Rosemary Kennedy in 1938, prior to her lobotomy, ready to be presented at Court.
|Born||Rose Marie Kennedy
September 13, 1918
Brookline, Massachusetts, United States
|Died||January 7, 2005
Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, United States
|Resting place||Holyhood Cemetery|
|Education||Sacred Heart Convent|
|Parent(s)||Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.
|Relatives||See: Kennedy family|
Rose Marie "Rosemary" Kennedy (September 13, 1918 – January 7, 2005) was the first daughter born to Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. She was born with intellectual disabilities, though this remained a family secret for decades due to stigma. She was the first sister of President John F. Kennedy, and Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. Her father had her undergo a prefrontal lobotomy at age 23, which left her permanently incapacitated.
Family and early life
Rose Marie Kennedy was born at her parents' home in Brookline, Massachusetts. She was the third child and first daughter of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald. She was named after her mother, and commonly called "Rosemary" or "Rosie". During her birth, the doctor was not immediately available and the nurse ordered Rose Kennedy to keep her legs closed, forcing the baby’s head to stay in the birth canal for two hours. The actions resulted in a harmful loss of oxygen.
Rose Kennedy sent Rosemary to the Sacred Heart Convent in Elmhurst, Providence, Rhode Island, at age 15, where she was educated separately from the other students. Two nuns and a special teacher, Miss Newton, worked with her all day in a separate classroom. The Kennedys gave the school a new tennis court for their efforts. Her reading, writing, spelling, and counting skills were reported to be at a fourth-grade level. She studied hard but felt she disappointed her parents, whom she wanted to please. During this period, her mother arranged for her older brother Jack to accompany her to a tea-dance. Thanks to him, she appeared "not different at all" during the tea-dance.
By Massachusetts state law, the Binet intelligence test was given to her before first grade, as she twice failed to advance from kindergarten on schedule. According to Henry H. Goddard, Rosemary had personally suffered intellectual disabilities. She was deemed to have an IQ between 60 and 70 (in an adult, equivalent to a mental age between eight and twelve). Her sister Eunice thought that Rosemary's problems arose because a nurse had delayed her birth awaiting the doctor who arrived late, depriving her of oxygen. Her mother's cousin thought the marriage of second cousins by Rose's parents John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald and Mary Josephine "Josie" Hannon caused the condition. A biographer wrote that Rose Kennedy did not confide in her friends and that she pretended her daughter was normal, with relatives beyond the immediate family knowing nothing of Rosemary's reported low IQ. Younger sister Eunice surmised from various doctors' visits to their home that Rosemarie was both "mentally ill" and epileptic.
Diaries written by her in the late 1930s, and published in the 1980s, reveal a young woman whose life was filled with outings to the opera, tea dances, dress fittings, and other social interests:
- "Went to luncheon in the ballroom in the White House. James Roosevelt took us in to see his father, President Roosevelt. He said, 'It's about time you came. How can I put my arm around all of you? Which is the oldest? You are all so big.'"
- "Have a fitting at 10:15 Elizabeth Arden. Appointment dress fitting again. Home for lunch. Royal tournament in the afternoon."
- "Up too late for breakfast. Had it on deck. Played Ping-Pong with Ralph's sister, also with another man. Had lunch at 1:15. Walked with Peggy. also went to horse races with her, and bet and won a dollar and a half. Went to the English Movie at five. Had dinner at 8:45. Went to the lounge with Miss Cahill and Eunice and retired early."
Appearance at court
Kennedy was presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during her father's service as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Her father presented his daughters instead of, more customarily, choosing about thirty young American debutantes, a decision which earned him favor in the press. Kennedy's "slowness" was also unconventional and daring for a debut (two of the queen's nieces remained in a mental hospital because they were mentally ill). Young women would practice the rather complicated royal curtsey, sometimes learning the performance at the Vacani School of Dancing near Harrods. She practiced for hours and hours. She wore a gown made of white tulle with a net train and carried a bouquet of lilies of the valley. Her sister Kathleen was described as "stunning, but she was only a shadow of Rosemary's beauty". Just as Rosemary was about to "glide off" by stepping to the right, she tripped and nearly fell. Rose Kennedy never discussed the incident and treated the debut as a triumph. The crowd made no sign, the King and the Queen smiled as if nothing had happened, and it is unknown if Rosemary was aware of her own stumble.
