The Tragic Story Of JFK’s Oldest Sister, Rosemary Kennedy

The Kennedys are undoubtedly one of America’s most famous political families, and they occupy a vast place in world history. But behind the sad tales of John, Robert and Ted lies an equally tragic story – that of their sister Rosemary. Kept a secret for years, her life came to the public consciousness years after her brothers’ rise to fame, and it’s more heartbreaking than you could ever imagine.

It is said that some children are born destined for greatness. And this was evidently the case for the Kennedys – a family which included one American president and an attorney general. But John, Bobby and Ted’s successes may not have existed had it not been for the influence of their father Joseph.

Joseph P. Kennedy was the grandchild of Irish immigrants and worked hard to increase his family’s stature within the Boston community. After making his fortune in banking, shipbuilding and movies, the magnate moved into politics where he held the post of ambassador to Britain. And when his wife Rose gave him children, it became Joseph’s mission to make them future leaders of the country.

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Three of Joseph’s nine children would become icons of both success and misfortune. The most famous was John, who would become president in 1961 before his assassination two years later. Robert – a senator and presidential candidate – was also killed in 1968. Meanwhile, the youngest child Ted outlived his brothers by a wide margin, but his career would be mired by personal scandal.

As we’ve seen, Joseph brought his children up to be ambitious and driven, but there was one child who was taught the exact opposite. Unknown to many, Joseph’s third child Rosemary lived a life of seclusion and secrecy so as not to ruin her siblings’ chances of success. And the horrifying fate she befell in the achievement of this goal is just as sad as the fates experienced by her brothers.

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Unfortunately, life for Rosemary was difficult from the very start. On the day of her 1918 birth, a nurse forcefully delayed her arrival to allow time for her mother’s obstetrician to come on the scene. In the end, Rosemary spent two hours in the birth canal, and this would lead the girl to be born with brain damage.

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Soon, Rosemary’s parents would discover just how much this damage would affect their daughter’s life. As detailed by her sister Eunice in a 1962 article for The Saturday Evening Post, “… Rosemary was different. She was slower to crawl, slower to walk and speak than her two bright brothers. My mother was told she would catch up later, but she never did.”

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Rosemary’s issues then became more apparent when she entered school. So, her mother took the young girl to a physician, who confirmed that her daughter was mentally disabled. As a result, Rosemary never develop highly specialized skill sets and her abilities would forever be stunted at that of a fourth grader.

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But Rosemary was still a Kennedy, of course. And her parents tried everything they could to make her part of the family – even if that meant refusing to send the young girl to an institute for children with disabilities. According to The Guardian, Eunice recalled her father saying, “‘What can they do for her that her family can’t do better?’”

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But Rosemary’s condition was a big issue for Joseph. As a practicing Catholic, the patriarch feared that Rosemary’s health issue would be seen by his community as evidence of some untoward sin. Moreover, disability of any kind was still universally unaccepted by the world at large.

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The Kennedy parents believed that they couldn’t leave things as they were. In the following years, Rosemary’s condition worsened with sudden fits increasingly becoming the norm. And with an institution out of the question, Joseph and Rose decided to send their daughter away to boarding school.

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Rosemary was subsequently shipped between numerous schools between the ages of 11 and 20. Throughout the young girl’s time away, she constantly yearned for her family’s love – particularly that of her father. According to Kate Clifford Larson’s 2015 book The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, Rosemary once wrote to Joseph, “Darling daddy, I hate to disappoint you in any way.”

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Nevertheless, Rosemary’s life began to improve at the end of her teenage years. She and the family relocated to London after her father became ambassador to Britain in 1938. And it was here that Rosemary finally found some modicum of acceptance.

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Rather than languish in the wings as she did in Boston, Rosemary took center stage during her stay in the U.K. capital. Indeed, the beautiful young woman became beloved by the British media. Alongside her sister Kathleen, Rosemary was presented at court, where her beauty often eclipsed that of her sibling.

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And yet, Rosemary’s participation in debutante balls was no sign of Joseph’s acceptance of his child. On the contrary, it seems the patriarch was trying to hide his daughter’s disabilities in plain sight. Clifton Larson wrote, “Joe and Rose were determined to keep the family secret, making sure that Rosemary was treated just like all the other eligible women presented at court that year.”

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Moreover, the new and unfamiliar environment that London posed for someone like Rosemary left her parents in a quandary. Eunice Kennedy wrote in her 1962 article. “Would she get confused taking a bus and get lost among London’s intricate streets? Would someone attack her? No one could watch out for Rose all the time, and she was now a grown-up girl.”

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But Rosemary actually flourished in England for more than one reason. Here, she attended Belmont House, a school that taught their curriculum at a pace and style that suited her development. For the first time in years, the young Kennedy was getting an education that worked for her as well as skills that once seemed unattainable.

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Alas, this paradise would only last a few years. In 1939 World War II broke out, and Joseph – who often shared Nazi sympathies in public – was deemed unfit to act as ambassador. Consequently, he and his family were sent back to the States the following year. For Rosemary, it would sadly be the last time that she’d be given an opportunity to live a normal life.

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Rosemary once again stalled in her development after returning to the United States. Eunice wrote, “[She] was not making progress but seemed instead to be going backward. At 22, [Rosemary] was becoming increasingly irritable and difficult. Her memory and concentration and her judgment were declining.”

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Unfortunately, Rosemary was denied the same access to education as she was in childhood. Her mother tried to find a school which could accommodate an adult woman with disabilities, but few such institutions existed. The Kennedy daughter sadly spent much of her time cooped up indoors as a result. And all the while, doctors repeatedly pressed the point to her parents that Rosemary would, in Eustice’s words, “be far happier in an institution.”

