Which Kennedy Did the Most Good?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/06/01/which-kennedy-did-the-most-good/

Fanning the flames of a dynastic torch, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara rekindles interest in Kennedy lore with her book Eunice:  The Kennedy Who Changed the World. McNamara’s 300-page history lesson offers the psychological and practical details of why and how the frequently ill and frail woman harnessed love and rage to champion rights of the mentally retarded and unborn in the United States and around the world.  

Honoring their mother’s life work, Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s five children granted McNamara, the director of journalism at Brandeis University, access to thirty-three private boxes of never-before-seen scrapbook-esque memorabilia. Private conversations with the five (Bobby, Maria, Timothy, Mark, and Anthony), family friends, and archivists at the JFK Library in Dorchester helped the author reframe the history and histrionics of the legendary Kennedy clan.

Just a year after women earned the right to vote in the United States, Eunice arrived July 10, 1921 in Brookline, the fifth of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s nine children. McNamara writes in a matter-of-fact style describing the patriarch’s lifelong commitment to grooming only his sons for success. Raised as children of privilege, the Kennedy boys were educated at elite patrician schools, while the girls were sent off for parochial educations. The family ethos was “boys should play and girls should pray.”

Eunice Mary Kennedy, born 1921, was the fifth of the nine Kennedy children, shown here in chronological order. Rose Marie Kennedy, known as Rosemary, was third. Photo courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

Idolizing her dad but increasingly agitated by her second-class status, Eunice begged for her father’s recognition in academic achievement, sports accomplishments, and career advice. As Eunice grew older she was unwilling to be shuffled off with the girls, preferring instead to join cigar-smoking men in important conversations, as was the privilege of her brothers. The first line inside the Eunice dust-jacket quotes her father, “If that girl had been born with balls, she would have been one hell of a politician.”

McNamara, who is credited as among the first to spotlight sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is similarly candid chronicling the Machiavellian mindset that shaped Joe Kennedy’s aspirations. In a variety of ways her book examines his determination to “in one generation recast the Kennedys from Irish-American strivers to American royalty.”

Nearly a century before our cultural obsession with social media became currency, Kennedy frequently leveraged his enormously photogenic family’s kinetic energy into an “image is everything” campaign. Their signature smile capitalized on the brilliance of networking with purpose. On a relentless quest to see one of his sons elected the first Catholic President of the United States, he often said “it’s not what you are, it’s what people think you are.” The image-conscious social climber climbed without conscience emotionally, politically, and sexually.

Speaking at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in April, McNamara explained the fast-paced Kennedy lifestyle in Boston, Chicago, London, New York, Palm Beach, and Hyannis Port.  Benefited by an elixir of passions that mingled ambitions, money, and opportunity, the upwardly mobile family experienced an Ambassador’s life, an audience with the Pope, exotic travel, and debutante balls. Coverage of their high-profile outings also exposed Joe and Rose’s first-born daughter Rose Marie (known as Rosemary) to be a young woman who was conspicuously slower than her spirited siblings.

Her mother said that “as a child Rosemary kept up with her siblings satisfactorily.” However, as the other children advanced, Rosemary’s delays became increasingly significant and obvious. Her parents manufactured stories to explain away her hidden existence while she was cared for in a series of institutions that worked with her limitations. In 1941, when Rosie was 23, without knowledge of his wife, Joe Kennedy had his eldest daughter lobotomized. The young woman with impairments became permanently disabled and exiled to St. Colletta’s in Wisconsin, an institution that serves people with developmental disabilities. Rosie was far removed from publicity and the siblings that loved her just as she was.

In those days mental retardation was considered an unspeakable family embarrassment. Rosemary’s mental retardation was a potential impediment to the aspirational image Joe was crafting to achieve his goals. In Eunice, McNamara cites a note from Joe to the nuns who cared for his daughter:  “the solution of Rosemary’s problem has been a major factor in the ability of the Kennedys to go about their life’s work and to try to do it as well as they can.” 

At the time, Eunice’s passion was the Church. She envisioned becoming a nun. Sensitive about how her habit would look as her brother Jack ran for elected office, Joe Kennedy persuaded a favorite family priest to play matchmaker. In 1953, he encouraged Eunice to marry Robert Sargent Shriver, a faithful, handsome business associate. Together, they led the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, a philanthropy dedicated in 1946 to the memory of the eldest Kennedy son who was killed in action during World War II.

