Kennedy, Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald
Kennedy, Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald
(b. 22 July 1890 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 22 January 1995 in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts), mother of President John F. Kennedy and matriarch of a political family that in a span of eighty years produced an ambassador, three United States senators, three congressmen, and a lieutenant governor, and with her encouragement directed its wealth and personal leadership to politics, public service, and a variety of philanthropic causes.
Rose Fitzgerald was the eldest of three daughters and three sons born to Mary Josephine Hannon and John Patrick “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a wealthy businessman and powerful Democratic politician who served three terms in Congress (1895–1901) and seven years as mayor of Boston (1906, 1907, 1910–1914.) By her own account she had an idyllic childhood in which she was readily indulged by a doting father and an adored mother, both of whom taught her to value the family, Roman Catholicism, and her Irish heritage. Because her mother disliked the public role of a political wife, Rose, even as a toddler, accompanied her father to parades and local gatherings as he kept in touch with his constituents or campaigned for office.
She was educated in the public schools, graduating with honors from Dorchester High School in 1906 at the age of fifteen. Her dream was to go to Wellesley College, but her parents considered her too young and instead sent her to study at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in downtown Boston. At the end of the family’s European tour in the summer of 1908, she and her sister Agnes remained at a convent school at Blumenthal in Holland on the Dutch-German border, where wealthy young women were trained for traditional roles as wives devoted to kinder, kirche, und kucher (children, church, and cooking). The following year, Rose entered the Sacred Heart Convent at Manhattanville on the Upper West Side of New York City, where she received a graduation certificate in 1910.
She returned to Boston to an active social life, courses at Boston University and the New England Conservatory of Music, and settlement work among the poor. She again joined Honey Fitz on his political rounds, sometimes serving as his translator when French or German dignitaries came to visit. On 7 October 1914, having overcome her father’s objection to the match, she married Joseph Patrick Kennedy at a wedding mass, attended by their families, in the private chapel of William Cardinal O’Connell.
Joe Kennedy, she wrote, was the love of her life, and despite repeated separations during their years together and reports of his philandering that she refused to believe, he remained so until her death. They first met as children in Maine, where their families summered, and from the age of sixteen, she said, she was determined to be his wife. The son of P. J. Kennedy—a prominent Irish Catholic businessman and powerful Democratic ward boss who often clashed with Honey Fitz—he quickly made a name for himself among Boston’s business leaders in the three years following his Harvard graduation. At twenty-five he was the youngest bank president in Massachusetts. Ambitious, willful, and, some said, ruthless, he was a gifted financier and over the next two decades, working long hours and often away from home, he amassed a fortune in banking, real estate, liquor distribution, Wall Street, and Hollywood, weathering the Great Depression with most of his wealth intact.
Rose Kennedy remained at home in Brookline, a Boston suburb, and later in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City, giving birth to five daughters and four sons between 1915 and 1932 and overseeing their growth. She had been taught since childhood that motherhood was “the most beautiful station in life” and the family a sacred institution—concepts reinforced by her parents, her convent schooling, and especially her deep commitment to Roman Catholicism, which led her to a lifelong routine of daily mass and prayer. Among the lessons she passed on to her children were the principles that family came first; that each of them had a primary responsibility for the well-being of the others; and that they were obligated to develop their talents to the fullest and, because of the trust funds that each of them had, to make a positive contribution to society through some form of public service.
The family moved to New York in 1927 to escape the great social divide that continued to separate Boston’s old-line Protestant families from the Irish Catholic newcomers, whatever their intelligence or wealth. Because of it, Rose Kennedy—among other slights—had been blackballed from membership in the Junior League, and her husband had been snubbed at Harvard and denied seats on the boards of Boston corporations. They were determined that their children would not face similar barriers, but they retained their ties to Massachusetts by purchasing a large summer home at Hyannis Port on Cape Cod.
In 1937 Kennedy accompanied her husband to England, where he served as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James, following a successful three years as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and head of the Maritime Commission. It was a moment of political triumph—an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts in a post once occupied by John Adams and John Quincy Adams—that was soon marred by the ambassador’s growing isolationism and his public statements that America and England should seek to coexist with the German dictator Adolf Hitler. Condemned by the British people as defeatist and pro-German, he resigned his appointment in February 1941, his public career effectively over and his dream of one day running for president destroyed.
The years 1941–1946 were difficult ones for Rose Kennedy. Her daughter Rosemary, who was diagnosed as mentally retarded (and on her father’s orders, lobotomized), was placed in a nursing convent in the Midwest where she remained for the rest of her life. Her eldest son, Joseph Jr., was killed on a secret mission when his navy plane exploded over the English Channel in 1944 during World War II. A month later, her daughter Kathleen’s English husband was killed in France; Kathleen herself died in 1946 in a plane crash. For a time, Rose Kennedy remained in her home at Hyannis Port, inconsolable in her grief; but in the end, she wrote, she found in her religion the strength to go on.
After the war, Kennedy and her husband settled into a pattern of separate lives; he in New York City or Palm Beach, Florida, she in Boston or on the cape. Ambitious as always for her children, she joined them in campaigning for John in his successful race for the House of Representatives (1946) and the Senate (1952). Popular with voters, she was a key figure in the 1960 presidential election, her children calling her the best campaigner in the family. Her proudest moment came with her son’s inauguration as the thirty-fifth president of the United States in 1961. Robert Kennedy became the attorney general and Edward was elected to fill John’s vacated Senate seat in 1962.
Her world fell apart once more when the president was assassinated on 22 November 1963, and yet again when Robert, then a U.S. senator from New York, was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968 after winning four of five presidential primaries. Within a year, the ailing Joseph Kennedy was dead as well. Rose Kennedy withdrew into the family compound at Hyannis Port.
By 1974 she had completed her memoirs, Times to Remember, assigning the book’s royalties to the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation to aid the mentally retarded. In 1984 she sustained the first in a series of debilitating strokes that left her partly paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. She lived long enough to see two of her grandsons enter Congress, a third enter the Maryland legislature, and a granddaughter become lieutenant governor of Maryland. She was honored by a joint resolution of Congress and President George Bush on her 100th birthday.
Four years later, with members of her family at her bedside, she died at home of heart failure and complications from pneumonia. She is buried next to her husband in Hollyhood Cemetery, Brookline, Massachusetts.
Although some biographers of the Kennedys suggest that she was a cold and distant mother, obsessed by religion and driven by ambition, her surviving children in a letter to the New York Times categorically rejected that portrayal; she was, they wrote, a devoted and caring parent. Edward Kennedy had said as much at her 100th birthday party, calling her “the anchor of our family, the safe harbor to which we always came.”
Rose Kennedy’s papers are in the John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts. They cover the years 1896–1975 and include correspondence, family papers, and the drafts and proofs of her indispensable memoir, Times to Remember (1974). The family home at 83 Beale Street, Brookline, Massachusetts, is a National Historic Site, maintained by the National Park Service. The best biographical account of Rose Kennedy is Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga (1987); see also Richard Whalen, The Founding Father (1964), a biography of Joseph P. Kennedy. Barbara Gibson, Life with Rose Kennedy: An Intimate Account (1986), by her personal secretary in the 1970s, describes her years of declining health. Gibson, with Ted Schwarz, also wrote Rose Kennedy and Her Family: The Best and Worst of Their Lives and Times (1995). Other biographies include Gail Cameron, Rose: A Biography of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1971); Charles Hingham, Rose: The Life and Times of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1995); and Cindy Adams and Susan Crimp, Iron Rose: The Story of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and Her Dynasty (1995). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Boston Globe (both 23 Jan. 1995).
Allan L. Damon