Authors: Kate Clifford Larson
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #JFK, #Nonfiction, #Retail
Labels such as “moron” and “mental defective” further complicated an already difficult life for Rosemary and her family. For Rose, reading eugenics literature and hearing such words describing her lovely daughter were stressful and heartbreaking.
Christian beliefs and biblical tenets were no more helpful. These overtly blamed parents for the physical, mental, and intellectual shortcomings and disabilities of their children, warning believers who failed to follow the Ten Commandments and the teachings of the Old Testament that God would punish them by “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation
At that time the Roman Catholic Church routinely refused the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation to intellectually disabled children, especially those with Down syndrome.
Even today some local churches still refuse the sacrament to those with intellectual impairments, in spite of a directive from the church during the latter part of the twentieth century that clergy should offer the sacraments to them.
Did Rose question a religion that would have excluded her child from some of the most holy of Catholic sacraments?
If Rose and Joe were to reveal that their daughter was a “defective,” they and their children risked being ostracized and shunned. To survive spiritually and emotionally, Rose and Joe had to mold Rosemary into the likeness of themselves and her siblings, an impulse that fed their constant pursuit of a potential “cure” for Rosemary. “My parents, strong believers in family loyalty, rejected suggestions that Rosemary be sent away to an institution,” Eunice later recalled. She remembered her father arguing, “What can they do for her that her family can’t do better? . . . We will keep her at home.”
But keeping her at home had become increasingly exhausting and difficult.
Struggling to come to terms with Rosemary’s limitations and the stigma surrounding them, Rose and Joe reached a crisis point. By the time Rosemary was eleven, and after a year of private instruction at home, they decided to send her to a private boarding school. Her daughter’s young age must have made Rose hesi
tate; developmentally immature, Rosemary always had difficulty adjusting to new situations and demands. Living away from her home and family would be quite destabilizing for her, but the Kennedys felt they had no other acceptable alternatives. Her persistent lack of academic progress and the rising tension and frustrations facing the Kennedy household as it tried to accommodate her at home drove the decision to send her away sooner than they would their other girls. In contrast, Rose would wait until Kick turned thirteen before sending her to boarding school; Eunice went even later.
HE KENNEDYS CHOSE
the Devereux School in Devon-Berwyn, Pennsylvania, for Rosemary. Founded in 1912 by Helena Trafford Devereux, a former Philadelphia public-school teacher, the school provided specialized and individualized lesson plans for a wide range of intellectually challenged students. As a young teacher in Philadelphia, Devereux had observed that children who learned differently or were “slow,” developmentally delayed, or disabled were often kept from advancing to higher grade levels with their age-group peers. Educational instruction for these students consisted at the time of pared-down or “slowed-down” instruction and repetitious drilling of lessons in separate classrooms or in a segregated area in mainstream classrooms. Many of these children received little stimulation, lacking the varied curricula their peers experienced. Given this, coupled with low expectations, their futures were bleak. In Philadelphia, Devereux began creating special curricula for individual students. The Philadelphia school system nearly immediately assigned more children to her classroom, recognizing that through her carefully crafted
and individualized programs tailored to each child, these students thrived rather than failed.
Devereux was frustrated, however. She could not pursue further research and engage in more intensive curriculum development under the constraints of a public-school system, in spite of Philadelphia’s adoption of her program. Though her exceptional work with disabled children earned her an appointment as director of special-needs education for Philadelphia’s public schools, she declined the position so that she could start her own school. She wanted the freedom to explore her belief, as David Brind puts it, that “disabilities need not cause feelings of difference and isolation but instead had the power to create strength of character, bringing each child closer instead of farther away from a sense of belonging to the larger humanity to which each child longed to be a part.”
With a small amount of money, she started a private school in her parents’ home, developing the foundation for a residential educational and therapeutic program for disabled children.
Rosemary experienced a rough transition to Devereux that fall, but she finally settled in. In a November 1929 letter, Joe compliments her on improvements in her report card during her early months at Devereux while also gently challenging her: “I am sure that within the next couple of months it will be even better.”
In time, according to her teachers, Rosemary “made the necessary social adjustments” to boarding school, showed “excellent social poise,” and was “quite charming at times.”
Her course work included drills in spelling and math, grammar, and reading comprehension, as well as more hands-on, developmentally appropriate work in handicrafts, art, music, sewing, and drama.
Her struggles to achieve academic success, however, fueled anxiety that manifested itself in “outbursts of impatience.”
problem, the teachers believed, was rooted in low self-esteem and self-confidence, requiring continual encouragement and positive reinforcement.
Rosemary could not have felt her foundations were firm that fall of 1929. Her parents had gone off to promote Joe’s latest film,
starring Gloria Swanson, in London and Paris, leaving Eddie and Mary Moore to substitute as parents and to settle her into her new home at Devereux.
Rose, in addition to providing care and supervision for eighteen-month-old baby Jean (born the winter before), four-year-old Bobby, five-year-old Pat, and the older children, was also, that summer and fall, busy settling the children into a new family home, a large brick mansion Joe had bought in the tony New York City suburb of Bronxville.
Rose had never felt comfortable in the rented house in Riverdale, and by 1929 she and Joe knew that the move to New York City would be permanent and that the family of ten plus six staff members needed more space. Joe’s success shorting the market had so enriched him that he was able to purchase the magnificent new Bronxville home just a few months before the stock-market crash in October. The estate was purchased for a then incredible $250,000, and Joe would add tens of thousands of dollars in choice furnishings and decorations.
