“Was she a fool, I asked myself… or a saint? Or just a better actress than I was?” - Hollywood star Gloria Swanson on Rose Kennedy
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the daughter of Boston politician John Fitzgerald and wife of Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr., was the matriarch of a large and ambitious family. She bore four sons and five daughters, among them a future president, and a number of senators and philanthropists. A physically active person, she took brisk ocean swims from her Cape Cod house in 50 degree weather — even into her 80s.
A Promiscuous Husband
Marriage to Joseph Kennedy could not have been easy; he hardly hid his philandering. But Rose chose not to acknowledge it. Joe’s mistress Gloria Swanson recalled, “If she suspected me of having relations not quite proper with her husband, or resented me for it, she never once gave any indication of it.” Rose’s reaction to her situation was to focus on her religion and, perhaps, to distance herself from the children she shared with Joe.
“I looked on child rearing not only as a work of love and duty but as a profession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honorable profession in the world and one that demanded the best I could bring to it.” Rose was celebrated in England for keeping a card file to track the health of her nine children. There is no question but that Rose cared for her children and assisted them in every way in their careers. However, she was not a particularly hands-on mother. “I did little diaper changing,” she admitted, and she always had the assistance of servants.
John F. Kennedy told an aide that he could not recall his mother ever saying “I love you.” An old friend suggested that the president’s discomfort with physicality “must go back to his mother and the fact that she was so cold, so distant from the whole thing. ...I doubt if she ever rumpled the kid’s hair in his whole life.” Another friend recalled, “I had the feeling that the children just totally ignored her. Daddy was it…. At the Cape, Mrs. Kennedy was always by herself…. When she went to play golf, she’d go by herself. She did everything by herself. I never saw her walking with one of the children on the beach.”
Rose used a separate cottage at Hyannis Port to remove herself from the ruckus of her big family. An intensely devout Roman Catholic, she would pray in her private retreat. While the boys’ education had been the responsibility of their father, the girls attended convent schools. Much of Rose’s personal time was spent in religious contemplation; some thought they recognized a pride in the martyrdom of the cuckold.
Religion and Politics
The family’s Catholicism became an issue during the 1960 presidential campaign. Many Protestants, like Baptist minister Martin Luther King Sr., initially endorsed Richard Nixon for religious reasons. John F. Kennedy confronted the issue directly in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He reassured his listeners: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute…. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.”
Rose Kennedy did not push her own ambitions on her children the way her husband did. Instead, she quietly offered another path, by her own example, of religious and familial duty and personal stoicism. After the death of the president, she nearly cried. Regaining her self-composure, she declared, “No one will ever feel sorry for me.” Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy outlived four of her nine children, dying at the age of 104 in 1995.