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Obituary: Rose Kennedy

Godfrey Hodgson
Tuesday 24 January 1995 00:02 GMT

Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald: born Boston 22 July 1890; married 1914 Joseph Kennedy (died 1969; one son, four daughters, and three sons and one daughter deceased); died Hyannis Port, Massachusetts 22 January 1995. Rose Kennedy was the matriarch of America. She lived well past her hundredth year, and in that century she experienced everything American life had to offer of triumph, trial and tragedy.

She chose to live her life in her husband's shadow. Joseph P. Kennedy Snr accumulated a great fortune on Wall Street and in Hollywood. He was not faithful to her, but he retained an intense, patriarchal sense of family. After a meteoric career in the NewDeal he served as United States ambassador to London, where he infuriated his hosts and appalled his President, Franklin Roosevelt, by his pessimism about Britain's chances and his sympathy with Hitler's Germany. He returned to the United States an embittered man, to make even more money in business and to work to achieve for one of his sons the presidential ambitions he had cherished for himself. In December 1961, aged 73, he was cruelly incapacitated by a stroke, but he lived on, unable to move or speak, but fully conscious, until he died in 1969. She survived him by a quarter of a century.

Through all these changing fortunes, Mrs Kennedy was the loyal and, in public, the self- effacing wife. She bore her husband nine children. Her eldest son, of whom great things were expected, died flying a dangerous mission from England in the Second World War. Each of her other sons was in turn a United States senator and a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination as President of the United States. Her second son, John, was elected and served with great distinction as President. He and her son Robert were both assassinated. Her youngest son, Edward, has lived a switchback life of political successes alternating with scandals.

Of her five daughters, the oldest, Rosemary, was born with mental disabilities which were made worse by an unsuccessful lobotomy operation, and now lives in a nursing home in Wisconsin. Her next daughter, Kathleen, married the Marquess of Hartington and would have been Duchess of Devonshire if he had not been killed in the war in 1944; she died in an air crash in 1948. Of the other three daughters, Eunice married Sargent Shriver, US senator and ambassador to Paris; Pat married the film star Peter Lawford and went to live mainly in Hollywood; and the youngest, Jean, married Stephen Smith, who took over the running of the family businesses after Joseph P. Kennedy's stroke.

Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald was born in 1890, the daughter of John F. Fitzgerald. Although he became known as a classic Boston Irish politician, with the nickname of ``Honey Fitz'', he rose to political eminence in Boston politics not by the traditional ethnic route through the saloons and ward organising, but through Boston Latin School, the best school in the city, and the Harvard Medical School. He duly became the boss of Boston North End, then still an Irish neighbourhood, and in due course mayor of Boston.

When Rose, the eldest daughter, was born, her family was still living modestly in a three-storey house in the North End. But she graduated near the top of her class in high school, as well as being voted the most beautiful girl in her class, and was thensent to finishing schools in Holland and Germany. When she returned, speaking French as well as German, she founded an Irish women's club called the Ace of Clubs. This was an act of conscious retaliation against the Protestant Brahmins of the Back Bay, who never asked her to their houses even though she was beautiful, educated and the daughter of the mayor of Boston, perhaps because the mayor never ceased to campaign against them.

Rose had known Joe Kennedy, the son of one of her father's colleagues in Boston Democratic politics, since she was five and he was seven. In 1914, after Joe had graduated from Harvard and become the president of a small bank in which his father owned an interest, he slipped a two-carat diamond engagement ring, sign of his growing prosperity and of his determination to make it even bigger, on to Rose's finger. The couple were married, by the Cardinal of course.

After a honeymoon in White Sulphur Springs, they settled down in a seven-roomed white-frame house in Brookline, a prosperous and not specifically Irish suburb of Boston, from which they moved seven years later to a 12-room house in a more fashionable part of the same suburb. By the 1920s, she was bringing up nine children, while her husband was beginning to accumulate, first in shipbuilding, then on Wall Street, and later in Hollywood and in the liquor trade, one of the great American fortunes.

Mrs Kennedy was not only a devoted, strict and loving mother. She felt completely fulfilled by the her role as a mother, and wrote in her autobiography, Times to Remember (1974), ``I looked on child rearing not only as a work of love and a duty, but as aprofession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honourable profession in the world and one that demanded the best I could bring to it.'' She said that she would rather be the mother of a great son or daughter than be the author of a great book or the painter of a great painting. ``What greater aspiration and challenge are there for a mother than the hope of raising a great son or daughter?''

Mrs Kennedy was all her life a devout and strict Catholic. Even when more than 100 years old, she rarely missed Mass on a Sunday. As a young mother, she brought her children up in her own faith, and wrote later that she ``wanted God and religion to be part of their daily lives''. Like many strict Catholic women of her generation, she was extremely prudish, a trait she by no means communicated to her husband or passed on to her children.

The Kennedys were clannish, with an exceptionally strong sense of family. They were also intensely proud of being Irish, and in their pride there was more than a hint of compensatory aggression. They were highly sensitive to real and imagined snubs from Boston's Protestant elite. Joseph P. Kennedy, however, was even more ambitious than he was loyal to his Irish origins, and Mrs Kennedy's children went to a Protestant school in Boston. Indeed their life in Boston came to an end because of Joe Kennedy's social ambitions. In 1926 he applied for membership of the Cohasset country club, but was promptly blackballed. ``Boston is no place to bring up Catholic children,'' Kennedy said, and promptly moved them and their mother to Riverdale, in the suburbs of New York.

