The untold story of the Biden family

At a party, Sheene III was introduced to a stunt driver named Ken Tyler, who was good friends with both Sheene, Jr., and Biden, Sr. “He was a character,” Sheene III recalls . Tyler, a Royal Canadian Air Force instructor during the Second World War, had been court-martialed for reckless flying. He ran a crop dusting service that operated out of Fitzmaurice Field, an airstrip on Long Island, and Sheene, Jr., and Biden, Sr., went into business with him. (According to Cramer, they received financial assistance from Sheene, Sr., who, like his son, dodged government bills.) In newspaper articles, Biden, Sr., is alternately described as the general manager of Tyler Flight Service and as its vice-president; an airport directory lists him as the manager of Fitzmaurice Field. At the New York Air Show, Biden, Sr., announced that Tyler Flight Service handles more mosquito control contracts than any other airline in the country.

In the fall of 1946, the Biden family moved to a two-story house in Garden City near Old Westbury. Jean began to sour on family life on Long Island. According to Cramer, she had opposed the crop-dusting business and she resented Sheene, Jr., for “drinking the business dry” while Biden, Sr., “walked around all over the place.” ‘island, drumming up farmers for jobs’. Jimmy said his mother worried about the influence Sheene, Jr. had on his father: “She thought the Sheenes would pull all the negative impulses out of Dad.” For many years, Sheene, Jr., had cheated on his wife, Marie, a close friend of Jean. Marie eventually left him, taking the children with her, and in the summer of 1947 Sheene, Jr., sold the Old Westbury estate. Then he temporarily moved in with his cousin.

One evening, as a drunken prank, Sheene, Jr., set off a fire alarm near the Bidens’ home, causing a commotion. press day published an article about the incident, which described Sheene, Jr., as “the owner of a plane or two, a yacht and various other toys”, and gave the Bidens’ address as his residence. Later, Sheene, Jr., told his son that Biden, Sr. had been part of the prank. “When they were together, they drank all the time,” Sheene III said. “Jean was probably afraid that her husband would end up in prison.” (According to Cramer, Jean went to live with his family in Scranton during this time.)

The dusting business was short-lived. There are varying accounts of what led to his demise: Sheene III said his father bought an airport in Buffalo, where planes were grounded in a snowstorm, preventing the company from fulfilling its contracts; Sheene III’s half-sister said she had heard that a drought had killed all the crops. Either way, the Bidens were left with nothing. They sold the Garden City house and had no choice but to move in with Jean’s family. “By the time I was ready to start school,” Biden wrote in his memoir, “we were back in Scranton and broke.”

It was a humiliating arrangement for Biden, Sr. “The Finnegan boys were pretty tough on him when he made the money, but they didn’t let go when he lost it,” Biden wrote. And yet, there may have been another reason why Biden, Sr., was so uncomfortable in the Finnegans’ home. In May 1944, the month the National War Labor Board attacked the Sheenes, Jean’s brother, Ambrose Finnegan, Jr., a second lieutenant in the Air Force, died in a plane crash. in the Bismarck Sea, en route to a village. that the Allies had taken from Japan. While the Finnegan side of the family was making the ultimate sacrifice, the Biden side was making money from a business that was later called ‘a destabilizing influence in one of our nation’s most vital war industries’ .

Biden, Sr., struggled to find work in Scranton. Her brother suggested she look for a job in Wilmington, a place they knew well. Biden, Sr., took his advice and got work cleaning boilers for a heating and cooling company. To earn extra money, he worked at a weekend farmers’ market selling pennants and other trinkets. It was hard for him to bear – a few years earlier he was running an entire division of a war business, with many employees answering to him. But, while it was a meager life, the Bidens no longer had to depend on the Sheenes. In a story Biden later recounted, one day Jean visited the farmers’ market and said to her husband, “I’ve never been so proud of you.”

Not that her husband disavowed the Sheenes. Although Jean clearly hated Sheene, Jr., in November 1953, she and Biden, Sr., named their fourth child partly after him. “I didn’t know Uncle Bill very well, but they gave me his name for my middle name – I’m Francis William Biden,” Frank said. “That’s how close my dad was to Bill Sheene.”

Biden, Sr., eventually got a job at an auto dealership, and the family moved to Mayfield, a suburb of Wilmington. “I always felt like my dad didn’t quite fit Mayfield,” Biden wrote in his memoir. At the dealership, Biden, Sr., was the only employee wearing a suit, silk tie and pocket square folded into sharp four points. Slowly, her children learned more about her past. “We each had our individual journey to understanding our father,” Frank said.

Of the four siblings, Jimmy knew the most about his father; he asked more questions than the others. One day, he says, as a child, his father drove him to a small airport near Wilmington, pointed to a Piper Cub plane on the tarmac, and told his son to get in the passenger seat. To Jimmy’s surprise, his father took charge, and soon they were off. After circling the family’s home in Mayfield, Biden, Sr., landed the plane. “It’s between you and me,” Jimmy recalled, saying his father. “Never talk about that to anyone.”

