Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter
By Kate Clifford Larson
Read June 2019
Kate Clifford Larson is a historian and writer who offers her readers a unique view of Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy. Many, including this reader, have some awareness that Rosemary was mentally disabled/challenged and suffered an unsuccessful treatment for her condition—which this reader understood to be a lobotomy. That the public eventually learned this means that Rosemary was not the “forgotten” daughter of the Kennedys but the term “hidden” certainly applies well. Larson’s careful choice of words even for the title emphasizes her careful handling of this topic.
Larson’s book provides useful background on Rosemary’s parents, especially the upbringing of Rose Fitzgerald who eventually becomes the wife of Joseph Kennedy. Rose was raised in an educated family and Rose fully expected to attend Wellesley College but was denied this opportunity by her father, then mayor of Boston, when the local archbishop strongly discouraged it, implying negative political ramifications if she completed her plans. Rose instead attended the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart where her well embedded Catholic faith was further crystallized. She married Joseph Kennedy, son of a business and politician, who was a rival of her father’s, after a seven year courtship.
Rosemary was the third of nine children. The opening section of Larson’s book explains her condition: she was held in the birth canal too long, awaiting the doctor for delivery. He was detained due to treating others for the 1918 Spanish flu raging through the area. This limitation of oxygen for too long impacted Rosemary’s cognitive abilities which allowed her to reach approximately fourth grade reading, writing, and math levels but not beyond.
In 1918, support systems for families of children with various physical and cognitive challenges didn’t exist outside asylums. Especially since Rosemary was as beautiful as the rest of the Kennedy children, and had no substantial physical limitations, Joe and Rose frankly didn’t acknowledge her challenges until she was in grade school and wasn’t keeping up with the other students nor with her bright and active siblings. Rather, they reprimanded Rosemary for not trying hard enough.
Eventually Rosemary was in enrolled in the first of a long series of boarding schools that promised to address her problems. Unfortunately incomplete communication by Rose regarding the extent of the problem and the frankly callous (this reader’s opinion) dismissal that being moved abruptly from her family to a boarding school (and on to the next and the next) would be emotionally challenging for any child, especially one with some cognitive challenges, resulted in boarding school X’s expulsion of Rosemary from their student body. Only when the Kennedys were in Great Britain, when Joe was sent there as US Ambassador to the UK, did Rosemary find a school that provided her a sense of belonging and purpose. She came to view her position there as assistant teacher as her day included reading to and caring for the younger children. Unfortunately she was pulled from that school when the UK came under grave threat from Germany.
Although Rosemary had cognitive challenges, she grew into a beautiful young woman with similar feelings about her appearance, social engagements, and boys shared by her sisters and other young women. Rose included Rosemary in presentation of her daughters to the Queen early in Joe’s tenure as Ambassador. Of course there were concerns that Rosemary might not fully understand how to behave so she was always closely monitored by her siblings and her brothers Joe and Jack provided the majority of her dance partnerships. Sister Kit (Katherine) (2 years younger than Rosemary) initially provided Rosemary much support and guidance. Eunice (3 years younger than Rosemary) took those reins and provided Rosemary much sisterly support throughout her life.
Although Rose indicated in her autobiography, Times to Remember (1974) “I looked on child rearing not only as a work of love and a duty, but as a profession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honorable profession in the world and one that demanded the best I could bring to it.”, she certainly benefited from the growing wealth provided by Joe’s businesses. She took many long vacations by herself, leaving her children in the care of the household staff. She certainly spent time and substantial money on finding schools and later nursing care for Rosemary as attested by the letters and detailed invoices she saved and that were given to the Kennedy Presidential library. However she seemed to remain distant from Rosemary. Late in Rose’s life, after Joe’s death and after Rosemary was put into care at a nursing home in Wisconsin, Rose requested her children provide Rosemary nice gifts for her birthday. It’s not clear she actually visited Rosemary at this home, although the Kennedy wealth did build a small home for Rosemary on the facility’s ground and provided her the full-time caregivers she needed.
Larson provides the reader a very thorough look at Rosemary’s life. This reader was impressed by and appreciated the lack of judgement of any of the Kennedys regarding their care of and interactions with Rosemary. She fully leaves that type of conclusion to be drawn by the reader if they so choose. She leaves to the reader how to digest the information that Joe Kennedy was drawn to recent articles about the success of a type of brain surgery to cure many ails, including those Rosemary suffered. We learn, through written correspondence, that he was cautioned by his daughter against this procedure for Rosemary. But in his desperation to protect the family and, hopefully, to help Rosemary, the procedure is applied. Unfortunately this left Rosemary further cognitively damaged and physically disabled as well. She regains some of the physical capabilities lost by the cutting of her brain, but she needs full time care for the rest of her life.
Larson acknowledges the extraordinary amount of information she found in the Kennedy Presidential Library where all of Rose’s correspondence and many invoices regarding Rosemary’s care landed following Rose’s death. This reader is struck (again) that such information will likely not be so readily available for future historians researching subjects born and raised in the electronic era. This reader is grateful to Larson for reviewing and using this information to provide such a detailed and view of Rosemary Kennedy and for the context of her life against the historical era in which she was born and raised. Without that context, it would be impossible for current readers to understand how and why she was treated as she was.
Fortunately there is a positive part of this story. Sister Eunice (Shriver) became a strong advocate for cognitively and physically challenged people. As Executive Vice President of the Joseph P Kennedy, Jr Foundation, she shifted the organization’s focus from Catholic charities to research on the causes of mental retardation and humane treatments of it. She was instrumental in initiating the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961 during her brother, John’s presidency. A result of this panel was the establishment, in 1962, of the National Institute of Child Health and Development, as part of the National Institutes of Health. In 1963 she disclosed information that Rosemary was developmentally disabled. Her brother, the President, also spoke about this. Eunice’s numerous efforts included establishing the Special Olympics in 1968. Thus Rosemary Kennedy’s legacy includes prompting a radical change in how the cognitively impaired are viewed and treated. Eunice applied her family’s prestige and wealth, and her brothers’ political positions to ensure that not only would Rosemary no longer be hidden, but that the world’s view of cognitive and physical challenges would be forever changed.
While this reader has provided much information she learned as a result of reading this book, this reader strongly recommends you read this book yourself to benefit fully from Larson’s research and writing. This reader benefitted from discussing the book with others, including a retired “special education” teacher. These discussions helped this reader more thoroughly appreciate the wealth of information and perspective that Larson provides and the vast shift in society’s views of persons with these challenges—that are, in part due, to Rosemary Kennedy and her family.