Finding her way in the clan
Diaries, letters reveal a more complex Kennedy matriarch
In the video above, see vintage footage of Rose Kennedy and hear reporter Kevin Cullen talk about the new, complex portrait that emerges. (Video produced by Scott LaPierre)
"Well, I am just an old-fashioned girl," Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy would say when someone offered a cigarette or a drink. "I don't drink and I don't smoke and I have a lot of children."
In 1972, as she huddled with the author who helped write her autobiography, the theme grew on her, and she said, "We should put in that I am an old-fashioned girl."
And she was, in many ways. A daily communicant and conservative Roman Catholic, she lived for 104 years by a code that could have been written in the Vatican, in a family whose triumphs and tribulations could have been scripted in Hollywood. To Americans, she was the matriarch of the nation's most prominent political family. She was admired for her deep faith, her stoicism, and her resilience in the face of serial tragedy.
It is an image that, while rich and inspiring in its own way, can seem oddly two-dimensional in a family of famously out-sized figures. Rose Kennedy has been the victim of a kind of affectionate type-casting -- the self-effacing spouse, the proud and grieving mother at the center of, but not quite central to, the iconic family scenes. A face in the frame more than a character in her own right.
The old-fashioned girl was probably just fine with that.
But, 12 years after her death, Rose Kennedy's recently released diaries, letters, and personal papers reveal a more complex figure than she sometimes styled herself. An educated, ambitious woman, she struggled to maintain a sense of individuality in a culture that frowned upon independent women, in a family that considered everything a team sport, in which the women were expected to suppress their ambitions for the team.
It is a massive collection -- 185,000 items stored in 253 boxes, including 15,000 photographs and 67 taped interviews she and family members made for her memoir -- some of which were available to Doris Kearns Goodwin and other historians, including Amanda Smith, Rose's granddaughter. But the full collection, which Rose Kennedy donated to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, was not made available to the public until last September.
A close review of the files by the Globe finds a more nuanced and compelling profile of Rose Kennedy, a woman who changed with the times more than was acknowledged publicly, evolving in her views and shedding some prejudices; a woman who fought with and -- less well known -- came to terms with the daughter who was the rebel she never dared to be; a woman who came to admire her daughter-in-law Jackie, even as the widow of the president sought to escape the confining Kennedy mystique.
And, despite her image as a perpetually optimistic person, Rose Kennedy's private writings reveal her as unswervingly fatalistic, believing that tragedy had to follow triumph, as surely as night follows day -- that Providence allows no perfect, happy families.
She would find ample proof of that.
"My father was a great innovator in public life, but when it came to raising his daughters, no one could have been more conservative," Rose wrote.
Rather than resent her father, Rose said Honey Fitz favored her over her brothers, taking her to Europe and South America, introducing her to the rich and renowned. She gained a kind of worldly self-confidence not taught in the convent.
"I don't think he gave them as much encouragement as he did me," she said in a recorded interview she gave her ghostwriter, Robert Coughlan, in 1972. (The full set of interviews, including material never publicly available, is part of the archive.)
She also defended her father from accusations that he disapproved of Joseph P. Kennedy as a son-in-law. She wrote that her father simply didn't want her to marry the first guy she fell in love with, but she did so anyway.
She was 6 and Joe was 8 when they met at Old Orchard Beach in Maine, where their families vacationed. Ten years later, Joe asked her to a Boston Latin School dance, but Honey Fitz forbade it, citing Rose's age. Over the next few years, the couple saw each other, as Rose put it, "more often than my father was aware of."
After Joe and Rose were married in 1914, Rose entered a period that was personally frenetic, but, by the measure of her personal papers, strangely silent. As her husband hustled his first fortune on Wall Street and then his second in Hollywood, Rose was almost continuously pregnant, bearing seven children in 10 years. Yet this inveterate diarist left behind almost no reflections on this time. She wasn't spurred back into writing until her first conspicuous act of independence as a married woman -- a six-week road-trip to the West Coast with her younger sister Agnes.
