What You Don’t Know about Rose and Rosemary Kennedy

rosemaryKathleen, Rose and Rosemary Kennedy in London before being presented at court.
May 1938. CreditKeystone/Getty Images

I have become a Kennedy historian in recent years. I’ve read dozens of books about the family and was excited beyond measure when my local library had Rosemary-The Hidden Kennedy Daughter on the shelf. It was among People Magazine’s recommended books recently, but because it was new I couldn’t request it. Yet, there it was. Begging me to check it out, along with Remembering Amy, written by Amy Winehouse’s mother. Although I enjoyed both books, Rosemary was my favorite.  I’ve always wondered about her story, but only knew pieces of it.

Rose Kennedy’s first daughter, Rosemary, was born in 1918. Her birth was preceded by Joe Kennedy, Sr., who died in WW2 during a volunteer high risk mission. John F. Kennedy was Rose’s second child. He went on to become a war hero, Pulitzer Prize winning author, and the 35th President of the United States. But before either boy exited toddler-hood, along came Rosemary. Like her brothers, Rosemary was born at home but this time, her birth was delayed purposefully. The obstetrics nurse caring for Rose used her hand, to keep Rosemary’s head inside Rose’s birth canal. The theory being she delayed Rosemary’s birth so the doctor could charge his customary fee, $2353 in today’s dollars. Unfortunately, the doctor didn’t arrive for 2 hours, he was detained treating Spanish Flu patients. My own great-grandfather (August) died from that flu when he was 27 years old. Unlike other flues, this one favored killing those in the prime of their life. It is believed that about 1/3 of the world contracted the flu from 1918-1919 and that up to 50 million people died of the disease; more people than died during WW1.

No one knew then and for many decades later, that the nurse’s actions likely caused a lack of oxygen and Rosemary’s subsequent “dullness”. She was fine at first, but over the next few months and years, Rose couldn’t help but notice how her sons achieved developmental milestones much earlier. When Rosemary’s sister was born 2 years later, Kathleen “Kick”, it became painfully obvious that something was wrong with Rosemary. Rose and her husband Joe employed the best tutors and physical therapists in an effort to help her catch up. Rosemary was a pleasant and obedient child during those early years and was quite close to her siblings. But, her limitations were an embarrassment to her parents, particularly given their family goal of achieving high political office. It was a different time. One where learning disabilities and low IQ were seen as the fault of the parents. People with these challenges were seen as flawed in some way, responsible at least in part for their fate. As described by Author Kate Clifford Larson:

“The intellectually and physically disabled were another category of defectives. Eugenics scientists and their followers believed that these individuals were also the products of inherited bad genes and should be treated much the same way as the mentally ill, criminals, and the chronically poor. Forced sterilization, they argued, was society’s cure. Some believed that spending money on insane asylums, poorhouses and other charitable and social institutions and programs serving the mentally ill and disabled only encouraged propagation of bad seeds. The parents of defectives carried these bad genes-an idea that placed the blame and shame squarely on families. Some of the most prominent industrialists, scientists, and political leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including President Teddy Roosevelt, supported these views.”

That’s right. The President of the United States thought if you didn’t spend money on the treatment and housing of the mentally ill and disabled, they’d die off and we’d suddenly be free of more people like them. It’s sort of like Naked and Afraid, without the camera crew and extraction point.

It’s amazing how evolved our view has become since Rosemary’s time. Well, I am assuming you aren’t a Trump supporter when I say that, LOL. It was because of this view and Rosemary’s increasing frustration and outbursts that Joe Kennedy Sr. searched in earnest for a cure. It was his desperate desire to “fix” the problem that led Joe to believing doctors when they suggested supplements and hormones could reverse Rosemary’s “condition”.  When this unsurprisingly did not work, Joe turned to a new treatment that eventually earned a 1949 Noble Prize in Medicine. That treatment?

A lobotomy.

Yeah, cutting people’s brains led to a Noble Prize. Later, it was determined that the research shared by Antonio Caetano Abreau Freire Egas Moniz (all one guy’s name) was questionable. Since Rosemary was treated, a variety of medications have been introduced, stabilizing many of the mentally ill. Society’s views of mental disabilities such as “dullness” has also changed, but lobotomies still exist. The procedure is now used for difficult epilepsy cases on a controlled basis. There’s a great article about the history of lobotomy and its present day use here:

http://www.wired.com/2011/03/lobotomy-history/

Although Rose claims she had no idea for years that Rosemary had this procedure, it is doubtful she didn’t at least know it was a possibility. Rose frequently sent her children off to boarding school and Joe Sr. merely stated that Rose was at a new location in Wisconsin. However, Rose knew Joe was researching the procedure and asked her daughter, Kick, to investigate it. Kick reported it was not for Rosemary but when Rose was out of the country, Joe Sr. had it done anyway. It was an instant disaster. Rosemary could no longer talk or care for herself. Whereas before Rosemary was able to read and write, albeit at an elementary level, she was now a shell of a person. Thanks to many years of care and therapy in Wisconsin, Rose achieved the ability to communicate rudimentarily and walk with assistance. However, this was due to the love and care of the nuns who treated Rosemary like family. Rose offered no such support. In fact, she didn’t visit Rosemary for over 20 years! Joe visited her at first, but abruptly stopped his visits in 1948, 13 years before his devastating stroke. Outside the family, it was said Rosemary took a teaching position in the mid-west and wanted her privacy. Even her siblings didn’t know the truth for many years.

