The lost Kennedy: the tragic life of JFK’s sister Rosemary

The sister of American president John F Kennedy and US senators Robert and Ted Kennedy, Rosemary Kennedy was born into one of 20th-century America's most prominent political families. Presented to elite British society in the 1930s and deemed beautiful and charming by the press, the eldest Kennedy daughter would disappear from society at the age of 23, following a tragic decision taken by her father…

Rosemary Kennedy (right), the eldest Kennedy daughter. Pictured here with her mother Rose (centre) and sister Kathleen, during the family's residency in Britain in the late 1930s. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Writing for History Extra, author Marius Gabriel shares the story of the lost Kennedy.

Many might have heard of the so-called ‘Kennedy curse’, a tragic sequence of events that befell the Kennedy family throughout the 20th century. Joseph P Kennedy was an Irish-American millionaire and politician, who had been born into a New England political family and made his fortune in films, whisky and steel. He and Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald – an intensely devout princess of Boston’s Catholic aristocracy – married in 1914 and had nine children, many of whom would meet premature ends.

The couple’s eldest son, Joe Jr – who had been groomed since childhood by his father for the future presidency of the United States – was killed in action in 1944 while serving as a pilot during the Second World War. Their fourth child, Kathleen, was also killed in a plane crash, while flying with her lover from Britain to the south of France in 1948.

The so-called 'Kennedy curse' was a tragic sequence of events that befell the Kennedy family throughout the 20th century. John F Kennedy, pictured with his wife Jackie during his campaign for the presidency, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. (Photo by Frank Hurley/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
The so-called ‘Kennedy curse’ was a tragic sequence of events that befell the Kennedy family throughout the 20th century. John F Kennedy, pictured with his wife Jackie during his campaign for the presidency, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. (Photo by Frank Hurley/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

The second Kennedy son, John, would take over Joe Jr’s political mantle, elected as the 35th president of the United States in 1960; he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas in November 1963. In 1968, the couple’s seventh child, Robert ‘Bobby’ Kennedy, was shot during his own campaign to become president. Just a year later in 1969, their youngest son, Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy, was involved in a car accident on the New England island of Chappaquiddick, which resulted in the death of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne.

Though many of these incidents, and others, have been written about and analysed countless times since the middle of the century – and, in the case of Ted Kennedy’s incident, recently dramatised in the 2018 film Chappaquiddick – fewer people know about the fate of Rosemary Kennedy (1918–2005), the third child and eldest daughter of the Kennedys.

A difficult arrival

Rosemary Kennedy was born on Friday 13 September 1918. At the time of her birth, the city of Brookline, Massachusetts was in the grip of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic – which would kill between 20 and 50 million people worldwide – and so the doctor attending the birth was delayed with other patients.

During Rose Kennedy’s labour, although the baby’s head was already emerging, the midwife reportedly told Rose to keep her legs clamped together to prevent the birth until the doctor arrived. According to an account by Luella Hennessey-Donovan, the family’s devoted nursemaid and governess, Rose followed the instructions for two agonising hours.

As Rosemary grew, it became apparent that she had both behavioural and educational difficulties. Specialists later told the Kennedys that her development was due to oxygen deprivation suffered as a result of a “uterine accident”. Her disabilities were often hidden or disguised by her family to avoid the stigma of being associated with ‘defective genes’, and despite her attendance at more than a dozen special schools in the United States and Britain, Rosemary struggled with reading and writing well into adulthood.

A portrait of the Kennedy family in Hyannis Port, Massachussetts, 1930s. Sitting L to R: Patricia, Robert, Rose Kennedy, John, Joseph Sr with Edward on his lap; standing L to R are: Joseph Jr, Kathleen, Rosemary, Eunice and Jean. (Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)
A portrait of the Kennedy family in Hyannis Port, Massachussetts, 1930s. Sitting L to R: Patricia, Robert, Rose Kennedy, John, Joseph Sr with Edward on his lap; standing L to R are: Joseph Jr, Kathleen, Rosemary, Eunice and Jean. (Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)

Rosemary’s years in Britain

Seemingly the happiest period of Rosemary’s life was spent in England, in the years preceding the Second World War. After her father Joseph was appointed ambassador to the UK by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1938, the Kennedy family relocated to England. The beauty and charm of the teenage Rosemary and her younger sister Kathleen attracted the attention of the British press, and did much to help the new ambassador “walk right into the circle of British interests”, as one newspaper of the time put it.

In May 1938, Rosemary and Kathleen were presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. The 19-year-old Rosemary was deemed to be exquisite: the newspapers plastered photographs of her all over their front pages. The Evening Standard swooned over “Miss Rosemary Kennedy… in her picture dress of white and tulle embroidered with silver”.

Eunice (left) and Rosemary Kennedy, pictured aboard the SS Manhattan, sailing from New York in April 1938 to join their parents in London. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Eunice (left) and Rosemary Kennedy, pictured aboard the SS Manhattan, sailing from New York in April 1938 to join their parents in London. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Rose Kennedy and most of her children hurried back to the United States; only Rosemary stayed behind with her father. When the Blitz began, she was sent out of London to Belmont House, a Montessori school in the country [the Montessori Method focuses on all five senses to develop a child’s learning].

By the time she arrived at Belmont, the press’s fascination with Rosemary had taken its toll. Photographs of the time show her father grasping her arm tightly during the rounds of public appearances, which were often marred by stumbles and blunders. Although she looked like an adult woman, Rosemary appeared far less confident, and often childlike. The school offered a refuge from the glare of publicity, and Rosemary pronounced it “the most wonderfulest place I’ve been to”.

