TOM PUTNAM: Good evening, everyone, and welcome. It's wonderful to see so many of you on this midsummer's night. I'm Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of Tom McNaught, the Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you for coming and acknowledge the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums: lead sponsor Bank of America, Raytheon, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Boston Foundation; and our media partners, the Boston Globe, Xfinity and WBUR.
I can think of no better way to celebrate Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's birthday than with all of you and especially with our guest speaker this evening, Barbara Perry, and our moderator, Eileen McNamara.
Ms. Perry's new biography, Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch, is on sale in our bookstore, and there'll be a book signing immediately following tonight's Forum. It's not Ms. Perry's first book on the Kennedy family. She's also the author of Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier. She's currently a senior fellow in the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
Most of us know Eileen McNamara as a former reporter and columnist for the Boston Globe, where she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1997. She's currently a professor of journalism at Brandeis University, where she recently won their Excellence in Teaching Award.
She's at work on a new biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
I thought it might be best to open with a brief video in which Rose Kennedy speaks for herself. Like her children, we try to abide by Mrs. Kennedy's wise counsel. You'll notice this podium and the chairs on the stage are all set at an angle, for she advised her children to pose for any photos with a hand behind their back and one shoulder towards the camera to appear thinner. [laughter] She also suggested that when facing anxiety, it would be much better for their figures if they said a "Hail Mary" than to opt for an extra drink. [laughter]
So let's watch an excerpt now from a video which her family produced in honor of her 85th birthday, featuring Rose Kennedy in Her Own Words, narration written by Doris Kearns Goodwin and photos chosen by her children in tribute to her. And following the video, please join me in welcoming Barbara Perry and Eileen McNamara to our stage. So please roll the film now.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Well, that is, I think, a wonderful place to begin. How many of you felt like you were watching your own home movies there? When you think of the political leaders in our lives in the United States, the Kennedy family and all of us are on a first-name basis. It's Rose and Joe. It's Bobby and Jack. And it's Eunie and Jean. We know them. They're part of our family, we think.
So I guess my first question to you, Barbara, is, what is the biggest misconception that we have about Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy?
BARBARA PERRY: I think it's probably that she was the stoic matriarch all the time. I think what I learned from spending these five years with her – and thanks to the John F. Kennedy and all of the staff here, and certainly to Tom Putnam for all the help that they gave me on putting together this book, helping me through the 250 boxes of Rose Kennedy's archives that were released in 2006.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: She didn't throw anything away, did she?
BARBARA PERRY: She lived to be 104, and she seemed to throw nothing away that passed through her hands. But I think that what I learned is that the image that I had of her as I grew up … My mother took me to see John F. Kennedy, then Senator Kennedy, in October 1960 as he passed through our home town of Louisville, Kentucky. And I even brought the little children's book that my mother bought for me in 1964 about the late President. And my mother gave me Times to Remember for Christmas in 1974.
So my image of Rose Kennedy was the image that we just saw, the image that she had in her book -- again, of the stoic faith person, the matriarch. What I learned was she was human. Of course, she was human and she had upsets, and the grief that she went through was real. And we knew that to be the case, but I thought of her as her public image. But I should say that it didn't disappoint me. In fact, it only made me admire her more because I realized how much she had suffered in private, and how the stoicism that she put on in public, how difficult that had to be for her.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Well, that sort of speaks to the main theme, I think, of your biography. You talk about her as the image-maker in that family. Now, other historians have ascribed that role to Joe. But you say really she's the one who created the image of this family and the standards they were all to live up to. Could you talk a little about how she did that?
BARBARA PERRY: Sure. So it seems to me that in addition to being what I hope will be considered the definitive biography of Rose Kennedy, this book is also the biography of an image, as Eileen says. I began by having it first entitled, Rose: The Mother of the Kennedy Image. I don't want to give, I think, an inaccurate impression, that she would be the imagemaker, but I think she has been underserved by historians who focus more on her husband, Joe. We think of him as being the image-maker because of his time in Hollywood, for example, as a producer in the 1920s.
So the way I viewed Rose – and I say this in the first pages – is that if we were going to ascribe titles to them, if we were to roll the movie credits for the Kennedy image and the Kennedy family, we would certainly place Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., as the executive producer, just the role that he had in Hollywood in the 1920s. But Rose would take just about every other position. She would be the wardrobe mistress. She would be the script coach. She would be the person to make sure everybody was hitting the marks on the stage. She would write the script. She would take over every other role.
And I think for some people, particularly for male historians, that might have seemed too secondary or trivial and sometimes Mrs. Kennedy was accused of focusing on the trivial. My view was that her husband didn't have time for that; he was doing the executive producing, whereas Rose was finding all of the details that needed to be done. When we think of this family that we know wasn't always perfect, but they sure looked perfect, this, to me, was Rose's contribution to the family and therefore to the potent political power of this family, much of which came from the family's image.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Interesting. She came to that marriage with a political portfolio of her own. Meeting Joe Kennedy wasn't her introduction to politics. Talk a little bit, if you can, about her father's influence and the role she played in her father's political life.
BARBARA PERRY: Oh, absolutely, this is genetic. For Rose Kennedy, this was genetic and then it was both nature and nurture. She says in this wonderful oral history that she did with Robert Coughlan, who was the ghostwriter, if you will, of her memoir – though I put ghost in quotes because all of her papers show that she was looking at every word that he wrote. So she played a major part in her memoir, in ways that sometimes people who have a ghostwritten memoir do not. But in this wonderful oral history that she did with Robert Coughlan, which is here at the Library, she talked about being in the spotlight. She said, "You know, I was in the spotlight from the time I was five or six." Because her father, Honey Fitz, was a member of Congress when Rose was five or six years old. And then when Rose came in to her teen years, he was of course the mayor of Boston.
I like to think of Rose as being the perfect combination, as many of us tend to be, of our two parents. So here Rose had two complete … If you did Myers-Briggs testing of Rose's parents, you'd have Honey Fitz as the ultimate extrovert and you'd have her mother, Josie, as the epitome of the introvert. Rose ended up with this interesting combination of those two extremes so that, as this film showed, she could go out on the stump and love it. I think she craved the spotlight. Not only did she say she had been in the spotlight since she was five or six, but she really craved the spotlight; she loved to be the center of attention and sometimes was a bit put off when the males in her family would sometimes take that spotlight away from her.
But she also craved solitude, particularly when she had nine boisterous children and she would, we know, travel frequently. My favorite story about that was that she got prefab cabins or cottages and put them on the beach at Hyannis so she could escape from the family. She'd say, "If I had to hear one more football game or one more argument over the croquet game." She just couldn't stand all that noise and boisterousness. So she would escape to that. She would escape to go abroad, she would escape to go out West with her sister; she would escape to her little cottage. Two times she put cottages out here on the Hyannis beach, and two times hurricanes swept them away. Finally, she said, "We gave up and I just had to start going to Paris." [laughter]
EILEEN MCNAMARA: She went to Paris quite a lot.
BARBARA PERRY: She did.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And she went out West, as you say, quite a lot. In fact, there's a wonderful story about Jack being on the front porch as she was about to leave for that trip with her sister Agnes, and he said …
BARBARA PERRY: "You're a fine mother to go away and leave your children this way." A bit of a guilt trip to lay on a young mother.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: All the mothers in the room recognize that strategy.