Bronxville was in Westchester County, just a few miles northeast of Riverdale. Nestled on six acres of land, the house, at 294 Pondfield Road, boasted modern appliances and systems rare for those days. The bathrooms had showers, supplied with hot water from a large oil-burning heater. The entrance hallway was graced with a grand staircase, balconies, and Ionic columns. The basement featured a billiards table, and there was a garage for five cars with a chauffeur’s quarters. The third floor contained “an elaborate, always-growing train system,” lorded over by Joe Jr. and
But Rosemary had left for boarding school shortly before the family settled into the Bronxville home; it was home to her, from then on, only for occasional school vacations.
The move to Devereux would be the beginning of a series of physical and emotional transitions for Rosemary that would define her life and struggles for the next decade and more. It would also mark a somewhat new stage in her relationship with her father, who assumed increasing responsibility for Rosemary’s formation now that she was essentially away from home and on the verge of being in the world. Eunice later told her mother, “You were in charge of us and raised and trained us while we were children. And then, when we began turning into young people, Dad took charge the rest of the way.”
Rose, Eunice believed, had become exhausted by the responsibility of taking Rosemary to “doctors, educators, and psychologists.” Joe, though supportive, was “easily upset by Rosemary’s lack of progress, [and] her inabilities to use opportunities for self-development.”
This would remain a constant theme in the family, one that Rosemary must have sensed as Joe took over the management of his daughter’s care and education: the Kennedy children were expected to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded them by their rich and demanding parents.
Rosemary’s first year away coincided with the great stock-market crash of October 24, 1929. Within days, billions of dollars in private capital evaporated. The country spiraled into a deep economic recession, then depression. Four years later, the monetary value of all goods and services manufactured and produced in the country had declined by fifty percent. Millions of American workers—over twenty-five percent of the nation’s workforce—lost their jobs and income. Thousands of banks failed. Lacking the federally insured bank deposits that are common today, Amer
icans’ savings disappeared. Unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and other social and economic safety-net programs had not yet been created. Poverty, homelessness, and hunger spread across the country. The collapse of agricultural prices and of the farm economy in the 1920s—an early indicator of an impending economic depression—compounded by a devastating drought in the plains and the Southwest during the 1930s, ruined the lives of millions more.
While capitalism had helped turn America into the world’s industrial and financial leader, its excesses and unregulated banking and investment practices played a leading role in the greatest financial crisis the world had ever seen. The grinding poverty and widening wealth gap between the poor and the rich, many of whom were weathering the crisis with some of their assets intact, became more pronounced with each year of the Depression. Some of the very wealthy, like the Kennedys, were faring better than ever, taking advantage of deeply discounted prices to acquire real estate, businesses, and other assets. The market crash and subsequent economic decline had little effect on them, and by 1935 the Kennedys were ranked among the richest families in the country. This disparity between the very rich and nearly all other Americans threatened the stability of the nation and its democracy.
Unlike so many families, the Kennedys could continue to pay for private boarding school for Rosemary and their other children. By the end of the first year, Rosemary had finally made the essential “social adjustments” required to successfully live away from home. She had “written several very good stories about the robin and her trip to Washington” and had performed well enough in math and other subjects, the school reported to Rose at the end of Rosemary’s first year.
Her low self-esteem and low confidence,
however, remained a major stumbling block to her success, and episodes of irritability reflected her frustration and anxiety when she could not perform.
Rosemary returned to Devereux in the fall of 1930. The staff had spent a year working with her strengths and weaknesses, but Rosemary’s teachers soon discovered their progress with her had faded over the summer. They found her even more resistant to completing reading and writing assignments, and math continued to pose a significant challenge. In a November progress report, her teachers complained to Joe that Rosemary “dislikes exerting the effort necessary to accomplish acceptable results” in math. Reading comprehension suffered, they wrote, because she “skips a good deal and fills in from her imagination.” Though she still suffered from a lack of confidence, the teachers found that Rosemary did not care about “making the effort necessary to attain good results.” Her short attention span frustrated the teachers’ attempts to teach her to “persevere.” They believed she was capable of more, but how to prove that remained elusive. “Rose’s achievements in class work are seldom commensurate with her ability, and an effort is being made to bring her work up to the standard she is really capable of. This is a difficult task, as she has so definitely acquired the idea that her abilities are negligible and that her work cannot reach [any higher] standard.”
Rosemary, unaware of what the school was telling Joe and Rose, tried to convey to her parents that she was doing extremely well academically. In a carefully printed letter to her mother just four days before the report from the school was sent home, she reported, “I am working-hard-Mother Because I Get 100 in Arithmetic-all-the-time. I am wonderful in spelling.”
Devereux had strict rules and guidelines determining rewards
and the earning of special allowances. The staff preferred few interruptions in a child’s education, discouraging frequent visits from family members and trips home. Earning a few days’ vacation at home for Thanksgiving could have been an incentive to get Rosemary to work harder. Rosemary may have suspected something was amiss when, in the same letter, she pleaded with her mother to let her come home for Thanksgiving: “Did you ask Miss Devereux if I could go home on Thanksgiving? You said you were going to do it. Please do.” Only twelve years old, Rosemary still suffered from the separation from her family. “I miss you very much,” she wrote her mother. “Give everybody my love, please. When you go up to see Joe and Jack [now at Choate School, in Connecticut] give them my love please . . . Write me a long long long letter.”
With Rosemary now boarding away from home, Kick, a year younger, blossomed. Kick was doing well in school, was tremendously popular, and was becoming the family’s substitute older sister. Eunice, nearly three years younger than her oldest sister, became Rosemary’s closest sibling; her temperament and emotional age were better matched to Rosemary than to Kick. Their closeness would last for more than seventy years.
After a visit home for the Easter holiday in April 1931, Rosemary wrote to Eunice, pouring out her disappointment at having to leave the family so soon after the holiday: