Of all the tragedies associated with the Kennedy family, the story of Rosemary Kennedy is among the saddest—and least known. It lasted a lifetime and played out virtually in secret, as opposed to the assassinations and plane crashes that commanded 72-point headlines and seem frozen in time.
Born in 1918, one of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s nine children and their first daughter after sons Joe Jr. and Jack (later President John F. Kennedy), Rosemary was intellectually disabled from birth and experienced mood swings. In 1941, she underwent a frontal lobotomy—arranged by Joe—that went wrong and left her in a drastically reduced mental state. She lived out her years at an institution, dying in 2005.
Kate Clifford Larson’s account of Rosemary’s life, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, uses new sources, including diaries, letters and interviews, and makes for fascinating but heartbreaking reading. It’s clear that the family coping strategy consisted of equal parts secrecy and denial, with Rosemary frequently hidden away or left behind—literally and figuratively.
Larson also skillfully weaves a Kennedy family history into Rosemary, detailing Joe and Rose’s courtship, Joe’s political ambitions for his sons and giving glimpses into the life stories of all nine children.
The reader is left to wonder: How did the beaming young woman on the book’s cover, who was presented at Court to the king and queen of England, become the physically twisted, essentially mute woman institutionalized while still in her 20s? And what if she had been born later, when medical advances could have controlled her mood swings? Most poignantly of all: What if she had been born into a family that was prepared to accept her?
Even as Rosemary ends on a redemptive note for the Kennedys, these are questions that will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Kate Clifford Larson about Rosemary.