Authors: Kate Clifford Larson
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #JFK, #Nonfiction, #Retail
Y THE TIME
the Kennedys were celebrating Rosemary’s first birthday, Rose was pregnant again. “There were no signs,” Rose observed, “that anything might be wrong.” But as the months went by and she found herself closer to the birth of her fourth child, in February 1920, Rose started noticing that Rosemary’s development was markedly different from her boys’. “She crawled, stood, took her first steps, said her first words late . . . She had problems managing a baby spoon.” Rose tried to excuse the differences as being due to gender and temperament. Rosemary’s failure to reach typical developmental milestones made her mother slightly anxious. Rose dismissed those concerns, however, “because of wishful thinking.”
There were other serious strains. Rose was now a stay-at-home mother of three, soon to be four, children. It was a far different role from being Joe Kennedy’s fiancée or Honey Fitz’s escort and confidante. Rose’s relative isolation compared to her premarriage life affected her sense of self and her youthful needs for independence and attention. The dreams she and Joe had talked about all
those years while they were courting and he was having his first business success were playing out in a way she had not imagined.
Rose was deeply committed to the vows she had made as a Child of Mary at Blumenthal, vows she understood carried enormous expectations and requirements of selflessness. A Child of Mary would “bear with submission, humiliations, such as advice, reprehensions, punishments which she may deserve, but she will be glad to have occasion to practice the virtue of humility . . . True humility will render a Child of Mary full of deference for her Superiors, and even for her companions; she will gladly renounce her own will and judgment to submit to that of others.”
But the challenges of marriage and raising children tested Rose’s commitment to self-sacrifice. Humility would be, for her, perhaps the most difficult of virtues.
Rose’s private struggles with her commitment to being an ideal Catholic mother and wife were not made easier by the very public gains in liberties and advantages experienced by many American women as the 1920s dawned. The movement for universal suffrage was at fever pitch; in August 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment would give women the right to vote. The New Woman of the 1920s demanded more rights in the workplace and better access to education, jobs, and political power. Fashions were changing rapidly: hemlines were creeping up, corsets were thrown in the trash, and new, supple fabrics fit the curves of a woman’s body less restrictively, allowing for greater flexibility and movement. There were sharp distinctions between attitudes of the nineteenth and the twentieth century toward smoking, drinking, sex, and independence, particularly for privileged white women. Women were experiencing, and enjoying, far fewer restrictions on their behavior and using their newly won freedoms to ensure greater autonomy and equality both at home and in public. Though
women still endured second-class status in society—many professions remained closed to women or severely limited them, women’s wages lagged behind those of men, and civil and legal equality would take decades more—the 1920s ushered in new choices and options redefining the lives of American women.
Publicly, Rose appeared apolitical on the question of woman suffrage; the years of acting as her father’s helpmeet in the political sphere had been enough for her. She demurely suggested that she hadn’t developed a solid “impression of the suffragettes” during a visit to England in 1911, when tens of thousands of them had marched on London.
Her father ridiculed Boston suffragists, and a majority of Massachusetts politicians and certainly the Catholic leadership remained opposed to enfranchising women.
Considering the near-constant reporting of the woman suffrage movement’s gains and losses during her early married life in Boston, it is unlikely that Rose remained uninformed or that she lacked an opinion on the subject. Perhaps her Catholic friends did not talk about suffrage, but her suffragist mother-in-law, Mary Kennedy, certainly did.
Rose was yearning for active engagement in something important in the outside world—if not the politics of her father’s world, then the business dealings of her husband’s world. Her participation in the Ace of Clubs—a women’s club that hosted guest speakers on history, culture, and contemporary issues which she had established with friends after she returned from school at Blumenthal, in 1911—provided some inspiration, but a monthly club meeting did not deliver the deeper stimulation she sought.
Each evening that she was left alone by her husband, and each day that she spent focused on tending to her children’s needs and managing her small staff—Mary O’Donohue, a thirty-year-old Irishwoman, and Alice Michelin, a twenty-six-year-old recent im
migrant from France—was increasingly painful. The conflict between the vows she had taken as a Child of Mary and a wife and the personal freedoms evident in the modern world around her would plague Rose for the rest of her life.
Rose reached a breaking point near the end of her fourth pregnancy. She abruptly moved out of the Beals Street house, leaving Joe behind with the three children—Joe Jr., Jack, and Rosemary—and their nursemaids. She could no longer bear that “life was flowing past.” The demands of children, marriage, and pregnancy threatened to swallow her up.
Separating from Joe and the children and leaving Beals Street was a personally extreme act, one that risked social exposure if others outside the family guessed that Rose’s motives were more than to be near her mother as she approached her delivery. It seems likely that there was a precipitating event. Joe had always worked late, and now he traveled and spent more time out in the evenings with business associates.
Rose would have known that he was enjoying some of his time away with young, liberated women; she might have taken in his “reputation for being a ladies’ man.” But now there was talk that Joe was having affairs, “and some of this gossip may have caught up with Rose.”
Resettling into her old room in her parents’ home in Dorchester, Rose never spoke about what was going on, though her siblings and parents saw that she was unhappy and believed that Joe was at least part of the problem. Honey Fitz knew her future would be doomed if she left Joe permanently. Perhaps he stifled the urge to say he had warned Rose about him. She was married to Joe, married in the Catholic Church, and bound by vows that were ironclad in the minds of Catholics everywhere. Joe was not physically abusive, he was a good provider, and he was her husband. She was responsible for their children, whom Joe loved. And Honey Fitz’s home was no
longer her home. Rose paraphrased her father’s response to the separation: “The old days are gone. Your children need you and your husband needs you. You
make things work out. I know you can . . . There isn’t anything you can’t do once you set your mind to it. So go now, Rosie, go back where you belong.”
