A CORRECTION IN The New York Times on August 28, 2009, noted a number of errors in a photo caption that had accompanied the obituary of Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy the day before.
The caption, the nation’s newspaper of record acknowledged, “misidentified two of his sisters and omitted a third in some editions. In some editions, Eunice’s name was omitted and in some editions Rosemary and Kathleen were reversed.”
Invisible or interchangeable. That was the lot of the daughters of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, relegated to the role of decorative accessories to the outsized ambitions first of their father, and, later, of their brothers. Charming London society when Joe was US ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s in the late 1930s. Hosting ladies’ teas during Jack’s first congressional race a decade later. Accompanying one of their brothers during the continual campaign that defined the Kennedys’ lives for more than a half-century. From Jack’s ascendancy as the first Catholic president through Bobby’s ill-fated run for the White House to Ted’s long career in the Senate, Eunice, Pat, and Jean — the three Kennedy sisters who were not lost young to tragedy — formed a silent backdrop to the nation’s storied political dynasty.
In the case of Eunice, however, the image of a reticent sidekick was wildly out of focus. There was nothing silent or ornamental about the fifth of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s nine children. Even as she hatched the idea for those tea parties, Eunice chafed at such a circumscribed role in what was fast becoming the family business.
“Dear Daddy, I know you are very busy,” she wrote to her father at Hyannis Port, probably in the late 1950s. “I also know you are advising everyone else in that house on their careers, so why not me?”
She knew the answer. As much as Joe Kennedy loved all of his children, his sons, not his daughters, were his priority. Born only a year after women in the United States secured the right to vote, Eunice came of age a generation before the second wave of feminism expanded expectations and opportunities for women. In many ways, her struggle to be seen — on the public stage and in her own family — mirrored the experience of many ambitious women in mid-20th century America who had to maneuver around the rigid gender roles that defined the era. When Joe Kennedy died, in 1969, the subheadline above his obituary in the New York Daily News reflected the value accorded his five surviving children: “He Left One Son,” it read.
The least introspective member of a clan scornful of self-reflection, Eunice wasted little energy ruminating about the second-tier status of women in her family, but it hardly escaped her notice that her father had vetoed Jean’s plan to become a doctor or a nurse and Pat’s ambition to pursue a career in business or the law. Of the sisters, only Eunice broke out of the box to which her gender consigned her, finding a way around her beloved but dismissive father and her pious but shallow mother to secure her place in the world and in history.
Until the end of her life, Eunice would give fulsome credit to her brothers for initiatives that had been her ideas. She would cede the spotlight to the boys, but she would use her wits, her famous name, her father’s fortune, and her brothers’ influence to make her own mark. In the process, she would advance one of the great civil rights movements, on behalf of millions of people across the world with intellectual disabilities. When she died, two weeks before her more celebrated kid brother, Ted, it was Eunice who left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound and lasting legacy.
Her vision elevated a Chicago parks program into the Special Olympics, which, on its 50th anniversary this year, serves more than 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries. Her fervor transformed her family’s unfocused charitable foundation into an engine for scientific research at universities from Stanford to Harvard. Her determination to empty Dickensian institutions for those with intellectual disabilities sparked an unprecedented national commitment to community-based group homes, educational inclusion, and job training that transformed the lives of millions who had been warehoused and forgotten.
She did it her way, often recognizing the fault lines in American society long before her brothers took notice. Eunice worked at the US State Department two years before Jack arrived on Capitol Hill. She administered a task force at the US Department of Justice on juvenile delinquency 14 years before Bobby tackled that issue as attorney general. She denounced the long prison terms meted out to the nonviolent offenders she counseled at Alderson, the federal penitentiary for women in West Virginia, more than 25 years before Ted championed that same cause on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
EUNICE PROVED HERSELF A SAVVY political strategist from a young age. During Jack’s first campaign in 1946, he dispatched her to give speeches on his behalf. It was Eunice who insisted on staging formal tea parties for female voters with her mother and sisters that became a regular feature of Kennedy politicking. Jack’s advisers scoffed, certain the money would be better spent on beer-busts for veterans just back from World War II. Not for the last time, Jack listened to Eunice, and there were lines of women voters around the block at the Hotel Commander in Cambridge, clasping invitations hand-addressed by the 20 calligraphers Eunice had hired.
When voters in the 11th District in Massachusetts sent Jack to the US House, Eunice went to Washington, too. The Georgetown row house they shared was a mess, and Eunice an unconventional hostess. The columnist Joe Alsop once arrived for dinner to find no one at home, chairs overturned from a football-passing contest, and a half-eaten sandwich on the mantelpiece. The freshman congressman Richard Nixon from California remembered Eunice would adjourn with the men to talk politics after dinner, lighting up her own cigar and leaving the women to gossip in the parlor.
