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The untold story of the Biden family


At a party, Sheene III was introduced to a stunt pilot named Ken Tyler, who was good friends with both Sheene, Jr. like Biden, Mr. “He was a character,” Sheene III recalled. Tyler, an instructor in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, 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 some financial help from Sheene, Sr., who, like his son, was dodging government bills.) In newspaper articles, Biden, Sr. alternately described as the general manager of Tyler Flight Service and as its vice president; an airport directory lists him as manager of Fitzmaurice Field. At the New York Aviation Show, Biden Sr. announced that Tyler Flight Service handled more contracts for mosquito control than any other airline in the country.

In the fall of 1946, the Biden family moved into a two-story house in Garden City, near Old Westbury. Jean began to embitter the family's life on Long Island. According to Cramer, he had opposed the crop dusting business, and resented Sheene, Jr., for “drinking the company dry” while Biden, Sr., “went all over the island, beating farmers for jobs.” Jimmy said his mother was concerned about the influence Sheene, Jr., had on his father: “She thought the Sheenes would draw out all the negative impulses Dad had.” For many years, Sheene, Jr. had been cheating on his wife, Marie, a close friend of Jean's. Marie eventually left him, taking the children with her, and in the summer of 1947 Sheene, Jr., sold the Old Westbury estate. He then moved in temporarily with his cousin.

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

The harvest business was short-lived. There are different 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 honoring its contracts; Sheene III's half-sister said she had heard that a drought killed all the crops. Regardless, the Bidens were left with nothing. They sold the house in Garden City 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 deal for Biden, Mr. “The Finnegan boys used to be very hard on him when he made money, but they didn't let up when he lost it,” Biden wrote. And yet, there may be another reason why Biden, Sr., felt so uncomfortable in the Finnegans' home. In May 1944, the month the National War Labor Board went after the Sheenes, Jean's brother, Ambrose Finnegan, Jr., a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force, died in a plane crash. plane in the Bismarck Sea, on its way to a town. that the Allies had taken from Japan. When the Finnegan side of the family made the ultimate sacrifice, the Biden side was making money from a business that was later called “a destabilizing influence on one of our nation's most vital war industries.”

Biden, Sr., struggled to find work in Scranton. His brother suggested he look for work in Wilmington, a place they knew well. Biden, Sr., took his advice and got a job cleaning boilers for a heating and cooling company. To earn extra money, he worked at a weekend farmer's market selling bunting and other items. This made him sick to his stomach: a few years earlier, he had run an entire division of a war contracting company, with many employees reporting to him. But even though it was a meager living, the Bidens no longer had to depend on the Sheenes. In a story Biden later told, Jean visited the farmer's market one day and said to her husband, “I've never been prouder of you.”

Not that her husband disowned the Sheenes. Although Jean clearly loathed Sheene, Jr., in November 1953, she and Biden, Sr., named their fourth child after him. “I didn't know Uncle Bill very well, but they gave me his name because of my middle name: I'm Francis William Biden,” Frank said. “That's how close my dad is to Bill Sheene.”

Biden Sr. eventually got a job at a car dealership and the family moved to Mayfield, a suburb of Wilmington. “I always felt that my father didn't quite fit in at Mayfield,” Biden wrote in his memoir. At the dealership, Biden, Sr., was the only employee wearing a suit, silk tie, and pocket square folded in sharp four-points. Little by little, her children learned more about her past. “We each went on our own individual journey to understand our father,” Frank said.

Of the four brothers, Jimmy knew more about his father; he asked more questions than the others. One day, he said, when he was a boy, his father drove him to a small airport near Wilmington, pointed to a Piper Cub plane on the tarmac and told his son to climb into the passenger seat. To Jimmy's surprise, his father took the controls and they were soon airborne. After circling the family home in Mayfield, Biden, Sr. landed the plane. “That's between you and me,” Jimmy recalled his father saying. “Don't ever tell anyone that.”

Frank said his epiphany about his father's “patrician background” came later. For years, a picture of a horse had hung behind Biden's recliner, Mr. One day, Frank asked him, and his father replied, “That's Obe.” Biden, Sr., proceeded to tell him about the horse, a jumper named Obadiah, that he had kept in the stables of his cousin's estate in Old Westbury.

Caricature by Roz Chast

Biden, Sr. sometimes drove his family through wealthier neighborhoods, and seemed to admire the estates they passed. “He felt that we should have been in there and that what he was doing was a little less than what he wanted to do for us,” Jimmy said. “We never felt poor,” Jimmy continued. “We never felt like we were deprived.” And yet his father seemed ashamed of his comfortable middle-class existence. Later, when Biden became a senator, his father insisted that he leave the car dealership. “This is a disgrace,” said Jimmy Biden, Sr. “I can't be in the car business.” He became a real estate broker.

While 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 chauffeur and a housekeeper. (Years later, he would brag about how he had outwitted the IRS by buying his property in his mother's name.) The Sheenes sued Briscoe, alleging that he had embezzled money from their partnership. “He's the only one who was made as a bandit,” Sheene III told me. But Briscoe and his wife, Marie Gaffney, did not appear in court. The local sheriff visited his estate and found Briscoe lying, “intoxicated”. One room was locked from the inside, and when the sheriff forced it open, he found Gaffney, who had been dead for a week. According to the medical examiner, his body was “so decomposed that it was impossible to determine an anatomical cause of death.” Briscoe then filed a motion to dismiss the Sheenes' lawsuit, claiming it was “impossible to present material witnesses because of the death.” The dress didn't go anywhere.

In 1950, Sheene, Jr.'s mother, Alice, took Sheene, Sr. to court. The two had been separated for some time and Alice accused Sheene, Sr. of not providing her financial support. On the day of his deposition, Sheene, Sr., was unemployed and living with his sister. He claimed he only had two dollars to his name. Over the years, he had given his son one hundred and fifty thousand dollars (roughly two million dollars today), for numerous ventures. Asked in court if he expected to be paid back, Sheene, Sr. said: “You can't get blood out of a turnip. It doesn't have a penny.”

“How do you expect 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 do not know.”

After the deposition, the IRS pursued Sheene, Sr., Sheene, Jr. and Briscoe for back taxes. (Together, they owe the modern equivalent of about three million dollars.) Unable to trust her ex-husband or her son, Alice turned to Biden, Sr., her nephew and godson. He rented a room in a house a couple of miles away. Jean put up with the arrangement, knowing that Alice was like a second mother to Biden, Mr. “My mom would pick her up every morning and bring her to our house, where she would sit on the left side of the couch all day,” Valerie recalled. “Then, after dinner, my mother took her home.” Eventually, Alice began helping Jean with the household chores, ironing the white shirts the Biden children wore to school. Joe Biden and his brothers called her Aunt Al.

For several months, Sheene, Jr. lived at the Bidens' home in Mayfield, Valerie said. This was harder 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 shot. After he left, he regularly returned to Mayfield to go out drinking with Mr. Biden and sometimes to attend Biden family gatherings.

Toward the end of Sheene, Jr.'s life, Biden, Sr. would visit him in Maryland. “My dad would basically go down and serve 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 in the Chesapeake. Sheene III said his father told him Biden would be joining them. But Biden, whose wife, Neilia, had recently given birth to their first child, 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 back on his alcohol consumption, he would die. But the warning didn't stop him that day. Sheene III recalled that his father polished off two or three bottles of wine himself. When they ran out of wine, they switched to beer, and when they finished 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, get off,'” Sheene III recalled. It was the last time Sheene III saw his father alive. That 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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