In 1928, as Joe's winnings on the stock market dwarfed his two substantial salaries from the two movie-production companies he controlled, the family bought an imposing Georgian mansion on five acres in Bronxville, and what was to be the family's lastingbase, a 15-room holiday house at Hyannis Port on Cape Cod.

As her husband threw himself furiously into making money in New York and Hollywood, Rose was left in charge of bringing up the family. As the children, especially the boys, grew older, Joe took over, instilling into them his fierce competitiveness in sport, business and politics. But, when the children were little, they were in their mother's sphere. Friends detected her influence in the inflection of her children's voices. Although she had a nurse and a governess to help her, she rose early to attend Mass, then ate breakfast with the younger boys and saw them off to school. She spent the rest of the day with the younger children. She read to them, took them out on educative expeditions, heard their prayers and taught them their catechism. She also spanked them if they disobeyed any of her many and strict rules. A family friend concluded that ``she's the one that put the family spirit in them''.

This golden evening of the 1920s was not without sorrows for Rose. It was then that it became plain that Rosemary was retarded. Rose did everything for her that love and determination could do, but nothing made any difference to her affliction. What was even more painful was the fact that Joe, away in Hollywood for much of the time, was deeply involved in a love affair with the most extravagantly glamorous of all the queens of Hollywood: Gloria Swanson. Kennedy was her business partner as well as her lover, and in the end they fell out over business. Rose pretended not to notice. Even when Joe brought Miss Swanson to Hyannis, she took her at face value as a business associate with such poker-faced politeness that the actress did not know whether her hostess ``was a fool or a saint''.

Rose Kennedy's decision to pretend ignorance paid off. The Swanson affair ended almost as abruptly as it had begun. Now she had to play a new role: that of the wife of a politician with national ambitions. In 1934, when Joe, his fortune now swollen by his bear operations in 1929 and his swift move into the liquor business after the end of Prohibition, became chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Rose became the chatelaine of Marwood, a 25-acre estate in Washington. That was only the preparation for what was perhaps the happiest time of her life, the years as wife of the United States ambassador to the Court of St James in London. Late in March she arrived to join her husband in the residence at 9 Prince's Gate, which J.P. Morgan had donated to the American people, bringing with her just five of the children: Joe Junior and Jack were still at Harvard, Rosemary was in a special school in New York, and Eunice was to bring her over when term ended.

Rose Kennedy enjoyed the embassy and in her quiet way enjoyed making her Boston Irish point to London society, whose members she considered at the time to be little better than super-Brahmins. It was a good time for the Kennedys. There is a picture extant of all 11 of them on holiday at Cap d'Antibes in 1930 which shows them at what must have been, for their mother, the zenith of their happiness as a family. Joe sits in the middle, bespectacled and open-necked, surrounded by happy, confident children; Rose sits in the back row, a happy Rosemary on one side and the youngest, Teddy, smiling shyly on her knee.

Things began to go wrong. The ambassador made a disastrous miscalculation. He decided that Hitler was going to win. What is more, when the war started, he allowed it to be too plainly seen that he did not like being bombed. Not to put too fine a point onit, he picked the wrong side, and he showed an undignified haste to get out of the firing line. He went back to the United States, with his ambition set on the presidency for himself. Roosevelt was not going to quarrel openly with so powerful a supporter, but he also had no intention whatever of promoting a man who had shown such disastrous judgement. Rose had to live with her husband's anger and disappointment. And she had to live with the first of a long series of tragedies which would have broken a woman of more brittle character and less robust faith.

In the 1950s, as her three younger sons were making their way from Harvard into politics in their different ways, Rose Kennedy kept her eye on their progress. Her son Robert, then senate counsel in an investigation of organised crime, was mortified to receive a note, just as he was about to interrogate the union gangster Jimmy Hoffa. ``I suddenly thought of your slippers,'' it read. ``Would you please ask your secretary . . . to have them resoled . . . They are very expensive.'' She organised her several homes and large staff with the help of notes pinned to her dress. Although much of her life was spent at home and with the family, she was not without her own special brand of vanity. She went to Paris each year for the spring collections. She would visit monasteries and sign herself Countess Rose Kennedy, as Pope Pius XII had made her a papal countess.

She was naturally exhilarated when her son Jack became President in 1961, the same year as her husband's stroke. She became a sort of quiet celebrity, appearing on the Best Dressed list. Once, when she sent a photograph of her son and Nikita Khrushchev to the Soviet leader, he warned her not to deal with foreign heads of state. ``Dear Jack,'' she wrote drily, ``I'm so glad you warned me. I was just about to write Castro. Love, Mother.''

Grievous trials were to come: the assassinations of her sons, Jack, in 1963, and Bob, in 1968, and the Chappaquiddick scandal in 1969, which in all probability deprived Ted of the Democratic nomination in his turn. And there were other unhappinesses, too, including the death from a drug overdose of Robert Kennedy's son, David, when Rose Kennedy was already 93. Mrs Kennedy bore them all with iron fortitude. In her later years she devoted herself to the family, as always, and to the Kennedy Foundation, which helps the mentally handicapped. She suffered five strokes, and required continuous nursing. But her spirit remained indomitable, and her faith unshaken. In July 1990 more than 370 family and friends gathered at Hyannis to celebrate her centenary. They included her sole surviving son, Edward; three of her daughters; 28 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. They sang Irish songs and watched an 18-minute video of her life specially made for the occasion.

One of her grandsons asked whether she was excited at being 100. ``No,'' she said, with a flash of the old fire, ``I wish I was 16.''

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