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After Camelot A Personal History of the Kennedy Family--1968 to the Present
By Taraborrelli, J. Randy
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2012 Taraborrelli, J. Randy
All right reserved.
An Unthinkable Tragedy
It was a gray, dreary, and unremarkable Saturday afternoon in Hyannis Port. Out on a stretch of pebble-covered sand and facing a dark, restless ocean stood an elderly woman wearing a black baseball cap. As she took in the endless vista, she bent down to pick up a seashell. She rolled it in the palm of her hand and then flung it into the sea. Appearing lost in thought, she pulled her white down jacket close in order to keep the chill of the Nantucket Sound at bay. To see her walk just a few steps, it was clear that she had a slight limp. Meanwhile, a young lady in a starched white maid’s uniform approached and stood directly behind her. After a few moments of hesitation, she tapped her on the shoulder. “Mrs. Kennedy,” she said, “the priest will be here at five o’clock to say Mass. He’s asked if you had any particular scripture in mind for the reading?” Ethel Kennedy turned to face the woman. With eyes reddened and face drawn, she seemed even older than her seventy-one years. Her frame was slight, shoulders slim and slightly hunched forward.
“How well I remember my own wedding,” Ethel said wistfully, not responding to the woman’s question. “We Kennedys are known for our great weddings, as you know,” she added. “Mine and Bobby’s was so beautiful.” According to the maid’s later recollection, Ethel then spoke of the formal white satin gown she wore on that special day so many years earlier when she and Robert Kennedy were wed. She also spoke of the long, diaphanous veil trimmed with delicate orange blossoms. And the elegant, dainty gloves. “But we called them mitts in those days,” she remembered. “They were satin and had pearls on them,” she added. “People don’t wear gloves so much anymore,” she mused as she reached into her pocket and pulled out large black sunglasses. She put them on. “I wonder why that is,” she continued, seeming distracted. “Gloves are so nice. Don’t you agree?” Her maid nodded.
Over the years, Kennedy weddings have been more than mere events, they’ve been the subject of national curiosity all the way back to the family patriarch Joseph’s, who wed Rose in 1914, through to Bobby and Ethel’s in 1950, Eunice’s to Sargent Shriver in 1953, and Jack’s to Jackie Bouvier, also in 1953. And there were so many more—Kennedy sisters Pat’s to actor Peter Lawford in 1954 and Jean’s to Stephen Smith two years later. Then there was Ted’s to Joan Bennett in 1958… The list goes on and on, especially as the next generation took their own spouses. Who could forget the elegant wedding of Jackie’s daughter, Caroline, to Ed Schlossberg in 1986? Wedding guest Robert Rauschenberg once said it felt as if there had been “seventy-five thousand Kennedys present.” It probably felt to those in attendance that there were at least that many. But then Caroline’s brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr.—only son of the slain President Kennedy—broke the tradition of big family weddings with a more intimate affair when he married the lovely Carolyn Bessette in 1996. It was a surprise not only to the media but also to many of Kennedy’s friends and even family members. How he was ever able to pull it off remained a mystery to many, but John wed Carolyn privately on Cumberland Island, Georgia, with just a few close friends and relatives present. Unfortunately, the wedding ceremony planned for this day—Saturday, July 17, 1999—between Ethel’s daughter Rory and her beau Mark Bailey now hung in the balance because John Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren were missing.
John and Carolyn had been on their way from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, to Hyannis Airport on Cape Cod in order to attend Rory’s wedding at the Kennedy compound. Although the houses that comprised the compound were summer homes for the Kennedys, the Hyannis Port residences seemed to symbolize their unity, serving as headquarters for observances and celebrations, for funerals and wakes, for auspicious announcements, commemorative rites, and family holidays like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. First, though, John and Carolyn were scheduled to stop at Martha’s Vineyard to drop off Lauren, a vice president at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. However, something apparently happened to their plane. The small, single-engine, red-and-white Piper Saratoga hadn’t been seen on radar since 9:30 p.m. Friday night, half an hour before it should have landed on Martha’s Vineyard. There was nothing anyone could do except to pray.
“Will the Mass be served at my house or at Senator Kennedy’s?” Ethel asked. She attended Mass almost every single day, either at her Catholic church or, quite often, in her own home where a priest would come to perform it. Of course, she would also walk out if the sermon hit her the wrong way, or if she didn’t like the priest. But everyone knew that about Ethel.
“Whichever you prefer,” answered Ethel’s maid.
“I think maybe my house would be best,” Ethel decided. “Yes, we’ll have it on my porch. And will Father O’Byrne say Mass?” she asked.
Ethel shook her head sadly. “He married John and Carolyn just a few years ago,” she recalled. “And now here we are today. Oh, my poor Johnny,” she added, looking out at the gray sea and merging skyline. She hadn’t used the pet name since John was a tot, at least not that anyone could remember. “Oh, dear Lord,” she said, as if just hit with a revelation. “If Jackie was alive, I don’t know how she would handle this. In fact, I don’t think she could bear it. Do you?”
Ethel’s maid didn’t comment.
“I love all my boys,” Ethel continued. “You know I love my girls, too. But my boys, they have given me the most trouble, and for some reason, I just love my boys so much. And Johnny, I always thought of him as one of my own,” she concluded sadly.
It had been just before midnight on Friday night—not long after the family and guests retired after the rehearsal dinner—that Senator Ted Kennedy learned of John’s missing plane. He wasn’t that concerned, at least not at first. After all, John was nothing if not unpredictable. Perhaps he had changed his plans, Ted reasoned, and just hadn’t informed anyone. However, after a few calls, Ted began to fear the worst. He spent the rest of the night on the telephone talking to the FAA and the Coast Guard, as well as to any of John’s friends he knew to find out if they had any information. Finally, at about 5 a.m., he had no choice but to telephone Ethel to tell her the gut-wrenching news that John’s plane had gone missing. He and Ethel—whom he lovingly called “Ethie”—had been through so much over the years that this seemed like just one more awful moment they would have to share. After speaking to Ted, Ethel tearfully gathered those family members present in the house to tell them what was going on. The rest of the day would be a waiting game. Even though it was obvious that the plane had gone down somewhere, no one in the family was willing to give up hope, least of all Ethel Kennedy. “I don’t give up easily,” she said, “at least not on something I believe in. I have no doubts,” she said. “Not a one.” It would be just like her nephew, she said, to simply show up a day later than planned and have the most wildly entertaining story to tell about his delay.
The phone hadn’t stopped ringing at Ethel’s all morning. She would jump every time it rang, hoping it was good news. One of the calls was from Holly Safford, whose company was catering Rory’s wedding. She had just heard on television that John was missing. “I am so sorry, Mrs. Kennedy,” she said, according to her memory of the conversation. “This is just so devastating. I don’t know what to say.”
“Holly, my dear, there is no need to be sorry, because they are going to find him,” Ethel said, her tone strong and reassuring. “We are going to have a wedding today, I guarantee it.”
“Is there anything I can do for you, Mrs. Kennedy?”
“Yes,” she answered, “please tell your staff to stand by and wait for further instructions. The wedding is not canceled. They will find John, I know it.”
Three long hours passed, and still no word. As Ethel made her way back to her home from the shoreline, two of her grandchildren—Kate and Kerry Kennedy—joined her. She held their hands, and as they passed a flagpole with an American flag flapping in the wind, the three stopped for a second and looked up at it. It was not at half-mast. Not yet, anyway. “Go, go, go!” Ethel was then heard calling out to the children. “Run! Run! Run! It’s a beautiful day. Go have fun!” With that, the two children raced across the white sand beach and down to the shore.
Ethel continued walking, still limping and showing signs of the hip replacement surgery she’d undergone earlier in the year. Slowly, she made her way past billowing white tents that had just been erected for the wedding ceremony and subsequent party. The site was bustling with activity as people carried elaborate flower arrangements onto the property—roses, for the most part, of every size, every variety, and, it seemed, most every color under the sun. Meanwhile, caterers with large trays of desserts unloaded their goods from a massive truck in Ethel’s driveway. One caterer almost tripped as she tried to navigate over a tangle of power cords while carrying a towering tray of cookies. “Careful,” Ethel said, laughing. “Don’t hurt yourself!”
Also scurrying about the premises were reporters and photographers from People magazine who had somehow gotten into the Kennedy compound. “Inform them that Mrs. Kennedy said they are not allowed on these premises,” Ethel was overheard telling one of the many uniformed policemen patrolling the property. “There should be no press here at all,” she said, now seeming quite annoyed. In her hand was a white linen napkin, folded and tied at the top with a delicate gold ribbon. “This is our home,” Ethel declared, “it is not a park.” She then looked at the napkin in her hands and untied the ribbon around it. It had Rory’s initials on it, and Mark’s. Then—who knows why she did it, whether it was because of some deeply buried sense of the inevitable—she crumpled the napkin and tossed it into a nearby trash can.
Eventually, Ethel walked up the floral-lined pathway to her house. An empty hammock swung on the porch, and the home’s windows were shuttered like those of all of the other white clapboard homes in the compound. Standing on her porch and looking out at the waves crashing on the beach in the distance, she tilted her head and allowed the ocean breeze to cool her face. She seemed to be trying to ignore the bedlam swirling around her when, out of the corner of her eye, she must have seen Ted Kennedy approaching from the direction of his own home in the compound. Family members, household staff, and those responsible for the wedding preparations looked on as Ethel extended her arms to the oft-troubled man she’d always considered more a brother than just a brother-in-law. He’d been in the hospital delivery room holding her hand in place of his deceased brother when she gave birth to Rory. How could she ever forget that?
