The Clan Kennedy legend is laid to rest

Rose Kennedy, who died this week, was the keeper of modern America's gr eatest myth. Nigel Hamilton examines how she did it
Click to follow
Last year, when Jackie Kennedy Onassis died, people spoke of the death of Camelot - save that Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the stalwart matriarch of the Kennedy clan, was still alive, aged 104.

Now Rose has passed away, and will be laid to rest with her memories. Both deaths occasioned grief and out-pourings of sentiment, for both women represented the widowed soul of the United States. "Few Americans have endured as much personal sacrifice fortheir country as Rose Kennedy," said President Clinton. "She played an extraordinary role in an extraordinary family."

The death of Rose spells the end of what some say is the Democrats' greatest asset - the Kennedy legacy, one of the greatest myths of modern America.

Camelot - the nostalgic memory of a glorious Kennedy kingdom in which the US was ruled by a young monarch surrounded by knights in shining armour - owed its genesis to a chance remark that Jackie made to the journalist Teddy White, a week after JFK's assassination in Dallas in 1963. Jackie was still distraught. She knew better than anyone the intimate secrets of her husband's life, but had forbidden the naval doctors to linger over them when conducting their autopsy. A woman of taste, beauty and intelligence, she felt it her duty to think only of the good in JFK after his death in her arms.

Her exemplary self-discipline in conducting JFK's state funeral made the world see her as the rightful guardian of her husband's posthumous image. She taught America to mourn, and the world to picture her husband's brief reign with regret. To Teddy White, she confided that Lerner and Lowe's musical had been President Kennedy's favourite. Within days it had become official. The JFK Administration was to be seen as Camelot.

The great historical eulogies of the Kennedy era - Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days and Ted Sorensen's Kennedy - were written under her withering tutelage; any mention of her rocky relationship with JFK, or his Addison's disease, or indeed any other fault, was verboten. He was to be seen as a fallen Greek hero - and with respect. "The world has no right to his private life with me," she warned Schlesinger, when telling him to excise anything personal from his encomium. "I shared all those rooms withhim, not with the Book of the Month Club readers, and I don't want them snooping through those rooms now. Even the bath tub - with the children - please take all those parts out," she ordered.

Schlesinger did. William Manchester, however, in chronicling The Death of a President, refused - and ended up in a court battle with Jackie in 1966. Though Jackie won, the writing was now on the wall. Jackie's lawyers fees were thought to have exceeded $200,000. She refused to pay them. She did not propose to spend another dollar policing her fairy-white version of Camelot, and a year later left the US, seemingly for good, to become the fabled wife of the Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis.

Jackie's sudden departure left the walls of Camelot in worrying disrepair. A new generation of American journalists and writers were beginning to poke around the darker recesses, and the skeletons they found - from sleaze to mafia bosses - were not easy to explain away. It was at this unprepossessing point that Rose Kennedy stepped in.

Rose Kennedy had been denied the limelight since, as a young woman, she had accompanied her father, Mayor Fitzgerald, around the hustings of Boston. Her husband had treated her with notorious contempt, but had died in 1969. With his death, and the assassination of her third son, Bobby Kennedy, in 1968, Rose was left with her fourth surviving son, Teddy. Far from mourning, Rose was determined to enshrine a new version of King Arthur's glorious kingdom in her book, Times to Remember.

Rose was at pains to show the US how her loving husband, Joe, had trained and guided his nine remarkable children for royal service, aided by his queen consort, Rose. She omitted the story of how she'd left her spouse and children, only to be sent back by her father. She denied the suggestion that her husband had had an affair with Gloria Swanson, and gave no hint of Joe's notorious extra-marital activities and connections with the mafia; instead, she painted Joe Kennedy as FDR's good friend, and an "almost infallible" paterfamilias. The picture she drew of her children was scarcely less flattering. Among them, JFK appeared as simply one of the Kennedy clan. Times to Remember, published in 1974, sold over a million copies. It made her a celebrity again. "La reine est morte," the courtiers were compelled to cry, "vive la reine!"

The task of scholarly inquiry into the history of the Kennedys and the Kennedy administration became more and more difficult. The family had, after Jackie's disastrous suit against Manchester, determined not to respond to new publications. Instead, it relied on secrecy, its loyal "goon squad" - which would congregate upon each disaster, from Chappaquidick to Kennedy drug arrests and suicides - as well as Rose's powerful new myth of Clan Camelot. As more and more revelations appeared about JFK's presidency - culminating in the House Committee on assassinations and the mafia in 1976 - Rose's contribution became invaluable.

She became the inviolate head of the family of Kennedys, lauded as The Queen Mother of America: her personal integrity and strict religious faith were unimpeachable.

Historians, denied access to the necessary documents and tapes with which to re-assess the fictions of the past two decades, largely gave up. Few cared. The truth was, in Reagan's Republican America, the Camelot kingdom no longer seemed very important. Rose suffered a stroke in 1984, and never spoke again, but was kept alive by her indomitable will and round-the-clock nursing. The interviews that were trotted out on her birthdays seemed phoney, but no one questioned them. It was in this limbo that Clan-Camelot, still with its ancient, if senile, matriarch at its titular head came to an inglorious end in Palm Beach on the night of Good Friday, 1991, when Senator Edward Kennedy's nephew, William Smith, had sex twice in the Kennedy grounds with a woman who subsequently alleged rape. In the ensuing debacle, a fragmenting family made one dying effort to hold together and keep off the massing hordes of voyeurs. The goon squad was consulted, advice and counsel sought from loyal friends across the globe. As the story of Senator Edward Kennedy's revels at Au Bar was unearthed by the world's media, congregating in Florida, it became apparent that, although the family might (and did) defeat the enemy in legal combat, the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith marked the death rattle of a pure and virtuous Clan Camelot.

That same year, the Wisconsin historian Professor Thomas Reeves produced his great analytic essay on the question of character in the Kennedy kingdom - and found JFK wanting. Yet such was the power of myth that the rising Democratic contender, Bill Clinton, now suddenly painted himself as JFK's rightful heir - and stole from George Bush the presidential crown in November 1990.

Though he edged away from comparisons with Kennedy's sexual record, he repeatedly swore fealty to the idealism of his hero. To the delight of many he even holidayed on Martha's Vineyard, close to Jackie Onassis and the Kennedy family - until he, too, fell foul of allegations of sexual harassment.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis died of throat cancer in April 1994; her mother-in-law, Rose Kennedy, on January 22, 1995. The world according to Camelot, flat for 30 years, had become round again.

n Professor Hamilton is the best-selling author of a first volume of the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, `JFK: Reckless Youth.'