BARBARA PERRY: But this is also very typical of Mrs. Kennedy as well. She repeats that story sort of on herself as the butt of that comment, that barb by young Jack, and she repeats that in her autobiography or memoir. But she says, "I was feeling too guilty," and off she toddled down the street. But she said, "I remember, I had left something behind, so I went back and there were the children playing happily on the porch and in the yard. So I went off with a clear conscience." So she didn't worry about Jack anymore saying what he did say.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Tell us a little bit about how she integrated those two parts of her personality. Because you describe her in your book as a helicopter parent before we had the term, that she supervised everything from their teeth-brushing to their weight, which she was a little bit obsessed about, it seems. But at the same time, we have a period in the mid-'30s where she takes 17 trips to Europe. How do you do both? How do you be the hovering parent and be in Paris?
BARBARA PERRY: I think it's just what I said about having these different roles that she played in the family, in particular creating the image and sometimes being the extrovert and sometimes being the introvert. It seems to me that the way she assuaged any guilt that she might have had about her disappearances from the maternal scene was to say, "But I'm keeping up with all the details." A bit like, it seems to me, women now who work outside the home and perhaps they're also helicopter mothers.
And having been a professor for a quarter of a century, believe me, I've seen the change in parents. It used to be, when I started teaching 25 years ago, it was very rare that I saw or heard from a parent until Parents Weekend on campus, and then they would come and visit. And then as time went on, in the last ten years, I would get direct phone calls from parents about the student.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: "How could you give Suzie a B? That was an A paper! Because I wrote it."
BARBARA PERRY: [laughter] Yes, "She's a straight-A student." So I think Rose, I have to say -- and you probably noticed from reading the book -- is a series of paradoxes, in many ways, and I think that that is one of them. Again, where she was often an absentee mother, she was still focused on the children; when she was there, or even from afar, she was completely focused on them and being a helicopter parent, again before that term came into use in recent years.
On the way up, my wonderful friends, Rose and Rob Capon, who are the dedicatees of my book and who are joining me here this evening, they drove me up from Charlottesville to be here. And we were driving through Connecticut on Saturday and Rob said, "I'm getting hungry. We're just going to turn off at the next exit." And so off we went and I said, "My goodness, we're in New Wallingford, Connecticut. This is where Choate is located." I had never been to Choate, where President Kennedy spent a good portion of his prep school years. We deliberately took a copy of the book and sat it up on a little fence post and we said, "By golly, we're going to let Rose come to Choate." Because Chris Matthews, in his book, claims that Rose not one time went to Choate while Jack was there, including when he was sickly and in the infirmary.
Now, I have to say – and I put this in a footnote in the book – that I found exactly one time -- there may have been others -- I found at least once that Rose was there and took a picnic for Jack and his friends, along with Ambassador Kennedy. So they went to Choate and had a nice picnic.
I think Rose herself fought this paradox. We also have to remember this: She was in a marriage in which her husband, as we know, was not always faithful. How did that make her feel? Doris Kearns Goodwin says that in the early 1920s, Rose actually, after about four children, left her marital home and went back to Honey Fitz and her mother, sort of throwing up her hands in exasperation. Supposedly Honey Fitz said, "You are a Catholic woman. You have a Catholic marriage. You have," by that time I think, "four children. You have a husband. You need to go back to your marital home and make this work." And I think one of her ways of making it work was to absent herself when possible. We also should know that oftentimes when she did absent herself, she would make sure that her husband was there, which could have been part of a punishment as well, to take care of this burgeoning number of children.
But they also had Edward and Mary Moore. Edward Moore, of course, became the namesake for Senator Ted Kennedy. That couple was childless, so they served as surrogate parents to the Kennedy children. So she had that way of assuaging her guilt as well.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And no small number of governesses, maids and nannies.
BARBARA PERRY: A whole household staff, which her father Honey Fitz had said, "If that's what you need to make this marriage work and to give you some respite, you now have the funds; you can get as much help as you need." We need to add one more element, and I think that is birth control. Because she was Catholic, what other forms of birth control could there be, but absence? Not abstinence, necessarily, but absence. Leave, go to Europe, go to the West. So I think all of those formed the paradox of this woman who was obsessed with the details of her children, often like a current helicopter parent, but would also be absent from them and her husband for long periods of time.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And her husband was absent a lot himself. He worked in New York. He worked in California. So when she was home, he was away. So there was a lot of absent parenting.
BARBARA PERRY: There was a lot of single parenting going on in the household, and then again sometimes when both parents were gone as well.
I was very, very fortunate to have an interview with Rose's last surviving child, Jean Kennedy Smith, Ambassador Smith, at her Manhattan apartment. And you would never have thought that this happened, to talk to her, bless her heart. She has just wonderful memories, of course, of her parents, and she didn't talk about when her parents were not there; she only talked about her wonderful memories of being with her parents and her siblings. And she described them all as her best friends.
She was very composed, very much like her mother, very stoic in this interview, even talking about now her being alone. And at one time she was telling me about going to her mother when Jean was in her college years, and she said, "Mother, I want to go skiing with my friends over Christmas." And I said, "Oh, how did your mother deal with that?" Because there was a family orientation – and, by the way, I was jotting down as fast as I could. She said, "I don't want you to record this." I'm writing, writing, writing away. And Ambassador Smith says, "And so my mother said to me, 'Jean, your father and I have lived our lives. It's now time for you to live yours.'" And just as she said that, I heard a catch in her voice and I looked up and she had tears in her eyes.
And that's how she remembers the family, and how she remembers her childhood. She didn't talk about being abandoned. But if you go through Rose's letters, you see so many letters from the children when they're tiny. As soon as they can start writing, they're writing to these absent parents: "Mommy, I miss you so much. Mommy, we had a play in school today. I got a puppet; I hope you can see it when you come home." Before there was an image, before the family knew they'd be famous. I thought those were the most honest of some of the missives that I found in the collection.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: There are wonderful, wonderful letters through decades in this family, her husband maybe a little more than her, but she as well. She wrote her famous Round Robin letters to all the children when everyone had grown sufficiently that they were scattered around the country, and those Round Robin letters kept everyone in touch.
BARBARA PERRY: And that was another role that she played. I also mention in the book, in addition to being, in some ways and sometimes a helicopter parent, she would have been great on Twitter and Facebook, because she would send all sorts of telegrams. When she took off for the six-week Western trip with her sister in the mid-'20s, out they went on the train, and Marshall Fields in Chicago. And there would just come these little telegrams back home. Joe did stay with the children during those six weeks. So I thought she would have been great at giving constant upgrades and updates on where she was.
But then she would also write fairly lengthy letters back to the children. Then again, once the children could start writing, they would be writing to her and telling her everything that children tell their parents about what's happening at home. Then, as Eileen says, once the children grew up, were off at prep school or the war came, then Rose became the scribe of the family. So she was the one writing up, almost like a Christmas letter, but it seemed on a weekly basis, what everyone was doing, and then she'd send those to each child wherever he or she was located.
Those, as you can imagine, are just a great source of what the family was doing at any given time. Rose begins to ruminate, I think at that point, because she finds herself alone, but not necessarily by choice. I began to see some empty nest syndromes going on where at one point she writes to the children and she says, "It's awfully quiet here without you." And she talks about how, she said, "Sometimes I would get a little bit fatigued when you were little, but how wonderful life was when you were all little and I could dress you all the same and we could go out for walks. And all I had to think about was reading you stories and choosing books from the library for you."
Now, that might have been seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, as she sometimes did, but that is where I think you begin to see some honesty come out as well in those letters.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And having nine children around can be a bit of a distraction when your husband is a philanderer.
BARBARA PERRY: Not having a husband or children, I wouldn't know the answer to that. But I think, yes, that could be the case and how upsetting that must have been. Yet, she was so careful about this. In one of the wonderful letters that my colleague and friend, Rob Capon, helped me find in private collections was a series of letters that Rose Kennedy wrote to her childhood friend from the time Rose was about 16 until she was in middle age. The last one that we found in the collection when Rose was in middle age, in the early '30s, said to this woman – apparently she had not corresponded with her for several years -- said, "I have had quite an interesting life over the last few years. My husband was quite successful in Hollywood. We would go out with Gloria Swanson and other stars. I'll tell you all about it when I see you.”