Unfortunately, Ted had bad news for Ethel. He’d just heard from the Coast Guard that a person standing on the shore near Gay Head—less than a mile from Jackie’s vacation home—had spotted something black floating in the water. She’d thought it was a trash bag. But then one of her friends jumped into the surf to investigate and moments later returned with a suitcase. The two beachgoers gazed at the luggage for a long moment before finally lifting the identification flap. There they found a business card from Morgan Stanley. On it was the name “Lauren Bessette—Vice President.” It would get worse. A prescription bottle made out to Carolyn Bessette would emerge from the waves; a bag of kayaking gear; a piece of an airplane seat; a headrest; an aircraft wheel—all stomach-turning flotsam of a flight gone deadly wrong, now washing ashore and seeming to seal forever the fate of its passengers. Ted had said he didn’t know how he would tell Ethel such terrible news, but he knew that it should come from him.
While the visibly shaken senator relayed the news to her, Ethel Kennedy nodded solemnly as if trying to take it in, as if trying to fathom the unfathomable. When he finished speaking, she seemed stunned as she stood in place, just staring at him in disbelief. She’d been so strong all day, as was usually her fashion in times of crisis. But this was just too much to take. This was more than even she could bear. She began to cry. And as she did so, she seemed to become unsteady on her feet. So he reached out for her and held her close. For a long time, he held her close.
Trying to Let Go of the Past
Had it all been just a terrible dream? Was he really gone?
Certainly there were moments, though fleeting, when it felt as if it had never happened. She would awaken in the morning and, for just a few seconds, everything in her life seemed fine. But then a bleakness would begin to set in, and in no time it would all come back to her: Yes, it had happened. He was dead. Why him? Why not her? Was there anything she could have done, should have done? And then she would cry, sometimes just a few tears, but often racking sobs. It had been that way for years, and she feared it would remain so for as long as she would draw breath. Of course, sometimes she would have good days, but the bad days were just awful. She wasn’t even thirty-nine yet. Was this to be her fate? Would she ever recover? Indeed, these thoughts still consumed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1968, almost five years after the murder of her husband, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States.
She was born Jacqueline Lee Bouvier in Southhampton, New York, on July 28, 1929, to Janet Lee and John Vernou Bouvier III. If not to the manor born, Jackie was certainly never lacking in the accommodations that the very wealthy people of her time took for granted: socially prominent parents, a private school education, instruction in the equestrian arts, ballet lessons, travel abroad. When one considers photographs of the twenty-something Jacqueline Bouvier, a number of descriptive words and phrases spring to mind—uncommon grace, flawless taste, culture, great style, unerring charm, a sense of serenity, refinement that comes with excellent breeding.
By the standards of today, perhaps she would not have been considered a great beauty. Her thin lips when stretched into a smile revealed teeth that were anything but perfectly aligned. Her eyes appeared a bit too wide apart. She was definitely the daughter of aristocratic Black Jack Bouvier, as her features attested, and while her father was considered rakishly handsome, Jackie would have to wait for the allure of falling in love with Jack Kennedy for her beauty to come into full force. By contrast, Jackie’s younger sister (by four years) Lee inherited the looks of her mother’s family, the Lees: aquiline nose, porcelain skin, high cheekbones, fair hair and eyes. Jackie even acknowledged this and was quoted as saying of her younger sister, “Lee was the pretty one. So I guess I had to be the intelligent one.”
Arguably, the most famous years of the Kennedy dynasty started with JFK and Jackie’s fabled time in the White House. It had been in November 1960 that Democratic nominee John Fitzgerald Kennedy was narrowly elected to the office of the president over the Republican Richard M. Nixon, ushering in a new and exciting era of promise and hope for the country. In many ways, JFK’s victory may have had less to do with his political platform than with his star quality and his youth—at forty-three, the youngest man ever elected president and the second youngest to hold that office, that distinction belonging to Ted Roosevelt, the vice president who at forty-two became president after William McKinley was assassinated. It was Jackie Bouvier Kennedy’s great good fortune—and ours—that she would become First Lady and one of America’s most memorable, echoing the tenure of Dolley Madison some 150 years previously. Like twenty-four-year-old Dolley, Jackie was, at thirty-one, one of the youngest of presidential wives. The public was quickly captivated by her charm and grace and, yes, her beauty. Indeed, with the addition of two lively, photogenic children, Caroline and “John-John,” the First Family became everyone’s ideal and captured the hearts of all Americans. But then tragedy struck in November 1963 when President Kennedy was brutally assassinated in Dallas. “Take your glasses off, Jackie,” he had said to his wife, referring to her large shades, “they want to see your face.” It would be his last request of her. Soon after, he would be shot dead at her side, his blood and brains splattered all over her lovely pink dress suit. She would find the loss impossible to reconcile, even after leaving the White House and moving to New York City with her children. Crushed and disillusioned, in November 1964—the one-year anniversary of the assassination—Jackie wrote of Jack, “I should have known that he was magic… I should have guessed it could not last. I should have known that it was asking too much to dream that I might have grown old with him and see our children grow up together. So now he is a legend when he would have preferred to be a man.” All around her, life continued to unfold after Jack’s death, but certainly not in ways that would help ease her grief, because it just seemed like one calamity after another.
For instance, Jack’s youngest brother, Ted, broke his back in a plane crash in 1964, causing some in the family to wonder if perhaps there was a Kennedy curse hanging over them, especially given that two of Ted’s siblings—Joe and Kathleen—had also been killed in plane crashes. Then, unbelievably enough, another Kennedy brother was murdered—this time Bobby, on June 6, 1968. Jackie was determined to continue to live her life, though, if only for the sake of her children—and she had decided that she was going to do it with a new man at her side, Aristotle Onassis.
Onassis was a bona fide force of nature born not in Greece but in what is now Turkey, in 1906, the same year as another force of nature, the San Francisco earthquake. The proverbial spoon with which he was born was not silver. It was platinum: His father, Socrates, was a prosperous shipping owner with ten ships in his fleet and extensive real estate holdings, enabling him to provide Ari with a classical education at prestigious schools.
Though there would always be questions about Aristotle Onassis’s business modus operandi, they seemed to do little to hurt his reputation as a globetrotting bon vivant. He would entertain potentates in politics and consort with criminal figures with equal vigor and with no apparent damage to his standing in either community. He continued to grow his worldwide shipping business by a method he once described as OPM (other people’s money), forging simultaneous long-term alliances at fixed prices with such competing oil companies as Mobil, Socony, and Texaco. Sailing under the duty-free flag of Panama, he turned a profit even as he charged the lowest prices in the merchant marine market. As his coffers grew, so did his holdings—shares that guaranteed his control of ninety-five multinational businesses on five continents: gold processing, airlines, and real estate investments in South America; a chemical company in Persia; a castle, apartments, a skyscraper in Manhattan; Olympic Airways, the airline he founded; ownership of Greek islands in the Aegean, such as his prized isle of Skorpios; the luxury yacht Christina; and seventeen banks throughout the world. There was one acquisition he had not yet attained, however, but he was fully determined to do so. That was America’s onetime First Lady.
Aristotle Onassis came into the Kennedys’ lives when he met Jackie and Jack at a dinner party in Georgetown in 1955, back when Jack was a senator. Shortly thereafter, Jackie and Jack visited Onassis on his famous 325-foot yacht, the Christina—named after his only daughter, born in 1954—while it was docked at Monte Carlo and the Kennedys were in the south of France visiting Rose and Joseph. “There’s something damned willful about her, there’s something provocative about that lady. She’s got a carnal soul,” Onassis said at the time. It was certainly an odd statement to make about a woman who, at least from all outward appearances, seemed anything but carnal, but that was Onassis—always provocative, always defying expectations.
In 1963, Jackie and Jack suffered the tragic loss of an infant, Patrick. In order to help Jackie recover from the ordeal, her sister, Lee Radziwill, suggested that she join her and a group of friends on a cruise with Onassis. Not surprisingly, the trip garnered worldwide media attention, with an avalanche of pictures being published of Jackie and Ari touring the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and walking about in ancient Smyrna. They also visited Ithaca, Odysseus’s island kingdom, as well as Onassis’s private and lush island of Skorpios. Onassis had just recently bought Skorpios, a small, barren, waterless island in the Ionian Sea, which he magically transformed into an earthly paradise by planting thousands of trees and other vegetation and building large estates and quaint guesthouses throughout. “Jackie told me she had such a wonderful time, she wished the vacation would never end,” said Oleg Cassini, who designed much of her wardrobe during the White House days. “Ever since that cruise, she had a soft spot in her heart for Aristotle Onassis. He had been so warm to her and so understanding of her grief, she would never forget him. Then, in early 1968, the two began to date. It was a surprise. When she told me about it, my first thought was, ‘Really, Jackie? That is so odd.’ However, what came tumbling from my mouth was, ‘Really, Jackie? That is so nice!’ ”
When Aristotle Onassis first proposed marriage to Jackie Kennedy in the spring of 1968, she seriously considered it. She loved him—though it would probably be overstating it to say she was in love with him—she had a good time when she was with him, and he seemed to care about her and her children. She was tired of being alone. She wanted to move forward with her life and simply didn’t want to spend the rest of it being cast as the nation’s most celebrated widow. However, at Bobby’s behest, her sisters-in-law Ethel—Bobby’s wife—and Joan—Ted’s—visited Jackie at her home in New York City one afternoon to discourage her from being too hasty with Onassis. They feared that the union might jeopardize Bobby’s chances of making it into the White House. As Ethel put it at the time, “For heaven’s sake, don’t marry him. Don’t do this to Bobby. Or to me!” Moved by their pleas, Jackie agreed to put off the wedding, at least until after the election. However, after Bobby was assassinated, she became more concerned than ever about her own safety and welfare, and especially that of her children—and that’s when she famously said, “If they’re killing Kennedys, my children are targets.” Therefore, frightened, alone, and still traumatized by what she’d gone through in Dallas, she’d pretty much decided by her thirty-ninth birthday that she wanted to marry Aristotle Onassis as soon as possible. “You have done all the mourning that anyone can humanly expect of you,” he had told her. “The dead are dead. You are living.” She had to agree.
