Just when you think not another word could be written about the family with which Americans have a seemingly insatiable fascination, biographer Barbara A. Perry makes use of newly released papers to paint a fuller picture of Rose Kennedy than ever before in Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch.

Through letters and diaries, Perry depicts Rose Kennedy as a complicated, influential and—it must be said—not particularly likable woman. The mother of nine, including a future president, took her role seriously. She kept meticulous records of her children’s physical health on index cards, with a particularly obsessive focus on their teeth and weight. She instilled in them her strong Catholic faith and helped ensure they were well versed in everything from current events to geography. “My great ambition was to have my children morally, physically and mentally as perfect as possible,” Kennedy said.

Yet she also carefully cultivated and protected her family’s media image to help ensure political success and a TV-friendly appearance. She kept daughter Rosemary out of the limelight for decades to hide her mental retardation from the world. Kennedy also turned a blind eye to her husband’s many affairs and advised her daughters to do the same in their own marriages.

She thrived in the company of the world’s rich and powerful, especially when her husband Joe served as the United States ambassador to Great Britain in the years leading up to World War II. And while it’s hard to fault her for wanting some respite from such a large brood, it’s surprising to learn that she spent months traveling abroad, leaving her young children in the care of governesses, maids and nurses while she explored the globe and bought the latest Parisian fashions. In 1923, she took a six-week trip to California; she often escaped to Palm Beach during the cold Boston winters. “When I left my children and their problems at home, I wanted to tuck them aside mentally for a while and talk and hear about something new and different in order to refresh my mind,” she said.

A senior fellow in presidential oral history at the University of Virginia, Perry writes with compassion and brings keen insight into what Rose Kennedy’s own words tell us about this complex woman.

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