Now, we don't know what she said to that friend in private. I think we can probably say that Rose, when she was writing in, let's say, 1932, couldn't have imagined how famous the family was going to become. But that was very typical of her, was to take something very uncomfortable and put a positive and legitimate gloss on it. And that's what I found throughout her papers.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And, of course, Gloria Swanson famously said, "Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy is either"– do you want to finish the quote?
BARBARA PERRY: Go ahead.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Well, you're the author.
BARBARA PERRY: "She may be a better actress than I." This is Gloria Swanson saying …
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Well, the full quote, I believe, was, "She's either a fool or she's a better actress than I."
BARBARA PERRY: I think we're here to say, at least I am, that Rose Kennedy was no fool; I cannot imagine such a thing. Most people say they cannot imagine that she did not know what was going on. But she was a very good actress and so much of her public life was on the stage -- if you'll go back to my metaphor -- in addition to Rose taking all of the administrative jobs for a film – the wardrobe mistress, the script girl, et cetera – she was starring in this family film. She was the matriarch starring in the film.
So I think she knew exactly what was happening. But I'm sure many people in that situation would want to keep it at arm's length. The problem was Joe would bring Gloria Swanson into the family.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: To dinner.
BARBARA PERRY: To dinner, yes.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: So denial is not just a river, as they say, right? [laughter] Even years later, when biographers would talk about the affair with Gloria Swanson, not to mention Marlene Dietrich, his secretary and several other people, even her children were in such denial. Eunice, I know, wrote indignant letters to the newspapers when biographers cited this affair, because of course “it wasn’t true, it was just gossip.”
BARBARA PERRY: Right. And speaking of gossip, this is what Rose said about this, in addition to saying they were good friends, she didn't not mention Gloria Swanson, she didn't say they were good friends. She carried on in 1974 really with the story she had told her childhood friend in the early 1930s.
But she would make this case, if you will, about the friendship and then she would say, "I told my daughters-in-law"– so as the daughters-in-law would come into the family, marrying her sons, she would have a heart-to-heart talk with them and she'd say, "I need to tell you, you're coming into a political family. You're going to hear all sorts of gossip about your husband. I had to hear this about my husband. My mother had to hear it about my father who was a politician. Pay no attention to it, it's just gossip."
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Although, of course, it was true of her father and it was true of her husband, and it was true of some of her children.
BARBARA PERRY: It was. But I like to point out that, if you see the cover of the book …
EILEEN MCNAMARA: It's a fabulous picture.
BARBARA PERRY: Thanks to my wonderful publisher, Norton, and the designer. I cannot take credit for this. This is Rose speaking to her son, Jack, in December 1962 at a formal dinner in Washington. It was the first awards dinner for international research into mental retardation. Jackie was there, but Rose got the place of honor next to Jack and the frontispiece, if you open up to the first page or two, is a companion photo of this, and it's Rose standing up with the President standing behind her, applauding her, because Adlai Stevenson, who was the master of ceremonies, had just introduced Rose as the greatest employment agent in Washington, DC., because her son was President, her other son Bobby was Attorney General, and her son Teddy had just been elected to the Senate at that time.
But I'm intrigued by – and you can tell me this, I hope you'll chat with me after or during our discussion period – what in the world is she saying to the President? And I think it's so symbolic because she's partially hidden, which is sometimes the role she had to play, secondarily to the men. So she's hidden behind her exquisite white glove and her jewelry and the President, we must admit, has a bit of a bored and somewhat exasperated look on his face [laughter]. I say to people – I don't know the answer, but I'm going to speculate – it could be everything from the sublime, a very important point of mental retardation public policy, to – I don't want to call it ridiculous – but again, Rose's attention to detail, "Dear, your tie is crooked." It could be something about how he looks. So we don't know.
I also, when I first saw this, there's a big water goblet right in the middle, and I thought, gee, that's a bit distracting. Then I realized the water is at exactly the halfway mark. This is a metaphor for Rose's outlook on life. When you asked what is our biggest misconception, well, our conception of Rose is the glass was always half-full, because that's how we saw her in public and that's how she wanted to be seen in public. And I think generally she was an optimist, but when she suffered those horrible tragedies, in private the glass was half-empty as she lost one family member after another.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Well, that's a perfect segue, I think, into one of the things we, of course, think about in connection with Mrs. Kennedy, and that's her faith. We all know that the stoicism was fueled by this sense – I believe we saw it in the clip – that God will not send me anything that I can't handle.
BARBARA PERRY: And that she could lose every other benefit, every other talent, every other gift in her life, but as long as she had her faith, she knew she would be okay.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Where did that wellspring come from? You talk about Blumenthal, where she went away to a Sacred Heart convent school in Prussia. The values that she was imbued with there really guided her whole life – discipline, responsibility, social service.
BARBARA PERRY: Maternal responsibility, certainly. But it starts, as we know, way before that because she comes from this Irish Catholic family, and particularly her mother was very devout. Rose talks again in her oral history about how her mother, for all 40 evenings of Lent, would gather Rose, who was the eldest of six children, would gather them all in the living room of their home and they would kneel on the hardwood floors. Rose said, "This would get to be a bit painful," but as those of you who are Catholic know, if you're in pain, you offer that up. So Rose would offer, and they would pray the whole Rosary. So the quote in here about, if you're nervous, say a Hail Mary, Rose would repeat that throughout her life to her children and say, "Don't smoke a cigarette, don't take a drink. Say a Hail Mary, say the Rosary."
I can think back to my grandmother, who would have been the exact same generation as Rose Kennedy --- very devout -- and when my grandmother would come visit our familial home, she would disappear in the afternoon. We'd say, "Where is Grandma?" And we'd go in the living room – we'd all be in the den – we'd go into the living room and there would be Grandma Greenwald sitting in a chair praying her Rosary because every afternoon she prayed the Rosary. Now, I won't tell you that sometimes I'd find her asleep, but I think it was because she was so relaxed as she said this very comforting Rosary.
And Rose would talk about how simply holding the beads in her hand, this tactile feeling of comfort that would wash over her. So I think it starts certainly with her mother and that she's imbued with these feelings of religion. Though interestingly, Rose only goes, the first couple of years of primary school, to a Catholic school. Otherwise, she went all the way through public schools until she got to the convent in Prussia.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And the convent wasn't her choice. She wanted to go to Wellesley.
BARBARA PERRY: Oh, she did, she did.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And Honey Fitz wouldn't let her.
BARBARA PERRY: He would not. And that was also one of the letters we found in these private collections. That's the first letter of the six that we found that Rose is writing to her childhood friend. Rose is now 16. And she tells her friend that she's so looking forward to going to Wellesley. And at that point, she thinks she is. She was an excellent student. She was an A student. She would have done very well there. But the story is that the Archbishop of Boston said to Honey Fitz, "You're an Irish Catholic politician. You cannot send your daughter, who is becoming the belle of Boston, you cannot send your eldest daughter to a non-Catholic institution." So that was what happened to Rose. She said late in life that was one of her biggest regrets. And don't you wonder, Eileen, given that she had a good mind, but I think found herself in a stultifying atmosphere at the Prussian convent for a year at a most crucial time in her intellectual development, what would she have been like? Think how great she was without the benefits of a four-year college degree. She did at the convent perfect her French and her German, and she traveled throughout Europe, so she had many benefits that women of her generation did not. But think of what she would have done with her intellect if she had had the opportunity to do a four-year degree at Wellesley.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: She would have also, for one thing, been exposed to a broader spectrum of people.