Still, bringing a man of such great controversy back to the so-called Kennedy compound was a big deal for Jackie Kennedy. In fact, it could have been argued that bringing any man who wasn’t a Kennedy onto such hallowed ground would constitute a true act of bravery. After all, this was a place of rich if often troubled family history, the sanctuary to which Kennedys always retreated not only after tragedies but after victories as well. It was a place where they could completely be themselves, away from media scrutiny—unless they invited the media in themselves—surrounded by their many children and loved ones.
Actually, it wasn’t a “compound” per se, just a cluster of large homes, each a sprawling white-frame clapboard structure. The only actual waterfront property was Rose and Joseph’s, which they purchased back in 1928. This was called the Big House by family members because, with fourteen rooms and nine baths, it was the largest one in the compound. The house also boasted a movie theater, a boat dock, swimming pool, tennis court, wine cellar, and several large stretches of lawn perfect for impromptu games of touch football, as was always the Kennedys’ way. Ethel’s house was next door and Jack and Jackie’s nearby. Eunice and Sargent and Jean and Stephen Smith also had homes in the compound, and Ted and Joan had a house on nearby Squaw Island, which was about a mile and a half away.
Jackie had enjoyed so many important family milestones with the family on this sandy stretch of Cape Cod land—Jack’s election, the birth of her children, the birthdays of relatives, and, of course, the sharing of great grief over Jack’s death and then over Bobby’s—that it felt almost sacrilegious to bring a stranger onto the property, let alone one with such a shady past. After all, she had always been a woman concerned with appearances, with what was and was not fitting, especially in social situations. This was more than just a matter of appropriateness, though. Indeed, the deeper meaning of bringing someone back to the compound did not escape Jackie, nor, she knew, would it escape anyone else. She realized that not only would such a move on her part signal that she was finally ready to move on, but perhaps it would also be a not so subtle sign to the Kennedys that maybe they should move on, too—from JFK’s death as well as from Bobby’s. “My taking Ari there is loaded with so much symbolism,” was how Jackie put it at the time, “I’m not even sure how I’ll react to it, it’s so emotional for me! It’s facing the future and letting go of the past, which is frightening. I’m so worried that the family will be upset or offended.” Indeed, no matter what twists and turns her life had taken since that fateful day in November 1963 when America lost a president and she a husband, Jackie was still a Kennedy at heart and she still cared a great deal about them. So what to do?
An Invitation from Rose
About a month before Jackie Kennedy’s scheduled visit to the Cape to celebrate her thirty-ninth birthday, she was at her Fifth Avenue home in New York with her dear friend Roswell Gilpatric. Gilpatric had served in Jack’s cabinet as deputy secretary of defense and had briefly dated Jackie in 1967. Over dinner, Jackie explained her dilemma about bringing Onassis to the compound. “I have mixed emotions,” she told Roswell, according to his distinct memory of the conversation. “I know I’m being silly. I feel so stupid.”
“Nonsense,” Roswell told her. “You mustn’t feel that way. It’s completely understandable after all you’ve gone through. But you know how Rose is. She would want to see you. And she would want you to bring Ari.”
Jackie wasn’t so sure. “I wonder…” she began, looking at Roswell with questioning eyes. “Would you call her to ask?” He was reluctant. “I don’t think it’s my place, Jackie…” he said. However, he changed his mind in midsentence, knowing full well that he could never refuse a request of hers. “Okay, I’ll do it,” he told her. “In fact, I’ll do it right now.”
Jackie’s eyes widened. “Now?” she asked. “But I meant when I wasn’t in the room, Ros!” She then scurried out of the parlor, saying she couldn’t bear to listen, as Roswell walked over to the telephone on a nearby end table and began to dial. It was always interesting to people who knew her well that while Jackie was ever the sophisticate in public—especially as First Lady—paradoxically she had another side to her, one that was very girlish and even incredibly shy. Ten minutes later, Roswell called out to Jackie. “Okay, you can come out now,” he said, laughing. “It’s safe.” Jackie peeked around the corner into the living room. “I spoke to Rose,” he told her, “and she was very upset.”
“Oh no,” Jackie said, coming back into the living room. “You see, Ross, I told you she would be cross…”
“No,” he said, cutting her off. “She’s only upset because she couldn’t understand why I was calling instead of you. Yes, she wants you to come to the Cape for your birthday. And she wants you to bring Ari. In fact, she’s even invited me. Here,” he said, handing her the telephone. “Now, call your mother-in-law.”
Thus it came to pass that on the afternoon of July 28, 1968, her thirty-ninth birthday and just seven weeks after Bobby Kennedy’s death, Jackie Kennedy found herself in the most unlikely of scenarios—back home with her family in Hyannis Port, sitting on the same porch of the Big House and in the same white Adirondack chairs in which she and Jack once sat while enjoying many a golden sunset. Only now a new man was in Jack’s place, Aristotle Onassis. Of course, there were awkward moments. It was only natural. “But everyone was at least trying to make it work,” recalled Barbara Gibson, Rose’s secretary, who was present that weekend. “Onassis didn’t look like someone Jackie would end up with, so it was jarring when she walked through the door with him. He was much older, he wasn’t really very handsome, though I must say he made up for it in sheer charisma. Compared to Jack, who had always been so stunning and elegant, well, it was like night and day. But Rose Kennedy pulled me into the kitchen and said something to me that made a great deal of sense. ‘If he was young and good-looking, would that make it any better?’ she asked. ‘No,’ she said. ‘In fact, it might make it worse. As it is, he is so very different, I think it will somehow be easier to accept him into our lives.’ ”
Certainly, if one ponders the raison d’être at the heart of the Kennedy saga, one has to conclude that it was Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy who established the family’s moral compass and the model for their purpose-driven lives. Her enduring faith, rooted in her unfaltering devotion to her Roman Catholic heritage, which she passed on to her nine children, was like something out of the scriptures, unassailable, fervent, and about which she reminded her offspring with such passion and frequency that it became her mantra: “God never gives us more sorrow, more burdens, more troubles than we can endure.” Her husband, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, had ruled the family with an iron fist, strategizing the campaigns of three sons, which saw one elected president, another become attorney general, and a third a senator, all at the same time. He was as ruthless as he was savvy, amassing a fortune over the years as a stock market and commodity investor. But now, rendered speechless and paralyzed after a debilitating stroke in 1961, all he could do was sit in a wheelchair and stare off into the distance. It was very difficult being in his presence and accepting that the man he once was no longer existed. Still, he was “Dad,” or “Grandpa,” and an important part of the family. Jackie, in particular, loved him dearly and would spend hours at his side, reading to him, talking to him, and just wiling away the time.
Also present that weekend were two of the Kennedy sisters—Jean and her husband, Stephen Smith (who was the family’s business manager), and Pat, who was now separated from her husband, actor Peter Lawford. Ted Kennedy, the only surviving brother and the senator from Massachusetts, was also home for the weekend, along with his wife, Joan, known as “the Dish” because of her striking good looks. There were several other relatives present for the festivities as well, such as cousin Joe Gargan, whose late mother, Mary Agnes, was Rose’s sister and who, along with his two younger sisters, had been raised on this same property by Rose and Joseph. Also present were close friends such as Lem Billings, JFK’s prep school roommate; Senator George Smathers, JFK’s best friend, and his wife, heiress Rosemary Townley Smathers; and, of course, Roswell Gilpatric, who had arrived with Jackie. Eunice Kennedy, Rose and Joseph’s oldest child, was not present, as her husband, Sargent Shriver, was now ambassador to France under President Lyndon Johnson’s administration and the couple was living for the most part in Paris with their four children.
In the midst of these Kennedys and their close circle of friends was one of the richest men in the world, Aristotle Onassis, doing his best to fit in—and not doing a bad job of it, either. His Old World charm was truly hard to resist. Rose seemed captivated as he smoked a cigar and spoke grandly of his global travels and of Skorpios. “It would be my great pleasure to take you sailing on my yacht, the Christina,” he told Rose as the family sat on her porch chatting. “Oh my,” Rose said, acting impressed. “That sounds marvelous.”
