Who Is Rosemary Kennedy? Inside the Tragic Life of John F. Kennedy's Eldest Sister
In the storied and tragic history of the Kennedy family, the spotlight is typically given to former President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jackie, and their ill-fated son, John F. Kennedy Jr. But when you delve past the media artifice, an even more harrowing story remains: that of a forgotten Kennedy.
J.F.K. was one of nine siblings and one of whom you’ve likely heard very little of: Rosemary. The third-born Kennedy and the family’s first daughter, Rosemary was born in 1918 to Joseph and Rose Kennedy in Brookline, Mass. Rosemary was one-year John’s junior and a year-and-a-half sister Kathleen’s senior.
For a more comprehensive look at the tragic life of the third Kennedy child, scroll down below.
She Was Born Mentally Challenged Due to Oxygen Deprivation at Birth
When Rose went into labor with her first daughter, a doctor wasn’t immediately available. According to biographer Kate Larson, a nurse with the proper training was with Rose, but wanting to wait for the doctor, told the Kennedy matriarch to “hold her legs together tightly in the hope of delaying the baby’s birth.” After that method failed, the nurse is said to have “[held] the baby’s head and [forced] it back into the birth canal for two excruciating hours.”
It soon became clear that Rosemary was not advancing as quickly as her siblings. Her youngest sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver said in a 1962 essay published in The Saturday Evening Post, “Rosemary was mentally retarded.”
The Family Feared She’d Derail Her Brothers’ Political Careers
As Rosemary entered adulthood, her condition appeared to worsen. Her behavior grew erratic and at times violent, and her father feared that her lack of control might lead to an unwanted pregnancy—a scandal that could affect her brothers’ road to Washington.
She Underwent a Lobotomy Upon Her Father’s Order
In 1941, Joseph Kennedy made the executive decision to have his eldest daughter lobotomized. Eunice glosses over this chapter in her Evening Post article, indicating only that Rosemary was institutionalized at the time of her behavioral dip. However, in the years since, it’s been confirmed that Rosemary underwent a failed lobotomy at the hands of Dr. Walter Freeman and James Watts, leaving the 23-year-old unable to speak clearly and resigned to the mental capacity of a 2-year-old.
After Rosemary’s lobotomy, she was sent to a psychiatric facility in upstate New York, where she stayed for seven years. In 1949, she went to live at St. Coletta’s School for Exceptional Children in Wisconsin. Rosemary received few visitors after she was institutionalized—her mother reportedly didn’t visit for 20 years, while her father never visited. J.F.K. covertly paid his sister a visit while campaigning in 1958, and after he was elected and Eunice’s letter was published, the family began to publicly acknowledge her.
She’s Thought to Be the Inspiration Behind the Special Olympics
Rosemary’s younger sister Eunice founded the Special Olympics in 1968. Although for years she denied the correlation between the organization and her sister’s disability, Shriver later admitted to biographer Laurence Leamer that perhaps it was a subconscious decision. “Mrs. Shriver kept saying no until one day, she turned to me, her head cocked, and said, ‘You know maybe you’re right, maybe there’s something there but I just can’t see it,’” Leamer wrote.
She Died in a Facility for the Mentally Disabled in 2005
At 86 years old, Rosemary passed away in the company of her four remaining siblings—Edward, Eunice, Patricia, and Jean.
She Was the First Kennedy Child to Die of Natural Causes
Although Rosemary was the fifth child in the Kennedy dynasty to die, she was the first to die of natural causes.
The eldest Kennedy, Joseph Jr., died during the war in 1944; Kathleen, the second eldest Kennedy daughter, died in a plane crash in 1948 at just 28 years old; 15 years after his younger sister’s passing, John Jr. was assassinated in Dallas, Texas; former senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968.
Elisabeth Moss Will Portray Her in an Upcoming Film
Acclaimed actress and Golden Globe winner Elisabeth Moss is attached to A Letter From Rosemary Kennedy. Regarding the film, director Ritesh Batra told The Hollywood Reporter, “The movies about the Kennedy family are deservedly stormy affairs, but here’s a story about the storms within all of us. This is why I am excited to tell this story and to collaborate with Elisabeth, a fabulously talented actor.”