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She was the formidable matriarch of America’s most iconic political dynasty; among her nine children were President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy. As the daughter, wife, and mother of prominent politicians, Rose Kennedy carefully curated her family’s public image, helping win votes later on. A new biography sheds light on her life and legacy.
- Barbara Perry Senior Fellow, Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia Miller Center; Author, "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch"
Life And Legacy Of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch by Barbara A. Perry.” Copyright © 2013 by Barbara A. Perry. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMothers the world over want great things for their children. They dream their kids might grow up to someday be president, work for the greater good and find fulfillment in family and faith. Rose Kennedy had those dreams for her nine children. And thanks, in part, to her practical and political savvy, some achieved them. But the iconic family also made missteps along the way, weathering scandals and repeatedly experiencing the loss every parent dreads, with four of her children killed in accidents or assassinations in their prime.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo how did Rose come to be such a shrewd not-so-secret weapon in her sons' campaigns? And how did she endure the tragedies that befell her family? A new biography provides some insights and here to share some of them with us is Barbara Perry. She is a senior fellow in the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Her latest book is called "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch." Barbara Perry joins us in studio. Thank you very much for joining us.
MS. BARBARA PERRYOh, it's a pleasure to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. Give us a call. Are you captivated by Camelot still? What about the Kennedy family is intriguing to you? Or if not, tell us why, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Barbara, the Camelot era captured countless imaginations. What sparked your interest in the Kennedy Family in general and matriarch Rose in particular?
PERRYOh, that's very easy to answer. When I was four years old my mother took me to downtown Louisville, Ky. October the 5th, 1960 to see then Senator John F. Kennedy campaigning for president in our hometown. My mother was about his age. We were Catholic. This was her new political hero. And so we arrived early and she put me and my brothers right in front of the podium. And we saw the person who in one month would become the first Catholic president of the United States, or at least be elected to that office.
PERRYSo I'd had a lifelong interest in the Kennedy family and in President Kennedy and his presidency. Fast forward to 2006, I get an email from a former student of mine saying, did you know the John F. Kennedy Library just released Rose Kennedy's papers? And I went online and sure enough they had 250 boxes of everything that Rose Kennedy had saved over her 104 years of life.
NNAMDIWhich enables you to answer what was my next question about you.
NNAMDIAnd that is, what resources have led you to this fresh take on her story? Rose Fitzgerald was born with politics in her blood. How did she come to be her father, Honey Fitz's right hand on the campaign trail?
PERRYShe was an interesting combination of her mother and father's personalities. And her father was the outgoing charismatic, extraverted politician who would break into song. And that's why they called him Honey Fitz. He had this honey voice. And then her mother was this introvert and stayed at home with the other five children. Rose was the eldest of six. And so Rose was -- certainly she could be alone and sometimes wanted to be alone to get away from her nine children when she finally had them. But she also loved to be out in the spotlight and on the stage with her dad.
PERRYAnd so that was the perfect solution to having a spouse in the case of Honey Fitz who wanted to stay at home. Take your daughter, who becomes this beautiful belle of Boston and take her out on the stump. And so she was already a popular figure in her own right as a teenager.
NNAMDIWho was Honey Fitz?
PERRYHoney Fitz was John F. Fitzgerald, the namesake of the President Kennedy we know, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was only two generations removed from the potato famine. He and his family had come to Boston. He was born in the north end in a tenement and rose to be the first native-born Irish Catholic mayor of Boston. And was also a congressman in the early 19 -- in the mid 1990s -- or excuse me, the 1890s. So when Rose was only five or six, already her family was in Washington and in politics.
NNAMDIAnd that early experience Rose had pressing flesh with Honey Fitz would eventually pay dividends for her three sons who ran for office. Just how valuable was she to each of their campaigns?
PERRYShe became the secret weapon that they would roll out whenever they were campaigning, starting when Jack, in 1946, campaigned for the first time for congress in Boston. And here was Rose with the Fitzgerald name, so she was already popular and well known in Boston circles. And the famous tea parties began where the Kennedys would go out and rent a ballroom of a famous hotel. And they would get dressed up and they'd invite all the ladies in the area to come. And they would dress up and they'd meet Rose and her dashing young son, Jack Kennedy and her daughters.
