Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald was born on July 22, 1890 in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. She was the eldest of six children born to John F. (“Honey Fitz”) and Mary Josephine Hannon Fitzgerald.
Early Life and EducationEdit
As a young child, Rose lived in an Italianate/Mansard-style home in the Ashmont Hill section of Dorchester, Massachusetts and attended the local Girl's Latin School. The home later burned down, but a plaque at Welles Avenue and Harley Street proclaims "Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Square". The plaque was dedicated by her son, Senator Ted Kennedy, on Rose's 102nd birthday in 1992. She was first introduced to politics as a child. When she was 5, her father was a congressman. By the time she turned 15, Honey Fitz was one of the most popular and colorful mayors Boston had ever known. He once took Rose and her sister Agnes to visit President William McKinley in the White House, and the president at one point said to Agnes, "You're the prettiest girl who has entered the house." Rose remarked later, "I knew right then that I would have to work hard to do something about myself."
Rose studied at the convent school Kasteel Bloemendal in Vaals, The Netherlands, and graduated from Dorchester High School in 1906. She also attended the New England Conservatory in Boston where she studied piano. After being refused permission by her father to attend Wellesley College, Rose enrolled at the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart (as it was known at that time), an institution which did not grant degrees at the time. In 1908, Rose and her father embarked on a tour of Europe. She and Honey Fitz had a private audience with Pope St. Pius X at the Vatican.
Marriage and FamilyEdit
In her teens Rose became acquainted with Joseph P. Kennedy at Old Orchard Beach in Maine where their families were vacationing together. On Oct. 7, 1914, they were married in a modest ceremony in a small chapel at the residence of Cardinal O'Connell, who officiated. The couple's first home was a three-story gray building on Beals Street in Brookline, now a national historic site. At the time of their marriage, Joseph Kennedy was making $10,000 a year as a businessman. About 10 years later, when the family left Brookline and moved to Riverdale, N.Y., he was a multimillionaire.
In their first 18 years of marriage, the couple had nine children. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was born in 1915, John Fitzgerald "Jack" in 1917, Rose Marie "Rosemary" in 1918, Kathleen Agnes "Kick" in 1920, Eunice Mary in 1921, Patricia Helen "Pat" in 1924, Robert Francis "Bobby" in 1925, Jean Ann in 1928 and Edward Moore "Ted" in 1932.
Motherhood and PoliticsEdit
Rose was considered by many to be a model parent. "Children," she said, "should be stimulated by their parents to see, touch, know, understand and appreciate." She made the family a self-sustaining unit, with members allowed to go their own way while maintaining interest in the lives of the others. Rose would often retell stories from history books to her children -- about Bunker Hill, the Battle of Concord, and Plymouth Rock -- then take them on outings to see those sites. She also told them stories from the Bible. "I always told the children that if they were given faith when they were young, they should try to nurture it and guard it, because it's really a gift that older people value so much when sorrow comes," she once said.
One of Rose's main problems was keeping tabs on her large family. She kept careful records of all her children on index cards, and had an extensive filing system that she said helped her remember each one's physical condition. She said the cards weren't the product of American efficiency, but "Kennedy desperation." They listed weights, shoe sizes, dental treatments, eye examinations and illnesses each child had.
As Rose's younger sons grew older, they began to look toward the political scene, and she did little to discourage them. She had learned from her father how to be at ease in public and how to conduct political campaigns. "If you're in politics, I suppose you always work to get to the top," she once said. When her son Jack ran in 1946 for the Massachusetts 11th Congressional District seat, the one previously held by Honey Fitzgerald, Rose was the first to spur him on. “She was the greatest pol we had in 1946," said Dave Powers, a longtime friend of the family.
Rose loved politics, especially the backroom strategies and behind-the-scenes. "She knew all the nuts and bolts," Pierre Salinger once said, noting that she made prospective voters feel more important by preparing her remarks carefully and addressing them on more intimate terms. Rose's love of history often infused her political discussions. "My view is a historical one," she said. "I tend to take the long view, in the light of history, of events."
