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Eighty-three Beals Street, in Brookline, Massachusetts, was where John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States, was born in 1917, and since his mother, Rose Kennedy, restored it in 1967, the house has been a national museum. As you go round, you can listen to tapes of her talking in her high Bostonian accent about raising her family there until prosperity and the size of the family – she and husband, Joe, had nine children – caused them to move on. When I visited some years ago, one thing above all else puzzled me about the house: this home of a devoutly Catholic family had no crucifix on the wall, no Bible or Missal by the bedside, no rosary either.
Now that I have read Barbara A. Perry’s absorbing account of Rose’s life, I am even more puzzled. This is an account, above all, of a Catholic life, with an extraordinary amount of mourning and weeping in this vale of tears: the death of her eldest son, Joe Jr, during the Second World War; her daughter Kathleen’s death in a plane crash; her husband Joe Sr’s constant infidelity; her daughter Rosemary’s mental disability, exacerbated by a lobotomy which Rose’s husband ordered against her wishes. And then the final terrible deaths: first, of Jack, assassinated three years into his presidency; then of Bobby, five years later, also gunned down; finally, the death of all her political ambitions with the Chappaquiddick scandal that enveloped Teddy.
Rose Kennedy’s life was always intertwined with politics as much as religion, from her early days as the consort-cum-daughter of “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston. In another age, she might well have become chief executive of a charity or even a politician in her own right. Instead, she supported first her father’s political activities, then her husband’s and finally her sons’.
Rose was witness to history long before JFK entered the White House: British readers will find the account of her life in London during Joe’s term as ambassador to the Court of St James particularly fascinating, especially her encounters with George VI and Queen Elizabeth and Neville Chamberlain. There were encounters with Popes, too: she entertained Eugenio Pacelli in her New York home, later meeting him again at the Vatican after his election as Pius XII, where she later also visited John XXIII.
Perry’s account benefits from newly opened archives which include letters from the many senior American clerics who corresponded with Rose, giving an insight into the interplay between Church and politics. At the time, the support they offered to JFK’s bid for the White House was kept under wraps for fear of deterring Protestant voters. Rose herself milked the Catholic connection during her son’s presidential campaign, speaking regularly to Catholic women’s organisations.
At her most terrible moments, Perry says, Rose used to identify with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, a twentieth-century mater dolorosa. The moment she learnt of Jack’s fate is both banal and terrible: on 22 November 1963, at home in Hyannis Point, her afternoon rest was disturbed by the loudness of a TV. When she went to get it turned down, she was faced with the scene in Dallas. She collapsed into a chair. In public, at the grave, swathed in black, she stood ramrod straight. Faith was always her backbone. “I am not going to be licked by tragedy,” she said.
The photos of the Camelot years always have a gloriously photogenic Jack and Jackie centre stage. Perry’s fast-paced biography is no political masterpiece, but it does bring Rose Kennedy out from the wings and into the spotlight, the woman who shaped a political dynasty and helped make Catholics in America electable.