“Though she acted as if she’d never been on a yacht before, of course, that wasn’t at all true,” said Barbara Gibson. “However, she seemed swept away by Onassis and couldn’t help but enjoy a flirtatious moment or two with him. ‘Why, I simply wouldn’t know what to do out there all by myself,’ she said, being very coquettish. ‘Oh, but I’ll be with you, my dear,’ Onassis told her as he reached over to touch her hand. ‘You don’t have to worry about that!’ Later, she said to me, ‘If Jackie doesn’t want him, I just may!’ It was all in good fun, though. But it does suggest that Onassis made a great impression on her.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to make of him,” Ethel Kennedy had said before Ari’s arrival, deciding to feign a bad cold and stay in her home rather than participate in the family gathering. (However, her children—at least eight of the eleven of them—were running all over Rose’s house, causing chaos in their wake.) Ethel knew that Bobby didn’t trust Aristotle Onassis—the feeling of animus had been mutual between them—and that he would never have approved of Jackie’s dating him. (“I’ve known that bastard for years,” Bobby once said of the shipping magnate. “He was a snake then and he’s still a snake. Other than his bankroll, I don’t understand what Jackie sees in him.”) Therefore, Ethel couldn’t understand how the rest of the family could be so welcoming of him.
“I remember the weekend very well,” said Larry Newman, who lived across the street from the Kennedys with his wife, Mary Francis, known as Sancy. “I often saw Ari and Jackie walking along the beach, holding hands and looking very romantic. It was clear that there was a strong attraction, but also clear that Jackie was trying to move on. It was as if bringing him to this place the Kennedys considered hallowed ground was somehow cathartic for her, and maybe for the Kennedys, too.”
Newman also recalled seeing Jackie and Ari dancing on the street in front of his house as if they didn’t have a care in the world. “No music, of course, just the two of them in each other’s arms,” he recalled, “and I thought, okay, I think maybe I get it now. She had been so unhappy after the assassinations, this man brought romance back into her life. And, yes, maybe he wasn’t that attractive and, yes, maybe he had a checkered past, but it was what it was, and it was apparently working for her. You would see them kissing openly and you’d think, well, this is definitely a different kind of homecoming. I certainly never saw her do that in public with Jack.
“Jack was very much a Kennedy, a little uptight, not demonstrative with his feelings, at least publicly, and so was Jackie. But Onassis was very emotional and he brought something out in her. When you saw the two of them kissing you felt that there was something strong between them. I think, in the end, everyone wanted happiness for Jackie, and that weekend a lot of us saw that she was, once again, happy. When I saw her that weekend I told her, ‘You look happy, Jackie. Are you?’ And she smiled and said, ‘Yes, I truly think I am.’ And I believed her. But it was sad, just the same. Not easy at all. I remember thinking, Camelot is over. Long live the King…”
Ted Kennedy felt the same way, at least according to what he told George Smathers that weekend in Hyannis. That very day, Smathers had informed Ted that he’d decided not to run for Senate again at the end of the year; he had been the United States senator from Florida since 1951. Ted hated to see him go; the two had been great friends for a very long time. They were catching up on each other’s lives while sitting on rocking chairs on the expansive porch and taking in the magnificent seaside view when Ted suddenly observed, “Having that guy here, it’s hard, isn’t it?”
“Onassis?” Smathers asked.
“Yeah,” Ted said. “He’s a crook, you know? Bob hated him.”
Smathers, according to his memory of the conversation, agreed. “Bob would hate this whole goddamn thing, wouldn’t he?” he asked.
“Are you kidding me?” Ted said. “If Robby was here,” he added using his pet nickname for his brother, “he’d sneak into Onassis’s room tonight and strangle the bastard in his sleep.”
The two men shared a good laugh.
After reminiscing a bit more about Bobby, they let the subject turn to Jack and then to Jackie. As they talked, it became clear to them that what was really bothering them wasn’t Onassis’s background. It was simply the idea of handing their beloved Jackie over to him. After all, Jackie had been a member of the family since Jack took her as his bride fifteen years earlier in 1953. She was such a vital link to Jack and to the family’s memory of him that, as Ted noted, “I don’t want to let her go. It’s like saying goodbye to Jack all over again.”
George Smathers understood. After all, as one of Jack’s very best friends, he had been a proud groomsman at his and Jackie’s wedding and even spoke on behalf of Jack at the wedding’s rehearsal dinner and at the reception. (He’d also been one of the co–best men at Bobby’s wedding to Ethel.) He told Ted that while he was sincerely trying to cope with the rapidly developing situation involving Jackie and Ari, “I have to admit that when I first saw them together earlier, it tore me up inside.”
Ted nodded. “So what do you think she’ll do?” he asked as he continued rocking slowly and gazing off into the distance.
Smathers thought it over. “Well, to be honest with you, Ted,” he said, according to his recollection, “I’m pretty sure she’s going to marry him.”
Ted stopped rocking and gazed directly at George, a look of astonishment crossing his face. “Holy shit,” he exclaimed. “This is unbelievable, isn’t it?”
“I guess as long as she was single, she was still Jack’s and maybe,” Ted said, thoughtfully, “she was still ours. But now…”
“But now she’s his,” George said, finishing Ted’s thought.
“But now she’s his,” Ted repeated.
There was a long moment of silence as the two men rocked in their chairs, lost in their thoughts.
“We have to move forward, don’t we?” Ted finally asked.
“Well, my friend,” George responded, “I’m afraid it’s starting to look like we have no choice.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” Ted admitted.
“I’ll say,” George added.
On the night of July 28, 1968, the Kennedys enjoyed a small family dinner party to celebrate Jackie’s thirty-ninth birthday at Joseph and Rose’s house on the compound. This rather informal gathering was certainly nothing like previous birthdays for the former First Lady on the Cape. For instance, two years earlier for Jackie’s thirty-seventh, the party—which would be better described as a “gala”—was hosted by Jackie’s friend Paul Mellon, a wealthy banker. The guest list was an impressive who’s who of political and entertainment notables, such as Jock Whitney—ambassador to the United Kingdom, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, and one of the wealthiest men in the world—along with his wife, Betsey Roosevelt, former daughter-in-law of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. William Averell Harriman—former governor of New York as well as former ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Great Britain—was also at the Cape that weekend, along with his wife, socialite Marie Norton Whitney. William S. Paley, who founded the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), was present as well. Along with people such as Broadway producer Mike Nichols and Jackie’s hairdresser Kenneth, there were more than a hundred people present, all of them gathered to wish Jackie a happy birthday while being served the finest of seafoods and spirits. This time around, though, Rose Kennedy decided to keep it simple as family members convened in the huge backyard while busy maids served grilled fish, roasted potatoes, and, for dessert, an apple pie made especially for the occasion not by one of the cooks but by Rose herself. Certainly Rose wasn’t at her best in the kitchen, but that she at least tried meant the world to Jackie. “If I had known much farther in advance that Jackie was bringing Onassis to the Cape, do you think I would have had such a simple party?” Rose noted to her secretary, Barbara Gibson. “It’s all very pleasant, attractive, and practical, but far from elegant,” she said. “However, I think this is a side of the Kennedys he may find charming.” After the meal, the family adjourned to the home’s private movie theater to watch the Steve McQueen film The Thomas Crown Affair. Then more drinks and food were served on the porch as they all enjoyed the warm night air.
Much to everyone’s delight, Ethel Kennedy finally changed her mind and decided to join the family on the veranda, marking the first time she would meet Aristotle Onassis. As it happened, Ted went over to “Ethie’s” house and talked to her, telling her that he felt strongly that she should join the family. Ethel could never resist Ted. They had a very special relationship and she would pretty much always do exactly what he asked.
As for Ethel and Jackie, there would always be reports that they didn’t much care for each other. Why were such reports so persistent? Probably because they were such different kinds of women and likely because it was fun for people to pit them against one another, and also because Ethel did like to make fun of Jackie. But definitely not because it was true. After all, these two women shared something that no one else in the family could ever really understand, indeed, that most people couldn’t even fathom—they’d been forced to witness the brutal murders of their own husbands. It was a tragic way for fate to have bound them to one another, but bind them it did. They would always have a special relationship, no matter the gossip. “My Ethel,” Jackie wrote to her sister-in-law just weeks before this party. “I stayed up till 6:30 last night just thinking and praying for you.”
“I know you aren’t fond of Onassis,” Roswell Gilpatric told Ethel Kennedy when she arrived at the Big House, according to his memory of the night. “That’s true,” Ethel told him. “But as long as she’s happy, right?” she asked, trying to lighten the mood. At that moment, Jackie walked into the room and over to the couple to greet Ethel. According to photos taken that night and housed in the Kennedy Library and Museum, Jackie was wearing a cherry red blouse and black cigarette slacks. Her coal-black hair was pulled back from her face with a scarlet-colored beret. Even when she was dressed casually, there was something special about her. The way she held her head, the graceful way she moved her slender body—it was all very contained and regal, her dark eyes full of enormous power, as always. Yet she was also very feminine, very girly. “Ethel,” she exclaimed, “look at you! You got over your cold!” The two sisters-in-law shared a secret look, as if in recognition that not only had Ethel been fibbing, but also that it was all perfectly fine. The two embraced.
When Jackie finally introduced Ethel to Aristotle, the tension in the room was palpable. However, Onassis won Ethel over easily. He somehow found a way to make her laugh even though she had been so unbearably sad of late. Soon the two were getting along and even joking with one another. After this gathering, Ethel rarely had anything negative to say about Aristotle Onassis.
