Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch, by Barbara A Perry
Stoical and politically tough, Rose Kennedy put up with her husband’s philandering, controlled every aspect of her children’s lives and to the end adhered to the ‘Kennedys don’t cry’ rule
Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch
Barbara A Perry
During the vast coverage last November of the 50th anniversary of the death of John F Kennedy, much attention focused on the behaviour of the president’s brother and attorney general, Robert F Kennedy, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination on November 22nd, 1963.
When Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington DC, Kennedy, who had been hiding in the back of an army truck to avoid the press, sprinted up the movable steps placed at the front door and entered the plane, which contained his brother’s remains, the late president’s widow, Jacqueline, and the new commander-in-chief, Lyndon B Johnson.
Pushing his way through the throng to get to Jackie, RFK barged right by Johnson without so much as a word or even a look of acknowledgment. Speaking to a cabinet minister the next day, Johnson recalled that Bobby had “paid no attention to him whatsoever, but they took the body off the plane, put it in the car . . . and departed”. Johnson had left the plane “without any attention directed or any courtesy toward him, then the President of the United States”. The snub left a deep mark on Johnson. And it countered the instinctive, patriotic act of Kennedy’s mother, Rose, while the plane had still been in the air.
Johnson had been patched through to Rose Kennedy from Air Force One to offer his condolences on the death of her son. (The recording is available at whitehousetapes.net). Sgt Joseph Ayres, the Air Force One steward who had placed the call to Rose Kennedy, audibly checked himself from saying to her that the president was on the line. But Rose Kennedy had no such compunction about acknowledging the new reality. Before Johnson had even finished speaking her name she said those important words, “Yes, Mr President.”
It was an astonishing and courageous moment of constitutional propriety, as important in its own way as the iconic photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy, still covered in her husband’s blood, standing beside Johnson as he took the oath of office. These Kennedy women intuitively understood that everyone in Washington would be looking to them for a lead, not just about how to treat the new president but also about the moral legitimacy of the succession.
Stoical and politically tough
Stoicism and political toughness were qualities that Rose Kennedy, then 73 years of age, had spent her lifetime perfecting. She was born in 1890, the daughter of John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, later mayor of Boston, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland in the aftermath of the Famine. From an early age she was taught that appearances matter for those who live their lives in the public eye. For her whole life she would carefully preserve her figure, eating only “bird-like portions”, writes Barbara Perry, and existing for years on jacket potatoes, toast, custard and sponge cake. (It wouldn’t do her much harm: she lived to be 104.) Most photographs show her with one hand behind her back and turning at an angle to the camera, to make her look thinner. Rose also learned by watching her father, a notorious philanderer, the importance of dignity when demeaned by those around you. Her mother’s devout Catholicism gave her the structure to endure the similarly wayward behaviour of her own husband, Joseph P Kennedy.
There was no doubt that Rose and Joe loved each other in their own way, but even by the most relaxed moral standards he was a compulsive, reckless and boastful adulterer. More often than not his relationships were of the wham, bam, thank you, ma’am variety, thereby at least leaving Rose’s position, if not her dignity, intact. She went to Mass each morning, and prayed with her rosary beads every night. How did she put up with it all, her granddaughter Caroline once inquired. “I would just say ‘Yes, dear,’ and then go to Paris,” Rose told her.
Despite her many holidays Rose was far from an absentee mother. She may not have changed the nappies, but when the children were old enough to talk they were confronted by her relentless ambition and unbending standards. “Mother is a perfectionist,” said Teddy, her youngest son, with a certain understatement.
Rose controlled every aspect of their lives. They were notified in advance about political topics for conversation at the dinner table each night. Mass observance and praying the rosary were tightly monitored. School grades, report cards and IQ tests were analysed and acted on. If discipline was needed, the rod – or more often the coathanger – was not spared. When Joe had their daughter Rosemary lobotomised in 1941 without Rose’s consent, she vowed never to forgive Joe “for that awful operation”.
Yet she accepted his decision to have Rosemary institutionalised and the total ban on family visits. In the end neither Rose nor Joe was prepared to let anyone, including their own daughter, get in the way of their ambition to make the Kennedys the United States’ first family. Her later contribution to mental-health charitable work was one of the few outward signs of contrition on the subject.
Barbara Perry’s biography of Rose Kennedy follows hard on the heels of The Patriarch , David Nasaw’s outstanding life of Joseph P Kennedy. Perry’s work is an important companion to that book even though Rose Kennedy turns out to have few secrets she was prepared to spill. The John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum opened the 300 or so boxes of her papers in 2006, but they do not give away much about Rose’s inner life. At times she kept a meticulous diary, but it was exclusively directed outwards. “No superficial detail eluded her observation,” Perry notes. “No notable persons – heads of state and government, lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, ambassadors and their wives, star athletes, Hollywood stars – escaped her all-seeing eye. She noted clothing, hairstyle, makeup, facial characteristics, hair color (or lack of locks in the case of men), height, weight, posture, demeanor, accent, religion, and intellect.”
These observations included on her own children – were they getting too chubby? – and her own figure, of which she was inordinately proud. “She especially enjoyed preserving press photographs of herself,” Perry notes acidly at one point.
The author’s occasional sideswipes help balance other moments that can border on the fawning. (“Newspaper portraits of Rose and the queen reveal Mrs Kennedy as the more attractive woman,” Perry gushes of a trip to Buckingham Palace in 1938.)
Challenge to the prevailing view
Yet, if sometimes overtaken by her subject, Perry does an effective job of challenging the prevailing view of Rose as nothing more than a despised wife and irrelevant mother. She cannot, of course, unmake the judgment of John F Kennedy, who, when asked in 1962 about his family’s success by the presidential adviser and historian Arthur Schlesinger jnr, said, “Well, no one can say that it was due to my mother.”
But when Jack and then Bobby were assassinated, and their father was incapacitated by a stroke, it was Rose who held the family together. She came to represent the Kennedys to the world, particularly after Jacqueline married the Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. Rose remains unknowable and, in this telling, even somewhat unlikeable, but Perry shows us that there was a dignity in the stoicism that seems even more admirable today when any excuse to emote in public will do.
The rule was that Kennedys don’t cry, and Rose lived by it. Whether she kept to that principle after closing the door at night and dutifully saying her rosary is surely more doubtful. But Rose Kennedy’s self-control was the reason that she was able to say “Yes, Mr President” at the moment her country asked it of her on that terrible day in November 1963.