‘Hope life is not too difficult with me away,” Rose Kennedy, an inveterate traveler, wrote to her husband, Joseph P. Kennedy, during a 1950s trip to Austria. To this self-confident note, the mother of nine appended a jaunty signature: “Gypsy Rose.”
Rose’s latest biographer, Barbara A. Perry, offers this acute commentary: “Her life was as peripatetic as a gypsy’s, but how ironic that the prim papal countess should facetiously choose the title of American stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, especially in light of her husband’s fondness for showgirls.”
Reading between the lines is a technique to which Perry, a senior fellow in the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, resorts with some frequency. One can hardly blame her: Rose Kennedy’s was a life dedicated to emotional concealment.
“She demanded perfection from herself and attempted to perfect everyone and everything around her. What she couldn’t perfect, she ignored or masked,” writes Perry, who also authored a 2004 biography of Jackie Kennedy.
Though marred by occasional verbal infelicities (and the outdated claim that Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s marriage was “grounded on fidelity”), “Rose Kennedy” is a workmanlike and fair-minded book. Perry employs a newly released trove of diaries and letters to add nuance and detail to an essentially familiar story.
Compared with her colorful husband (indelibly portrayed in David Nasaw’s 2012 biography, “The Patriarch”) and her ambitious, wildly charismatic sons (among them, two US senators and a president), Rose remains a challenging, chilly, and mostly uncongenial biographical subject.
Rich on some levels, her life was bounded by the gender constraints of the first half of the 20th century, which dictated that motherhood would be her primary focus. “Rose’s gender clearly fettered her education,” Perry writes, confining her to “stultifying convents and Catholic finishing schools.” Rose’s acquiescence in gender norms was reinforced by her adherence to a conservative Catholic faith, which eliminated divorce, abortion, and artificial birth control as options.
Perry speculates that Rose’s well-documented travels and long separations from her husband, woven into the fabric of their marriage, may have begun as an attempt to curtail her pregnancies during her final fertile years. But Perry notes that Rose also craved solitude, quiet, relief from overwhelming maternal responsibilities, and the adventure of travel for its own sake.
In many respects, Rose was born and raised to be the wife of a US ambassador and the mother of a president. Perry stresses just how effective and polished a campaign speaker she became, not just on behalf of her sons but eventually, in honor of her daughter Rosemary, for the cause of the intellectually disabled.
The daughter of John F. Fitzgerald, the Boston mayor known as Honey Fitz, she was schooled in politics and comfortable with its demands from an early age. While her mother stayed home, she acted as her father’s companion and hostess. In a rare act of schoolgirl defiance, Rose ignored her father’s wishes in pursuing a romance with Joe Kennedy, the son of one of Honey Fitz’s political rivals.
Despite Joe’s later string of affairs — his most famous paramours were the actress Gloria Swanson and the writer, congresswoman, and ambassador Clare Boothe Luce — the correspondence between husband and wife attests to an enduring sort of love.
But Perry also finds evidence of Rose’s underlying unhappiness. She describes her as having “body image issues” and anorexia, a byproduct of her perfectionism and need for control. And she details her reliance on a host of medications, including sedatives, to combat insomnia and perhaps deaden emotional pain.
Even in her personal journals, Rose was hardly one to spill secrets. She showed instead a “preoccupation with . . . trivia,” Perry writes. Her hobbies included collecting the autographs of celebrities and buying Parisian fashions, a predilection that earned her the designation of “best-dressed woman in public life” in the 1930s.
As Perry notes, Rose never wrote or talked frankly about either her husband’s chronic philandering or her daughter Rosemary’s disastrous lobotomy — two of the many tragedies she endured. Most prominent among those, of course, were the deaths of four of her grown children, two (Joseph P. Jr. and Kathleen) by plane crash and two by assassination.
Rose’s image, almost two decades after her own death in 1995 at the improbable age of 104, remains inexorably tied to the apparent stoicism with which she handled so much adversity. Perry quotes the columnist Jim Bishop on Rose’s demeanor after Bobby’s 1968 assassination: “She sheds no tears; her head remains up, like a small bird weathering a big storm. It is possible . . . that she is a living saint.”
But as is her laudable tendency, Perry complicates the picture, citing a Look magazine account that described how Rose’s eyes “filled with tears” at the mention of Bobby during an interview after his death. Sometimes the rigidly controlled exterior cracked, revealing the heartbreak underneath.Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @JuliaMKlein.