When everyone else had retired for the night, Jackie and Ted went into Rose’s living room and talked late into the night in front of a roaring fire, this despite the warm weather outside. It was then that Jackie told her brother-in-law that she had all but made up her mind: She was going to marry Aristotle Onassis. By all accounts, Ted did not try to stop Jackie or even attempt to change her mind. Like the rest of the family, he wanted the best for her, and he also must have known that Jack would have wanted him to be happy for her. Jackie said that she needed Ted’s assistance, though. “There’s something I need you to do for me,” she told him. “Would you help me, Teddy? Please?”
It was Jackie. Of course he would help her.
Some Enchanted Evening
In August 1968 Jackie Kennedy and her children, Caroline and John, and her brother-in-law, Ted Kennedy, arrived on the lush isle of Skorpios. The time had come to negotiate a deal whereby Aristotle Onassis would take Jackie’s hand in marriage. Though it may have come as a surprise to outside observers, it was only natural in the world in which Jackie lived that money would have to change hands if such a momentous merger were to take place. Wealthy people like the Kennedys and Onassis were accustomed to monetary transactions in marriages, or even just because a birthday had occurred. (For instance, each of the Kennedy children received $1 million when they turned twenty-one. Onassis gave his two children $5 million each when they turned eighteen.) It was Onassis’s idea that he would give Jackie a certain amount of money when they married. She didn’t ask for it—that wouldn’t have been like her. But she also didn’t turn it down—that wouldn’t have been like her either. Jackie was raised to appreciate affluence, and her love of luxury was well known. She’d always had money, and as she got older, she naturally became more focused on maintaining a certain lifestyle for herself and her children.
“Did she love Onassis? Yes, I believe she did,” her friend Joan Braden said. “But she was also a practical woman with practical concerns,” Braden continued. “She said something to me like, ‘The first time you marry it is for love, the second time it is for security.’ Obviously, she was one of the most famous women in the world. She told me she was not going to end up with a plumber in New Jersey! Onassis was one of the richest men on the planet, said to be worth more than $500 million. In that respect, he was suitable for her, yes. She loved to spend money, as we all knew. Her mother, Janet Lee Bouvier Auchincloss, who I knew well and interviewed for her  oral history [in the Kennedy Library], placed a premium on wealth, and she passed on to her daughters Jackie and Lee the sense that money mattered a great deal, so Jackie was very extravagant. But she was also pragmatic. She told me, ‘Life is all about change. The only constant we can count on is that nothing is constant and you can’t depend on anyone but yourself, which,’ she told me, ‘I have learned the hard way.’
“Jackie said, ‘Oh, you don’t have to make a financial arrangement,’ ” recalled Arturo D’Angelo, the attorney representing Creon Broun, Onassis’s American money manager. “And Ari said, ‘Yes, I do, my dear.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no no, no!’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes, I simply must.’ And they went back and forth with this kind of silly exchange as if there was ever any question that he was going to give her money when they married. He looked at it as a wedding gift, as did she. Of course, it would be viewed as a cold, mercenary business transaction by most people, but not by the wealthy. What always complicated matters is that once it is established that money will change hands, even as a gift, attorneys and managers and family representatives then become involved, and then it truly does become a business transaction.”
The admittedly strange marital negotiations took place on Aristotle Onassis’s cruise liner, Christina, which was docked in Skorpios. The night before Ted’s meeting with Onassis, a Greek reporter named Nikos Mastorakis sneaked aboard the yacht, posing as the manager of an Athens bouzouki band that Onassis had hired for entertainment. Mastorakis recalled Ted as acting like “a laughing cowboy from Texas. All—including Jackie and Telis [a popular nickname for Ari]—seemed pleased with their lives,” added Mastorakis. “They ate black caviar and red tomatoes. Ted drank ouzo. Jackie, who was resplendent in a red blouse and long gypsy skirt, preferred the vodka. She leaned close when Telis whispered in her ear. At dinner Onassis ate his lamb like a youth. She ate little and nibbled white grapes. But at 4 a.m. with the moon above, the sweet Mrs. Kennedy sang ‘Adios Muchachos’ with Telis. I felt they were very close.”
It had been an intensely romantic evening, and even though the scenario made for an odd juxtaposition to the business at hand, which concerned the exchange of money for a bride, there was still something beautiful, magical, and even wondrous about it. A full moon glistened over the peaceful waters. The air was cool, everyone’s spirits warm. In fact, Jackie would recall it as being one of the loveliest nights of her life. Of course, it couldn’t end without Ted breaking out in song, as he often did on special occasions. Weddings, funerals, birthdays, anniversaries, and all sorts of family gatherings tended to find Ted leading a group in song, and tonight would be no exception. The number he selected could not have been more appropriate. To the incongruous strumming accompaniment of one of the bouzouki musicians, he began to sing the song “Some Enchanted Evening.” While he certainly didn’t have what one might consider a great voice, Ted had such a sincere tone and so much heart that his singing was always hard to resist. As he sang the tune from South Pacific, Jackie looked lovingly into the eyes of the man she would soon marry. After a moment, she began to sing along with her brother-in-law, and then, one by one, everyone on deck joined in, until by the time Ted got to the bridge, just about everyone was singing.
Jackie: “The Kennedys Can’t Support Me Forever”
The next day, in his meetings with Aristotle Onassis, Ted Kennedy made it clear that Jackie Kennedy was widely considered an American treasure, especially given what she had endured with the president’s assassination and the manner in which she had handled herself at his funeral. It would take—as Ted put it, according to most accounts—“a leap of faith” for Americans to accept her as the wife of Onassis. “We love Jackie,” Ted said, “and we want the best for her.” Onassis agreed—he loved her too, he said. Rather than be insulted by Ted’s suggestion that he was not good enough for her, Onassis was bemused, especially when Ted let on that by marrying him she would be forfeiting her $175,000-a-year stipend from the Kennedy family. The shipping magnate couldn’t believe that the wealthy Kennedy family was only paying a woman they held in such high esteem a measly $175,000 a year. When Ted pointed out that Jackie would also be losing her $10,000 a year annual widow’s pension, Onassis was truly gobsmacked. The figures Ted was using were such small potatoes to the shipping magnate, he was baffled as to why they were even being discussed! He said he would pay Jackie much more to be his wife, and, after some give-and-take, the amount he and Ted eventually settled on was $1.5 million. “I believe that’s a fair deal,” Ted said. Onassis then said that he wanted the wedding to take place in America, a suggestion at which Ted balked.
Even though Ted wasn’t opposed to the marriage, he said he wasn’t going to put his family in the position of having to attend a big, well-publicized ceremony. It would be too sad. No one would have been able to get through it. “It also would be completely inappropriate,” he said. “I won’t be moved on this point.” Therefore, Onassis reluctantly agreed that the ceremony could be held in Greece. With a deal now struck, the two men shook hands. When Ted told Jackie about the terms, she was perfectly happy, saying, “Ari is a very sweet and generous man, and I’m very lucky to have him in my life.” Ted then sent a deal memo outlining the terms to Jackie’s business manager, Wall Street investment banker André Meyer. It was then that matters got dicey.
French-born André Benoit Meyer was a close friend and business associate of the Kennedy family, first through Sargent Shriver and then as a business associate of Stephen Smith. He was also a senior partner of Lazard Frères & Co., a preeminent financial institution whose origins dated back to 1848. The firm provided—as Lazard Ltd. today still does—advice on mergers and acquisitions as well as asset management to corporations, partnerships, and individuals. Coincidentally, Meyer and the John Fitzgerald Kennedys were in residence at the Carlyle Hotel in New York in 1961 at the same time, with Meyer in a suite directly below Jack and Jackie. In October 1963, Kennedy named Meyer to a committee that was to investigate ways the country could cut its balance-of-payments deficit. A year later, Stephen Smith, who handled most of the family’s business affairs via the Kennedys’ company, which was called, innocuously enough, Park Agency, Inc., brought Meyer in to help manage the Kennedys’ huge holdings of more than $150 million. An eventual board member of the John F. Kennedy Library, Meyer also managed its $60 million building fund. A well-respected financier called by David Rockefeller “the most creative financial genius of our time in the investment banking world,” André Meyer often escorted Jackie to events after JFK’s death. Jackie viewed Meyer, thirty years her senior, more as a father figure than a possible romantic partner. That said, his friends all knew that he had a crush on her, as did most men who had anything to do with her. He was certainly as much a sounding board and confidant for her and other members of the Kennedy family as he was a business adviser. He could often be found at Jackie’s home in New York, helping John and Caroline with their homework—he was that close to the family. So when he took issue with something having to do with Jackie, it was dealt with seriously.
Meyer was no fan of Ted Kennedy’s—that much was clear to everyone in the Kennedy family. “He felt that JFK and Bobby had the brains and maybe Ted had the good looks, but that was it,” said Mona Latham, a close friend of Meyer’s who first worked for him as a securities analyst and then as his assistant. “When he got the deal memo from Senator Kennedy relating to the Onassis-Kennedy merger, he hit the roof. He called Jackie, who was still in Greece, and said he needed to see her immediately upon her return. So about two weeks later, he and I met with her at her home on Fifth Avenue. Or, I should say, I went with him but waited in another room as the two of them met in the study.”
According to Mona Latham, when Jackie greeted her and Meyer in early September 1968, she was in a bad mood. “Everything is going wrong today,” Jackie said as she stood in the doorway with Latham and Meyer. “I don’t think I can take any more bad news today. I’m having budget problems around here, as you know.” Jackie then began to explain to Meyer that Stephen Smith had come to visit her earlier in the week to ask her to cut back on her expenses. She said that it was a humiliating conversation, but that she should not have been surprised by it. “The Kennedys can’t support me forever,” she said, “and Rose has made that very clear. They have even cut Ethel back, and she has all those kids!”