Which brings me to a fact most people don’t know about Rose. She’s a bitch. Most people think she selflessly cared for her 9 children while her husband cavorted through the country with beautiful women. In truth, Rose had servants that did most of the household duties and child care. Rose was there emotionally supporting the kids, which in her mind meant weighing them constantly, putting them at diet tables, and pushing them academically and athletically. Poor Rosemary was under so much pressure to preform like a Kennedy, she likely felt immense failure. Her parents accompanied her to many social events with the expectation no one must know she’s not like her sisters. It is theorized that these expectations and the continual educational goals, led to Rosemary’s outburst in her early 20’s and her eventual lobotomy.

Speaking of emotional support, it was hard for Rose to give it because she’d travel to Europe for months at a time. Her son, JFK, even wrote her once saying what a fine mother she was leaving for such a long time (sarcasm intended). Simply put, Rose was far from mother of the year. And while Joe Sr. did have quite a few girlfriends, including Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo and Marion Davies, Rose didn’t make it easy. Rose believed in sexual relations only for the purpose of procreating. So when her last son, Teddy, was born she said “no more sex” and Joe said to himself “I’ll call Gloria”. The point being that although Joe Sr. was a womanizer, Rose may not have minded his diversions.

The Kennedys sent their children to boarding skill by middle school age, but in Teddy’s situation it was around third grade. The Kennedy’s enjoyed spending November-May in their Palm Beach, FL home. This didn’t coincide well with Teddy’s school schedule, so off he went. I can’t imagine sending Josh to boarding school, let alone an 8 year old kid! Like her siblings, Rosemary spent much of her childhood away from the family. Rose had a bad habit of not telling the nuns how bad Rosemary really was. At one point she convinced 2 owners of a summer camp to tell Rosemary she was a Jr. Camp Counselor but offered to pay her tuition, considering her disabilities. Rose purposely downplayed Rosemary’s issues and the level of oversight she required. Rose did this a lot and as a result, Rosemary had to move schools and camps frequently, each transition being extremely difficult. The camp owners (sisters) telegrammed Rose within a couple weeks of Rosemary’s arrival, explaining how difficult things had been.  They asked that Rose pick-up Rosemary immediately. In true Rose fashion, she refused, and later questioned the bill she received, which was the same as agreed upon earlier. Rose did offer to have Rosemary’s godparents pick her-up, but only in New York, a full day’s trip away. Both owners always stayed at the camp when it was in session, but they were left with no choice other than accompanying Rosemary to NY.

When Rose finally went to Wisconsin, she was upset and surprised that Rosemary didn’t welcome her lovingly. This is the same woman who abandoned her daughter for decades and she was surprised she didn’t get a bear hug? Rose spent no time bitching out the nuns for Rosemary not wearing a size 4. Remember, she weighed her kids regularly, and thought nothing of placing them on diets. Poor Teddy was on a diet probably his entire childhood! I guess he found where the Oreo’s were hidden or there was a kind servant. I bet Rose gave them terrible raises each year.

If you find this story interesting, you will love Rosemary-the Hidden Kennedy Daughter. It was a great history lesson, teaching me more about society’s view on the mentally challenged than anything I’ve read before. I also recommend you read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s the Fitzgerald’s and the Kennedy’s, ideally before Rosemary.  It gives you a great backdrop for understanding Rosemary and provides an in-depth look at Joe Sr, Joe Jr, JFK and Kick’s life.

Speaking of Kick, Rose refused to acknowledge her  after she had the nerve to marry a Protestant! Reading how horrified Rose was about Kick’s choice, despite his nobility and kind nature, really cemented my option of Rose. Sadly, Kick’s husband died as a war hero soon after their marriage. Rose never met him and no one in the family attended his funeral. Kick later became engaged to a divorced Protestant man, which Rose is probably turning in her grave over still to this day. Joe Sr. was eventually convinced to meet Kick and her boyfriend in Paris. But a few days before, the pair decided to vacation in Cannes and on their way, their plane crashed in a severe storm. Kathleen died at 28 years old. Only her brother, Joe Jr., attended her funeral in England because, gasp, Kathleen had the nerve to love someone who wasn’t Catholic. Can you imagine if she brought home a black or Jewish man? Rose would have had a heart attack right then and there. As it was, she didn’t die until 1995 at the age of 105. Proof that only the good die young… okay, maybe I am a bit dramatic, but you have to admit. She wasn’t the best mother.

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