Rose said she felt guilty, leaving the children behind. She noted that Jack, not yet 6, rubbed it in, saying "Gee, you're a great mother to go away and leave your children all alone." Her guilt was assuaged when she had to go back to the house for something and found the children "laughing and playing on the porch, apparently not missing me much at all. I resumed my journey with an easy conscience."
So intent was Rose to reclaim a little of her own life she missed an event she would never otherwise have passed up -- the inaugural performance of her first-born, Joe Jr., as an altar boy.
And she entrusted some other fleeting unorthodoxies to the privacy of her diary. She confessed to eating beef on a Friday -- with the King and Queen of England. She regularly deferred to clergy on matters of propriety -- always signing letters to priests "your respectful child" -- and yet a 1947 calendar shows she took elaborate notes while reading James Joyce's "Ulysses," a book Catholic bishops had ordered the faithful to avoid.
"One-half time revolting," she wrote. "One-half time delightful."
Even though she had a nurse do the daily diaper washings and prepare the formula, Rose was frustrated as a young mother. At times, she tiptoed close to something like feminist sentiment -- and then just as lightly tiptoed back.
"I used to say, 'Why did I spend time learning to read Goethe or Voltaire if I have to spend my life telling children why they should drink their milk or why they should only eat one piece of candy each day and then after meals.' But then I thought raising a family is a new challenge and I am going to meet it."
Rose wrote most about motherhood, and eventually knew it would be her legacy, frequently returning to update or annotate something she had written decades before.
"I looked upon child rearing as a profession" she scrawled on a 1936 calendar, "and decided it was just as interesting and just as challenging as anything else and that it did not have to keep a woman tied down and make her dull or out of touch. She did not have to become an emaciated, worn-out old hag . . ."
Emaciated, no; thin, absolutely. Rose was proud that her dress size was the same throughout her adult life. She obsessed over the family image, had all the children's teeth straightened, and complained that news photographers would not let her choose which photos to publish.
She offered maternal advice long after her children had grown to adulthood. She told Jack to speak more slowly during his presidential campaign, as his Boston accent was hard for others to decipher. She told Bobby to get his hair cut during his 1968 campaign. In 1969, she sent her senator son Ted a letter that Barbara Bush apparently never sent her son.
"Dear Ted," Rose wrote, "I wish you would check the pronunciation of the word 'nuclear.' You pronounce it as though it were spelled 'nucular,' but I believe it should be pronounced 'nu-cle-ar.' "
But, when they were young, Rose would sometimes go beyond gentle encouragement.
"When the children needed to be spanked, I often used a ruler, and sometimes a coat hanger, which was often more convenient because in any room there would be a closet and the hangers in them would be right at hand," a 1972 diary entry noted.
Once while minding her grandson Joe, she scolded him for making noise while she was on the phone. But she didn't know where the closets in Bobby's and Ethel's new home were, and when the young Joe led her to the closet so she could get a coat hanger, she took pity on the earnest little boy and spared him the rod. Two other grandchildren, Bobby and Maria Shriver, were more proactive after she warned them about the price of misbehaving.
"They threw all the coat hangers down the laundry chute so that there would not be any of them around for me to use," she wrote.
When Joe became the US ambassador to Britain in 1938, Rose the diarist was at her most prolific. With the children at various schools, she could do more things for, and by, herself. She seized the chance, describing their two years in London as "the most thrilling, exciting and interesting years of my life." She wrote in great detail of sumptuous state dinners with royalty and diplomats. She golfed almost every day, went to museums and lectures on her own. Rose was embarrassed when she and Queen Elizabeth went to powder their noses together during a dinner in the royal couple's honor in 1939.