Actually, cutting Ethel Kennedy back was easier said than done, and if Jackie knew how much Ethel spent on food and clothing, she might have been surprised and perhaps even upset. Mona Latham would say, years later, that she was astonished by Jackie’s financial situation, as outlined by her and André Meyer that day at Jackie’s. Apparently, JFK had left her about $70,000 in cash, plus all of his personal effects. There were two family trusts valued at about $10 million, but due to certain restrictions placed upon them, Jackie wasn’t able to access any money from them and was instead living on the annual allowance of $175,000 from the Kennedys. It had originally been $150,000, but Bobby managed to get her another $25,000 a year from the family before he died. Now Rose was pushing for Jackie to cut back on her expenses. “Tell her own mother [Janet Auchincloss] to cash in some of that Auchincloss fortune,” Rose had said. “Jackie just doesn’t know how to cut corners.”
Jackie’s household staff included two maids—one responsible only for Jackie’s needs—a nanny, a cook, and a governess for the children. Each staff member made $100 a week. Jackie also had a personal assistant, Nancy Tuckerman, who was making roughly $200 a week. The total household budget, including food, wine, liquor, and salaries as well as entertaining, came to $1,600 a month. Meanwhile, Jackie spent money on clothes and jewelry as if she were a very wealthy woman. “And that’s where all my money is going, I admit it,” she told Meyer, “but I am expected to have nice things, André, and so, yes, I buy nice things, I admit it. What can I tell you? I like nice things!”
“And you should have nice things,” Meyer told her. “You deserve nice things.”
“Thank you,” Jackie said. “I agree with you.”
As Jackie spoke, she fumbled while trying to insert a cigarette into a long black cigarette holder. She picked up the interphone. “Olga, would you please come here?” she asked. Today her guests were definitely seeing a more imperious side of Jackie. Though she was usually quite down-to-earth, she did have her moments. Within seconds, a small Greek woman appeared, and without saying a word, the former First Lady handed her the cigarette and the holder. The woman put it all together with nervous hands, and then gave it back to Jackie. Jackie held it in her lips while the servant lit the cigarette. “Thank you,” Jackie said as she inhaled. Then, exhaling a puff of white smoke, she turned back to André Meyer and Mona Latham. “So, anyway, I simply have to do something,” she said. “When Jack and I were in the White House, I didn’t have these problems,” she added. She said that the last five years had presented “nothing but headaches for me. And I can tell you this much,” she said with a determined look, “I will not live like this, André! I just won’t do it!”
“Well, that’s why I’m here today,” Meyer said, as Jackie took a finger sandwich from a plate someone on staff had arranged on the coffee table. When he said he wanted to talk to her “about the Onassis matter,” Jackie slowly placed the sandwich back on the platter and gave him a look. “I would prefer that you not refer to it in that way,” she told him. “It is not a matter. That is so boorish, André,” she said. He explained that he was only trying to be discreet, but Jackie shook her head in the negative. She then stood up and suggested that Mona Latham enjoy the lunch that had been prepared while she and Meyer went into the study to chat. The two left the room.
When Jackie and Meyer returned thirty minutes later, Jackie was clearly still not happy. “So, I’ll get back to you, then, okay?” Meyer asked as he went to embrace her. She was stiff in his arms. “Fine, fine, fine,” she said, obviously anxious for him to take his leave. “Goodbye, then,” she added, the severity of her expression unchanging. She then turned and walked away, leaving her two guests to find their own way out of the apartment.
Negotiating for Jackie
In the taxicab on the way back to their office, Mona Latham asked André Meyer what had occurred between him and Jackie Kennedy that had made the former First Lady so cross with him. “André said that he told her he was very much against the marriage,” Latham recalled many decades later. “He said that he knew Onassis quite well and thought he was a crook. ‘You are America’s First Lady, you can’t be seen with this man, let alone marry him,’ he told her. As I understand it, Jackie listened because she had respect for André, but she wasn’t going to be dissuaded, and, more than that, she was insulted.”
Meyer brought up the fact that Onassis—who married his first wife, Athina (Tina), in 1946—was known to have been openly having an affair with the married opera star Maria Callas. It was considered one of the greatest love affairs of twentieth-century pop culture, right alongside that of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. And it also matched the Burton-Taylor affair as a tabloid-fueled scandal. Jackie was not moved by Meyer’s reasoning, though. “Everyone has a past,” she told him.
Finally, André said, “Then at least let me work out a better financial arrangement for you.” Jackie said she was satisfied with what Ted had come up with and feared that Onassis would perceive their going back to the negotiating table as advantage-taking. “But yes,” she decided, “if there’s more we can do, I suppose we should try.” Finally, she agreed, as long as André could promise that none of these negotiations ever made it into the press. “You must act with great discretion,” Jackie said, according to what Meyer later told Mona Latham. “The public images of many people could be hurt by such maneuverings, not the least of which is mine!”
Latham continued, “André said it was all very civil between him and Jackie until he crossed a line with her and said something like, ‘Do you really think Jack would approve of such a marriage?’ That’s when Jackie became upset with him. ‘How dare you talk to me in this manner! Who do you think you’re talking to?’ she demanded. He apologized, but she didn’t want to hear anything more from him at that point. He knew he had gone too far. The meeting then ended. He wasn’t happy about the way it had gone. He hated disappointing Jackie. All he ever wanted was to protect her. He was being candid with her, but maybe a little too much so.”
The next day, Meyer sent Aristotle Onassis a counteroffer: $20 million. Onassis was angry. After all, he and Ted Kennedy had already agreed in principle on an amount that was far less. He immediately arranged to fly to New York, and the two met on September 25, 1968, at Meyer’s apartment at the Carlyle. According to someone with knowledge of the meeting, Onassis at first approached Meyer as if he were Jackie’s father and he was asking permission to take her hand in marriage. “I love her very much,” he told Meyer. “And she’s in love with me. So what will it take for me to make her my wife?” What would it take? Meyer repeated the figure: $20 million. Onassis said that he thought the price was ridiculously inflated. “The two of them haggled over it for about two hours,” recalled Arturo D’Angelo. “Afterward, Onassis went back to his hotel room at the Pierre Hotel. He was very unhappy. As I understand it, he asked his secretary, Lynn Alpha, for a drink, she pulled out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and poured him a double. Then he dictated a letter to Creon Broun.” That correspondence from Onassis to Broun memorialized the shipping mogul’s discussion with André Meyer. However, Jackie was not mentioned by name but was instead referred to as the “person in question.” It said, in part: “The sum of twenty [million] indicated in the meeting, as a capital, apart from the fact that in the final analysis it would be futile, due to gift, income and other taxes that it would necessarily entail, apart from being detrimental to the feelings of either party, it might easily lead to the thought of an acquisition instead of a marriage.”
When André Meyer went back to Jackie Kennedy with the new deal memo, she wasn’t at all pleased with the language. It sounded like a cold business deal to her. Of course, that’s what it was, but seeing it in black and white was a little unsettling. Meyer spent a few days trying to convince Jackie that if they pushed a little harder they could probably get $10 million from Onassis. He reminded her she was the one who had been complaining about money in recent years, and suggested that this was her opportunity to straighten out that problem. She had to agree. Still, she was ambivalent. Of course, she had her eye on the financial security she could gain by marrying someone like Aristotle Onassis. However, he was the one who had first offered to give her money upon their marriage. She had her limits in terms of how much she would exploit his generosity. Actually, Jackie was walking a thin line. On one hand, she seemed to want to appear as if these negotiations repulsed her. But on the other, she did want the money, and she couldn’t deny it. “As long as he agrees to pay all of my expenses during the marriage,” she said, “I don’t see what the problem is. But, yes,” she decided, “go back and see if you can get $10 million. But then, that’s it, André!” she said, drawing a line.
Meyer came back to Jackie a couple days later with the slightly disappointing news that he could only get the figure up to $3 million. As well as that lump sum, she would receive $30,000 a month tax-free for the duration of the marriage. Also, each of her children would receive $1 million, the annual interest of which would go to Jackie. Onassis would also pay all of her expenses over the $30,000 she received monthly, which, as he would learn, would be a sizable commitment. However, she also signed a provision that would limit the amount of money she could receive at his death, which probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. “I was surprised that André Meyer agreed to it,” recalled Mona Latham. “And so the deal was struck. ‘Now that’s it,’ Jackie said. ‘Let’s just leave it alone now, before Ari gets the wrong impression.’ ”
On October 15, 1968, the announcement was made with a headline story in the Boston Herald: “John F. Kennedy’s Widow and Aristotle Onassis to Wed Soon.”
“That morning, I got a phone call from Steve Smith,” recalled Pierre Salinger, JFK’s former press secretary. “ ‘I’m not sure how we should handle this goddamn thing,’ Steve said to me. ‘I guess we need to make a statement about it, though.’ I asked him, ‘So, do you know what you want to say?’ And he thought about it for a moment and came back with, ‘How about, ‘Oh… shit!’ ”
Five days later, on October 20, 1968, Jackie took Ari as her husband on Onassis’s private Greek island, Skorpios.
