The tragic story of the oldest Kennedy sister
She was Joe and Rose Kennedy’s third child, their first daughter. She was born in September 1918, two months before the end of World War I, during the Spanish influenza epidemic. Her name was Rose Marie Kennedy, but she became known as “Rosemary.” Later the Kennedys speculated that she was retarded because the nurse had prevented her birth until the arrival of the obstetrician, so that he could collect his full fee.
In his book, “The Kennedy Women,” Lawrence Leamer describes her as “painfully slow… a pretty child with green eyes that peered out on life directly.”
Leamer: “As Rosemary grew into a teenager she desperately wanted praise. She was happy for hours with a mere scrap of approval, and forlorn and discouraged at the hint of criticism…. Rosemary was slow, but she was not stupid and sometimes she would erupt in an inexplicable fury, the rage pouring out of her like a tempest from a cloudless sky.”
Perhaps she was angry at being treated as if she were somehow inferior to her siblings. At most, Rosemary was “mildly retarded,” as her obituaries would one day describe her, as well as the inspiration for her sister Eunice’s “Special Olympics.”
Shortly before World War II broke out in Europe, FDR appointed Joe Kennedy as ambassador to the Court of St. James – at the time the most important diplomatic post any American could hold. Joe of course moved to London, along with Rose and his two oldest daughters – Rosemary and Kathleen. As the American ambassador, Joe and his family would move in the highest circles of British society. And a decision was made: both daughters, the charming and brilliant Kathleen, and the “slow” Rosemary, would be “presented” to the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Rosemary spent endless hours practicing her curtseying – the bow she would have to make to the King and Queen. On the appointed evening, with the cream of British nobility (and the press) watching, Kathleen and Rosemary were presented. Everything went off without a hitch, until the very end.
“Suddenly,” Leamer wrote, “just as Rosemary was attempting to glide off, she tripped, nearly falling. It was a debutante’s worst horror, at the most important social moment of her life, in front of the king and queen, to make a public spectacle of her awkwardness, her ineptness. The kind and queen smiled as if nothing had happened, and there was not even a murmur from the assembly, and indeed, it was all over in a few seconds. Rosemary recovered and followed Kathleen out the door.”
But although no one ever mentioned Rosemary’s faux pas, it reinforced what everyone (at least in the family) understood: that Rosemary was somehow different. Increasingly, the problem was simply that Rosemary was too good-looking, even more striking than Kathleen, who was herself a knock-out. As long as older brothers Joe Jr. and Jack had been around, to arrange her dance card and to scare off the potential suitors “who took her cryptic silences and deliberate speech as feminine demureness,” she was okay. Later, in London she was often squired to social events by a young Embassy employee named, of all things, “Jack Kennedy,” who became known as “London Jack,” to distinguish him from JFK.
But as war clouds gathered, and Joe was recalled to the U.S. after his disastrous pro-Hitler remarks to the Boston Herald, Joe, Jr. and Jack joined the Navy. There was no one left to escort Rosemary. She was packed off to a Washington convent, which she quickly figured out how to escape from.
“At night she walked out into the dark streets looking for the light and life of the city… The family feared that she was going out into the streets to do what Kathleen called ‘the thing the priest says not to do.’… There was a dread fear of pregnancy, disease and disgrace.”
Joe Kennedy began talking to a quack physician from George Washington University named Walter Freeman, who was experimenting with a new form of brain surgery that would come to be known as a pre-frontal lobotomy. He sold Joe Kennedy a bill of goods – the biggest drawback for a female patient, Freeman wrote, was the fact that her head would have to be partially shaved, preventing her from going out socially for several weeks.
Not everything in the family was convinced, though. Kathleen Kennedy sought out a reporter friend of hers who had done research into the new procedure. The reporter told Kathleen that the whole procedure was “just not good” and that post-lobotomy, the patients “don’t worry so much, but they’re gone as a person, just gone.”
Which may have been what Joe really wanted all along. Soon thereafter, Rosemary was wheeled into the operating room. She received a shot of Novocain and when she regained consciousness, her head was on a sandbag.