McNamara said the foundation was a place where Eunice could focus her boundless energy, use her Stanford/Radcliffe education, and channel her love and formidable rage. A woman ahead of her time, Eunice challenged times by defying bias against women. She also challenged the senselessly cruel edicts of her detached mother and philandering father to never mention the loss of brother Joe to war, the death of disowned sister Kathleen in an airplane crash, and Rosie’s unnecessary lobotomy.

The stroke that silenced Joe Kennedy in 1961 liberated Eunice’s voice. Publicly, she began to discuss the realities of Rosemary’s cloistered life. Fusing her passion, social privilege, and unshakeable faith in Roman Catholic doctrine, Eunice slowly began to shed light on the lives of the mentally retarded.

Shriver co-opted the assets of her brother Jack’s presidency to organize society mavens and international superstars for her cause. Shriver moved across the world advocating for dignified care, medical treatment, and education that included physical fitness, as well as for research to benefit people like her beloved sister Rosemary. Spotlighting that campaign, President Jack Kennedy said on October 31, 1963:  “The mentally ill and the mentally retarded need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities.”

Eunice’s civil justice crusade evolved throughout her lifetime. It grew to encompass educational plans for women in prison, care for pregnant teens and their infants, and a well-researched position on abortion. Starting with her brother Jack’s administration, the foundation enjoyed financial support from the federal government and solicited major private contributions, as well. Today, the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation continues to fund state-of-the-art services for people with mental retardation. The centerpiece and most well-known program is the Special Olympics.

Special Olympics began in 1968 as a Chicago-based park program for the mentally retarded. It is now the world’s largest sporting organization in support of the ambitions of five million intellectually disabled athletes from 172 countries.

The torch has been passed. An adjunct to Special Olympics is Best Buddies International. Started in 1988 by Eunice’s son Anthony Kennedy Shriver, the nonprofit creates opportunities for developmentally disabled people to establish friendships, and also creates employment and leadership opportunities.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her husband Sargent Shriver, with their five children. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

On Friday June 1 and Saturday, June 2, Best Buddies is holding a fund-raising event. Along with Anthony Shriver, more than 2,500 people are expected to participate in a charity walk, run, ride, and tasting event benefiting the organization sparked by his mother Eunice. U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Brookline), Eunice’s grand-nephew, plans to attend, along with participants of differing abilities and members of the New England Patriots, including Honorary co-chairmen Tom Brady and Julian Edelman. Some plan to ride bicycles in a 100-, 50-, or 20 mile trip to Hyannis Port. Alternatively, a 5k run/walk led by Olympian Carl Lewis will take place on nearby Craigville Beach. Also in support of Best Buddies, celebrity chef Guy Fieri with 30 other chefs from local restaurants will host a food-tasting event in the area.  

McNamara’s book dispels some of the rose-colored myths tinting the Kennedy legacy. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World offers instead a realistic portrait of a family that found dignified ways to cope with significant challenges. It honors an evolution of public-policy improvements through dynamic recognition of civil injustices.  

Traditional taboos of shame and secrecy have gone up in smoke because cigar-smoking Eunice reframed the important lessons once reserved for men of her generation. On behalf of her sister Rosemary and countless others, Eunice Kennedy Shriver changed the world by networking to champion the rights of the mentally retarded and unborn. Unexpectedly old Joe was right:  “the solution of Rosemary’s problem has been a major factor in the ability of the Kennedys to go about their life’s work and to try and do it as well as they can.”

After a lifelong struggle with Addison’s Disease (which her brother Jack also suffered from) and a period of failing health from a series of strokes, Eunice Kennedy Shriver died at 88, in the presence of her husband, five children, and nineteen grandchildren, on August 11, 2009 at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. Active in the cause of improving the lives of those with mental retardation for more than 50 years, her legacy of public service continues to thrive.

(Her death preceded her brother Senator Ted Kennedy’s death by two weeks. The 77-year-old senator died August 25, 2009 in his Hyannis Port home after a year-long battle with brain cancer.)

Book cover image courtesy Simon & Schuster.

For more information on programs to benefit the mentally retarded see:



Author Eileen McNamara.Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Best Buddies clients with New England Patriots cheerleaders. Photo courtesy of Best Buddies.