PERRYSo she was able to go out and represent that generation when her husband Joe Kennedy, Senior was now politically toxic from the 1940s on because of some undiplomatic things he said before World War II. And the fact that he was viewed as an anti-Semite and an appeaser of Hitler before World War II.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments about the life and times of Rose Kennedy, give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can send us a Tweet at kojoshow. We may not think of her as being of that era, but you note a very strong Victorian influence on Rose during her formative years. How do we see that reflected in the way she raised her children?
PERRYOh yes. Well, of course being born in 1890 at the end of the -- toward the end of the Victorian era, she was right squarely in the midst of the Victorian era. Her mother was a Victorian. And by that I mean these are women who are very much committed to perfectionism. And so this is how Rose -- although she was often given a secondary role in a patriarchal family in society and church, this is how Rose asserted her power, was to have this Victorian vision of perfectionism and as best she could, impose that in a somewhat controlling way on her children.
NNAMDIYeah, what was it like growing up under Rose's watch so to speak in the Kennedy household?
PERRYIt couldn't have been easy. It could not have been easy because she was constantly after her children about how they spoke and how they dressed and how they behaved and their manners. And yet, while that no doubt at times I'm sure could wear thin on a child, particularly one like Jack Kennedy who was the class clown and now the best student until he got into his later years at Harvard and was the one who was always late. And Rose prided herself on her punctuality. So it couldn't have been easy for the kids in the family who were like that.
PERRYNow if they were like the eldest in the family, Joe, Jr. who was killed in World War II and was the apple of his parents' eye and followed all the rules, I think life was much more pleasant.
NNAMDIThere seems to have been -- even though her kids obviously loved her, there seems to have been a likeability factor or a likeability issue with Rose Kennedy.
PERRYWell, I think there could be again because of this -- I will use the term nattering sometimes that she did at them and with them and for them, either person to person, face to face, over the phone when phones came into use or in her letters to them. So I would still say that they had a deep love, a profound love for her, as did her nieces and nephews, several of whom she had to raise when they lost their parents.
PERRYSo I think she was like a helicopter parent, we would say today, in some ways, that she was always there, always hovering over. Again sometimes that could become annoying but I think that as the children became successful, they looked back and realized, as many of them said, the reason they were successful on this micro level was because of their mother.
NNAMDIOur guest is Barbara Perry. She's a senior fellow in the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Her latest book is called "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think Rose Kennedy was likeable from what you know about her? Tell us why or why not, 800-433-8850. Even her daughters-in-law however seemed to love her despite the kind of hovering.
PERRYThey did, and of course most people want to know about her relationship with Jackie Kennedy, who would become Jackie Kennedy Onassis. And in the early papers that I found from early time -- particularly when Jackie was in the White House and even shortly after, people might remember from 2013 when Caroline released the oral history of her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. There were some not-very-nice comments about Rose Kennedy by Jacqueline Kennedy at that time.
PERRYBut as the time progressed, as it got into the late '60s, early '70s, Rose got along very well with Aristotle Onassis. He very much admired her. And you see in the correspondence between these two very important powerful ladies a growing warmth between them.
NNAMDIShe was very much a woman of her own time, but you'd think Rose might have eagerly embraced technology like Facebook and Twitter because, well, she had a knack -- a talent, if you will, for using the media to create buzz for her family.
PERRYOh, she did. She perfected, again as was her want, every style and form of media that came through her life. So I found photos of her going back to when she was 16 or so in about 1907, 1906 when she was in the newspapers because she was christening ships in Philadelphia and in Boston. And then she perfected newsreel and then she perfected television. And she was -- she did have a pension for the trivial.
PERRYSo I would say in terms of social media, she would've been a great Tweeter and a great poster to Facebook.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, but you can also send us a Tweet at kojoshow. We're talking with Barbara Perry about her latest book "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch." Rose Kennedy came of age as the suffrage movement took off, and she raised very accomplished daughters as well. But you stopped short of calling her a feminist. Why?
PERRYI think it would be...
NNAMDIIt's that Victorian thing, isn't it?
PERRYYes, it is. It is. Again, the patriarchy of the family, church and society in which she lived and she did not press back against the foundations of that, except to the extent that she took the female role seeded to her and played them to the hilt. But she was not in the suffrage yet movement. She did however reach out to women voters once they did get the vote, and certainly when it was important for her family members to receive those votes. But she, I think, in no way could be called a feminist, either from her time or certainly from the modern era.
NNAMDIShe was unusual in that she was both alive and actively involved during her son's time as president. In the broader context of that office's history, where does she fit into the cannon of presidential mothers?
