The Kennedy Women

Months ago I read Laurence Leamer’s The Kennedy Men. And I was blown away by the honest portrayal of these men of Camelot.

The same day that I bought The Kennedy Men, I purchased the companion, The Kennedy Women. For reasons that I will never understand given my penchant for biographies of famous women, The Kennedy Women languished on my shelf for months! Whenever it came time to choose a new title, I would inevitable pass over The Kennedy Women for another shinier, newer, easier read.

Having just finished it I can’t think of a single reason why I wouldn’t have picked this up sooner. It is spectacular. And so thorough! Leamer manages to go back to the original Kennedy woman – Bridget Murphy. She was, let me see if I get this right, Joe Kennedy’s grandmother. And she was the first Kennedy woman in America. She came over on a boat along with thousands of other Irish Immigrants hoping for a better life in the new world. She married Patrick Kennedy not long after and they had 3 daughters and the longed-for son before Patrick Kennedy died 10 years after they were married (in a bizarre coincidence Patrick Kennedy also died on November 22nd) leaving her a widow with 4 children. Bridget ended up starting a successful general store and was able to set her only son Patrick Joseph (PJ) Kennedy up in politics and that was the beginning of the fortune the Kennedys would eventually have control over.

The Kennedy Women – the book and its subjects, amazed me. All of these women were taught from day one that their role was to support the men in their lives. They were to put their brothers, fathers, husbands and sons before them in everything always. And yet they managed to leave their mark on the world.

Rose Kennedy was content to live a life completely separate from that of her husband, turned a blind eye to all of his indiscretions (there were many) and was content to live through her children. She buried 3 of her sons, one of her daughters, a daughter-in-law and a son-in-law, had to live through her daughter’s botched lobotomy and through it all somehow managed to keep the strongest faith in God and her Church. At the end of her life (she lived to be over 100!) she was the celebrated matriarch of an American dynasty.

Eunice Kennedy – what a woman. I knew she started the Special Olympics but I never realized what an active role she played in changing the attitude towards people with disabilities. She was especially close to her ‘special’ sister Rosemary, visited with her when no one else would, and all that she did for those with special needs was due to that relationship. Through it all she managed to be the wife of an ambassador, have 5 successful and bright children, and again play an active role in the campaigns of her brothers.

We covered a lot of Kennedy women – Eunice, Rose, Jean, Pat, Bridget, Josie, Maria, Caroline, Ethel, Jackie, and Joan but for me, aside from Eunice, the ones that stay with me the most are Rosemary and Kathleen. Rosemary was always their dirty little secret – the eldest daughter that was always a little bit behind everyone else. Until her father decided she should have a new procedure done – a partial lobotomy. And then no one ever spoke of her again. But she was so beautiful and radiant and loved to be a part of the family. It was tragic what happened to her.

Kathleen was always so full of life and laughter and was an Anglophile at heart. Like her sisters, her Catholic faith was an important part of her life and identity but she gave it up to marry the love of her life, the Duke of Devonshire. When she was left a widow shortly thereafter she was heartbroken. When she found new love, her life was tragically cut short in an airplane accident.

I learned so much from this fascinating portrait of the women of Camelot. The first time I ever heard anything about the myth of Camelot was when Jackie Kennedy Onassis died and that was in 1994. My mom tried to explain to me about why people were so sad when she died. But it wasn’t until much later that I finally understood it. There is obviously quite a bit in the book about, arguably, the most famous Kennedy Woman but I was much more intrigued by Joseph P Kennedy’s daughters.

You should read it. It is compulsively readable, sometimes shocking, always exquisitely executed. One of my favourite reads this year.

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