Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/ Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Pub. Date: 10/6/2015
Pages/Length: 302 pages/7 hours, 44 minutes

Genre: Biography/Historical Nonfiction/American History

They were the most prominent American family of the twentieth century. The daughter they secreted away made all the difference.

Joe and Rose Kennedy’s strikingly beautiful daughter Rosemary attended exclusive schools, was presented as a debutante to the Queen of England, and traveled the world with her high-spirited sisters. And yet, Rosemary was intellectually disabled — a secret fiercely guarded by her powerful and glamorous family.
Major new sources — Rose Kennedy’s diaries and correspondence, school and doctors' letters, and exclusive family interviews — bring Rosemary alive as a girl adored but left far behind by her competitive siblings. Kate Larson reveals both the sensitive care Rose and Joe gave to Rosemary and then — as the family’s standing reached an apex — the often desperate and duplicitous arrangements the Kennedys made to keep her away from home as she became increasingly intractable in her early twenties. Finally, Larson illuminates Joe’s decision to have Rosemary lobotomized at age twenty-three, and the family's complicity in keeping the secret. 
Rosemary delivers a profoundly moving coda: JFK visited Rosemary for the first time while campaigning in the Midwest; she had been living isolated in a Wisconsin institution for nearly twenty years. Only then did the siblings understand what had happened to Rosemary and bring her home for loving family visits. It was a reckoning that inspired them to direct attention to the plight of the disabled, transforming the lives of millions.

What Did I Think About the Story?

I've always found the Kennedys to be a fascinating family, especially JFK and his wife, Jackie. I've seen a few movies about them, know the basics about Joe and Rose Kennedy and their famous political sons, but I had never heard of Rosemary Kennedy before (or, at least, I don't remember ever hearing of her). When I saw Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter come up for sale as a Kindle/Audible audiobook combo I knew I wanted to learn more. I'm so glad I purchased it because this story completely expanded my view of the Kennedys as a whole (not always in a good way) and introduced me to this remarkable member, one that's life was infinitely tragic.

This really is more than just the story of Rosemary. While she stays center to the story the author does a really good job of giving a solid background on her parents - Joe and Rose Kennedy - as well as each sibling. If for no other reason I think including this information was an excellent choice as detailing the various Kennedys' ambitions, skills, competitiveness, and drives went a huge way towards highlighting Rosemary's limits and the frustrations and disappointments she would have naturally felt growing up under the Kennedy regime. While I know this was a different time and place, it was upsetting to hear how Rosemary was pushed to achieve more than she was mentally capable of and how she was shuttled around and kept hidden often when she didn't live up to her parents' expectations. As a mother I cannot imagine sending my child off over and over again to let other people take care of her while I go on a myriad of vacations and concentrate on my more capable children. It's just appalling to me!

I honestly had to stop listening for a while when I got to the part about the lobotomy. I could  not believe that her father agreed to such a drastic, invasive measure to "fix" his (in his eyes) imperfect daughter instead of just accepting her with her limitations and letting her know that she was just fine the way she was (which, in my opinion, might have helped with the increased tantrums she had as she tried to keep up with the demands of her family). Top that off with the fact that she was then placed in an institution far from her family for decades so that no one knew how catastrophic a mistake they had made is just unimaginable to me. This biography left me with a bitter dislike for Joe and Rose Kennedy and for the lengths they went to for their own ambitions for their family.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the detail given to discussing how mental deficiencies and delays were viewed and dealt with in general during the early to mid 1900s and how those views shifted and changed with further study, exposure, and treatment, much of which was advanced by the Kennedy's philanthropic foundations and Eunice Kennedy's work and efforts in particular. So, in the end, whether from love, guilt, or whatever other motives might have fueled them, their experiences with Rosemary and her many trials ended up doing so much for other people like her. I also became a huge fan of Eunice Kennedy (someone else I wasn't overly familiar with) due to the fact that she was really the only one who took the time to spend quality time with Rosemary and wasn't as afraid as the others to speak about her disabled sister.

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy is a wonderful look into the Kennedy family as a whole and this intriguing and tragic member in particular.  I'm not sure if what is discussed within its pages are already well known facts to those that have studied the Kennedys but I learned quite a bit and now want to read even further about the family. I can't help thinking  how much happier Rosemary's life might have been if she was born into a less ambitious family or a different time. The author (and narrator!) did an excellent job of making me feel for Rosemary and, for me, that is the mark of a great nonfiction book.

What Did I Think About the Cover?   

I think it's perfect for a biography. It has a nice, large picture of Rosemary, looking quite pretty, confident, and happy, highlighting the main focus of the story.

My Rating: 4.0/5.0

I purchased the Kindle and Audible audiobook versions of Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter for my own library. To read more reviews and find links to purchase your own copy, visit Goodreads HERE.


  1. Good review. I've had this book on my TBR list. I'll get to it one day!!

  2. I was always a fan of Bobby Kennedy; he came at that time of my life when I was just starting to become aware of American politics and, of course, his assassination indelibly impressed him on my mind.

    I knew Rosemary Kennedy was intellectually disabled, but I was shocked to read in your comments that her father had subjected her to a lobotomy. The times and attitudes were ferocious!

    1. I was always a fan of JFK and Bobby but wasn't aware of Rosemary before this. And there are quite a few shocking things revealed! Thanks for stopping by, Debbie!