She was born to be the wife of a politician - but who could have guessed that the daughter of a Tammany Hall politico in Boston would come to be the mother of a President and two Senators as well? This new biography was published in The Boston Globe.
Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch by Barbara A. Perry (Norton)
Reviewed by Julia Klein
‘Hope life is not too difficult with me away,’ Rose Kennedy, an inveterate traveller, 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 out-dated 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 colourful 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 honour 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…
Photo: The Kennedy clan at Hyannis Port – Joe and Rose with eight of their nine children
Julia Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism
Review in The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kitty-kelley/irose-kennedy-the-life-an_b_3599585.html
Review in The New York Journal of Books: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/rose-kennedy-life-and-times-political-matriarch