BARBARA PERRY: Yes. And some people have already asked me … The book, as you know, just came out today in honor of Rose Kennedy's 123rd birthday. And I just have to stop and say,
Rose must be up there in the heavens thinking, I now share a birthday with the future King of England. [laughter] I know she is totally thrilled by that.
Where were we? [laughter] I got so caught up in the new King.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: She loved the monarchy. When Joe was Ambassador to the Court of St. James, she was in her element.
BARBARA PERRY: Another paradox: this Irish Catholic woman becomes an Anglophile. Then her daughter marries a British nobleman. So Rose is just completely bowled over by the royal family and this fairytale that she and her husband and nine children are living.
So if we bring her up to date: she's a helicopter parent; she would have been a great person on Twitter and Facebook; and I say if they had been in the era of reality TV, it would have been "Joe and Rose Plus Nine." [laughter] That would have been the huge success on reality TV. Not only that, but then they go and have this fairytale in London and she falls in love with the royal family.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: She does. But when Kathleen does marry her nobleman, Rose is not sanguine.
BARBARA PERRY: She is not sanguine. The glass is half empty, for sure. And what an irony, because we mentioned that her father sent her to the Prussian convent, but we didn't say exactly why he did: to get her away from the love of her life, Joe Kennedy. Joe Kennedy and she had met as teenagers. He was two years older and they met when she was 16 at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where the Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds went each summer. She fell head over heels in love with him, and he was a dashing young man with that beautiful -- what we would know now as the Kennedy smile and beautiful hair and charismatic and athletic. And she just fell head over heels for him.
But Honey Fitz, in part because of the local politics, was not especially happy. He had picked out a beau for her in the Dorchester neighborhood, a man named Hugh Non[?], who apparently owned a very thriving construction company, his dad did, and they were a very prominent Irish Catholic family in town. And Rose said, "And he had a car." A cahr, I should say.
By the way, I was taught by Dominican nuns from Boston for the eight years of grade school, at St. Albert, the grade school in Louisville. So I learned to get to my private cahr, they would say, at the end of every day, with my pahtner. Get my pahtner and get to the private cahr.
So Rose fell head over heels in love. Honey Fitz was not so happy about this. That paradox does not seem to dawn on her when Kathleen falls head over heels for Billy Hartington, the British nobleman. Worst problem of all -- Protestant, Anglican -- and in those days, it was not the way it is now, intermarriage in the faiths not the same. Rose was just beside herself, really almost literally beside herself. She became so upset that she landed in the hospital here with almost a nervous collapse.
We know that Kathleen defied her mother and went ahead and married Billy and sadly had a four-month marriage. He was killed by a Nazi sniper in Belgium in September of 1944.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And after their wedding, maybe one of the most poignant telegrams ever sent in the Kennedy family, Joe, Jr., attended that wedding and sent a telegram to his parents saying, "The power of silence is huge."
BARBARA PERRY: Right. Thank goodness, for Kathleen's sake, her father was as supportive as he could be under the circumstances. He had sent a telegram to her. And by the way, if you want to see Joseph Kennedy's correspondence, his granddaughter, Amanda Kennedy Smith, Jean Kennedy's daughter, has put out a wonderful book, a collection of Joe Kennedy's letters, diary entries and parts of a memoir that went unpublished, his diplomatic memoir. But he wrote to Kathleen, "You're tops with me and you always will be." That gave Kathleen support, but she was not getting that from her mother, to be sure.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: That leads us to a more painful chapter. Joe and Rose were often not on the same page. They were not on the same page when, unbeknownst to Rose, Joseph Kennedy had their oldest daughter Rosemary lobotomized. We know he made that decision with the best of intentions. It's a discredited procedure today, but the man who developed won a Nobel Prize so it wasn't as if this was so far afield. What happened to her and Joe Kennedy after he made that unilateral decision and it went so tragically wrong?
BARBARA PERRY: Well, again, for certain, another instance of the glass being half empty and poor Rose not being consulted, as you say, by her husband, who had decided to have this procedure perpetrated on poor Rosemary who was growing increasingly depressed and agitated and out of control in her early 20s, she would have been. So this would have been in about 1941. But interestingly enough, another paradox is that Rose herself talks about how she and her husband, as they raised their family, if one spouse was away and something went wrong at home, they took pride in themselves in not worrying the spouse who was away, because, Rose would say, nothing could be done about it. Rose also had a rule: Never tell anyone bad news at night time. Give them one more night of restful, peaceful sleep, and then if you have to tell them bad news, you have to tell them in the morning. So she had this whole system set up of how she ran her life and her marriage, and I think that was part of it as well.
The other is, we talked about Rose as a detail person. And you must remember … We just went over to the North End the other night to have a wonderful Italian meal, and I dragged my friends to Rose's birthplace, to number four Garden Court Street, right in the heart of the North End. And it looks like a tenement; Rose Kennedy was born in a tenement. Maybe slightly more upscale than her forefathers, but it was not a palatial place in which she was born. If you think about how she was two generations removed from the potato famine and disease, and the 25% of the Irish coming to this country who died on ship, in the so-called coffin ships.
Rose and maternal health and the health of her children were paramount for her as those children were growing up. She took great pride in getting them out into the countryside, getting them outside and walking through Brookline when they lived there, and getting them fresh air and getting them whatever medical needs they had. But she would say how fearful she was in the days before vaccines of how a child could pass away so quickly. Young Jack had scarlet fever at the age of two, two-and-a-half. We know that when those children were little, she was the one famously taking the index cards and writing down all of their illnesses and all their religious milestones. But as the children got into teenaged years and Jack had all of his illnesses and Rosemary had her problems, Rose begins to back off and Joe takes over. And that obviously becomes a crucial changeover in the household.
All we know is that Rose apparently did not know. She once again does not go into any detail about this. In her memoir, she calls it a form of psychosurgery. That's as far as she would go. She did say to Mr. Coughlan in the oral history, "There was an accident." She said there was an accident and Rosemary's brain was damaged further and, therefore, she had to be institutionalized.
So Rosemary lives the rest of her life in an institution which is exactly what her parents did not want. To their credit, it seems to me, the Kennedys mainstreamed. They did their best to mainstream Rosemary long before people did that. Rose Kennedy was told by the experts at Harvard in the early '20s, when it began to become clear that Rosemary was behind her two older brothers and had some kind of mental disability, Rose and Joe were told, "Put her in an institution." Imagine what those would have been like in the 1920s.
So they took Rosemary to London with them. Rosemary and her sister, Kathleen, were presented to the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace, along with their mother. They did everything they could. But the pain that Rose must have suffered when she realized that all that she had done to bring this child up to as high a potential as she could in one fell swoop of a medical instrument had been lost, and that this child would have to be institutionalized forever more.
Compounding the tragedy was that Joe apparently told Rose and the children, "We must not go and visit her. We must not go and visit Rosemary because it would be too difficult for her as she's trying to adjust now to this new life." So we don't think that Rose got to go see her until the 1950s.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: I think probably the '60s, even.
BARBARA PERRY: Late '50s, early '60s, at best, when the family – as Senator Kennedy is running, and you, of course, I'm sure are dealing with this with Eunice. It's Eunice who brings this out to the public and writes about it. Rose only starts to talk about it to the media at that time in the late '50s, early '60s. We think in part because Jack Kennedy and his father did not want this information to come out, especially … What was one of the main primaries that Senator Jack Kennedy ran in in 1960? Wisconsin. Rosemary had been confined to the institution, St. Coletta's, in Wisconsin in, we think, the late '40s. And would stay there, by the way, until she passed in 2005.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: So Joe Kennedy never saw Rosemary again, we know from his recent biographer. Given Rose's ability to separate herself from Joe when she needed to, how do you explain that she didn't go see Rosemary for 20 years?
