retiring as vice-president, Joe Jr. bought a six-bedroom house on Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, built at a cost of $2.7 million. It was last sold in 2007 for $3.258 million.

Entous also wrote quite a bit about alcoholism in the Biden family, a scourge recognized by Joe Jr. who, accordingly, does not drink alcohol.

Adam Entous’ history of Joe Biden Jr.’s father and grandfather, coupled with our common familiarity with the power of family legacies to shape our identities for better or for worse give rise to a question: how much trauma have Joe Biden, Jr., his brother Jimmy, and his son Hunter suffered from generational status deprivation and status envy, of not being accepted as successful “lace-curtain Irish”?

This family history also gives rise to a second question: to what extent is their alleged “grifting” a possible response to family and personal trauma? 

Image: The New Yorker

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