She was a mayor’s daughter, an ambassador’s wife and a president’s mother. For more than nine decades Rose Kennedy led a multiple life as a society matron, political campaigner, charity fund-raiser, devout Roman Catholic - and the mother of nine children.
Rose Kennedy, who died Sunday at age 104, might have made a successful politician herself, but she relished the role of mother more than anything else.
“Raising children is a challenge - they keep you young, alive, abreast of new things in the world,” she once said in a magazine interview. “If you pass this up for a career, what have you got at the end of a lifetime? Scrapbooks!”
She maintained a remarkable outward serenity, heavily grounded in her religious faith. Hers was a traditional, literal-minded belief in what the church teaches. She went to daily Mass, said her rosary and knelt devotedly before the 14 Stations of the Cross in her church. “God never sends us a cross that is too heavy for us to bear,” she once said.
A sophisticated and literate woman, Rose Kennedy drew solace from Greek literature as well as the Bible. “If you read ‘The Trojan Women,’ you see Hecuba, 2,500 hundred years ago, mourning the death of her son, and it goes all through history. I’ve had some very happy moments, and I look at those and I accept the others.”
In 1969, a few days before her husband, Joseph P. Kennedy, died after years of illness, and a little more than a year after Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles, she said: “We have known joy and sorrow. The agony and the ecstasy. And I must be grateful because our triumphs have been greater than our tragedies.”
She was born Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald in Boston on July 22, 1890, the eldest of six children of John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. Her father, who started out as a clerk, got into Democratic ward politics early, and won a seat in the Massachusetts state Senate, then the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1906 he became mayor of Boston, and again in 1910.
Her training was to pay off many years later when she campaigned for her sons. “She damn well knows all the nuts and bolts of politics,” John Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, once said of Rose Kennedy. “She knows how to get the votes out, how you make the phone calls, raise money, and all that. And as a speaker, she’s an absolute spellbinder. I mean, people are just riveted by her, and she never talks about the issues. The issues are a total void with her, I think. She always talks about family.”She had started her own large family, of course, 40 years or so before. After graduating with honors from
Dorchester High School at 15, Rose was sent to convent schools in Boston, New York and in the Netherlands, where she became fluent in French and German.
In 1914, the Fitzgerald and Kennedy clans merged when she married 25-year-old Joseph P. Kennedy, whom she had known since she was 5. Earlier in the year Kennedy had become the youngest bank president in the country.
Upon becoming a bank president, Joe Kennedy began his assault on the world of finance. It was not to end until he became a multimillionaire through profitable business ventures - including the motion picture industry - and astute stock manipulation just before the Crash of ‘29.
In 1915, with the birth of Joseph Jr., she began raising a family whose members were to make more headlines than all her husband’s millions.
The remaining eight, in order: John, 1917; Rosemary, 1919; Kathleen, 1920; Eunice, 1921; Patricia, 1924; Robert, 1926; Jean, 1928; and Edward, 1932.
By all accounts, she could be as tough as her husband. “Beneath her velvet glove … is an iron hand rivaling that of her spouse,” wrote David E. Koskof in his 1974 biography of Joseph P. Kennedy.
Her children were the source of her greatest joys and sorrows. Joseph Jr. was a bomber pilot in World War II, and was killed on a mission in 1944. His father had thought he would become president. That honor fell to John, who was assassinated in 1963.
Rosemary, who was born mentally retarded and who was subjected by her father (unknown to the rest of the family) to a prefrontal lobotomy in 1941, now lives under custodial care in a Wisconsin convent school. Kathleen died in a small chartered plane crash in southern France in 1948. Robert was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968 during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Edward suffered a broken back and was nearly killed in a private plane crash in 1964.
“Sometimes I wonder if there is something about my family which invites violence,” Rose Kennedy said in a 1968 interview in Look magazine. “Is it envy, you ask? I don’t know. … I’ve had so much, a son as president, two as senators, a son-in-law who’s an ambassador … perhaps God doesn’t permit that much.”
The violence left a permanent mark. “It has been said that time heals all wounds,” Rose Kennedy wrote in her autobiography. “I don’t agree. The wounds remain. Time - the mind, protecting its sanity - covers them with some scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone.”