BARBARA PERRY: I'll tell you what she said. Of course, I'm sure you know that her husband suffered a very debilitating stroke in December of 1961. So she began telling the nuns at St. Coletta's through her correspondence at that time that that's the reason she couldn't go. Joe Kennedy didn't pass away until November of '69, so that covered almost all of the '60s. But she did go and make these periodic visits starting in, again, late '50s, early '60s.
How did she not do that? By force of sheer will. Rose Kennedy could will herself to do anything, and she could will herself to pray on subjects. I think she just prayed about this. But she told Doris Kearns Goodwin that that was the one thing she could never forgive her husband for doing, was making this decision.
But as Eileen said, and I have to admit having read more about the lobotomy procedure -- and there are some excellent books about it, about the history of it -- also remember that Joe Kennedy was always up on the latest medical technology because he was able to afford it. So because of this, he knew what was happening in the field of brain surgery, and I think he thought that this would help Rosemary. The family also was beginning to worry about Rosemary wandering off, could she be endangered. Rose worried, certainly from the time of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, that her children would be kidnapped for ransom. She particularly worried, obviously, about Rosemary.
But as Rosemary aged into her 20s and became interested in men, she would ask her mother why couldn't she go on dates, why couldn't she go to the dance the way the other girls did. And I make the case that Rose said -- and Eunice would say -- "Wasn't it wonderful of my brother Jack and his friend Lem Billings?" They would take Rosemary to dances, especially at Hyannis, and then they would bring her home and then go back and have fun themselves. And I said how disconcerting and depressing would that be if you had enough sense to realize that your brother … First of all, how depressing would that be that your brother was taking you to the dance to begin with, but then would bring you home, drop you off and then go back and have a good time. So the amount of capacity that Rosemary had … By the way, this was happening after she had been in London and seen the sights of London and been taken to Buckingham Palace. Her letters, to her father particularly, in the pre-war era just rend your heart because you can see the intellectual disability, but she's able to write. She never is able to write in cursive.
Something else that I showed Jean Kennedy Smith was an inscribed biography of Honey Fitz; it was inscribed by Rose Kennedy in 1962 to a friend. And I showed that to the Ambassador and she said, "Ah, my mother's handwriting. Do you know why my mother wrote this way?" And I said, "Because of your sister Rosemary." And she said, "Yes." Rosemary could not comprehend – she didn't learn to write in cursive and she couldn't read cursive. So Rose Kennedy changed her handwriting so that Rosemary could read it.
So there would be Rosemary writing in print, sort of scrawled print, the level of a gradeschooler, I would say, but writing to her Dad as she would be off studying with nuns around the London countryside or the English countryside. And she knows some things that are going on, you can tell. She says she hopes she doesn't have to leave England because she loves it there so much, because suddenly the family's thrown into turmoil when war is declared in September 1939.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And she has to come home.
BARBARA PERRY: Eventually, she has to come home. But she's the last of the children to be brought home because she was thriving. She was thriving in England. She was with the Moores, Edward and Mary. She was with nuns who were taking very good care of her, and she was making progress; you can see that in her letters to her father.
And her father, lovingly, would write to Rosemary and say, "I'm so proud of you. You're the only one here with me and you are giving me such strength as this war comes on. And all the others have been sent home, but you're my eldest daughter and you are here with me." Then she would write back, again in rather broken English, but how proud she was to be there fulfilling this role and not have to be competing with her very competitive siblings.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: One of the letters that Joe writes to her speaks to an issue that you raise in the book. Everybody in the Kennedy family was a little preoccupied with weight, especially Rose, it seems. You even suggest she might have been anorexic. And there is a letter from Joe telling Rosemary that she's a little heavy and she needs to be slimming. Everybody seemed to be on a diet in that family, all the time.
BARBARA PERRY: Either to gain or lose. And poor Jack, who was ill so much of the time and was this scrawny little child and adolescent, Rose was forever practically force-feeding him. And though she may not have gone very often to Choate, she was forever writing to the wife of the headmaster to say, "Please see that Jack is eating properly. He's going to the tuck shop" – which means he's eating sweets – "and he doesn't eat enough fruits and vegetables for me. And by the way, he has fallen arches, so make sure he's wearing the proper shoes with the inserts in them." So she's always worried about Jack not eating enough.
And Jack is forever tardy and this violates the Prussian Rose's view of dinner and responsibility. So here Jack waltzes in at any time and the rule in the Kennedy household was if you got there late, you only got to eat whatever was being served at that point. You miss the first course? Too bad.
I tell you, upstairs here in the archives, in the AV archives, I watched Rose – and you can watch these on YouTube. Go to YouTube, you can watch Rose Kennedy on talk shows in the 1960s and '70s. Remember Dinah Shore and Mike Douglas and Dick Cavett and David Frost? She would go on those shows mostly to raise money for mental retardation, but eventually it would come around to talking about family and this was in the 1970s. She was talking to one of the hosts and she said, "Jack was always late, and I would say 'You're not getting that first course.' And then he'd sneak behind my back after the lunch or the dinner and he'd charm the cooks into giving him the first course that he missed." By this time she's in her 80s. She throws up her hands and she says, "What could you do? He was always late." So she just could not ever get over that.
So for him, it was always he was too thin. Most of the others she thought were too heavy -- except for Eunice who had similar digestive problems to Jack. So Eunice they were worried wasn't gaining enough weight. But just about everybody else was too heavy and they all needed to be on diets.
For Rose, that was one of her just undying concerns, was her weight. And you saw the pictures of her as an elderly woman; for her whole life she was birdlike in her eating habits and built like a bird. She was very petite. She was about five-three and very petite, and she loved that. And she loved when one person said to her after she had her nine children, "Oh, now I believe in the stork." She was a slim, girlish figure until she passed.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Why don't we take a look at some pictures? You've brought a little trailer of some pictures of Rose.
BARBARA PERRY: This is a trailer for the book. And you see, just as you would in the movie theater, very quick references to some of the photographs that you see in the book. Thanks to the Kennedy Library, these are ones that are in the public domain. You'll see a few snippets of these notes that we found in the private collections. Because Rose loved to go to famous homes and then get the stationery from the White House, from Windsor Castle, and then write to all her friends and relations and say, "Look, I'm at the White House! Look, I'm staying at Windsor Castle!" You'll see some of these, all the way from 1938 to 1963.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And while we're queuing this up and looking at this, I'm sure you have questions. There are microphones in both aisles here. Please line up with your questions for Barbara.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: This is a Boston crowd. You've got questions, I know you do, so don't be shy. Bring them on.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Ellen from Cape Cod. I wanted to hear all about this because I'm from this area and I grew up with President Kennedy -- lived right across from Otis Air Force Base when he used to come in all the time. We'd run to church to see him and Jackie.
BARBARA PERRY: And that's where Jackie gave birth to Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.
QUESTION: Yeah. So I'm very familiar with the Kennedys. But I have to say, I find the story of Rose Kennedy -- I always have, to tell you the truth -- exceedingly painful, because here was a woman, a girl who really had everything to look forward to and grew up in a household where her father basically betrayed her when he sent her off to Prussia to that horrible convent.
BARBARA PERRY: [laughter]
QUESTION: See, I don't think it's funny, I think it's very sad.
BARBARA PERRY: I agree with the you. As a woman, I have to agree with you, of course.
