The oldest daughter of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, Rosemary Kennedy, was born on September 13, 1918.
Rosemary Kennedy had dramatic mood swings and seizures in her early adolescence. She was 23 years old when her father, in response to these problems, arranged for her to have a prefrontal lobotomy; the operation left her permanently disabled and prevented her from speaking clearly.
Rosemary Kennedy received care at St. Coletta, a facility in Jefferson, Wisconsin, for the majority of the rest of her life. For years, her predicament and whereabouts were kept a secret. Following her lobotomy, Rosemary was first cut off from her siblings and her extended family, but she later went to see them.
Early Life of Rosemary Kennedy
Rose Marie Kennedy was born at her parent’s house in Brookline, Massachusetts. She was the first daughter and third child of Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. She was given the name Rosemary (or Rosie) in honor of her mother.
The nurse instructed Rose Kennedy to keep her legs locked during the birth because the doctor wasn’t immediately accessible due to the Spanish flu pandemic, which made the baby’s head stay in the birth canal for two hours.
Oxygen was lost as a result of the action. As Rosemary grew, her parents became aware that she was not making the fundamental developmental advancements a human typically makes at a specific month or year. She struggled to sit up, crawl, and learn to walk at the age of two.
Although some have questioned the Kennedys’ descriptions of the type and severity of Rosemary’s condition, chronicles of her life indicated that she had an intellectual disability. According to a biography, Rose Kennedy kept her friendships private and pretended that her daughter was growing normally, keeping Rosemary’s impairment a secret from all but the immediate family.
Rosemary struggled to learn to read and write despite having tutors available. She was enrolled in an intellectually disabled boarding school in Pennsylvania when she was 11.
Rosemary was taken to the Sacred Heart Convent in Elmhurst, Providence, Rhode Island, at 15, where she received a solitary education. She spent the entire day working with two nuns and Miss Newton, a special educator.
The Kennedys donated a brand-new tennis court to the school for their efforts. Her reading, writing, spelling, and counting abilities were said to be on par with those of a fourth-grader (ages 9-10). Her mother arranged for her older brother John to go with her to a tea dance around this time. He made her seem “not at all different” during the dance.
Rosemary was not an avid reader, but she could read Winnie-the-Pooh. Her late 1930s diaries, published in the 1980s, depict a young woman whose life was full of clothing fittings, tea dances, opera outings, and other social pursuits.
Kennedy traveled with her family to Rome in 1939 for Pope Pius XII’s coronation. She went to the White House as well. While she was “interested in social welfare work, she is claimed to retain a secret ambition to go on stage.”
Kennedy’s parents informed Woman’s Day Magazine that she was “studying to be a kindergarten teacher.” Rosemary’s father’s secretary wrote a response to The Boston Globe’s request for an interview, which Rosemary painstakingly copied out:
I’ve always had severe tastes and realized that life is not simply for fun. I’ve studied Dr. Maria Montessori’s well-known psychological approach for a while and received my teaching degree last year.
While her father was serving as the US Ambassador to the UK in 1938, Kennedy was given her debut at Buckingham Palace in front of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Kennedy spent hours perfecting the intricate royal bow.
She almost fell when she tripped on the occasion. Rose Kennedy handled the debut as a success and never brought up the incident. The King and Queen grinned as if nothing had happened, and the throng made no motions.
Lobotomy of Rosemary Kennedy
When Rosemary returned to the United States from the United Kingdom in 1940, according to her sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, she regressed; Shriver remarked that Rosemary had turned 22 and had become “’increasingly irritated and disagreeable.”
During this time, Rosemary would frequently have fits and fly into violent rages where she would hit and hurt others. Rosemary was sent to a convent school in Washington, D.C., after being expelled from a summer camp in western Massachusetts and spending only a few months at a boarding school in Philadelphia.
Rosemary started leaving the convent school illegally at night. Rosemary’s sexual activities were suspected by the convent’s nuns, who also worried that she would become pregnant or contract an STD.
Her father was concerned that Rosemary’s actions would shame and embarrass the family and harm his and his children’s political aspirations. Her parents were frustrated by her occasionally unpredictable behavior.
Doctors informed Rosemary’s father when she was 23 years old that a lobotomy, a type of psychosurgery, would alleviate Rosemary’s mood swings and end her sporadic violent outbursts. Rosemary Kennedy should have had a lobotomy, said Joseph Kennedy, but he delayed telling his wife about this choice until after the surgery.
The operation happened in November 1941. James W. Watts, who performed the procedure alongside Walter Freeman (both of the George Washington University School of Medicine), described it to Ronald Kessler as follows in his 1996 biography of Joseph Kennedy, Sins of the Father:
Dr. Watts remembers, “We went through the top of the skull” after Rosemary had been only slightly anesthetized. “She might have been awake. She was taking a sedative. Through the skull, I made a surgical incision in the brain.