Jack was something of a political cipher in 1947, impatient with the pace of lawmaking and often absent, plagued with back pain and other ills. But the also-sickly Eunice was on fire, garnering headlines as she denounced conditions in detention centers for youthful offenders and traveled the country to promote initiatives to combat juvenile delinquency as an emissary for the US Justice Department.
Joe Kennedy had assumed that his daughter’s reformist zeal would fill a brief interval between college and marriage. But when Eunice talked, instead, of entering the convent to continue her social work, her father would not have it. A Kennedy in a black habit and white wimple would not advance his ambition for Jack to become the first Catholic president. Instead, Joe encouraged the ardent romantic interest of his aide, Robert Sargent Shriver. After seven years, with Eunice still spurning Sarge’s marriage proposals, Joe asked the president of the University of Notre Dame to intervene. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh told Eunice her vocation was not to be a nun, but to marry the man who one day would lead President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps and President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s war on poverty.
“I think I resolved it to everyone’s satisfaction,” Hesburgh said of his role in facilitating one of the Kennedy family’s most successful marriages, a partnership built on a commitment to social justice that Eunice and Sarge passed on to their five children. It was a rare evening at the Shriver dinner table that their father did not raise his glass to toast their mother as the smartest and most beautiful woman in the world.
In her men’s trousers and moth-eaten sweaters, the Stanford-educated Eunice “wasn’t exactly like any other mother you’d ever seen,” her daughter Maria said. “She would come to pick us all up at school in her blue Lincoln convertible. Her hair would be flying in the wind; there usually would be some pencils or pens in it. The car would be filled with all these boys and their friends and their animals. She’d have on a cashmere sweater with little notes pinned to it to remind her of what she needed to do when she got home. And more often than not, the sweater would be covering a bathing suit, so she could lose no time jumping into the pool to beat us all in a water polo game.”
Despite a physical constitution so weak her brothers and sisters called her “Puny Eunie,” Eunice was an exceptional athlete, competing in the one arena where skill trumped gender in the Kennedy family. She was the best sailor in a group of natural mariners, the best tennis player among siblings who had volleyed on the grass courts of Wimbledon and the clay at Cap d’Antibes. Trained to win, she usually did, with little regard for the fit or condition of her swimsuit or tennis dress.
Eunice ignored the churlish notes that arrived regularly from her own fashion-conscious mother, criticizing her haphazard attire and her unruly hair. But Eunice could also rise to the occasion. Tourists lined up outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in 1953 to catch a glimpse of her in the Dior wedding gown custom made for her in Paris. She often stood in for Jackie at state dinners when Jack was in the White House and she posed for Vogue in Paris in 1969 when Sarge was US ambassador to France.
The ultimate family loyalist, Eunice was in many ways the anti-Kennedy. Her work upended her father’s dictum that only first-place finishers count. Her religiously fueled activism eclipsed her mother’s passive piety. She idolized her father, but his competitive zeal had proven disastrous for Rose Marie, the older sister called Rosemary, who had been lobotomized in 1941 in a botched attempt to treat the mental illness that compounded her intellectual disabilities. The surgery, initiated by Joe without Rose’s knowledge, left their 23-year-old daughter incapacitated, exiled from her family by the patriarch’s decree until Eunice brought her out of the shadows after her father’s domineering voice had been silenced by a stroke in 1961.
In reclaiming her discarded sister, Eunice was redressing not just her father’s choices but her own. How had it been so easy to acquiesce to the banishment of the sister she had taught to sail, with whom she had hiked the Alps and danced at debutante balls? How could she have put the inconvenient Rosie out of her mind as well as out of her sight?
Did she agree with her father, who wrote in 1958 to one of the nuns caring for Rosemary in a Wisconsin institution that “the solution of Rosemary’s problem has been a major factor in the ability of all the Kennedys to go about their life’s work and to try to do it as well as they can”? Had Rosemary been sacrificed so they could thrive?
There would be a mania in Eunice’s efforts to expiate that familial guilt for the rest of her life, a relentlessness that could irritate her siblings and intimidate subordinates who did not share her sense of urgency, congressional staffers who failed to do her bidding, and federal bureaucrats who obstructed her path. A press aide in the Kennedy administration recalled the tongue lashing she gave him when The New York Times ran an article inside the paper, instead of on page one, about legislation she had helped draft.
The disastrous lobotomy convinced Eunice that doctors knew no more about the causes and treatment of intellectual disabilities than the eugenicists who had advocated forced sterilization as the most effective means of ridding society of those that medicine variously labeled idiots, imbeciles, or morons. To try to understand what the so-called experts did not understand became the overarching purpose of Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s life.