The Catholic education Rose’s father had forced her to accept many years before would now become her solace. Reaching deep into that well of Catholic faith, and into her own resources of intellectual reasoning and determination, Rose left her parents’ house and slipped away to a Catholic retreat. It was only a few short weeks before the birth of a second daughter, Kathleen. Through intensive prayer and meditation, and inspirational lectures by priests who counseled spiritual rededication and rejuvenation to help one face life’s daily challenges, Rose found the strength to recommit herself to her marriage and to her role as a mother.
OSE NOW SAW
clearly that the only way she could have access to the public sphere was in the role of the wife of a successful Joseph P. Kennedy. Joe’s financial success was a potential path to public office—always an undercurrent of his activity—and his wealth and public distinction would be her entrée back into the intellectual and social worlds that she missed and in which she thrived. Divorcing Joe and becoming an independent woman again was completely out of the question, but remaining at home, sequestered and miserable, was not an option either. She must get her husband to understand that she could be an asset to him, just as she had been to her father. Her role as wife was one defined by a rigid Catholic vision that regarded women as helpmeets to their husbands. She would take a back seat to Joe’s needs and desires, then, in order to gain entrance to his world.
She would raise their
children to do the same thing: her daughters would learn to make sacrifices for their father, brothers, and husbands. Rose’s newly hardened worldview required her silence, particularly in public: “The most successful luncheons or dinners to me are when there are from six to eight people and the men talk across the table brilliantly and the women for the most part keep silent . . . If a woman at the table insists on injecting an extraneous remark or a stupid one, often the men will cease and not consider it worthwhile to prolong the discussion. I never talk very much as I think most people are interested in what Joe is doing and is thinking, not I.”
Joe had long stopped discussing his business plans, ideas, and concerns with her. Later, Rose would reflect with some defensiveness that even during their courtship and early years of marriage, “Joe’s time was his own.” His education had consumed his attention during their early years together, and “now it was business that did so.”
The preservation of their marriage and mutual contentment now depended on accommodation and common goals. For the public, they would need to show a united front.
Writing about her early married life and the group of close friends she and Joe enjoyed, Rose recalled “the great new experience we shared, which affected our thinking about everything else in life, was parenthood.” Nevertheless, and in spite of the sense of commonality she claimed they all felt as young parents raising families together, Rose was clear that her social world did not include constant discussions of children. “I don’t recall that there was any great amount of conversation” about children or the daily chore of child rearing, “certainly not on my part, at least.” Rose felt there was “always a multitude of things more interesting to talk about than . . . diaper rash.” They and their friends, Rose recalled years later, felt incredibly blessed.
Children, she believed,
brought her closer to God and her husband. But she would not allow the daily rituals and requirements of caring for children to consume or define her in social situations.
Nor would she let herself be reduced to the role of a complaining, harried mother in the home. Rose looked to her mother as a model for managing the tenor of her child-filled household. “She believed,” Rose noted of her mother, “that my father worked hard for her and for us children and that he should be made comfortable and happy at home.” In this, Rose followed Josie’s lead. She was determined to make sure Joe was comfortable and happy in their home, too. She would not bother him with small details of her day. She encouraged him to take vacations without her if she felt he was working too hard or not feeling well. When he traveled away from home, she did not worry him with the latest child’s illness or mishap on the playground, nor did she complain about her own health or exhaustion. “Why worry him?” she later reflected. “How could a man work if he was concerned about me or a youngster, and what purpose would it serve?”
As a bonus for being an excellent administrator and manager, directing and overseeing everything in her home, Rose asked for and received whatever material support she wanted or needed from Joe. Her father had told her that if “you need more help in the household, then get it. If you need a bigger house, then ask for it. If you need more private time for yourself, take it.”
New homes, cars, furniture, jewelry, clothing, private schools for the children, trips abroad, vacations, and full-time staff to run the household and care for the children were never denied her, and they alleviated her feelings of isolation and loss of status, as well as relieved her of the many duties of a full-time mother. Rose and Joe reconciled their interior lives to each other’s and came to an agreement: their deeply rooted intellectual and religious con
nection, their love of their children, and political expediency remained central to the survival of their marriage.
It is not clear how early in the marriage Rose’s devotion to a very conservative version of Catholic womanhood became a barrier to sexual intimacy. The church deplored “deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself” and upheld “the primary purpose[s] for which marriage exists—namely, the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control.”
One of Rose’s friends from those years, Marie Green, later recalled that Joe found Rose’s refusal to engage in sex for pleasure extremely frustrating. Green reported that Joe often teased Rose about her confined and restricted view of sex. “This idea of yours that there is no romance outside of procreation is simply wrong,” Marie heard Joe saying to Rose during one of their Friday-night get-togethers playing cards. “It was not part of our contract at the altar, the priest never said that and the books don’t argue that,” Joe claimed. But Rose was resolute, and, in spite of what Joe argued and wanted, she had church teachings to support her. Green later recalled that after the birth of the Kennedys’ ninth child, Edward “Teddy” Moore Kennedy, in 1932, Rose told Joe, “No more sex.”
It probably mattered little by then. By the mid-1920s Joe had become a notorious womanizer, juggling affairs and illicit liaisons with starlets, intellectuals, and “party girls.” Rose gave the impression that she was ignorant of his liaisons, but it is more likely she turned a blind eye. Deal making and the crafting and cementing of business relationships often required after-work hours devoted to socializing at restaurants, the theater, clubs, and speakeasies that filled the neighborhoods of Prohibition-era Boston. And Joe’s entertainment of clients and potential investors in his
expanding business interests often entailed the company of “theater girls” and others.