"She asked me if I got up in the morning to see the children off," Rose wrote, "and I said I used to in what I called the good old days, but that now I was usually up late at nights and rested in the morning. To my astonishment and humiliation, she said she usually got up, half dressed, to see her children, and then went back to bed again."
If London gave Rose her best years, it also presented her with her biggest dilemma as a mother when her daughter Kathleen fell for a Protestant aristocrat. Kathleen would defy her mother not once, but twice, over love.
In notes for her autobiography, Rose said Kick took after her most among her children. They had an uncanny resemblance, and Kathleen loved foreign travel and studied abroad in France, as Rose did.
Once, when the family was living in London, someone approached the then 18-year-old Kick at the embassy and mistook her for Rose. Kick thought it funny; Rose thought it flattering.
But Kick's sense of adventure went beyond her mother's love of travel. Mother and daughter clashed at times, as when the Duke of Kent casually mentioned seeing Kick at a London nightclub, for behavior deemed inappropriate, sometimes over Kick's idealistic streak.
"When I told her about the high standard we had in the United States she immediately rejoined with the sentence 'but that in having this high standard of living for a few people, we have trodden a lot of others under foot in this country and in other countries,' " Rose wrote.
Rose frequently, and unconvincingly, described her family as "ordinary," particularly when compared to the Vanderbilts and other rich people she met on trans-Atlantic cruises. Her epiphany on race during a 1941 visit to a school in Barbados suggested Rose's social conscience was still a work in progress.
"Happened to stop and interrupt a class of the smaller ones just as they were saying their prayers," she wrote in her diary, "and I have seldom been so moved; to see that group of dark skinned, little faced, with those immense, trustful, gentle brown eyes raised in prayer, convinced me for all time that there must be angels with dark faces as well as light ones, although I had never thought of them before."
Rose tried to clip Kick's wings early. Worried that Kick's popularity with both boys and girls was getting in the way of studies, Rose shipped her off to a convent school in Greenwich, Conn., when she was just 13.
"She was happy there, I know," Rose wrote in some notes she made in 1962 after a visit to the school, Noroton. "But life presented so many problems for her later -- Falling in love with Billy."
Billy was William Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, whom Kick met in England in 1938. Three years after her family moved back to the States in 1940, Kick moved back to England to work for the Red Cross, and to resume her romance. When Kick told her parents she wanted to marry Billy in 1944, Rose was vehemently opposed, citing the irreconcilability of Kick's Catholic upbringing with Cavendish's Protestant faith. But Rose's 1962 reflections suggest she also had doubts about a marriage between a "strictly Irish American" clan and a British "aristocrat-reactionary."
As Billy's unit prepared to ship out for D-Day in 1944, Kick was willing to incur her mother's disapproval and marry. Rose went to great lengths, enlisting Archbishop Francis Spellman and other Catholic prelates to try to talk her out of it. On notepaper from a Virginia resort, Rose detailed how she was "disturbed, horrified -- heartbroken" at the prospect of Kick's impending wedding. Rose saw it as a referendum on the Kennedys as role models.
"Everyone pointed to our family with pride as well behaved -- level headed & deeply religious. What a blow to the family prestige -- no one seemed to be as excited about that as I," she wrote.
Rose's notes, however, suggest she believed her husband was just as determined to nix the wedding. In fact, father and daughter were exchanging confidential letters. In one, Joe gave Kick his blessing, writing, "You are still and always will be tops with me."
Rose stayed away from the civil ceremony, and wrote little about it. Within four months, both Joe Jr. and Billy Cavendish would die in action.
Three days after the wedding, Kick sent Rose a letter, saying the theological objections to her marriage would pass with time, and absolving her mother.
"Please don't take any responsibility for an action, which you think bad (and I do not). You did everything in your power to stop it. You did your duty as a Roman Catholic mother," Kick wrote.
Rose's diary indicates she remained in bed, heartsick over Kick's marriage, until weeks later, when Spellman told Joe to tell her she was being too hard on herself. Spellman's absolution roused her. Nearly two months after the wedding, Rose finally wrote Kick to say, "as long as you love Billy so dearly, you may be sure that we will all receive him with open arms."