Three days after that, the deal Jackie Kennedy made with Aristotle Onassis for her hand in marriage was signed.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Taking a bird’s-eye view of the Kennedy clan—four sons, five daughters—Eunice Shriver, with her barely suppressed nervous energy, her gangly and sometimes rather androgynous appearance, and her predilection for long black cigars and man-tailored slacks, seemed to have had more in common with her brothers than her sisters. Indeed, hers would be a service-driven life fueled by the kind of commitment more in keeping with her male siblings than with her sisters. Even in her choice of husband, Eunice seemed to be guided by instincts quite at odds with her sisters, in that Sargent Shriver matched Eunice in intelligence, in ambition, and in a passionate desire to be of service to his country. He was also a devout Roman Catholic, as are all the Kennedys.
Born on July 10, 1921, in Brookline, Massachusetts—the fifth of nine Kennedy children—Eunice graduated from Manhattanville, a Catholic college in Purchase, New York, after attending a series of exclusive Catholic boarding schools. True to her spirit of individualism, she chose to go to Stanford University rather than the Ivy League of her siblings, graduating with a BS in sociology in 1943. The choice of degree affirmed her commitment to social work. After a short time working in the Special War Problems Division in the U.S. State Department, she moved to the Justice Department as executive secretary for a project dealing with juvenile delinquency, a job that led to a position as staff social worker for the Federal Independent Institute for Women. She accepted an offer in Chicago to join the House of the Good Shepherd women’s shelter and the juvenile court. It was a fateful move in that it was here that she became reacquainted with her future husband, Sargent Shriver, whom she had first met in 1946 at a Manhattan cocktail party. She and Sarge married in 1954. Over the next eleven years, they would have five children: Sarge III (also known by his middle name, Bobby), Maria, Timothy, Mark, and Anthony.
As a mother, Eunice could of course be loving and caring. But she was also her own mother’s daughter, and as such, she could sometimes appear to be emotionally removed. “If the Shriver children wanted affection and understanding, they generally went to Sargent—just as the Kennedy children had gone to Joseph, not Rose,” observed the journalist Helen Thomas. “Sarge always knew how to fill his children with self-confidence. ‘When you walk into a room,’ he would tell his daughter, Maria, ‘everyone there is lucky.’ Eunice was more the type to tell Maria what to say—and what not to say—once she got into the room.”
This isn’t to say that Eunice wasn’t a loving mother. She enjoyed nothing more than nurturing her children and gave each of them the one thing she knew they needed most—the freedom to choose. She supported their decisions pretty much always—after great discussion, of course. “Though her five children—Bobby, Maria, Timothy, Mark, and Anthony—knew that she loved them, she was a woman of action, not necessarily sentiment,” Thomas added. “She was not a patient person. She didn’t suffer fools. Her kids knew to toe the line. If they wanted to be coddled, that’s what Sarge is for. If they wanted direction, if they wanted motivation, if they wanted a good shove in the right direction, that was Eunice’s place.”
Indeed, Eunice wanted her children to work hard, give everything their all, and win at life. When Maria was fifteen, Eunice sent her to Africa to live with a family in Tunis—not unusual in a family where the teens were often sent to far-off places in order to expand their view of the world and do charity work. Maria would call her mom to complain that there was no running water and, in fact, no creature comforts at all. “I don’t want to hear one more yip out of you,” Eunice would tell her. “Get your job done and don’t come back until you’re finished.”
“She wasn’t exactly like any other mother you’d ever seen,” Maria Shriver would say in her touching eulogy of Eunice Kennedy Shriver in August 2009. “As a young girl, I didn’t actually know how to process her appearance much at the time, because most of the mothers were dressed up and neatly coiffed. Mummy wore men’s pants, she smoked Cuban cigars, and she played tackle football. She would come to pick us all up at school in her blue Lincoln convertible, her hair would be flying in the wind, there usually would be some pencils or pens in it. The car would be filled with all these boys and their friends and their animals. She’d have on a cashmere sweater with little notes pinned to it to remind her of what she needed to do when she got home. And more often than not, the sweater would be covering a bathing suit, so she could lose no time jumping into the pool to beat us all in a water polo game. Needless to say, when the nuns would announce her arrival, I would try to run for cover.”
There was rarely a quiet day for Eunice and Sarge or their children, who were constantly engulfed by the productive chaos and vibrant energy of their parents. “We were taught to make the most of every day,” Maria Shriver has recalled. “Our parents never wasted a single second. Yes, it was exhausting. But they had such a love of life and a passion to serve, it just infused everything they did and, in turn, everything we did, too. ‘You will. You must. You can,’ they would tell us.”
In their marriage, the Shrivers provided a great balance for one another. Sargent was levelheaded and grounded, whereas Eunice could sometimes be scatterbrained, brimming with nervous energy. Though he had many important responsibilities, he was organized and structured and had the ability to focus on one project at a time, give his all, and then move on to the day’s next task. Eunice, though, always had at least ten projects going at the same time. Some of them got finished, some of them didn’t. “Oh my God!” she would exclaim as she raced from one appointment to the next. “I’m going to be late!” There just weren’t enough hours in the day for Eunice.
“Whereas Sarge might be followed by two officious-looking male assistants taking careful notes and helping him organize his day,” Hugh Sidey from Time recalled, “Eunice usually had a half-dozen women at her beck and call. They were all equally frazzled with notebooks overflowing with charts and graphs, asking questions, taking orders, and shadowing her every move.”
Despite often being ill with the effects of Addison’s disease—which also plagued her brother Jack—as well as stomach ulcers and colitis, Eunice still managed to keep an extraordinarily busy schedule. She rarely complained, and thus the bar was raised for her kids in how much illness they should be able to tolerate. For instance, they were never allowed to stay home from school with colds or other childhood maladies. “Get to school and I don’t want to hear another yip about it,” she would tell them.
That Eunice and Sargent Shriver seemed to have a happy marriage for so many years—fifty-five years in all—suggests the couple had found a way to navigate the often rocky terrain that had to have gone along with Eunice’s split loyalties between her family and her husband. That said, as much as he was an acolyte of the Kennedys, Sargent Shriver always sought to maintain his and his family’s own identity. A famous story has it that his son Bobby had hurt himself while playing, and though he wanted to cry, he didn’t because, as everyone knew, “Kennedys don’t cry.” Shriver told him, “It’s okay. You can cry. You’re a Shriver.” Bobby Shriver recalled of his father, “He didn’t want us always to do exactly what the Kennedys did.” Indeed, Bobby, like his father and brother Timothy, went to Yale, not Harvard, the traditional Kennedy college. When asked what it felt like to be Kennedys, the Shriver children would almost always answer, “Shrivers are not Kennedys.”
Also vitally important to Eunice and Sarge was their Catholicism; they were very devout. They went to Mass almost every day, says Timothy. He recalls their home being “layered with crucifixes and madonnas and other very Catholic sort of statuary. It was not congregational and stark. It was Catholic.”
Besides their sharing a deep religiosity, not a lot was known about the personal relationship between Eunice and Sargent. They were both very private. If they fought, it was never in front of other people; they were rarely demonstrative in front of others. Occasionally, though, something would slip that would give others a bit of a peek as to what their marriage might be like behind closed doors.
For instance, in the early 1970s during the height of the popularity of his talk show, Phil Donahue aired a program focusing on female vulnerability. The topic sparked a conversation at an all-girls luncheon between Eunice, Jackie, Jean, and a few of their friends, including Joan Braden. “The question posed was, when are you most vulnerable?” Jackie said. “My answer would have to be when I’m with Ari,” Jackie said. “I think that’s when I’m most vulnerable.”
“Definitely, when a woman is with her husband,” Jean said, “that’s when she lets down all of her defenses, isn’t it?”
Joan Braden agreed. Eunice, though, just sat silently.
“So, what would you say, Eunice?” Joan asked.
“I don’t even understand the question,” Eunice said, shrugging. She added that in her opinion, vulnerability suggested weakness. “And I’m never weak,” she concluded. “So I don’t know what to tell you.”
The other women just smiled. That was Eunice.
Camp Shriver at Timberlawn
Flash back to July 1964.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Eunice Kennedy Shriver asked Jackie Kennedy as the two women walked through the parklike grounds of the property known as Timberlawn.
It was a sunny Saturday morning and Jackie, Jean, and an assortment of Kennedy family members and friends had gathered at the sprawling estate of Eunice and Sargent Shriver for the weekend to plan a benefit intended to raise money for one of Eunice’s pet projects, Camp Shriver. The Shrivers had moved to Timberlawn back in 1961, a bucolic thirty-acre estate just outside of Bethesda, Maryland. “Ethel and Bobby had Hickory Hill, and you and Sarge have Timberlawn,” Joan Braden noted with a smile, according to her memory of the day. Jackie had to laugh. “Well, I don’t think even Ethel could handle all of this,” she said. Indeed, the project Eunice called Camp Shriver was a lot to take in.
As the small coterie of women walked along one of Timberlawn’s well-manicured pathways, they passed a tennis court where Shriver children—Maria, Timothy, and Bobby—and Jackie’s children—John and Caroline—were playfully hitting balls around with a half-dozen other youngsters. Eunice had personally talked to the Shriver and Kennedy offspring to explain to them why it was important that they interact with children less fortunate. Timothy, who was just three when the camp began, was paired with a mentally handicapped boy named Wendell. They became inseparable, playing all day long and often even getting into mischief together. Nearby, a group of two dozen apparently handicapped children and teenagers were busy doing calisthenics on one of the lawns. Some of their teachers were inmates from Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County, Virginia, recruited by Eunice to instruct at Camp Shriver as part of a work furlough program. In the distance could be seen a large Olympic-size swimming pool where special-needs children were learning to swim under the watchful eye of Catholic school teachers from Sacred Heart school Stone Ridge in Bethesda. Eunice had somehow convinced them to also volunteer.