After Jack's victory in 1946, his next big battle was for the US Senate. During his 1952 campaign to unseat Henry Cabot Lodge, Rose was the hostess at many "Kennedy teas" sponsored by the Democratic Party. Newspapers reported that at times the campaign resembled a family feud -- the Kennedys vs. the Lodges.
In her son's 1960 presidential campaign, Rose again did her utmost. "For six weeks," Powers said, "every night I'd pick her up and we'd go to meetings. Maybe the first place would be an abandoned North End garage, and she'd put on a babushka and talk to the women about children. And the next stop might be West Roxbury, so in the car she'd change her shoes and maybe put on a mink jacket," he said.
But during her son Bobby's fateful presidential campaign in 1968, she made perhaps her only political misstep. Just before the Indiana primary, she was questioned about the large sums they were spending on his behalf. "It's our money and we're free to spend it any way we please," she said. "It's part of this campaign business. If you have money, you should spend it to win. The more you can afford, the more you'll spend." Her comments were carried by newspapers nationwide. Later that spring, during the Oregon primary race, she said: "I don't talk about high finance anymore. If I did, they'd send me home tonight."
After her son Bobby was assassinated that June, Rose rarely talked publicly about her personal grief. But once she remarked to a friend: "Wasn't there a book about Michelangelo called 'The Agony and the Ecstasy'? That's what my life has been." During World War II, her eldest son, Joe Jr., had been killed in action in August of 1944, when the plane he was flying on a mission exploded over the English Channel. Her second-oldest daughter, Kathleen, wife of the Marquess of Hartington, who was also killed during World War II, died May 13, 1948, in a plane crash in France. Her second son, Jack, was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, during his first term as president. At the funeral in Washington, she turned to Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie and said: "It's wrong for parents to bury their children. It should be the other way around." Her eldest daughter, Rosemary, spent most of her adult life in a home for intellectually disabled people and her husband Joe Kennedy suffered a stroke in 1961 that left him invalid until his death eight years later.
Later Years and DeathEdit
"Willpower, just willpower and doing what's necessary is what keeps me going," Rose once said. Despite all the tragedies she lived to see, she wrote in her 1974 autobiography: "There have been times when I felt I was one of the most fortunate people in the world, almost as if Providence, or Fate, or Destiny, as you like, had chosen me for special favors."
When asked what were the greatest thrills of her life, one of the first Rose mentioned was being at her son John's inauguration in January 1961 as President Eisenhower's successor. But she recalled other highlights few people might remember. In the late 1930s, her husband was named US ambassador to Britain. While living overseas, the Kennedy family was invited to attend the coronation of Pius XII in March 1939. They enjoyed a private audience with the new Pope. In 1951, she had the rare title of papal countess conferred on her by the Vatican in recognition of her "exemplary motherhood and many charitable works." She was only the sixth woman from the United States to have the title bestowed upon her by the Roman Catholic Church.
Aside from the most important aspects of Rose Kennedy's life -- family, religion and politics -- she was also interested and active in many other areas. Much of her time in later years was devoted to securing public support for the campaign to enlighten the public about mental retardation and its causes. The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation has donated millions of dollars since 1946 to hospitals, institutions, and day-care and research centers throughout the United States.
Rose also spoke several languages fluently and was an accomplished pianist. Petite and slim, she dressed stylishly. During the '30s she was named the best-dressed woman in public life by a poll of fashion designers.
For relaxation, she played golf or swam off the beach at the family compound on Cape Cod. She could often be seen, well past her middle-age years, carrying her own clubs on the difficult Hyannisport Country Club golf course, playing nine holes alone against the biting gusts of sea air. During the 1970s, Rose loved to walk village streets alone, unrecognized by most passersby. But a stroke in 1984 left her in a wheelchair.
Perhaps the most fitting tributes to Rose's life were those given by her children and grandchildren. In 1987, celebrating his grandmother's 97th birthday, Rep. Joseph Kennedy II spoke of her as "the magnet that always pulled all of us together as a family, ever since I was a little boy. We could look to her when things were going very well, and she'd give us a smile and encouragement. When things were not going so well, we'd get the same thing. Grandma's so strong and just a tremendous inspiration to all of us."
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy died in her Hyannis Port home on January 22, 1995. She was 104.