Four years later, Kick pushed her mother's tolerance even further, falling in love with Peter Fitzwilliam, an Anglo-Irish member of the House of Lords, who was not only Protestant but married and separated. Rose opposed the relationship, and Kick, as she had before, turned to her father, seeking his blessing. She and Fitzwilliam were preparing to meet Joe in Paris when their plane went down in bad weather in France, killing them and two crew members.
If the estrangement between her and Kick bothered Rose greatly, she did not mention that in her private writings. Her description in her autobiography of her daughter dying while "flying in a plane with a few friends to Paris" was beyond discreet.
But, over the years, Kick's memory seemed to soften Rose's views. She wrote often about Kick's magnetic personality and re-read her letters.
"Her early letters seemed so warm and affectionate, perhaps more so than those of the other children," Rose wrote in 1972.
Asked by her ghostwriter in 1972 about her current attitudes about mixed marriage or marrying after a divorce, she replied: "I wouldn't make a judgment."
It was a thank you note, signed "Jackie," the sort of polite gesture that Rose had encouraged her children to make to hosts, and it made a lasting impression.
Theirs was to be a complicated relationship often described in biographies and family histories as distant, and sometimes difficult. An immersion in the Rose Kennedy archive amends that picture, in ways both subtle and strong. Their bond would strengthen in time, and particularly in sadness.
In correspondence, and in conversation, Jackie referred to Rose as "Belle Mere," the French term for mother-in-law, using a language that she and Rose spoke fluently. Jackie's fluency in several languages was just one of the attributes that endeared her to Rose. In Jackie, Rose saw something of herself: an educated, sophisticated woman who was as interested in high art as she was in high fashion, a woman who willingly subordinated herself to an ambitious, powerful man, a woman who could shelve worries about whether that ambitious, powerful man was entirely true to her.
(Rose did write of warning all her daughters-in-law that rumors of infidelity are the price of admission to a celebrity clan, but offered not a hint of suspicion about her husband's rumored affairs. Scandal-hunters will find her archive a very dry well.)
For her part, Jackie told Rose's ghostwriter that Rose defied the hovering, hectoring mother-in-law stereotype, always willing to help out, but leaving her to run her household as she saw fit -- without judgmental "in my day" remarks. But Rose did occasionally offer an opinion on decorum.
"When Jackie arrived in Paris," she wrote in 1975, recalling the presidential visit in May 1961. "I said quietly, 'Your skirt is too short.' She said, 'Yes, I know it, but I cannot pull it down.' "
Early in Jack's presidency, Jackie was recovering from a difficult pregnancy that ended with a Caesarean birth of John Jr. She found it hard to stay up late to entertain. Her mother-in-law sometimes stood in for her. After Pablo Casals gave a cello concert at the White House, Jackie sent Rose a short note.
"Dearest Belle Mere," it read, "You were so sweet to stay up with the Casals so late last night. It made such a difference to have you stay. You added immeasurable luster to our gayest weekend of the year. So many thanks. Love XO J."
But it was Jackie's assigning Rose to the Lincoln bedroom that showed how much she understood her mother-in-law. Rose frequently compared Jack to Lincoln, from their rail-thin builds to their oratorical gifts. In a 1959 diary entry, Rose wrote that Jack had filled out and lamented that "he has lost that lean Lincolnesque look which I secretly liked better."
Jackie, meanwhile, regularly surprised Rose by being on top of fads and fashion. Rose's diary entry recalling a 1961 Thanksgiving at Hyannis Port noted with admiration that while everyone in attendance had an opinion about the new dance craze the Twist, only Jackie could perform it, "in a Schiaparelli pink slack suit."