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But the family had one more option available to them. After their return to the U.S., Joseph and Rose found a convent in which to place their daughter. Like Belmont House, it was an institution that would care for Rosemary away from the glare of the media, though it proved ineffective at containing the young woman’s increasing rebelliousness.

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Sadly, staff at the convent struggled to look after Rosemary. Workers often found her missing from her room and would ring her parents to inform them of their child’s disappearance. And hours later, Rosemary would be discovered wandering the local streets alone.

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But behind Rosemary’s mischievous behavior lay a great sadness and yearning for normality. According to Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff’s 2015 biography The Missing Kennedy, Rosemary was breaking out to frequent nearby bars. There, she’d pick up men who, the author wrote, would give her “attention, comfort, and sex.”

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For his part, Joseph was furious when he found out what his daughter was doing at night. With a career still reeling from his dismissal as ambassador, the businessman was focused on making his sons leaders. However, Joseph believed that his daughter’s issues could sink the political hopes he had for his family once and for all.

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Rosemary was now an unacceptable risk in Joseph’s mind. So, the patriarch turned to surgeons Dr. Walter Freeman and Dr. James Watts, who offered to perform a radical new procedure on Rosemary. For reference, this operation was called a lobotomy.

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Introduced in the 1930s, lobotomies were seen as an effective treatment against mental health conditions. The Saturday Evening Post even called the method “pioneering” in a 1941 piece. But the procedure – lauded by the press as a simple operation – was incredibly invasive as it required a complete separation of the brain’s frontal lobes.

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What’s more, the surgery had dangerous consequences; many early experiments proved fatal on humans or resulted in the patient suffering seizures, according to Marie Claire. Furthermore, those who knew recipients of lobotomies claimed that the procedure had changed their loved one’s entire personality. At her mother’s request, Kathleen then investigated the procedure, but she soon urged against it after being horrified by her findings.

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And yet, Joseph remained determined to have Rosemary’s cured whatever the cost. According to her mother, he took her to George Washington University to have the procedure performed. And after the surgery was complete, Rosemary – then just 23 years old – would never be the same again.

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It remains unclear just how much Rosemary knew about the procedure before she entered the hospital. Moreover, there’s doubt as to whether the Kennedy daughter knew just what would happen to her when the doctors had finished their work. What’s clear, according to Marie Claire, is that Rosemary was conscious for the entire operation and – apart from a sedative – had no anesthetic whatsoever.

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The magazine added that up to 50,000 lobotomies were performed in the U.S. until the 1970s. And sadly, Rosemary’s experience of the procedure was horrific. Standing above their patient, Freeman and Watts began by drilling holes into the front of the Kennedy daughter’s head. With her brain partially exposed, the surgeons then proceeded to cut into Rosemary’s temporal lobes.

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Freeman and Watts requested that Rosemary keep talking to them during the operation, Marie Claire reported. As obliging as ever, she recited poetry while the surgeons performed their work. Then all of a sudden, Rosemary stopped talking. It was a sign that the operation had reached its endpoint, and they were the last words that Rosemary would speak for years.

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Far from being a success, the lobotomy regressed Rosemary’s mental state even further. The young woman had previously been unable to progress beyond a teenager’s state of mind. But after the operation, she’d not only lost the ability to walk and talk, Rosemary now also had the mental age of a two-year-old.

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Rosemary disappeared from public life altogether after the botched surgery. While Joseph explained to well-wishers that she was teaching in the Midwest, the forgotten daughter was actually being transferred between various care homes. Finally, she would settle in an institution called Saint Colleta’s in Wisconsin – a facility that would house Rosemary for the rest of her days.

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But it wasn’t just the public who Rosemary was hidden away from. Possibly under the orders of her father according to Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, the Kennedy girl was forbidden visitors of any kind – including her own family. In the following years, some members of Rosemary’s family even claimed that they didn’t even know where she was staying.

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It wasn’t until Joseph’s incapacitation from a stroke in 1961 that Rosemary’s family would be able to see her again, Marie Claire wrote. By this time, the daughter had regained some of her ability to move and talk, but she had lost none of the hurt and resentment that abandonment brings. Indeed, upon seeing her mother for the first time in 20 years, Rosemary’s first impulse was to attack her.

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But the Kennedy children made regular visits to their sister. What’s more, Rosemary’s siblings – now powerful politicians – enacted laws to ensure that no one else would have to suffer as she did. During his presidency, John signed the United States’ first piece of legislation aimed at helping those with learning disabilities.

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Certainly, the Kennedy family played a big part in lifting the stigma of intellectual disability in the United States. Eunice became an activist for disability rights – a position that would lead her to found the Special Olympics in 1968. Similarly, her son and Best Buddies International founder Anthony Shriver would also take up the mantle in Rosemary’s honor.

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And yet for all their openness, the Kennedy family would not talk about the true nature of Rosemary’s ordeal publicly. To wit, Eunice’s 1962 article made no mention of her sister’s lobotomy. Biographer Robert Coughlan tried quizzing Rose about her daughter’s condition in the 1970s, though she said that it was the result of “an accident, which I don’t really discuss.”

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In fact, it would take four decades before the true pain of the Kennedy daughter’s life became public knowledge. Since the revelation of the lobotomy in 1987, Rosemary’s descendants have been more open about her condition. Indeed, nephew Timothy Shriver wrote in his 2014 book Fully Alive, “Her role is a powerful part of my life.”

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Rosemary’s story came to an end in 2005 when she died at the age of 86. For the vast majority of her life, this Kennedy had been sadly cast aside. But her tale is just as important of that of her siblings and serves as a lesson from history that desperately needs to be told.

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