After a few weeks there, Joseph enthusiastically wrote to his wife: “She is contented completely to be teaching with Mother Isabel. She is happy, looks better than she ever did in her life, is not the slightest bit lonesome, and loves to get letters from [her siblings] telling her how lucky she is to be over here.”

Rosemary was indeed thriving. One of her close school friends, Dorothy Gibbs, wrote to Rosemary’s father: “Please God that someday he will grant you the joy of a perfect healing for her.”

However, Joseph’s known Nazi sympathies, combined with his outspoken opinions that Britain could not win the war and that “democracy was finished”, made his withdrawal as ambassador inevitable. In November 1940, with America on the brink of joining the conflict, he was sent back to the United States, his political career in ruins. Rosemary accompanied him and, from this point, her life took a tragic downward turn.

A tragic decision

Rosemary’s return to America was disastrous. Taken away from the love and care that had surrounded her in England, she regressed swiftly. The progress she had made at Belmont House vanished. She reportedly had violent seizures and temper tantrums, lashing out at those around her, even her own younger siblings and the children in her charge. Her family grew increasingly afraid of her. In one incident, reported by Peter Collier and David Horowitz in The Kennedys: An American Drama, Rosemary “suddenly attacked Honey Fitz [the family nickname of her maternal grandfather], hitting and kicking her tiny, white-haired grandfather until she was pulled away”.

Shut up in a convent, she grew defiant of restrictions. The nuns could not control her. “Many nights,” Rosemary’s cousin Ann Gargan recounted, “the school would call to say she was missing, only to find her out walking around the streets at 2am.”

It soon emerged that Rosemary was “sneaking out”, in the words of a fellow patient who shared many years of Rosemary’s later confinement, “to meet men in taverns – men who were happy to give her attention, comfort, and sex”, writes Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff in The Missing Kennedy.

Joseph Kennedy felt that Rosemary's increasingly erratic behaviour might jeopardise his family's political ambitions. Here, Senator Robert Kennedy speaks at an election rally in 1968. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)
Joseph P Kennedy felt that Rosemary’s increasingly erratic behaviour might jeopardise his family’s political ambitions. Here, Senator Robert Kennedy speaks at an election rally in 1968. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

The convent’s sisters informed her father, who was horrified: not only was Rosemary at risk; in his view, she was also jeopardising the high political ambitions he had for his sons. Her erratic behaviour led Joseph to begin investigating surgical ‘solutions’ and, in November 1941, he (without consulting his wife) authorised two surgeons, Dr Walter Jackson Freeman and Dr James W Watts, to perform a lobotomy on Rosemary. She was just 23 years old.

The lobotomy – a new ‘psycho-surgical’ operation that involved separation or removal of pathways between lobes of the brain – was believed to be a cure for a multitude of psychological delinquencies such as alcoholism and ‘nymphomania’ [the term given to uncontrollable and excessive sexual desire]. Up to 5,000 lobotomies a year were performed in the United States during the 1940s, the majority on young women. In total, Dr Freeman was singlehandedly responsible for almost 3,000 of these procedures. An article in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1941 praised Freeman’s “pioneering” work and offered hope that the surgery could make patients who were “problems to their families and nuisances to themselves” into “useful members of society”.

Drilling holes into Rosemary’s skull, Dr Freeman inserted a knife and began cutting away the frontal lobes of her brain. Strapped tightly to the table, she was awake and terrified through the procedure. Suddenly, she fell silent and lapsed into unconsciousness.

Without consulting his wife, Joseph P Kennedy two surgeons to perform a lobotomy on his eldest daughter Rosemary. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Without consulting his wife, Joseph P Kennedy authorised two surgeons to perform a lobotomy on his eldest daughter Rosemary. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The operation had been a catastrophic failure. Rosemary could no longer walk or talk. Even after years of therapy, she could utter no more than a few words and never fully recovered the use of her limbs. Her autonomy, such as it had been, was effectively over. She was to live for the next 64 years hidden away in institutions, needing full-time care.

Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff records that doctors had ordered Rosemary Kennedy “to have no visitors, because they could disrupt and confuse her”. It’s possible that Joseph also directed there to be no visitors, aiming to avoid the charge by political rivals that there was ‘lunacy’ in the family. Whatever the reasons, writes Koehler-Pentacoff, “Rosemary received no visitors during the bleakest years of her life”.

The eldest Kennedy daughter was eventually given a private cottage on the grounds of Saint Coletta’s, a special school in Wisconsin. She lived there quietly, secluded from the press and prying eyes.

In the 1960s, a series of strokes left her father unable to move or talk and her mother later suffered a stroke in the 1980s; both needed constant care. The remaining Kennedy siblings – Ted, Eunice, Jean, Patricia – visited Rosemary in her later years, but for much of her life Rosemary’s very existence was a secret. She lived forgotten by the world, with few companions except the devoted nuns who cared for her.

She occasionally showed tiny signs of progress, but these would vanish again, and for the last years of her life she was huddled in a wheelchair, unrecognisable as the vibrant, beautiful woman who had dazzled the British press in the 1930s. She died in 2005, at the age of 86.

Marius Gabriel’s latest novel, The Ocean Liner, was published by Lake Union Publishing in March 2018. To find out more, click here.

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