Later, after Jack's assassination, and Joe's stroke, Jackie took to comparing herself and Rose to the Bible characters, Ruth and Naomi, a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law tandem who stuck together after their husbands died.
"Whither thou goest I will go," Jackie would sign letters to Rose, quoting Ruth's devotion to her mother-in-law.
If some mothers think there's no woman good enough for their sons, Rose's diaries and private musings suggest she viewed Jackie as someone who, as Rose put it, "rounded out" Jack's character. Rose credited Jackie with getting Jack more interested in the arts, especially poetry.
In notes she made in 1972, Rose recalled how she stuck up for her when Jack complained that his wife was dawdling at public events.
"The girl can't just rush away from people," she scolded. "You ought to have a Secret Service man there or someone like that who would say, 'Your husband is waiting,' or 'You have this other engagement, Mrs. Kennedy,' otherwise she can make a bad impression."
After Jack's assassination, Rose might have expected or even hoped that Jackie would resign herself to being a widow for the rest of her life. And Rose admitted to being "completely surprised" when her daughter Jean called her one morning in October 1968 to tell her that Jackie was going to marry Aristotle Onassis.
In her diary, Rose recalled meeting Onassis at a restaurant in Monte Carlo, just before Jack's election in 1960. She declined having a photo taken with him "as I didn't think it would be good publicity." If Onassis was insulted, he didn't show it. The next day, he sent Rose two dozen roses.
Onassis visited Hyannis Port in the summer of 1968, a month after Bobby's assassination. "I found Onassis easy to talk to," Rose wrote. "Much easier than I had thought." Onassis was also thoughtful, presenting Rose a bracelet and Joe a goblet.
"I accepted mine gratefully but rather casually because I had seen copies of these bracelets before," Rose wrote. Jackie told Rose they were not cheap imitations.
Unpersuaded, Rose had them appraised. "To my astonishment," she admitted, "it was worth about $1,500."
Onassis's generosity was not boundless. The same appraiser put Joe's goblet at about $15.
Still, for all of Onassis's good manners, Rose had not thought of him as being romantically interested in Jackie, or vice versa.
"I was really rather stunned," she wrote. "I knew he had been here but she has had different guests since Jack passed away and so I didn't take him too seriously.
"If Jackie had asked me I probably would have frowned on the idea due to the fact that he is quite a good deal older than she and I think it is difficult for a young woman to marry a man as old as he."
But Rose put herself in Jackie's shoes. "I can understand how she probably wanted companionship and a certain security which a husband gives a woman."
Whatever her personal feelings about Jackie marrying Onassis, Rose took great consolation from one of her idols, Cardinal Richard Cushing, who had officiated at both Jack and Jackie's wedding and Jack's funeral. The cardinal issued a statement, defending Jackie's right to remarry, even if it was to a divorced Greek Orthodox.
"My advice to people is to stop criticizing this poor woman," Cushing wrote. "She has had an enormous amount of sadness in her life and she deserves whatever happiness she can find."
That was good enough for Rose. She was easy-going when Jackie called about her engagement.
"She, I think, was quite relieved in my debonair attitude," Rose wrote, "because afterward she saw Ted and told him she was very cheered by my congratulations."
But for all her public blessings, in the privacy of her diary, Rose said she wished Jackie had married David Ormsby-Gore, also known as Lord Harlech, an English aristocrat who had served as Britain's ambassador to the United States during Jack's presidency. Ormsby-Gore's first wife had been killed in a car accident in 1967. He had also been part of the Kennedy kids' circle of London friends when Joe was ambassador, and his cousin was Billy Cavendish, Kick's doomed husband. It was this connection to Kick that convinced Rose that Lord Harlech would have been a better match.
"David Harlech seemed to be an almost ideal choice due to the fact that he was very close to the family and very compatible intellectually and we all knew him as a man of integrity and charm," Rose wrote, expressing in private an opinion she never shared publicly.
In those 20 years, Rose had gone from actively trying to sabotage Kick's marriage to a Protestant to wishing her son's widow had married one.
