Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch, by Barbara A. Perry (Norton, 416 pp., $27.95)
Rose Kennedy was so often asked for advice on raising children that she risked running out of material. For years, she had held forth about the mealtime quizzes on current events, the catechism recitations, and her knack for drafting the older children to keep the younger ones in line, but by 1956, all the surviving children were grown up and she needed something fresh, because Jack was being considered for the vice-presidential spot on the Democratic ticket. People were saying that a Catholic could never become president, so Rose came up with a way to teach children about religious bigotry that would stick in young minds.
“Show them the lions at the zoo,” she wrote in an article intended for Reader’s Digest, “and explain how they consumed the early Christians — and so interest children.”
The Digest rejected the piece. It was the only time she ever put a foot wrong, according to Barbara A. Perry, who based this biography on the letters and diaries of Rose that were released to the public by the Kennedy Library in 2011. Perry, author of Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier, is a Kennedy partisan, but not a groupie like Doris Kearns Goodwin, nor a sycophant like Theodore Sorensen, who is pretty much assumed to be the real author of JFK’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage.
Perry does not make the real Rose Kennedy stand up, because the real one was Rose’s own meticulously calibrated invention, and it was already standing up. Rather, Perry finds the minuscule pinpoints and fissures that admit slivers of light past even the sturdiest mask.
She has a good eye for the kind of casual remarks that give us all away. In Rose’s diary of her time in London as the wife of the American ambassador, she confesses that she wore the wrong kind of hat to the funeral of a member of Parliament, adding, “No other ambassadors’ wives [were] there or one of them might have erred as I did.” Perry is quick to catch the small-minded insecurity couched in the throwaway line: “Rose didn’t wish for someone to have alerted her to proper attire, but, rather, for someone to commit a faux pas with her.”
She had a way of working herself into her flattery of others, as when she said of a certain Mrs. Fitzgerald: “No wonder I look young and beauteous with such a mother!” Lady Bird Johnson got scooped up in a gilded cage when she said that being in the company of Rose was “tall cotton.” This southern expression for good times was unknown to Rose, but she had no difficulty defining it: Lady Bird must have felt that being with her was elevating and was admitting, in effect, that she “was not quite up to me.”
She put on airs even in her personal letters, archly confessing that she always said “Phalaenopsis” to the press because “orchids” would “sound too nouveau riche.” Either she was poking fun at herself — hardly a habit of hers — or else she did not realize that the Kennedys themselves were nouveau riche. Proof that they were is the P.S. in her letter to her daughter written from Windsor Castle, on what surely was crested writing paper: “Pat, please keep this note, dear.”
In several of her family letters, she seemed to harbor a genial contempt for her younger children. The cutoff child was her fifth, Eunice; those below were fair game, though she expressed her opinions of them with dry wit. She advised Bobby and Ethel to make better public-relations use of the fact that they now had seven children and to take a serious role in the promotion of worthy causes. “I do not think it is necessary to emphasize the fact that you are both tone-deaf or that cultural things do not play such a large part in your life,” she wrote. As for touch-football games: “Mention of them ‘could be eliminated for awhile.’”
She gave Teddy even blunter advice when he was recovering from a broken back sustained in a private-plane crash: “When you are lying in bed, you can read a paragraph and then try to rewrite it or resay it. Then notice the difference between the succinct, dramatic impressions of the author and your verbose, discursive, dull recital of the same events.” She never let up on Teddy. When he was preparing to challenge Jimmy Carter for the 1980 nomination, she watched his interview and promptly told him: “You said ‘If I was president. . . .’ You should have said ‘If I were president.’”
The high point of her maternal devotion, lovingly described and breathlessly extolled in countless articles, was the exhaustive records she kept on every aspect of each child’s health. Illnesses, inoculations, height, weight, cavities, teeth cleanings were all duly noted on index cards, catalogued, and filed. There was another file for spiritual health in which Rose recorded baptisms with all the who-where-when trimmings, First Communions, acolyte services, and First Fridays. Her records were heralded as “meticulous,” a favorite Rose word, but Barbara Perry suggests that “compulsive” might be closer to the mark.
She liked to say, “I never had a phobia, I never had a lover, and I never had a fight,” but in fact she was a bundle of phobias. A perfectionist and a control freak who lacked control over big issues, she was driven to control minutiae wherever she found them, including the parking lot at Hyannisport. The spaces had gotten hopelessly confused, so she rearranged them via detailed letters, with carbon copies sent to every member of the family. She micromanaged a similar upheaval over bath towels. Announcing — needlessly — that she and Bobby had the same initials, she broke the news that some RFK towels had gotten mixed up with other RFK towels and asked Bobby and Ethel to go through theirs and separate one identical set from another. When they couldn’t tell the difference, she developed a case of towels on the brain. Seeing towels, towels everywhere, she asked the whole family to search for RFK towels she believed to be missing. When no one could find them, she announced that she was sending the housekeeper to search all their linen closets. She was Captain Queeg, overturning the entire ship to find out who ate the strawberries. Her compulsive chiding never stopped and she clung to minutiae as her power base. Her note to Bobby — “I think you should work hard and become president after Jack — it will be good for the country and for you” — reduces the presidency to flossing.
Rose’s perfectionist standards and controlling instincts may have influenced her biographer as well. It must be said that while this book is easy to read for its fascinating content, it can be very hard to read visually owing to Perry’s rigid adherence to the editorial rules for citing quoted material. You must use lots of ellipses and brackets depending on whether you are copying a whole quotation, half a quotation, or bits of several widely spaced quotations; and there are rules on when you need to change an upper-case letter to a lower-case one, and vice versa. Thus we get passages like this quotation of a remark by Eunice: “[W]hen [Jack] was president he would say his prayers morning . . . and night. Now that doesn’t mean he was terribly religious . . . but the point is that [Rose’s] influence . . .”
I gave up on that one. Be prepared to see dots and brackets swimming before your eyes. Rules are important, but the world is not going to end if a writer plays a little hopscotch for clarity’s sake. This problem does, however, raise the interesting question of how nervous the Kennedy Library might be about the material they choose to release, and why.
Perry’s book could not be more timely in view of the hysterical controversy in full swing as I write this review. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Rose toured South America with Eunice. In Barbados they were surprised, said Rose, to see “colored and white children sitting together” at a convent school. “The nun said the sisters took them because one could not discriminate and they seemed to get on quite happily together, the children making their own friends as they chose. . . . I have seldom been so moved; to see that group of dark-skinned little faces, with those immense, trustful, gentle brown eyes raised in prayer, convinced me for all time that there must be angels with dark faces as well as light ones, although I have never thought of them before.”
Perry says that Rose was “Eurocentric, to be sure.” Understandably, she was, yet no one could miss the difference between the cut-glass snobbery of so many of her diary entries and her heartfelt description of the mixed-race convent school. She obviously “examined her conscience,” as Catholicism required of her, and found the answer therein. Maybe this is what lies behind our instinctive certainty that she really meant it.
In any event, the incident makes a comparison with Paula Deen unavoidable. If Deen could speak with such grace, clarity, and grammar — and if she shared Rose’s Eurocentric birth year of 1890 — she would not now be suffering death by a thousand tweets.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.