QUESTION: It's just very, very sad. There's also another great book, I don't know if you've read it, it's called The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings by Tom Maier, and it goes into more detail about how women were regarded, Irish women. So I'm wondering, she came from a household where her mother certainly was not valued. Do you think this had an impact on her? She saw how her father treated her mother; he had his women, too. Do you think this impacted how she brought up her whole family? Because her soul certainly was not there.
BARBARA PERRY: Ellen, I think you're absolutely right. Of course, it's terribly serious, and I've had a number of interviewers -- particularly younger interviewers and producers -- say, "How come she wasn't a feminist?" Which goes to your point, that she was not raised to be that. She could not break out of her religion, the patriarchy of her religion, the patriarchy of her generation, the patriarchy of her society, and the patriarchy of her family.
But what my book says is that she took the roles that were ceded to her, which were the typical female roles of being the mother, the matriarch, all of the roles other than executive producer, and she played those roles and lived those roles and performed those roles to the hilt. In my view, that gave her as much power as she could possibly have in the family, and for that matter in that religion and in that society.
Now, people are quite right to say, “But there were suffragettes, there were women fighting for women's rights into the 1840s, 50 years before Rose was born.” But I can't find that in her. What I can find, and I think is important to your point, is that she would be sent out – because this was a role ceded to her by the men – she would be sent out to speak to women's groups – you saw just in these pictures and the first film – to speak to African American women, to speak to minority women, to speak to Irish women, to speak to Italian women, to speak to women's audiences, to do the teas. So she did that.
One thing, though, to keep in mind is that as she ages and as the men one by one of that patriarchal family fall by the wayside to sadness, to tragedy, if you read this book carefully you will find this arc, I think, of Rose. It's subtle. Because when her husband is struck virtually mute by this stroke in 1961, Rose doesn't become a feminist. But I think -- it sounds a bit trite -- but I think she finds her voice. I think you will find a gradual upslope of an arc where she begins to educate herself. Up to this time when she's out speaking to women's groups, when she's out speaking at the teas, most of the time she's talking still in the 1950s about her time in the late '30s in England and that fairytale life that she led. But then you know what she does? I talked to her wonderful niece, Mary Jo Gargan, and she took Mary Jo in the mid 1950s on an around-theworld tour. They literally, these two ladies, went around the world. Then Rose is educating herself. She's self-educated in that sense.
She doesn't have the intellectual gifts that I think she would have gotten if she had gone to Wellesley and had that four-year college education with a different group of people. But to the best she can, she is informing herself. She begins to write at that time to embassies around the world asking them questions. I notice a difference in the types of questions she poses. As a professor, I think I'm pretty good at figuring out when someone's at this level with their questions and when they're moving up. And she, during the '50s, began to move up.
And as her son became President and she traveled with him to France and to Vienna – she traveled with him to the Khrushchev summit in Vienna in 1961 and on that triumphant trip that Jack and Jackie took to Paris in the summer of 1961 – Rose came back and she put together another set of speaking points and speeches about France and about Vienna and about Austria, and she was writing to the French embassies and the Austrian embassies. And what I say is that Rose began to reeducate herself. So I think you and I are on the same page. It's not what we would have hoped for, but I think she did the best she could.
QUESTION: Also, the way she treated her daughter Kathleen; that is a total heartbreak.
BARBARA PERRY: The good news about that is that Rose began to back off already in her letters, immediately after Kathleen was married.
QUESTION: You've written about Jacqueline Kennedy and, of course, this book now you've written about Rose Kennedy. I just was wondering, since you've written a book about each woman, if you found there were any similarities between the two women, what the relationship was between the two women. And I am curious to know if Rose Kennedy had a favorite son-inlaw or a favorite daughter-in-law.
BARBARA PERRY: Well, thank you for that question. Thank you for mentioning my other book, which is also available in the gift shop, and I'm happy to sign it, too. I found real parallels between Rose and Jackie, especially on this issue of imagery. Because I wrote the Jackie book based in part … Her papers are not yet available here at the Library, so when you're doing work on Jackie – and by the way, her oral history had not been released until 2013, so I didn't have access to that. But you go around in all of the wonderful archives here and you find people like Arthur Schlesinger, the wonderful historian, who also kept everything, and kept everything in apple pie order, and you find Jackie's letters to him, so you're able to put together Jackie's life, and particularly this book is about her First Ladyship. So that book was about the pursuance of Camelot and the development and the creation of the Camelot image one week after the President's assassination with Jackie giving it that label.
What I realized in doing these five years of research and writing on Rose is that I'm calling – I wouldn't be the first to do this, but it think it's now quite correct -- to call Rose the Queen Mother of Camelot and that given that, I believe she contributed so much to the family image, that so much of Camelot was based on that image, that I think you can give Rose a fair amount of credit for the Camelot image itself.
Now, the relationship you asked about between Rose and Jackie. I find it cool and chilly in their first letters to each other. And if you purchased, and I hope you did, the wonderful oral history of Jacqueline Kennedy, you can read the whole transcript in a book annotated by Michael Beschloss and you can also listen to all eight hours of the oral history on CDs. You hear -- these are done just after the President's assassination, these are done between Arthur Schlesinger and Jackie Kennedy in 1964 -- and Jackie is not very nice about Rose Kennedy. In fact, a lot of people have not been nice about Rose Kennedy because she was focused on these details.
I think oftentimes she would drive her children to distraction by concerns about weight and seemingly trivial things and correcting their grammar. It seems to me that of the children who survived, the ones who had the best sense of humor about it seemed to be Teddy and Bobby on the boys’ side. I'm not sure on the girls. You'll tell us about Eunice and her relationship with her mother. But the boys, when they had a sense of humor with their mother and would kind of take her admonitions with grains of salt and tease her back, it seems to me that Bobby and Teddy knew just how far they could push her and tease her before she might get angry at them.
The good news about Rose and Jackie's relationship is after the President dies and Jackie remarries, we know, in the late '60s, the letters get warmer and softer and sweeter between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. So I think that's a positive note.
In terms of the in-laws, I love the relationship between Rose and Sargent Shriver, and I know that Eileen will cover this, I'm sure, in her book. My favorite correspondence between the two of them is -- get this -- Rose would find newspaper photos of her children and in-laws in the paper.
And if she saw a fashion faux pas, she'd cut out their picture, she'd circle the fashion faux pas, and she'd send it to the child or the in-law with elaborate details on how to correct it. So for Sarge, she said, "Sarge, you don't have enough of your sleeve, of your dress shirt, it's not protruding quite far enough from your suit coat." She circled that, and he takes it in completely good humor: "Dear Grandma," he writes back, "I've sent all my suits to be altered and the next time you see me, I will look much better." [laughter] And this is a man who was an impeccable dresser.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: She did focus on the detail.
BARBARA PERRY: She was a detail person, to be sure.
QUESTION: Hello. Rose seemed so constrained and controlling. Did she have a confidant? Did she ever gossip with anyone? Did she ever share her thoughts? You mentioned that she did get some mental help, and I wonder what she told her psychiatrist.
BARBARA PERRY: Oh, well, that I don't know about. That's not in the book, so I don't know that she had that. She would write these letters, as we've said, to friends and relations, but usually with the image, thinking about the image.
It's interesting to me that she traveled often alone, but that she would travel with her sister. You mentioned Agnes; she went on that six-week tour of the West in the mid-'20s and left the children behind. She loved her sister Agnes, who was much like their mother. She would say Agnes was much more introverted and if they were going to give a party, Agnes would do all the detail work with the flowers and the invitations, and Rose would be the belle of the party and would be the charismatic one at the party. But they actually complemented each other, and they were perfect travel companions.
