Childhood & Early Life
Rosemary Kennedy was born as Rose Marie Kennedy on September 13, 1918, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Her father Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. was a high-profile politician, well-known in the United States political circle. He was also a successful businessman and investor.
Her mother Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald Kennedy was a philanthropist and socialite. In 1951, Pope Pius XII granted her the title of countess in recognition of her "exemplary motherhood and many charitable works," Thereafter, she became known as Countess Kennedy.
Rosemary was born third of her parents’ nine children. Her eldest brother Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., a lieutenant in the United States Navy, died in action during WWII.
Her second oldest brother was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Popularly known as ‘JFK’, he served as the 35th President of the United States.
Among her younger brothers, Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy was a senator from New York. He also served as the 64th United States Attorney General. Another brother, Edward Moore "Tedd" Kennedy, served in the United States Senate from Massachusetts for almost 47 years.
She had four younger sisters named, Kathleen Agnes, Eunice Mary, Patrica Helen and Jean Ann. Although the girls were not raised to have political ambitions, they were all educated.
Rosemary had a troubled entry into this world. During the labor, the doctor was held elsewhere and Rose Kennedy’s nurse ordered her to shut her legs so that the child would remain in its position. When this did not help, she reached out to block the birth canal’s opening with her hand.
The nurse’s action forced the child’s head to remain inside the birth canal for two hours, resulting in severe oxygen deficiency. However, when the child was allowed to be born, nothing unusual was noticed.
Born with bright eyes, amicable smile and iconic dark hair, Rosemary seemed to be a normal child. But as she began to grow up, her parents realized she was different. Every childhood milestone, such as crawling, standing, walking, speaking and feeding herself, occurred much later than it should have.
As the family began to expand, Rosemary was often left behind by her boisterous siblings. Unable to keep up, she often got angry and had fits. At other times, she played ball by herself or roamed around in the neighborhood. The same story was repeated when she was sent to school.
She failed in the kindergarten and was asked to repeat. When she failed for the second time, she was required to take the Binet Intelligence Test. To avoid social stigma, her parents now pulled her out of the school to be educated at home under a private tutor.
The Kennedys had great expectations from their children and made no exception for Rosemary. They believed that she could be cured of her disability if they provided special education and set a high standard for her. But it failed to improve her condition.
At the age of 11, Rosemary was sent away from home to attend five different boarding schools over the next few years. Although her intellectual capability failed to improve under such circumstances, they helped to keep her condition a secret.
At 15, she was enrolled at Sacred Heart Convent in Rhode Island. Here, she was educated separately by two nuns and a special teacher named, Miss Newton. But her reading, writing, spelling and counting skills never went beyond the fourth grade.
While her progress disappointed her parents, it hurt Rosemary more. She was sorry that she could not please her parents, and she conveyed her feelings in many of her letters, which were always full of incomplete sentences, grammatical errors and wrong spellings.
In spite of the parental pressure and learning difficulties, Rosemary grew up to be a very social and amiable young lady. Known for her big smile, she loved to go dancing with her brothers, who made sure that she did not appear different. She also loved fashion and swimming.
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In 1938, when Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. was sent to England as the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, the whole family accompanied him. Once in London, Rosemary Kennedy and her sister Kathleen were presented before King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (then Princess Elizabeth).
For two weeks, Rosemary had prepared herself for the event, learning the complicated art of royal courtesy, practicing it for hours. At the presentation, apart from a minor stumble, everything went on without a hitch. She spent the evening socializing and dancing with the town’s high-profile bachelors.
The press wrote positively about her, favoring her over Kathleen, and calling her ‘stunning’. Indeed, at 20, Rosemary was described as "a picturesque young woman, a snow princess with flush cheeks, gleaming smile, plump figure and a sweetly ingratiating manner to almost everyone she met."
In England, she was enrolled in Belmont House, a boarding school run by Catholic nuns. Here, she was trained in the Montessori Method of education to become a teacher’s aide. She flourished both academically and socially under the guidance of the nuns.
For the first time in her life, Rosemary was happy and confident. She looked better and no longer felt lonely. But as fate would have it, the Second World War broke out in 1939, and the family returned to the USA and Rosemary to her old secluded life.
Lobotomy in USA
Back in the USA, Rosemary Kennedy was once again left behind while her siblings marched ahead in their lives. She became rebellious, hitting and bruising people. Her family now put her in a convent school in Washington DC, circulating that she was being trained to become a kindergarten teacher and was rather recluse.