Her genius was not in getting there first. It was in finding and promoting the best ideas and carrying them out on a grand scale. She used the Kennedy name to kick open doors all over the world and for more than 40 years she barged through them, hectoring, demanding, working harder than anyone in the room to get done what others said could not be done.
EUNICE WAS A WOMAN BOTH AHEAD of her time and out of step with it. A devout Catholic in a secular age, she was a daily communicant likelier to be carrying rosaries in her purse than a wallet. An ambivalent feminist, she embraced the cause of gender equality but rejected the idea that access to abortion was necessary to achieve it. A devoted mother, she was as emotionally aloof with her children as Rose had been with her own. She locked her bedroom door at night and eschewed hugs and heart-to-heart talks with her children. Sarge, by contrast, had an extra bed installed in his own bedroom to encourage them to bunk in with him whenever they felt the need.
A champion of self-discipline, Eunice enfolded without judgment those in her large family who fell victim to depression or substance abuse. A communitarian at heart, she elevated the welfare of the whole above the supremacy of the self, less as a political philosophy than a reflection of her Catholic belief that everyone is part of the body of Christ.
For all of that, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was not the saint her admirers hope the Vatican will one day declare her to be. She enjoyed the entitlements of wealth too much — the cooks, chauffeurs, and housekeepers who made her life run smoothly — to emulate the selflessness of the women she most admired, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement. (When she did drive, it was her habit to park where it suited her, even if that was a sidewalk or the travel lane of a parking garage.) Meekness did not become her. Patience was not one of her virtues. She resembled more the pioneer aviator whose pictures covered her walls as a teenager. She once said that she admired Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, for her “courage and toughness in a male world and as an explorer of the unknown.”
Like Earhart, Eunice was similarly unafraid of flouting convention. In Rockville, Maryland, she stunned the neighbors by recruiting prison inmates to help operate a summer camp for children with disabilities on the grounds of Timberlawn, the 250-acre estate the Shrivers leased when they followed Jack to Washington in 1961. In Paris, she horrified the staff by turning the marble foyer of the ambassador’s residence into play space for children from nearby institutions when her husband was ambassador to France. In China, she ignored protocol to elbow her way inside institutions for children with disabilities to see for herself the conditions in which they lived. In Washington, she went straight to the Oval Office to chide President Bill Clinton about changes to federal welfare regulations that took hard-won benefits from those she still called her “special friends,” long after the phrase had fallen out of favor.
“If that girl had been born with balls, she would have been a hell of a politician,” Joe Kennedy said of Eunice, an observation that reflected less on her talents than on the limits of his imagination. A mercurial temperament, common enough in men but anathema in women, might have proven an insurmountable bar to elective office. Impatient and insistent, she was the definition of impolitic. In her missionary zeal, she did not much care whom she offended in pursuit of her aims. She left it to others to smooth the feathers she invariably ruffled along the way. The same was said of her father and of her younger brother Bobby. But they were Kennedy men, not a Kennedy woman.
The qualities that might have inhibited a career as a politician enhanced Eunice’s effectiveness as an advocate. Good intentions did not impress her; results did. She measured herself, and everyone around her, by what got done, not by what got promised. It is no wonder then that President Kennedy instructed his aides to “just give Eunice what she wants,” not because she was an irritant — although she could be that — but because he trusted that, on issues that mattered to her, his sister had figured out what worked.
Her influence did not end that awful day in Dallas. She was bent but not broken by her brother’s assassination. At President Kennedy’s funeral, Ted returned the sedatives the medical director of the Peace Corps had prescribed for Eunice.
“Right medicine, Doc; wrong girl,” he said.
For the next four decades, Republican and Democratic presidents took her calls, read her memos, and responded to her requests. In 1984, Ronald Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1998, Bill and Hillary Clinton celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Special Olympics with her at the White House. A decade later, even as her health failed and her death neared, she was haranguing senators and congressmen from her bed about amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Awards she received cited compassion as the fuel that propelled her to fight for the forgotten. But there was also rage. Rage at the impotence of a medical establishment that had no answers for her sister. Rage at the inability, or unwillingness, of society to deliver on America’s promise of equality for all its citizens, no matter their gender or their diminished intellectual capacities.
“Needless to say, after so many years of coming here to celebrate Jack and all the boys, it is nice to have an evening for one of the women,” she told an audience gathered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston in 2007 to honor her. Her lips were parted in a smile but her teeth were clenched.
Eileen McNamara won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary at The Boston Globe and is now the director of the journalism program at Brandeis University. This story is excerpted from her new book, “Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed The World,” copyright 2018 by Eileen McNamara. Reprinted by arrangement with Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.