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The Kennedy Heirs: A Legacy of Courage

by J. Randy Taraborrelli

As is well known by now, the Kennedys have always been a family of dreamers. Long-standing prejudices against the Irish combined with anti-Catholic sentiment had imbued them with great strength and resiliency and also a desire to seek justice for others. The members of the third generation have memories of their grandparents, Joseph and Rose, talking about discrimination against the Irish and showing them newspaper clippings from the Boston press where the letters NINA (“No Irish Need Apply”) were splashed on want ads for job opportunities. These young Kennedys came to understand that when Grandpa Joe was appointed ambassador to England back in 1938, it had been a real victory considering it had been just two generations since the family was of Irish peasantry. The way Grandpa had advanced in society while carving out his fortune in the Manhattan banking industry, on Wall Street, in politics, and, later, even in Hollywood would always inspire them.

Born of a political family in Boston whose parents had emigrated from Ireland during the famine in 1848, Grandpa—and that would be Joseph Patrick Kennedy—was also the first to have his eye on the presidency. Throwing a shadow over his ambitions, though, was his opposition of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt over the United States’ intervention in World War II. Kennedy was concerned that if the British went to war, the States would end up in it, as well. He believed it should be avoided at all costs. He actually thought a deal could be brokered with Hitler. However, Roosevelt wanted to fight, not placate, and he didn’t need his ambassador acting as an appeaser, either. Given his approach, Joseph would find himself on the wrong side of history; he was soon viewed as a Nazi sympathizer, even though this wasn’t the case. Then, when war began to break out despite his protestations, he sent his family home from England lest his sons become involved in it, for which he was then labeled a coward. He returned to the States after his ambassadorship to find his political career in tatters. He was despondent… but not for long. Typical of Joe, he pulled himself together and dedicated himself to moving forward with his life and his businesses, now in America.

In 1914, Joseph had married the redoubtable Rose Fitzgerald—daughter of John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, Boston’s first Irish mayor. The first of many family misfortunes was that of Rose Marie “Rosemary” Kennedy, their third child. The story of how Joe authorized a frontal lobotomy performed on her in 1941 is well known. Rosemary, who had suffered learning disabilities and an unpredictable and often volatile temperament, came out of the surgery severely handicapped. Her sister Eunice would then spend the rest of her life dedicated to the cause of helping those who were intellectually challenged and disabled in other ways, much of her work being the catalyst for her signature accomplishment, the Special Olympics.
Once or twice a year, Rosemary visited the family at Rose and Joe’s enormous eighteen-room home on the Nantucket Sound shoreline in Hyannis Port called “the Big House,” which they’d purchased in the 1920s. (This large clapboard house eventually became the centerpiece of the so-called Kennedy compound, comprised of surrounding properties owned by Bobby and Ethel, John and Jackie, Ted and Joan, and Eunice and her husband, Sargent. Other Kennedys of the next generation would also buy property in this area.) Rosemary was always considered a part of the family, someone for whom her siblings cared deeply, until her death in 2005.
When it became clear that Joe wouldn’t be occupying the White House, he looked to his namesake, Joe Jr., to be his successor. However, those dreams would be tragically dashed when, during the war in 1944, Joe was killed in a secret Navy mission while flying a Liberator bomber that exploded over the English Channel. He was only twenty-nine.

Similar aviation disasters would haunt the Kennedy family for years.
Joe and Rose’s daughter Kathleen—known as “Kick”—lost her husband, Billy Cavendish (heir to the title of Duke of Devonshire) as a casualty of war less than a month after her brother Joe. Tragically, she, too, would become the victim of a plane crash in France in 1948, when she was twenty-eight. There was even comparable tragedy in the extended family; the parents of Ethel Kennedy were both killed in a plane crash in 1955 at the age of sixty-three, as was her brother George Jr. in 1966 at forty-four. Later, in 1964, Ted Kennedy would also be in a plane crash that took the life of the pilot. Ted broke his back and was almost paralyzed.

With his namesake now gone, the question remained as to who would carry the standard for the family. The grieving patriarch then turned his attention to Joe’s younger brother Jack. Though Jack Kennedy—JFK—was less polished and articulate than Joe, his heart was in the right place and he had good ideas. Of course, he wanted to serve. Much to his father’s delight, Jack would go on to the Senate and then, in 1960, be elected President of the United States. Making it even more rewarding for the family, Ethel’s husband, Bobby, would be named attorney general while Bobby’s little brother, Ted—would go on to become a senator.

President Kennedy’s time in office would be brief, as we all know; he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1963. Now, according to Joe’s dynastic ambitions for the family, Jack’s younger brother Bobby would be next in the line of succession. “He inspired a country that was deeply grieving not only JFK’s death but Martin Luther King’s with idealistic notions of how to best serve in the midst of civil unrest the likes of which America had never before experienced” is how his former press secretary Frank Mankiewicz encapsulated Bobby’s appeal in a 1998 interview. Of course, Bobby’s campaign for high office ended in 1968 when he, too, was killed in the same way as his brother, with a bullet to the head.

