A Hidden — But Quietly Influential — Life In 'Rosemary'

A Hidden — But Quietly Influential — Life In 'Rosemary'

2:38pm Oct 05, 2015
Rosemary

Rosemary Kennedy was a beauty, a debutante, and the daughter of one of America's most glamorous families. She was born with a wealth of advantages as the daughter of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy — but her mental development was flawed at birth, and never got beyond about a fourth-grade level.

And at the age of 23, Rosemary Kennedy underwent a new neurosurgical procedure that a couple of respected doctors said might make it easier for her to function in the world: A lobotomy. The operation left Kennedy mostly mute, withdrawn and damaged.

Kate Clifford Larson chronicles her life in Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, and she tells NPR's Scott Simon that Kennedy's troubles may have stemmed from a birth injury when a nurse held the baby in the birth canal until a doctor could arrive. "Apparently it was for close to two hours," Larson says, "so it seems that that's when Rosemary would have been deprived of some oxygen and as a result was delayed intellectually, physically as well.


Interview Highlights

On Kennedy's personality

She became a beautiful, beautiful young woman, and in her good times, in her happy days, she was bubbly and sweet and loving and caring. She did have a dark side, however, she did have outbursts and tantrums, but she was a lovely, lovely child, and she grew to be a lovely adult woman.

On Joseph P. Kennedy's decision to lobotomize his daughter

I have sympathy for their position, but given their wealth, there were other alternatives, and they only had one vision of an alternative, and that was convent schools. And there were alternatives for Rosemary at the time — and he chose this radical, radical choice. At the time, it was still very experimental, so as a father, would he have experimented on his sons? I don't think so.

On Kennedy after the operation

She was extremely disabled. She had to learn to walk and dress herself and move, basically, in the months after the surgery. She never regained full speech ability. She really lost most of her ability to function as an individual and an independent person, the rest of her life.

She was virtually hidden for decades, but the siblings apparently — or so it has been said — that they were not aware of what happened to Rosemary, or where she was, for nearly 20 years. I don't think that's entirely accurate ... but they had learned not to ask, and so they didn't ask.

On her influence on the family's charitable campaigns

She started becoming reintegrated into the late '60s and early 1970s, when [her] nieces and nephews were youngsters and becoming teenagers. And they were cognizant of what happened to her, and it affected them deeply, so that they were going to try to make sure that this doesn't happen to anybody else, and that the world will view people who have disabilities in a very different light.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Rosemary Kennedy was a beauty, a debutante and the daughter of one of America's most glamorous families. She was born with a wealth of advantages as the daughter of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy, but her mental development was flawed at birth and halted at about a fourth grade level. At the age of 23, Rosemary Kennedy underwent a new neurosurgical procedure that a couple of honored doctors said might make it easier for her to function in the world. It was a lobotomy, and that operation left Rosemary Kennedy mostly mute, withdrawn and damaged. Kate Clifford Larson has tried to tell her story in "Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter." She joins us from the studios of WBUR in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

KATE CLIFFORD LARSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And what happened to Rosemary Kennedy at birth? Do we know to this day?

LARSON: According to several interviews, during the birth process, the nurse held baby Rosemary back in the birth canal in order to wait for the doctor to come and officially preside over the delivery, and apparently it was for close to two hours. So it seems that that's when Rosemary would have been deprived of some oxygen and, as a result, was delayed intellectually, physically as well.

SIMON: Tell us about her in relatively happy times, though. She could bubble, couldn't she? And she was very attractive.

LARSON: As she grew into an adult, she became a beautiful, beautiful young woman. And in her good times, in her happy days, she was bubbly and sweet and loving and caring. She did have a dark side, however. She did have outbursts and tantrums, but she was a lovely, lovely child. And she grew into be a lovely adult woman.

SIMON: Yeah. And for members of her family - and I'm thinking mostly of her parents - worried that her attractiveness and vitality coupled with her problems could make her vulnerable.

LARSON: Yes, very vulnerable. The kidnapping craze was on during the Great Depression. They had great fears that she might be kidnapped, and that she might be lured by a young man who flattered her. So they had many concerns.

SIMON: You say pretty bluntly in this book that Joseph P. Kennedy had his daughter lobotomized because he didn't - well, you quote, you say he could not risk the publicity from an unwanted pregnancy because he was ambitious for his sons to have political careers. With respect for all the work you've done, there's a part of me that read this account that I could see where a desperate father would - with the means the Kennedys have - would try this just to try and and make their daughter happier. I mean, they could have just locked her away somewhere.

LARSON: This is true. This is true. I have sympathy for their position, but given their wealth, there were other alternatives. And they only had one vision of an alternative and that was convent schools. And there were alternatives for Rosemary at the time. But he chose this radical, radical choice, and at the time, it was still very experimental. So as a father, would he have experimented on his sons? I don't think so.

SIMON: And how was Rosemary Kennedy left after the operation?

LARSON: She was extremely disabled. She had to learn to walk and dress herself and move, basically, in the months after the surgery. She never regained full speech ability. She really lost most of her ability to function as an individual and an independent person the rest of her life.

SIMON: As the Kennedy family became more prominent nationally, it seems like Rosemary got progressively less well-known, not just to the American public, but her own family.

LARSON: That is true. She was virtually hidden for decades. The siblings apparently - or so it has been said - that they were not aware of what happened to Rosemary or where she was for nearly 20 years. I don't think that's entirely accurate, but according...

SIMON: This would be specifically John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Edward Kennedy...

LARSON: Eunice.

SIMON: Jean Kennedy Smith...

LARSON: Yes.

SIMON: Eunice, yes.

LARSON: Yes, exactly. They had learned not to ask, and so they didn't ask.

SIMON: We have interviewed some of the Rosemary Kennedy's nieces and nephews over the years on various projects, and I'm thinking specifically of Tim Shriver. A lot of them speak of their Aunt Rosemary very warmly, and cite her as a major influence in a lot of the charitable campaigns that they've been involved in.

LARSON: She started becoming reintegrated into the family in the late '60s and early 1970s when these nieces and nephews were youngsters and becoming teenagers, and they were cognizant of what had happened to her. And it affected them deeply so that they were going to try to make sure that this doesn't happen to anybody else, and that the world will view people who have disabilities in a very different light.

SIMON: Well, in a way, Rosemary Kennedy lived a life of service, didn't she?

LARSON: She did. She absolutely did.

SIMON: Kate Clifford Larson. Her new book is "Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter." Thanks so much for being with us.

LARSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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