Mary Jo Gargan -- Clasby is her married name -- said she was chosen by her aunt Rose, whom she adores, to travel because she was the daughter of Agnes who died in her 30s, I believe it was; I think it was an embolism, she died very young. Then the Gargans' father died. So Rose and Joe had to raise these three nieces and nephews; they added them to their nine children. But Mary Jo said to me that Aunt Rose picked her to go travel on this trip around the world in the '50s because she was most like her sister Agnes, this woman's mother.
Rose would also tend to pick out one of the children, one of her children, and would pick one of them and travel with them. So she and Kathleen -- Ellen, she traveled with Kathleen in 1937 to the Soviet Union. Now imagine going to the Soviet Stalinist Union, what that was like in 1937. That shows you how adventuresome and courageous Rose could be, and how she wanted to bring her children into that as well.
So my sense is she did not have confidants. I don't see them. I don't see them in her letters, because the letters don't reveal confidences. Sometimes she would travel alone and if she didn't travel with a family member, there was a woman named Marie Bruce with whom she traveled and met in the 1930s. And Marie Bruce said in her oral history about Rose, "I was really shocked when she asked me to travel with her because I didn't know her that well." She said, "However, I had just lost my husband and it would have been like Rose to be sympathetic and empathic toward me, want a companion to travel with and invited me because she knew I was grieving."
But there's not a sense that these women were exchanging confidences. If they were, I'm afraid those may have been lost to history. She was a very self-contained woman, it seems to me.
QUESTION: Would you say lonely?
BARBARA PERRY: I say self-contained. Lonely? Yes, I do get that sense sometimes, and particularly from the doctor, Dr. Henry Betts, who served Joe Kennedy after his stroke. He did say, "Sometimes, I think she might be lonely because she's alone so often." The kids are now off and married and unless the grandkids were visiting, he said, "She's just really there with the servants." She would meet with her secretary in the mornings and then seemingly spend the rest of the day by herself. He said, "But you know, I think she prefers that. Look at this," he said, "she seems quite happy and she does seem to be able to be with whomever she wants." If Rose Kennedy would call you up and say, "Come travel to Europe with me or go to dinner with me," she was great company and so people– so he said, "She could be with anyone she wants, but she seems to choose to be alone."
I think that's her mother's introversion. And this charming lady here mentioned that she was controlling. That is to be sure. What easier way if you're controlling but to be alone and you don't have to worry about controlling anyone. I think this also goes to Ellen's point of gender. Rose was out of control so often because of the patriarchy of religion, society and her family that I think this is why I'm able to relate to Rose, because Rose -- and Rob will tell you, here, my friends, that I tend to be rather controlling. And the more out of control I feel, the more controlling I get.
I find that in Rose Kennedy as well is that the more sadness, the more grief she feels– and Dr. Betts who, again, I think had a very great relationship with her, but in his oral history he said, "I understand why she sometimes put off her children, because even with me, I just find her lovely. I think she has a great sense of humor and I don't worry about it, and I think she's very lovely with her husband Joe, even though he can't speak with her anymore, but at night they sit and they watch TV, like any elderly couple would do." But he said, "I can see why she upsets her children because she'll say to me, 'You're eating too many cookies,’ or, ‘I told you to take the yellow towels when you go on the boat, not the white towels.'" So as the family members disappeared to one horrific tragedy after another, she seemed to draw closer in and try to control everyone and everything around here. So I think you're on to something.
QUESTION: Hi. I'm just wondering if she was ever trying to exert influence over Kennedy's Presidency, especially when John F. Kennedy was facing civil rights riots and also the Cuban Missile Crisis.
BARBARA PERRY: This is where this theme that we're discussing comes full circle, it seems to me. And that is that when I said she could have been chatting about the finer points of mental retardation policy; she could have been doing that because she knew that. But that was not her role in the family and it was not her role with the President.
She talks about being at the White House during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and about being there during the Cuban Missile Crisis. She doesn't say, "And then I went to the Oval Office and said to the President, 'You need to do X, Y and Z with Khrushchev.'"
But the famous and very typical element of Rose and Khrushchev is that when Rose went to Vienna – I mentioned that she went to Vienna with the President and the First Lady for the Vienna summit between Jack and Khrushchev – she was so concerned to get photographs of all the famous people there, including Khrushchev, and then send those photographs to Khrushchev and have him autograph them. Because this was a lifelong passion of Rose, was to have famous people's autographs. So I remember when the Library released Rose Kennedy's papers in the fall of 2006, I think it was the Boston Globe's first letter that they published in the paper, was President Kennedy's letter to his mother chastising her, "Dear Mother," in effect, "we are in the midst of a cold war, so you might want to clear it through me and the State Department when you write to Chairman Khrushchev." [laughter] And bless Rose's heart, because one of the things I most love about her is her sense of humor. And I think that's something else that she handed on to the children. She writes back to the President and she says, "Oh, thank you for telling me. I was just getting ready to write to Castro to ask for his autograph, too." [laughter] I think she probably was a tad embarrassed, but she took it in good stride.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: But she also didn't think it was women's place really to be involved in policy. Lots of times in London, in your book, you talk about how she didn't like to go to embassy parties where women would assert themselves and talk about what their opinion was about the impending war.
BARBARA PERRY: She knew her role as a woman and as a spouse, and it was very much of the role of a diplomatic spouse. I'm sure it's the role of a diplomatic spouse today, not to go into a controversial setting with controversial people and start talking about controversial issues. I'm sure that's still a basic Diplomacy 101 rule.
So she was especially good at that because she didn't want to talk about those things and knew it was her place not to. And given her marriage to Joe Kennedy, Rose, I think, was very proud of the fact that, she would say in her memoir, "Mr. Kennedy, Joe Kennedy, my husband, had his" – she talked about it as if she was running a business – "he had his department, I had my department. His department was business and the business of the family. My department was the children and the maternal elements of the family." So she viewed herself as being utterly separated from the power and the influence and the policy.
BELLA ENGLISH: I just have some notes here that I took some years back from the Library. They're from Rose, letters she wrote to various of her kids and they're so funny, I just want to share them. You probably already have seen them. And then I have a question. So she said to Jack, in the 1960 debates …
EILEEN MCNAMARA: This, by the way, is Bella English from the Boston Globe.
BELLA ENGLISH: She said to JFK: "Your delivery was too fast. Think of Roosevelt and Churchill, slow, measured cadence." And after he was elected, he was leaving for Mexico: "Dear Jack, I'm sure you know the food in Mexico is very difficult for people like you and me to eat.
And please remind Jackie to say an act of contrition in case of an accident. Much love, Mother." [laughter]
BARBARA PERRY: And she wasn't clear on whether that accident was bad food or an automobile mishap, but there you are. But, Bella, can I back up to the first one. That one was about the first one that you just read.
BELLA ENGLISH: The debate?
BARBARA PERRY: Yes. Now, she did pride herself, because this was her department, how they looked, how they sounded, how they expressed themselves. So, yes, the debates, the famous four televised debates in 1960, combined, I think was the best of Rose, because number one, she prayed all through the debates that Jack would do well and win. Then she followed up with advice; she was always telling him that he spoke too rapidly.
She carried this on with Teddy when he had his nearly fatal plane crash in 1964. She wrote to him and said, "Do you know something that you can do while you're utterly immobilized, is you can read good rhetoric, Churchill, for example. You can read good rhetoric and then you can repeat that to yourself and therefore you won't sound as …" and she used some very negative word, it wasn't quite boring. "Then you won't sound your usual boring self," or something to that effect. So, yes, that is what she did with the sons.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: And she, in fact, listened to that first Presidential debate on the radio.