Freeman and his associate drilled a hole in her skull and inserted a sort of spatula into her brain and began digging. They asked her to sing simple songs and perform basic addition and subtraction. As long as she could recite the doggerel, and handle third-grade arithmetic, they kept digging. Finally, though, Rosemary Kennedy fell silent, and the operation was over.
And so, for all practical purposes, was Rosemary Kennedy’s life.
“She had regressed into an infant like state,” Leamer wrote, “mumbling a few words, sitting for hours staring at the walls, only traces left of the young woman she had been, still with flashes of rage. This was a horror beyond horror, an unthinkable, unspeakable disaster. Rose and her children had repressed so much, and now they repressed what Joe had done to his daughter, repressed it all and pretended that it had never happened and that Rosemary no longer existed.”
She lived in a series of private institutions, including years in the Craig House, a private hospital north of New York City. No one from the family ever visited her. In the 1970’s, she somehow escaped once more, from a Midwestern psychiatric home, into the streets of Chicago. The wire services carried photos of her in a wheelchair, being hustled into an ambulance by Chicago cops.
But Rosemary’s story, so horrifying in its casual, callous brutality, was never forgotten by millions of Americans, and certainly not by any members of the Kennedy family. In the late 1970s, Bobby’s doomed son, David, was reading a copy of the pro-drug magazine High Times when he came across a story on lobotomies. Naturally enough, one of the illustrations was a photo of his beautiful aunt Rosemary, pre-lobotomy.
“She had a new pair of white shoes on,” David recalled later for the authors Peter Collier and David Horowitz. “The thought crossed my mind that if my grandfather was alive the same thing could have happened to me that happened to her. She was an embarrassment; I am an embarrassment. She was a hindrance; I am a hindrance. As I looked at this picture, I began to hate my grandfather and all of them for having done the thing they had done to her and for doing the thing they were doing to me.”
David died of a drug overdose in 1984. His aunt outlived him by almost 21 years, finally dying in January 2005 in Fort Atkinson, WI, where she had been institutionalized for more than a quarter century. She was 86.
Celebrities Who Have Received Lobotomies
The lobotomy was a psychosurgical procedure invented by Walter Freeman. The most common form of lobotomy is the Ice Pick Lobotomy. For this procedure, the surgeon lifts up the eyelid of the sedated patient and separates the Frontal Lobe from the thalamus. This is then repeated on the other eye.
Rosemary Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy was the sister of John F. Kennedy. She was arranged to have a lobotomy at age twenty-three due to a developmental disability and outbursts of rage. Despite the fact that she lived through her lobotomy, she spent a majority of the rest of her life in institutions until her death in 2005.
Warner Baxter: Warner Baxter was an actor from the United States. At the height of his career he was the highest paid actor in the United States. He was best known for his role of The Cisco Kid in Old Arizona. In the 1940’s he suffered a nervous breakdown, but continued to act after that. As he grew older, he suffered from arthritis, which was one fo the main reasons he chose to undergo a lobotomy in 1951 at age sixty-two. He died in 1951 of pneumonia, shortly after his lobotomy.
Josef Hassid: Josef Hassid was a famous violinist. Many considered him a prodigy. He moved to London, England with his father to advance in his music career. His first recording was in 1939 at Abbey Road Studios shortly after he turned fifteen. After he moved to London he was suffering from violent mood swings and withdrawal. He abandoned and defied his violin, father, and Jewish religion. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was given a lobotomy when he was twenty-six years old in 1950 and died due to the procedure.
“We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch." The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. "We put an instrument inside," he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord's Prayer or sing "God Bless America" or count backwards. ... "We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded." ... When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.”—
[x] This is a description of the lobotomy that was performed on Rosemary Kennedy in 1941, by Walter Freeman and James W. Watts. She was 23.
Her father decided she would have the lobotomy to put an end to her mood swings, and to prevent her from running away from the convent school at night.
Her father did not tell her about the lobotomy until after the surgery.