James Vincent Forrestal, the son of an Irish immigrant, was born in Matteawan, New York on 15th February 1892. After attending local schools he joined the Matteawan Journal at the age of sixteen. He also worked as a reporter on the Mount Vernon Argus before becoming city editor on the Poughkeepsie News Press.
Aware that progress would be slow without a college education, in 1912 he went to Princeton University. Three years later Forrestal left Princeton without getting a degree and went to work for the New York World.
In 1916 Forrestal joined the banking firm Dillon, Read & Company as a bond salesman in New York. The following year he moved to Canada where he joined the Royal Flying Corps. By 1918 he qualified as a pilot but did not see active service in the First World War.
After the war Forrestal returned to Dillon, Read & Company. Progress was rapid. He was appointed head of the New York office's sales department and in 1923 was a partner in the firm. Three years later he became vice-president and in 1938, when he was forty-six years old, he became its president.
In 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Forrestal as one of his advisers. His duties included working as a liaison officer between the president, the Treasury Department and other governmental financial agencies. Roosevelt was impressed with Forrestal and in August 1940 he was appointed under secretary of the navy with special responsibility for procurement and production. In 1941 Forrestal went to London to negotiate the Lend-Lease agreement.
When William Knox died on 23rd April 1944, Forrestal became the new Secretary of the Navy. In this post he visited the Pacific three times and Europe twice and watched the D-Day landings in June, 1944. Forrestal held the post until September 1947 when he became Secretary of Defence.
After the war Forrestal became associated with the campaign against communism. This upset liberals in Washington who still believed it was possible to develop good relations with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. In September 1946 he joined with James F. Byrnes to get Henry Wallace sacked after he made a speech calling for an end to the Cold War.
In 1948 the journalist Drew Pearson revealed in his newspaper column that during the 1930s Forrestal had been guilty of tax evasion and share manipulation. Other journalists made claims that Forrestal had owned shares in large companies in Nazi Germany and had used his influence to stop the bombing of German cities during the Second World War.
Harry S. Truman was unhappy with Forrestal's performance as Secretary of Defence and on 28th March 1949 forced him to resign from office. Soon afterwards, Forrestal, suffering from depression, was admitted to Bethesda Hospital. On 22nd May 1949 James Forrestal committed suicide by throwing himself out of a 16th-floor hospital window.