PERRYWell, I think it's fascinating, particularly looking at modern presidents, usually we date that from Franklin Roosevelt, although Franklin Roosevelt certainly had a powerful mother. But if you look at from Franklin Roosevelt's mother up to Obama's mother, Rose has to stand out on that stage. As you said in one of the teasers on the way into this segment, she was the greatest employment agent in Washington, D.C. Think of this. At any one time in the early 1960s, her one son was president of the United States, her other son Bobby was the Attorney General and her son Teddy was elected to the Senate in 1962 for the first time.
PERRYSo she just went beyond any of the other mothers, though you would certainly put Barbara Bush, I think, in the dynastic mold that Rose created. But I also think it's fascinating to look at many of these modern presidents, and perhaps even before that, that they often had very strong colorful mothers who thought that their sons had hung the stars and the moon, educated them. Oftentimes the mothers were better educated than the fathers. In Rose's case that wasn't true. But I would say certainly in the modern era, she stand head and shoulders above. And for her own work in philanthropy, for example, in the cause of mental retardation.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Barbara Perry about Rose Kennedy. Barbara Perry's book is called "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch." You can call us at 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments about Rose Kennedy. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the life and influence or Rose Kennedy with Barbara Perry. Barbara Perry is a senior fellow in the Presidential Oral History program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Her latest book is "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to us at email@example.com. It's hard to overstate the importance of Rose's Catholic faith in her life. How do we see that faith reflected in the way she handled the tragic loss of four of her children in their prime?
PERRYShe was human and so she suffered terribly, but she was so staunch and strong in her Catholic faith, and had such a firm belief in the afterlife, that she was convinced that all four of these children had gone on to a better life, to life in paradise with their Lord and Savior, and that she would see them when she followed into eternity. And she would even say in just daily conversation with people, after President Kennedy had died, she would mention oh, I -- someone would say something, and she'd say, oh, I must mention that to the president when I see him next.
NNAMDIWe have some audio of her talking about her relationship to her faith in a conversation that she had with talk show host Merv Griffin back in 1969. Let's give a listen.
NNAMDIYou know, there's one episode in your book, Barbara Perry, that really stands out. Rose's reaction to her daughter's Kate's marriage to a non-Catholic. She is at least outwardly more upset over that than any of the losses the befall her family. What do you make of that reaction?
PERRYIt is amazing, isn't it, that in public she was completely stoic after these tragedies as she would say the agonies that befell her and her family. But she literally worked herself into almost a nervous breakdown, a nervous collapsed.
NNAMDIHad to be hospitalized.
PERRYHad to hospitalized for several days after Kathleen, or just getting up to Kathleen's marriage to a British nobleman who happened to be a Protestant and Anglican. An Anglican, I should say, many people don't view that as Protestant, so an English Anglican.
NNAMDIWhich is ironic because I always say that we tend to forget the occurrences in our own youth because she had the experience of having her family not approve of her marriage to Joe, but she seemed to forget that completely when it came to her own daughter.
PERRYWell, I discovered after spending five years with this woman, that she was a woman of paradoxes, and maybe that just made her more human, and in my view, in some ways more likeable because she didn't seem like a cardboard iconic figure, one dimensional. But yeah. She even tells the story as she releases her memoir, "Times to Remember" in the early 1970s, she goes on television with Robert MacNeil and she tells this very cute story about how parents didn't really approve of her courtship with Joseph Kennedy, and you don't see her say, oh, wait a minute, that was very...
NNAMDII did the same thing.
PERRYI did the same thing. That was very similar to how I felt. But remember, Joe Kennedy was a Catholic. They didn't approve of him because of political rivalries. That's very different from this core belief that Rose Kennedy had about her Catholicism. But we should also say that right after Kathleen married, Rose began to send more conciliatory letters to Kathleen, and good thing because Kathleen only had four months of marriage with Billy Hartington who was killed by a Nazi sniper in September 1944 just after the invasion of Europe.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Colleen in Washington, D.C. Colleen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
COLLEENHi, Kojo. This is Colleen, and I'm calling because I was just talking about Rose Kennedy last night to a 75-year-old client of mine who is more than a little embarrassed about the records she's kept, every nuance of her two very adult children. And I said, oh, you know, don't feel bad about that. Rose Kennedy kept records of every shot, every visit to the doctor, every bowel movement that her eight children had. If anybody asked how are the boys, she could tell them. Is that true? I mean, I read it somewhere.