Located close to the front. Both sides were affected. We only made a tiny incision, maybe one inch long.” Dr. Watts used what appeared to be a butter knife. To cut brain tissue, he swung it up and down. He said, “We inserted an instrument inside.
Dr. Freeman questioned Rosemary while Dr. Watts made his cut. He asked her to sing “God Bless America,” repeat the Lord’s Prayer, or count backward, among other things. “Based on how she responded, we estimated how far to cut.” They stopped when Rosemary started talking incoherently.
Watts informed Kessler that Rosemary had a sort of depression rather than “mental retardation,” in his judgment. The two doctors’ documents were examined, supporting Watts’ assertion. All of the patients who underwent lobotomies by the two doctors had a mental illness of some kind.
Joe Kennedy referred to his daughter Rosemary as mentally retarded rather than mentally ill to protect John’s reputation for a presidential run, according to Bertram S. Brown, director of the National Institute of Mental Health and a former advisor to President Kennedy, who told Kessler that the family’s “lack of support for mental illness is part of a lifelong family denial of what was so.”
It became immediately apparent that the surgery had failed. Kennedy’s brain functioned at a two-year-old child’s level. She was incontinent, unable to communicate clearly, and unable to move.
What Happened to Rosemary Kennedy After her Lobotomy?
Rosemary was institutionalized soon following her lobotomy. She spent her next few years of life at Craig House, a private mental health facility 90 minutes north of New York City.
She was transferred in 1949 to Jefferson, Wisconsin, where she resided on the campus of the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children for the remainder of her life (formerly known as “St. Coletta Institute for Backward Youth”).
After learning about St. Coletta’s, a facility for more than 300 disabled people, from Archbishop Richard Cushing, her father traveled there. He built a private residence for her close to Alverno House, a facility for adults who required lifelong care and was located about a mile from St. Coletta’s main campus.
The residence was dubbed “the Kennedy cottage” by the nuns. Sisters Margaret Ann and Leona, two Catholic sisters, a student and a woman who spent three nights a week working on pottery with Rosemary, took care of her.
Rosemary had a car she could use for transportation and a puppy she could walk.
Rosemary’s parents took Rosemary away from her family due to her condition. For 20 years, Rose Kennedy did not visit her. In the facility, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. did not visit his daughter.
Author Kate Clifford Larson claimed in her book Rosemary: The Secret Kennedy Daughter that Rosemary’s lobotomy was kept a secret from her family for 20 years and that none of her siblings knew her location.
The Kennedy family gave the excuse that she was reclusive for her absence in 1958 while her older brother John ran for re-election to the Senate. The Kennedy family publicly explained her disappearance in 1961 after John was president.
The Kennedys claimed that she was labeled “mentally retarded,” not that she had been institutionalized due to a faulty lobotomy. Following Joseph P. Kennedy Sr’s stroke in 1961, which left him unable to speak or walk, Rosemary’s siblings were informed of her whereabouts. It wasn’t until 1987 that the public learned about her lobotomy.
Rosemary Kennedy Reunites with Her Family
Rosemary Kennedy gradually became a part of the Kennedy family again after her father passed away in 1969. Rosemary was occasionally taken to her childhood home on Cape Cod to see family members in Florida and Washington, D.C.
Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, the author of The Lost Kennedy, recalls seeing Rosemary at Saint Coletta, where her aunt, Sister Paulus, was one of the staff members. She also talks about Rosemary and her mother’s shocking reunion, which startled the nuns.
Rosemary ran to her when she met her mother for the first time in 20 years at the Milwaukee airport. The nuns hurried along, their black robes fluttering in the wind.
Rosemary struck her mother’s chest with her fists, wailing with a primal ‘AAAARRRCK!’ as Rose opened her arms to greet her daughter.
She was torn from Rose by the nuns. The lobotomy “had not removed the last twenty years from Rosemary’s memories,” the author says. She knew her mother had abandoned her when she most needed her.
Rosemary had regained her ability to walk, albeit limp. Her arm was paralyzed, and she never regained the ability to talk correctly. Her condition is sometimes cited as the inspiration for Eunice Kennedy Shriver to later found the Special Olympics.
The pain was always present, even when Rosemary visited her mother in Hyannisport.
Author Kate Larson discusses the tension that lies under the surface in her book, Rosemary: The Secret Kennedy Daughter.
Rose was swimming in her pool with her secretary Barbara Gibson during one visit, and Rosemary’s assistants pushed Rose to join her mother.
She declined, Larson writes. Gibson saw Rosemary’s expression as she stared “straight ahead, like a kid who has been disciplined.” Oh, Rosie, what did we do to you? Rose had whispered.
In the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, Rosemary Kennedy, 86, passed away naturally on January 7, 2005, with her siblings (brother Ted, sister Jean, and Eunice) at her side. She was interred beside her parents in Brookline, Massachusetts’ Hollywood Cemetery.
RIP, Sweet Rosemary.
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