In a February 1970 diary entry, Rose noted that Jackie had sent her an album of photographs of Rose in Greece. "Along with the album she sent a letter which quite overwhelmed me, with her really heartwarming expressions of the pleasure all of them shared in my last visit at New Year's, and how utterly unexpected was life's chain of events -- that she and I, after all our other experiences together, should now start to share new experiences in an extremely different environment and atmosphere."
Rose accepted that Jackie could have frozen her out, had she wanted, especially after marrying Onassis. Instead, Jackie made it clear that Rose was welcome, and wanted, in the new family unit.
"I am thrilled," Rose wrote, "because in this way I shall always be able to contact the children, and to know they all enjoy having me with them."
But, being a Kennedy, Rose measured her and Jackie's relationship in competitive terms.
"I am certain that very few, if any, mothers-in-law have ever received such a letter as Jackie wrote to me, and in any poll I am sure we would top any daughter-mother-in-law team," Rose wrote. "Even Ruth and Naomi."
In notes she made in 1972, Rose wrote about Jackie calling her and them "discussing some of the ridiculous stories printed about her in the fan magazines."
Rose said she told her: "I know you and your children are quite happy with Ari. . . . So why let a few annoying reporters infringe on that happiness? . . . And, as I have said before, try to turn your sorrows to constructive efforts to lighten the burden of others. God intends us to be happy."
Rose's public writings often repeated that optimistic theme. "It is selfish to concern oneself with tragedies," she once told her ghostwriter. But in 1968, after Bobby was murdered, Jackie remarried, and with her invalid husband a year from his death, a more reflective Rose traveled to Chicago to speak about mental retardation, a vocation she took seriously because of her daughter Rosemary, who suffered from mental infirmity and was hospitalized for life after a disastrous brain surgery. (In one unpublished interview, Rose suggested that Rosemary's condition was a no-go area, "an accident which I don't really discuss.")
But a diary entry during that Chicago visit offers an extraordinary window into her worldview. It reads like a harsh Shakespearean soliloquy, capturing a life informed by many-layered pain.
It is, in the end, the world according to Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.
"God has sent these children for a special reason," she wrote of the mentally retarded. "To do work he cannot do through any other child. Example in my own life -- He has taken three stalwart sons equipped and eager to do his work here on earth, and left me a retarded child who can contribute nothing but must receive benefits rather than bestow. And Joe, who is so helpless . . . He has done his work nobly and now can contribute nothing -- still God leaves him here suffering minor annoyances of ill health daily and occasional relapses. . .
"In my life, I am often reminded that there is a destiny that rules over us, because no one whom I know about or whom I read about seems to be completely happy during a long time. Our family was the perfect family -- boys brilliant, girls attractive and intelligent, money, prestige, a young father and mother of intelligence, devoted, exemplary habits and successful in the education of the children. Joe Jr. handsome, brilliant, example to all, killed in plane as was Kathleen, who had she lived, would have been the top social leader in the younger set in England, but neither she nor her husband lived. Jack with an ideal life, compatible, intellectually as well as socially, was unexpectedly assassinated. Bob and Ethel, ideally matched socially and temperamentally . . . talented, happy, young, assassinated.
"But God or 'destiny' just does not allow a family to exist which has all these star-studded adornments. Ted, too, has everything and may even be President, at least he should be successful and happy.
"I myself am quite reconciled to the fact that I could not anticipate an ideal successful life. I cannot find in literature or in life many people whose lives we envy. Most of course proceed on a middling course, not many great thrills -- the normal number of deaths and disappointments. Often read Hecuba's 'Lament on the Death of her Grandson,' written by Euripides when she spoke of Fortune -- 'Here now, there now, she springs back again, an idiot's dance,' and what was true in 550 B.C. is so true now."
Globe correspondent Holly Fletcher provided research help. Kevin Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org