NNAMDIWas she a meticulous record keeper?
PERRYOh, she was. Yes. Rose Kennedy -- by the way, Colleen, great Irish name, Rose would love it. Yes. Rose was very proud of the fact that very early on when she had her first four children within five years, she went to the local stationery store in Brookline, Mass. where those children were born, and she got a set of index cards and an index card box, and she began, as you say, making meticulous notes about medical issues, medical conditions, any kind of medical treatment, and maybe even more important to Rose, religious milestones.
PERRYAnd so Rose was very proud of that. Prod of the efficiency, again, very perfectionistic, but much in the way I think that a modern parent would keep that set of records in a computer.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Colleen. Onto Sally in Reston, Va. Sally, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SALLYI had a quick question about Rose Kennedy. I wondered if she had that quick wit and that humor that as a 74 year old I remember so well with the Kennedys, and I loved that quality so much, that unflappable humor.
PERRYYes, Sally. I agree with you. That's certainly something that drew me and I'm sure my mother to Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960 as her candidate. But yes. Rose did have that, and that's another thing that I think she passed on to her children. And great story, she went with President Kennedy, his famous summit in 1961 with Kruschev, Rose went along with him -- along with the first lady, and rose liked to collect autographs, so she had autographs she was collecting from Kruschev.
PERRYShe was righting to Kruschev and saying, you know, may I have your sign this picture to give to my son, and the president found out about it and wrote to his mother and said, mother, you know, please quit writing -- there's a little thing about the Cold War so could you maybe go through channels at least before you contact these heads of state. And boy, without missing a beat, Rose wrote back and said, yes -- yes, Jack. She did call him Jack. Yes, Jack. I will certainly do that. And she said, good thing you got in touch with me, I was just getting ready to write to Castro.
NNAMDIDidn't she also contact Roosevelt when Joe had a problem in the military at some point?
PERRYYeah. She contacted the president because Joe, Jr. had been given demerits for having a dirty wastebasket in the Navy, and Rose thought this was unfair, and how could the apple of her eye, the fair-haired boy, you know, how could he do anything wrong? But she thought this was lack of due process, and so Rose, you know, threatened to write to the authorities. Again, helicopter parent before the phrase was known.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Do you think we'll see another American family of the Kennedys like in American politics? Who else comes close in your mind? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. In that regard, we got a tweet from Cokie who says, "The Kennedys are our American royalty. Even if you try not to care, you can't help it." True?
PERRYWell, as democrats and republicans, small D, small R, we always say that we don't want the aristocracy and born-to-rule concept of dynasties, and yet look at all of the publicity that went towards the birth of the future king of England last week. And I just want to make one point, and that is that the future king, now Prince George of Cambridge, was born on Rose Kennedy's 123rd birthday, and Rose would be very pleased that she now shares a birthday with the future king of England.
PERRYBut they are a bit like a royal family, and Life magazine, when it started in 1937, '38, began to put all these pictures of the nine Kennedy children in, and Teddy Kennedy said, Life magazine was our scrapbook, and Life said, we admit to that. We cop to that plea, because they were rich, they were famous, they were attractive, they moved in high circles, they had important positions, they had power, they had wealth. They also were in Hollywood, so they had this glow and this celebrity about them.
PERRYIt's hard to imagine, they are truly generous. They are unique. It's hard to imagine another family ever achieving that, and it maybe too that Americans are a little more jaded than they were in those days.
NNAMDIWhat do you think? Give us a call. Do you think we'll see another family of the Kennedys like in American politics? 800-433-8850. Back to the issue of faith. When her son John ran for president, a lot of voters were concerned about the role his faith might play in his policies. That seems so long ago. How does faith shape all of the Kennedys brothers' approach to public service?
PERRYI think that they get this concept of public service via Rose, and Teddy in his own memoir, "True Compass," I believe it's Matthew 25, what Catholics call corporal works of mercy. Feeding those who cannot afford food, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, comforting the grieving. So I think Teddy particularly, and Bobby especially, after President Kennedy's assassination, I think as he goes to Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta and reaches out to the poor and to minorities, I think you see Rose's Catholicism embodied more in the public policies of Teddy and Bobby than President Kennedy.
PERRYBut we also have to remember, as you say, that coming up to 1960, President Kennedy had to be so careful about talking on issues of religion and separating himself from his own religion as best he could to be viewed as a separationist, as neutral, that he would have had a harder time being elected if he was linking explicitly public policy to Catholicism or to scripture.