At that point, it fell to the youngest son, Ted, to carry the torch and, hopefully, return the family to the White House. That is, until tragedy struck again. In 1969, Ted’s chances to be President were all but ruined when, impaired by alcohol, he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Though a majority of his constituency encouraged him to continue his Senate career, he would never be able to escape the specter of this scandal.

Later in 1969, Joseph P. Kennedy died, his dynastic dream for the family at least partly realized. However, the family’s mandate having to do with who would be next in line for high office certainly didn’t end with his passing. Now the next generation—the third—would be tasked with the responsibility of public service. By the seventies, though, times were different; America’s youth wasn’t the same thanks to a war abroad, civil unrest at home, a rampant drug culture, and societal mores that were so very different than those of days gone by.

As the boys of the third generation huddled in corners and eavesdropped on hushed conversations relating to who might be next in line for the golden ring, they began to understand and even fear that it was now their destiny to become a new generation of Kennedy torchbearers. “We were all, every one of us, raised to be President” is how the late Christopher Lawford—one of Pat Kennedy’s sons—put it. “In what other family,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend noted, “did each boy fully expect to realize America’s promise that any child can grow up to be President?”

Immersed in wealth and privilege, famous from the time of their births, most of the progeny of the second generation—boys and girls alike—couldn’t help but begin to think of themselves as princes and princesses of an entitled, royal family. Without Grandpa in their lives and with Jack and Bobby now gone and Ted overwhelmed, things would definitely go off the rails for this new generation. As teenagers, many would misbehave in surprising ways. Some felt privilege was “due” them simply because of their birthright as Kennedys. They weren’t yet able to appreciate the responsibility that came with power and influence. Maybe it made sense. “How does a youngster come to terms with all of this while growing up in a large family, especially one like ours where a premium was always placed on competition and on winning?” Teddy Kennedy Jr., Ted’s oldest son, once wondered. “And to do it all under the glare of public scrutiny? That’s asking a lot.”

“There are a lot of expectations,” added Eunice’s son Mark. “If you think about it, there was a presidential race that the family was involved in from 1956 until 1980. That’s twenty-four years where somebody’s running to be the head of the most powerful country in the world or Vice President, and that’s not even counting Senate races.”

Further complicating matters for all twenty-nine Kennedys of the third generation was that their parents suffered incalculably from the grief and heartbreak associated with the murders of Jack and Bobby and even Ted’s close call with death. Very little effort was made to help their children cope. “It wasn’t a family big on outward grieving or allowing you to grieve,” Eunice and Sarge’s daughter, Maria, confirmed. “I don’t think any of those kids ever grieved properly, grieved openly, or were allowed to grieve. They all walked around with a lot of grief, and a lot of sadness, which would pop out in different ways, as emotion or rage.”

“The Kennedys of the older generation had relied on prayer to get through the hard times,” says Sister Pauline Joseph, a Franciscan nun who was stationed at the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children in Wisconsin—where the family had sent Rosemary after her lobotomy—today known simply as St. Coletta’s. She would become close to Ethel, who had once considered becoming a nun herself. “They would have Mass said every Sunday at the compound,” she said, “sometimes more than that, often three or four times a week a priest would visit and say Mass. Though the young ones were raised with God in mind, they definitely became, shall we say, distracted.”

“Many of us turned to drugs and other addictions,” admitted Patrick Kennedy. In fact, it would be difficult to list all the Kennedys of Patrick’s generation with addictions that nearly ruined some lives and entirely decimated others. Ethel’s son Christopher once famously noted that it was easier in the 1990s to get an AA meeting together in Hyannis Port than a game of touch football. “I think we Kennedys did the best we could with the cards we were dealt, with the parents we had, the times in which they were raised and then in which we were raised,” Patrick said. “There was that old saying, ‘Kennedys don’t cry.’ I can’t even remember how it started, but we heard it all our lives. As a kid, I used to think … yeah, Kennedys don’t cry—in public. Privately, Kennedys do cry. Boy, do they ever.”

As much as they have felt at one with the public, the Kennedys have also sometimes felt at odds with those who scrutinize their problems. “I’ve come to believe that it’s not what has happened to our family that has been cursed as much as it’s the fact that we’ve never been able to deal with it privately,” concluded Eunice Shriver. “There’s little dignity found in living your life in so public a fashion, and that’s especially true of our children. However, this burden is one we Kennedys have carried for generations. If there’s a curse,” she concluded, “surely it’s that.”

J. RANDY TARABORRELLI is the author of 20 biographies, most of which have become New York Times bestsellers, including: Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot; After Camelot: A Personal History of the Kennedy Family 1968 to the Present, which was adapted as a mini-series for Reelz; and Jackie, Janet & Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, currently being adapted as a television series by Tomorrow Studios.