Frank said his revelation about his father’s “patrician background” came later. For years, a picture of a horse hung behind Biden, Sr.’s recliner. One day Frank asked about it and his father replied, “It’s Obe.” Biden, Sr., told him about the horse — a rider named Obadiah — he had kept in the stables at his cousin’s estate in Old Westbury.

Cartoon by Roz Chast

Sometimes Biden, Sr., would drive his family to more affluent neighborhoods, and he seemed to admire the estates they passed. “He felt that we should have been in there and what he was doing was something less than what he wanted to do for us,” Jimmy said. “We never felt poor,” Jimmy continued. “We never felt deprived.” And yet their father seemed ashamed of their comfortable bourgeois existence. Later, when Biden became a senator, his father insisted on leaving the car dealership. “It’s embarrassing,” Jimmy Biden, Sr. recalled, saying. “I can’t be in the auto business.” He became a real estate broker.

As Biden, Sr. tried to adjust to a middle-class lifestyle, the Sheenes spent the late 1940s and early 1950s trying to restore their fortunes. After the war, Briscoe, on the other hand, still had his estate, a driver and a housekeeper. (Years later, he would brag about outwitting the IRS by buying his property in his mother’s name.) The Sheenes sued Briscoe, alleging he had embezzled money from their partnership. “He’s the only one who posed as a bandit,” Sheene III told me. But Briscoe and his wife, Marie Gaffney, did not appear in court. The local sheriff visited their estate and found Briscoe lying “intoxicated.” A bedroom was locked from the inside, and when the sheriff forced his way in, he found Gaffney, who had been dead for about a week. According to the medical examiner, his body was “so decomposed that it was impossible to determine an anatomical cause of death”. Subsequently, Briscoe filed a motion to dismiss the Sheenes’ lawsuit, saying it was “impossible to produce material witnesses due to the death”. The suit didn’t go anywhere.

In 1950, Sheene, Jr.’s mother, Alice, sued Sheene, Sr.. The two had been estranged for a long time, and Alice accused Sheene, Sr. of failing to provide her with financial support. On the day of his deposition, Sheene, Sr., was unemployed and living with his sister. He claimed to have only two dollars to his name. Over the years, he had given his son one hundred and fifty thousand dollars (about two million dollars today), for many businesses. When asked in court if he expected to be reimbursed, Sheene, Sr. said, “You can’t get blood out of a turnip. He doesn’t have a penny.

“How do you want your wife to live? asked Alice’s lawyer. There was a long silence. “Did you hear the question? »

“I’m trying to think of an answer,” said Sheene, Sr. “I don’t know.”

After the deposition, the IRS sued Sheene, Sr., Sheene, Jr., and Briscoe for back taxes. (Together they owed the modern equivalent of some three million dollars.) Unable to rely on her ex-husband or her son, Alice grew closer to Biden, Sr., her nephew and godson. She rented a room in a house a few miles away. Jean agreed to the arrangement, knowing Alice was like a second mother to Biden, Sr. “My mom would pick her up every morning and take her to our house, where she sat on the left side of the couch all day. . “recalls Valerie. “Then, after dinner, my mother took her home.” Eventually, Alice started helping Jean with household chores, ironing the white shirts the Biden kids wore to school. Joe Biden and his siblings called her Aunt Al.

For several months, Sheene, Jr., lived in the Bidens’ Mayfield home, Valerie said. It was more difficult for Jean to accept. (“I wasn’t crazy about him either,” said Valerie, of Sheene, Jr.) His drinking had gotten worse—as Sheene III said, “He couldn’t get up in the morning and go to work without a hit. “After moving, he regularly returned to Mayfield to go out drinking with Biden, Sr., and, on occasion, to attend Biden family gatherings.

Towards the end of Sheene, Jr.’s life, Biden, Sr., would visit him in Maryland. “My dad was basically coming down and serving him, to let him know he’s not alone in the world,” Frank said. In the spring of 1969, Biden, Sr., Sheene, Jr., and Sheene III spent the day fishing on the Chesapeake. Sheene III said his father told him Biden would join them. But Biden — whose wife, Neilia, had recently given birth to their first son — didn’t show up, Sheene III said, so the men left without him.

Sheene, Jr.’s doctor had told him that if he didn’t cut down on his drinking, he would die. But the warning didn’t stop him that day. Sheene III remembered his father polishing two or three bottles of wine himself. When they ran out of wine, they switched to beer, and when they were done fishing, Sheene, Jr., took them to a bar in Annapolis, where the men drank whiskey late into the night. “Joe kept telling him, ‘Slow down, Bill, slow down,'” Sheene III recalled. It was the last time Sheene III saw his father alive. In April, at the age of fifty-four, Sheene, Jr., died of cirrhosis of the liver. He was buried in Loudon Park Cemetery, a few yards from Joseph Harry and Mary Biden.

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