NNAMDIThe church also helped the family care for their daughter Rosemary. How did Rose and the rest of the family manage her disabilities?
PERRYRose discovered when Rosemary, her first daughter, who had been born in 1918, when she was in kindergarten, a teacher said she had a very low IQ. They think it was about 70. Rose and Joe were told that their daughter was mentally retarded and that they should institutionalize her. And in many ways the Kennedys were ahead in the curve in that they refused to do that. They had the means not to have to do that, but they in a sense mainstreamed Rosemary until the early 1940s when Joe Kennedy, Sr. subjected her to a lobotomy, we think without consulting with Rose.
PERRYAnd from that point on, sadly, it went -- that procedure went badly wrong, and Rosemary was infantalized, and from at least the mid 1940's until she died in her mid-80s in 2005, Rosemary was cared for by the nuns of Saint Coletta in Wisconsin. And the Kennedys, as most people know I am sure, put millions and millions of dollars...
NNAMDII was about to say, how did that influence ultimately a lot of philanthropic work that the family engaged in?
PERRYRight. Well after the death of their eldest, Joe Kennedy, Jr. in World War II, they founded the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, at first for what they called underprivileged children. Fairly quickly that mission became mental retardation, first to prevent it, then to do research for it, to treat it, and we know, of course, of Eunice Kennedy Shriver's movement, the Special Olympics movement. But the family, final in the early sixties, during President Kennedy's presidency came out, if you will, of the closet, and brought Rosemary, not physically, but her memory and her condition into the spotlight, and again, Rose made that the philanthropic mission of her later life.
NNAMDIRose Kennedy had a sense of wanderlust that kept her on the road nearly all of her life. You say a part of that was getting away from those nine children, but it included a trip to Ethiopia to celebrate her 80th birthday. But the impressions that she took away from her travel were in a way surprising. How so?
PERRYWell, first of all, isn't that an amazing person who at age 80 travels 25,000 miles, and decides that she will celebrate her 80th birthday of July of 1970 with Haile Selassie whom she had met at a state dinner while filling in for Jackie Kennedy in September 1963. And she discovered that the Emperor had a similar birthday to her, so they would celebrate together. Rose was, I would say, an untutored anthropologist. So she made notes at a very low level about the people she met and what they looked like and what they ate and how they dressed. And when they didn't rise up to her level the perfection, she criticized them for that in...
NNAMDIThere's the Victorian.
PERRYThere's the Victorian again. In her travel journals. But I would say part of that is because her father would not let her go to Wellesley and receive her college degree. Instead, he sent her for a year to a Prussian convent. And I think Rose was bright enough that if she had been given the opportunity to have a top notch education for four years at the undergraduate level, I think we would have seen a more well-rounded and a more -- a better view of the world.
NNAMDIAre there any indications that she harbored any resentment about that?
PERRYOh, yes. Yes. In fact, she said towards the end of her life that that was still -- she typically was not a regretful person, but she told Doris Kearns Goodwin that that was one of the biggest regrets of her life, that she did not get the advantage of that education. In fact, in a way, as her husband moved off the scene with his debilitating stroke in 1961, she almost became self taught, almost an autodidact.
PERRYShe read more widely, she traveled more widely, and I noticed the level of her questions and her comments and her observations raised in the early to mid sixties and onward.
NNAMDII know this book took you a number of years to write, so after spending that much time immersed in Rose's world, and her story, what's your take away impression of her that you would like to share with others?
PERRYWell, I think that it's that Rose has too often been relegated to a secondary role. Certainly in some ways her family did that to her, but I think historians in some ways have as well, and that I would want people to know that she was responsible in large part for the image of the Kennedys that served them so well and gave them such political power.
NNAMDIThat in fact after Joe said those things he said about the decline of democracy in England and here, he became a non-factor in large measure in the political life of his children.
PERRYWell, we shouldn't go too far. We shouldn't overstate that. Certainly behind the scenes he was pulling the strings and spending the money, and...
NNAMDIShe was the one out front.
PERRYShe was the front person. And that was very important to the power and the success of the family.
NNAMDIBarbara Perry. She's a senior fellow in the Presidential Oral History program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Her latest book is "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch." Thank you so much for joining us.
PERRYGreat to be with you, Kojo.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein and Stephannie Stokes. Today's engineer, Tobey Schreiner. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. If you'd like to share questions or comments with us, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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