While in convent, Rosemary began sneaking out at night, going to bars, meeting men with whom she possibly had sex. Her father, who was busy planning a political career for his eldest son, became worried about her safety and a possible scandal. He therefore started consulting doctors.
In November 1941, Drs. Walter Freeman and James Watts advised lobotomy for Rosemary. It involved disconnecting the frontal lobes from the rest of the brain by inserting a metal rod into a hole, cut into the skull. At that time, it was heralded as a cure for mental illness.
Her father then discussed the procedure with his wife, who in turn talked to Kathleen. Kathleen spoke to John White, a reporter investigating mental illnesses and treatments, and came to conclusion that it should not be done. Nonetheless, Kennedy Sr. decided to go ahead with the operation.
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Rosemary, then 23 years old, was admitted to George Washington University Hospital where she was strapped to a bed and given local anesthesia. As she continued to recite poems on the instruction of the doctors, they began cutting a hole in her skull, continuing the procedure until she became incoherent.
It is not known if Rosemary herself was consulted; but the result was devastating for her. After the operation, her mental capacity diminished to that of a two-year-old baby who is no longer able to walk or talk. One of her legs was permanently turned inward.
It took months of therapy before she could partially use her one arm or move around on her own. When she regained her voice, only garbled sounds came out of her throat.
Soon after the operation, 23 years old Rosemary Kennedy was permanently institutionalized. Initially, her father put her in Craig House, a private psychiatric hospital near New York City, forbidding her family from seeing her. She had no connection with them for the next 20 years.
Initially, her father mentioned Rosemary in his letters, saying that she was getting along and was happy. But after 1944, he totally stopped mentioning her. Rosemary’s favorite sister Eunice had later said that she did not know anything about her whereabouts for almost a decade.
Her mother was told that it was best not to see Rosemary as it would enable her to settle down more easily. Outsiders were told that she was being trained for a teaching job or was involved in social work.
In 1948, when JFK was elected to the House of Representatives, her father started fearing that Rosemary’s secret might jeopardize her brother’s career. He now arranged to have her relocated to St. Coletta's, an institution in Wisconsin, which provided lifelong care to disabled adults. Here, he got a special cottage built for her.
Rosemary spent the remaining 56 years of her life in the cottage, now called ‘Kennedy Cottage’, built on the institute’s ground. There she was looked after by two Catholic nuns, Sister Margaret Ann and Sister Leona. There was also a woman who worked with her three nights a week on ceramics.
At the institute, she was very popular among the staff. She had a car, which was used for taking her for rides; and two pets, a canary named Skippy and a poodle named Lollie. However, her parents never visited her and the fact that she had problems continued to be denied.
In 1958, as John F. Kennedy was fighting for reelection to the Senate, Rosemary’s absence was noticed by the public. The family explained that she was too busy working with disabled children. Her problems were acknowledged only after JFK became the President of the United States.
In 1962, after Kennedy Sr. had a severe heart attack, Rose Kennedy went to visit Rosemary for the first time. Left alone for 20 years, feeling hurt and abandoned, Rosemary is believed to have attacked her mother. Unable to talk clearly, this was all she could do to convey her hurt.
After her father’s death in November 1969, Rosemary was often taken out to visit her relatives. By then, she had learned to walk, albeit with a limp. But she never learned to talk clearly and suffered from paralysis of an arm.
On those visits, her nephews and nieces, especially Eunice's son Anthony Shriver, did their best to create a supportive environment for her. With them, Rosemary found the acceptance she had longed for all her life.
Death & Legacy
On January 7, 2005, Rosemary Kennedy died in Wisconsin at the age of 86. Abandoned in life, she was buried beside her parents in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline. It was because of her that disabled persons in the USA have a far better life today.
In 1948, JFK secretly visited Rosemary and was horrified by her condition. In 1963, he used his presidential power to enact the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendment to the Social Security Act. It was the first major legislation to combat mental illness and retardation in USA.
After JFK’s death, Ted Kennedy took up the issue, and eventually, Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990. He was also a board member of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
In 1968, Rosemary’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, by then a leading advocate for disability rights, founded the Special Olympics. Inspired by her condition, Anthony Shriver founded the non-profit, Best Buddies International.