BARBARA PERRY: She was taking one of her mental health days. She was over at the Greenbrier, I think. She loved to go to the Greenbrier or the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. She would go there while she campaigned. So she would campaign for several days, become fatigued, and then she'd go to a spa for a couple of days. But, yes, she was at the spa when the first debate happened, so she heard it on the radio. And remember, typically people who heard that debate on the radio thought Nixon did better because he had a better radio voice than Senator Kennedy.
Sorry, Bella, go ahead.
BELLA ENGLISH: Another one she wrote to Jack at Choate: "Are you in danger of breaking your nose at football? If you are, please stop." [laughter]
BARBARA PERRY: I'll just tell you that when my brother came home from high school to tell my parents that he had signed up for football, my dad made my mother drive him back to the school and unsign. He said you can be on the swim team, but football's too dangerous.
BELLA ENGLISH: And she suggests to JFK, when he was seen with Prime Minster Macmillan in the newspaper, she suggested he not stand with his hands in his pockets, to keep them down at his sides. "PS, other than that, you were okay." [laughter]
BARBARA PERRY: All the Kennedy men, but particularly President Kennedy, you see so many portraits of him -- unusual for men, it seems to me -- with one hand or two hands in his suit coat side pockets, and Rose thought that that broke up the nice line, the cut of his suits. So she would tell him about that, to be sure.
Then there's a wonderful photograph of her when she traveled to Sweden and she's with the King of Sweden. It's a great photograph of her. They're standing on a balcony. There she is with the King of Sweden. But she wrote to the Ambassador's office in Sweden and she said, "Try not to hand that picture out because I was just summoned to the balcony very quickly and it was cold and I just raced to put on my coat and I misbuttoned it, I misaligned it. And so, in the picture, my collar is sticking out and I just don't look my best." [laughter]
BELLA ENGLISH: And she said to Maria Shriver -- this goes back to her big emphasis on image -- "Never forget that you are a Kennedy. A lot of work went in to building that name. Don't disparage it." And Maria's husband at that point, Arnold Schwarzenegger, once described taking a walk with Rose as being prepped or being tutored for the GRE or the SAT. [laughter]
My question is I know that Joe really was the emotional one the kids went to with their emotional problems, not Rose. Joe seemed to be more maternal than Rose did, actually. And I think I know Rose, I believe that she -- I don't want to say favored -- but she favored the boys.
Those are the ones she spent her time with. What was her relationship like with her daughters?
We don't hear much about that, and her daughters-in-law, which someone has touched on.
BARBARA PERRY: Yes, I think we covered some of the in-laws. So it seems to me that … You may be right about the warmth element. There are 45 photos in the book, and because I have been following this family since my mother took me to see Senator Kennedy when I was four years old, I feel like I've seen just about every photograph there is of the Kennedys. So I tried to pick photos that I hadn't seen before. But when I was choosing them, I went to a colleague who's an American historian and she pointed out something to me that I was too close to see the forest for the trees. She said, "Look at this, Barbara." Every time there was a picture, an informal candid shot of the children, some of the children, with their parents, she said, "Did you notice that they're all around Joe?" And oftentimes, physically, Rose would be off to the side or they just wouldn't be hovering around here.
Now, I'm sure there could be all sorts of reason for that. One might be that Joe was gone so much that when he was there they were drawn to him. But you may be right, that they just felt a stronger emotional bond with him?
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Didn't Kick, Kathleen -- who died tragically in the '40s in a plane crash -- during a bombing in London, she had a wonderful observation about her parents with Marie Bruce.
BARBARA PERRY: Yes, you go down into the Tube stations during the Blitz, and she was down there with Marie Bruce, this travel companion to her mother. And she said very philosophically, I think, and very tenderly, "Dad gave us wonderful things, but Mother gave us our character." And so, I don't know whether that's the same as "is emotionally available to us."
In fact, for people who take some of this controlling nature or some of this nattering at the children in such negative ways, I've been kind of disappointed by some people who just see only that and don't see the whole concept of the book, which is that some of these things that may seem annoying, actually turned out to be really good things for the family.
And then the other thing I say is I feel really close to Rose because even though my mother was the next generation – so my mother was the generation of the Kennedy children – my mother was very much that way, although a Southern Victorian, but I think Rose was a Victorian who wanted things to be proper. My mother was a proper Southern lady, and nothing made my mother feel prouder than to be told that her children were doing well and looked well. And when we went to Mass on Sundays, my mother told me this one time, "Oh, Marge Carpenter down the street once told me, 'Boy, you turn out your children so well. They just look so good when you bring them to church. How do you do that? You only have one bathroom at your house.'" But my mother was a very warm and lovely person, and I miss her to this day and I wish she were here and my dad, too. I like to think they're looking down and watching all of us.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: How much do you think that may have been influenced by the fact that she was an Irish Catholic in a town, when she was a young girl, where they weren't socially acceptable?
BARBARA PERRY: Yes, and I'm sure since you're writing on Eunice, you noticed that piece from Eunice's oral history. I thought it was so telling that when they moved from Boston – remember, they moved in the late '20s to get away from what Joe thought and believed and knew was the parochialism and the Irish Catholic bias, the bias against Irish Catholics -- and moved the family to New York. So he uproots the family. Rose takes off with the, at that time, seven children and they get a house outside New York City and now they're doing quite well, and she thinks, “Well, this will be better because Joe is now working on wall Street, so we'll be close to his work.” And what does he do but say, "Oh, I'm going to go to California to be a producer of movies." So now she's away from her family, away from her roots.
So this one day -- and Eunice tells this story very openly -- Eunice is out raising … Anybody go to Catholic school? Do you remember mission money? I was always collecting mission money, I loved that. I loved to make the little box and I would put a saint's picture on the front. This man over here, he's done mission money. And my mother was wonderful, she would make an Easter bunny to collect the mission money in and I'd go around the class and I'd collect the mission money.
But Eunice, to collect mission money, went out in this posh neighborhood in New York selling apples and she thought, “Oh, I'm really going to zoom right up to heaven because I'm out here doing the Lord's work.” And she said all of a sudden from behind, she hears this really angry voice, real low, she almost didn't recognize it. It was her mother's voice, and her mother was furious. She said, "You get in that house. You go up to your room. You are not having dinner tonight. How dare you go out and do this?"
When I came across that, I had to wonder, what was that all about? I could only speculate because Rose doesn't talk about that in her memoir. She doesn't talk about that and respond to it in her oral history. So I began to think -- and I'm coming back to, Eileen, I think, has maybe put her finger on it. When you're always trying to prove yourself – and I had this problem, I did two years at Oxford. I thought the English would think, oh, I was this charming American. They didn't like Americans and they were always really cruel to me. So I would find myself trying to just be on my superbest behavior so they wouldn't find something more to criticize me about.
So it could have been that. She could have thought, “Oh, dear, we're going to seem like poor Irish people out selling apples in this posh neighborhood. I don't care if it's for mission money or not. Or this is in the 1930s, and who's selling apples but unemployed people on the street corner? Or thirdly, I say in the book, could it have been that she was embarrassed to think that the neighbors would say, “Well, these people are so rich, why don't they just give Eunice the darn mission money and not make this poor child go out and sell apples?” So it could be all this combination.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: They didn't realize how entrepreneurial Eunice was. [laughter]
BARBARA PERRY: Which Eileen will cover in her book.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Well, we have actually have come to the end of our program. We timed this perfectly. You were not as vociferous a group as I expected.
BARBARA PERRY: But you were absolutely wonderful, a lovely audience.
EILEEN MCNAMARA: Thank you for your attention. [applause]