One Kennedy family biographer called her "absolutely beautiful" with "a gorgeous smile". At twenty, she was "a picturesque young woman, a snow princess with flush cheeks, gleaming smile, plump figure, and a sweetly ingratiating manner to almost everyone she met". She enjoyed dancing, such as at her sister Kathleen's coming-out party. Kennedy's parents told Woman's Day that she was "studying to be a kindergarten teacher", and Parents was told that while she had "an interest in social welfare work, she is said to harbor a secret longing to go on the stage". The Boston Globe wrote requesting an interview which was declined, but her father's assistant Eddie Moore prepared a response, which Rosemary copied out laboriously, letter by letter:
"I have always had serious tastes and understand life is not given us just for enjoyment. For some time past, I have been studying the well known psychological method of Dr. Maria Montessori and I got my degree in teaching last year."
Placid and easygoing as a child and teenager, the maturing Rosemary Kennedy became increasingly assertive and rebellious. She was also reportedly subject to violent mood swings. Some observers have since attributed this behavior to her difficulties in keeping up with siblings who were expected to perform to high standards, as well as the hormonal surges associated with puberty. In any case, the family had difficulty dealing with her stormy moods and reckless behavior. Rosemary had begun to sneak out at night from the convent school in Washington, D.C. where she was cared for and educated. Her normally placid personality and occasional erratic behavior frustrated her parents who expected all of their children to behave appropriately, be highly goal-oriented, and act competitively. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. was especially worried that his daughter's behavior would bring shame and embarrassment upon the family and possibly damage his political career.
In November 1941, when Rosemary Kennedy was 23, doctors told Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. that a new neurosurgical procedure, lobotomy, would help calm her mood swings and stop her occasional violent outbursts. (About 80 lobotomies, 80% on women, had been performed in the United States at the time.) He decided that his daughter should have the lobotomy performed; however, he did not inform his wife Rose of this until after the procedure was completed. Rosemary was strapped to the operating table. James W. Watts, who carried out the procedure with Walter Freeman, of Wingdale Psychological and Correctional Facility, described what happened next (as narrated by Ronald Kessler):
"We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch." The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. "We put an instrument inside", he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord's Prayer or sing "God Bless America" or count backwards..... "We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded." ..... When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.
After the lobotomy, it quickly became apparent that the procedure was not successful. Kennedy's mental capacity diminished to that of a two-year-old child. She could not walk or speak intelligibly and was considered incontinent.
After the procedure, Rosemary was immediately institutionalized where she remained for the rest of her life. She initially lived for several years at Craig House, a private psychiatric hospital an hour north of New York City. In 1949, she moved to a house in Jefferson, Wisconsin, where she lived for the rest of her life on the grounds of the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children (formerly known as "St. Coletta Institute for Backward Youth").
Archbishop Richard Cushing had told her father about St. Coletta's, an institution for more than three hundred people with disabilities, and her father traveled to and built a private house for her about a mile outside St. Coletta's main campus near Alverno House which was designed for adults who needed lifelong care. The nuns called the house "the Kennedy cottage". Two Catholic nuns, Sister Margaret Ann and Sister Leona, provided her care along with a student and a woman who worked on ceramics with Rosemary three nights a week. Alan Borsari supervised the team and was able to call in specialists. Rosemary had a dog and a car that could be used to take her for rides.
In response to her condition, Rosemary's parents separated her from her family. Rose Kennedy did not visit her for twenty years. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. did not visit his daughter at the institution. While her older brother John was campaigning for re-election for the Senate in 1958, the Kennedy family explained away her absence by claiming she was reclusive. At one point, a rumor circulated that Rosemary was too busy working as a teacher for disabled children to make public appearances. The Kennedy family did not publicly explain her absence until after John was elected as President of the United States in 1961. The Kennedys did not reveal that she was institutionalized because of a failed lobotomy but instead said that she was deemed "mentally retarded".
Following the death of her father in 1969, Rosemary was occasionally taken to visit relatives in Florida and Washington, D.C., and to her childhood home on Cape Cod. By that time, Rosemary had learned to walk again but did so with a limp. She never regained the ability to speak clearly and her arm was palsied. Her condition is credited as the inspiration for Eunice Kennedy Shriver to later found the Special Olympics, although Shriver told The New York Times in 1995 that that was not exactly the case. In 1983, the Kennedy family gave $1 million to renovate Alverno House. The gift added a therapeutic pool and enlarged the chapel.
Rosemary Kennedy died from natural causes on January 7, 2005, at the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, at the age of 86, with her sisters Jean, Eunice, and Patricia, and brother Ted, by her side. She was buried beside her parents in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts.
She was the first child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy to die from natural causes.
Although a tragic story of could-haves and might-have-beens, Rosemary's condition deeply affected two of her siblings in profound ways. After her parents' apparent abandonment due to measures of guilt and shame, her sister took up the responsibilities. In 1962 Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded Camp Shriver, which was initially held on her Maryland farm, Timberlawn. By 1968 it had evolved into the Special Olympics.
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