2016: 96. Rose Kennedy

“I will never allow myself to be vanquished or annihilated.  I have alwasy enjoyed living and working, and I believe I have had a great life.”

Rose Kennedy, Barbara A. Perry*

Why did I read a biography of Rose Kennedy? Why this one? Even as I was reading it I’d periodically ask myself that very question.  What happened is that on a rare kid-free afternoon, Jon and I did my favorite thing on Earth and went to a new National Park, this time the John Fitzgerald Kennedy  Birthplace in Brookline, Ma.  Yes, it is about 20 minutes from my house, and yes, it is lame that it took me a whole year to get over there, but if you had ever taken my three children on a historical house tour, you would understand why I waited for a babysitter day.

It’s a very odd historical site.  The Kennedys (Joe and Rose) bought it when they were first married, and their first four children (Joe Jr., Kathleen, Rosemary, and JFK) were born there.  When she got pregnant with her next they upsized to a larger house around the corner and sold what is now the NPS site.  But when the President was assassinated, Rose bought the house back from its current owners, and turned it into a sort of shrine/museum to the way it was when they lived there.  Which means, while many of the item are authentic to the Kennedy family, it’s filtered through the 1960’s memory of the 1910’s.  And its curated by Rose, who had a very very strong interest in structuring the way the world remembered her family.  The tour was super bizarre in that fashion - I got the sense that the guides were highly constricted in what they could and could not say about the family.

Interesting, says you, but this is your book blog, not your parks blog.  What does this have to do with the bio? Well, I went in thinking I’d get a good bio of Kennedy, and try to understand the man behind the myth.  But that wasn’t happening at this site, so I decided instead to buy the bio of Rose, and try to understand the woman behind the mythmaker.  

Was it successful? Well, sort of.  I understand Rose better - and she really had an amazing and horrifying life.  Daughter of the mayor of Boston, wife of the first chairman of the SEC (and bootlegger and womanzier) and the mother of amazing children - almost all of whom predeceased her in terrible and public ways.  She was so, so religious, and that was probably the most important thing in her life, for good and for ill.  She was both an absentee parent, and an obssesive recorder of her children’s lives.  She did things we can’t understand (shunning her daughter for marrying outside of the faith), and things that were amazing (opening up about her developmentally disabled daughter Rosemary, and making that issue a cause she raised millions for).  The book tells you all the facts of her life in a reasonably fair way, though I think the author is pretty pro-Kennedy, and I think she very much pulled her punches on the way Rose treated her children.  And she suffered so, so much.  One son dead in World War II, one daughter killed in a plane crash, one daughter ruined by a lobotomy ordered by her husband without her knowledge, two sons assassinated.  If she was an uptight and cold fish, she was also an amazing survivor.  She was a product of her times, too, for good or for ill.

But the book itself is pretty basic in it’s writing and biographical style, and, as I said, I got the sense the author pulled a lot of punches.  So I don’t think I can recommend it unless you are really interested in the Kennedys (or get suckered by your addiction to NPS bookshops).  But it is interesting to contemplate Rose, who like all of us, was an imperfect person, but unlike most of us, lived her life in the spotlight for most of the century, for good or ill.  It’s funny - I almost want to read a better book about her - and then I realize that I’m barely interested enough in Rose Kennedy to have read one book about her.  A strange reading experience. 

*I am assuming that there is not one person who reads this blog who doesn’t know this, but just in case, Rose Kennedy is the mother of (among many others), JFK, RFK, and Teddy Kennedy

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017