Continuing down the path, the small group soon came to a stable where another gaggle of children was learning to ride horses. Their teachers? Diplomats from the British embassy whom Eunice had heard were excellent equestrians and whom she charmed into volunteering. There were, in all, twenty-six volunteer counselors at Camp Shriver and thirty-four children.
Jackie looked around wondrously and asked, “How in the world do you do it? How do you get these people to volunteer? It’s just amazing.” Jean answered the question. “You know how Eunice is if she wants you to do something for her,” she said to Jackie. “She won’t take no for an answer. She will pester you until you will either go mad or do what she asks.” The women could only look at Eunice with admiration.
It all started back in the spring of 1962 when a woman from Bethesda contacted Eunice as a last resort to ask her if she knew of any summer camp her child—who was retarded—might attend. It was an interesting question, and when Eunice looked into it, she found that there was no such camp anywhere in the United States. “But how can that be possible?” she wondered.
In the 1950s, those suffering from mental retardation were very often viewed as hopeless individuals who should be locked away, hidden from sight, never to be thought of again. There was nothing that could be done for them, it was thought by many, and so it was therefore better to not have to think about them at all. Not only did society not know what to make of the mentally retarded, but parents who’d had the misfortune of giving birth to such children were also often shunned and ridiculed. Therefore, some parents did everything they could think of to keep the child’s problems a secret. Those who did their best to raise their mentally handicapped child at home found it extremely difficult. These problems would often ruin their lives, causing them to become socially ostracized and even to turn against each other as pressures and anxieties contaminated their marriage. More than that, it was almost impossible to find doctors who wanted to care for the mentally retarded. Generally, those in the medical profession only wished to treat patients they could cure, and it was thought that there was nothing that could be done for those suffering from mental retardation, so why bother?
It seems impossible to imagine today, but back in the 1950s and before, the parents of mentally retarded children often felt forced to make the heartbreaking decision to lock their sons and daughters away in horribly unsanitary mental asylums, and then tell family and friends that the child had died. In fact, most doctors very strongly suggested this drastic course of action. It was thought that the inevitable fate of the child would be to spend life in an institution anyway, so better that it should happen immediately rather than later when emotional bonds would be that much more difficult to break. If the child then eventually did pass away in the institution, the parents would then sometimes bury him or her in an unmarked grave and do their best to forget the child.
Just as Eunice was mulling over the first telephone call she received inquiring about a camp for the mentally retarded, another mother contacted her with the same question. To Eunice, it felt like a sign. “Enough,” she decided. She sat down with Sargent and, according to what he would later recall, said in typical fashion, “There’s a need here, and we have to fill it, Sarge.”
“Fine, but where?” Sargent asked. “We’ll have to lease space, I suppose. Maybe a park?”
“No,” Eunice said, “I want to do it here. We have plenty of room here, Sarge.”
“But here, in our home?” Sargent said, just a little flabbergasted.
“Well, you know what they say,” Eunice concluded. “Charity begins at home.”
Sargent had to laugh. “I know that’s what they say,” he told his wife, “but I’m not sure they meant quite this.”
Now she was on a mission—and Eunice Kennedy Shriver loved nothing more than the challenge of a good mission. She started by contacting hospitals and schools, asking them for the names of special-needs students who might benefit from a summer camp. Then she recruited counselors, at first just students from local high schools and colleges. Once she put them all together in her home, she gave birth to what she called Camp Shriver.
It all sounds a little unusual, but if one considers the way Eunice Kennedy was raised, it’s really not. “During summers in Hyannis Port when she was young, she and her siblings would all be expected by their father, Joseph, to report to the beach at 7 a.m. and stand in single file like little soldiers,” recalled Sancy Newman, a neighbor of the Kennedys in Hyannis Port. “Then, at their father’s behest, they would compete with one another in sports activities, interspersed with vigorous calisthenics. Joseph would split them up into teams and the winning team that day would have his approval, while those on the other team were often shunned as ‘losers’ for the rest of the day—not just by Joseph but by the kids on the winning team. ‘We were taught that coming in second place was not acceptable,’ Eunice once told me. ‘We competed in everything, against each other, whether we were racing, sailing, playing football—we each felt quite strongly that we had to win.’ ”
The ethos of intense competition was handed down from Joe to his sons, especially to Bobby. His daughter Kathleen recalled in an interview with McCall’s, “We had to be first in sailing and skiing races. We had to beat our opponents in tennis and get more runs than the other team in softball. And if we didn’t he’d get mad. Very, very mad! It was made clear that we weren’t to take these sports halfheartedly. And to make sure we were in condition for athletics, Father had the Green Berets set up an obstacle course on the grounds. Can you believe it? The Green Berets. We climbed ropes, jumped, ran, swung, and we toughened up all right.”
Sargent Shriver once said of his wife, “I had never heard of a woman so absolutely hell-bent on beating a man at every sport, no matter what it was. Why, she could find a way to turn recreational horseback riding into a deadly competition. I used to think, ‘What is wrong with her?’ Then, I got it: She’s a Kennedy.”
Given the strong history of competition fostered in the Kennedy family, perhaps for Eunice to consider hosting athletic events in her backyard wasn’t that much of a stretch. She also firmly believed that physical fitness was vitally important to the well-being of the mentally retarded. For instance, she questioned why so many mentally retarded people seemed out of shape and overweight. Was it because of their mental and emotional limitations, or was it because they had no venue for exercise, no opportunity to be physically fit? Addressing these kinds of issues would, of course, present the catalyst for the creation of the Special Olympics, arguably Eunice’s most important contribution to society.
Camp Shriver opened its doors on June 7, 1962, attended mainly by children from the Gales Child Health Center in Washington, D.C. It ended in early July so that Eunice and Sarge could spend the rest of the summer at the Kennedy compound with their kids. It would continue with that schedule for years to come, the only major change being that Eunice discontinued the program that saw prisoners from Lorton Reformatory volunteering for her.
“Half the time, Timberlawn would be filled with the most brilliant minds of the country,” Maria Shriver added. “And the other half of the time it would be filled by people banging their heads into trees. There would be a hundred Peace Corps volunteers and a hundred retarded children there at the same time. I look back at it sometimes and I think to myself, ‘I can’t believe I survived that.’ ”
Sargent Shriver once recalled, “When I’d come home from the office, there’s my wife in the pool, holding this mentally retarded child in the water to see if it’s possible for that child to swim. She didn’t hire somebody for that. She’s a hands-on person. She went into that goddamn pool herself!” Maria Shriver laughs at the memory. “That was Mummy,” she said. “Hands-on all the way.”
Five years later, in July 1968, Eunice realized what would become her life’s work, the Special Olympics. The announcement would be made in conjunction with the opening ceremonies of the first Special Olympics being held in Chicago. Standing before a microphone at Soldier Field, she said, “I wish to formally announce a national Special Olympics training program for all mentally retarded children everywhere. I also announce that in 1969, the Kennedy Foundation will pledge sufficient funds to underwrite five regional Olympic tryouts. Now,” she concluded triumphantly, “let us begin the Olympics!”
This was definitely a gratifying moment for Eunice. On hand for the occasion was Anne McGlone Burke, a physical education teacher with the Chicago Parks District, who had the idea for a one-time Olympic-style athletic competition for people with special needs. Burke took her idea to Shriver, head of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, to fund the event. Shriver encouraged Burke to expand on the idea and the JPK Foundation provided a grant of $25,000. Starting on a small scale with some one thousand athletes from across the United States and Canada participating, it would eventually grow internationally, with more than three million athletes from more than 150 countries participating throughout the world. “Let me win” was, as Eunice pointed out, the athlete’s oath. “But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
It is worth noting that with the growth of the movement, its validity and importance were achieved, thus assuring its continuation. For example, three years after the Special Olympics inaugural games in Chicago, the U.S. Olympic Committee gave the Special Olympics official approval to use the name “Olympics.” Six years later, in 1977, the first International Special Olympics Winter Games were held in February in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. In 1988, the Special Olympics were officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee. In 1997, Healthy Athletes became an official Special Olympics initiative, offering health information and screenings to Special Olympics athletes worldwide.
From a physical education teacher’s hopeful idea and a powerful woman’s remarkable vision and family resources, the small acorn was planted and is now a giant oak in the form of the International Special Olympics, with every indication that it will continue to grow to even greater heights.
What Happened to Rosemary Kennedy?
Eunice’s Kennedy Shriver’s lifelong work to advance the public’s understanding of mental retardation and erase the dreadful stigma that had once been attached to it is today the stuff of legend. The Kennedys more than just understood the pain and tragedy people faced in 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s when it came to having a mentally retarded person in the family. In fact, they’d experienced it.
Rose Marie Kennedy—commonly known by the family as Rosemary or Rosie—was the third child born to Rose and Joseph Kennedy, on September 13, 1918. As a baby, she seemed normal. As she grew older, though, she began to experience certain learning and behaviorial difficulties. However, it was thought at the time that she just had a low IQ—or at least that’s what doctors at first told Joseph and Rose.
For many years, Rosemary would happily participate in the family’s many social functions, was a good athlete—she swam and played tennis—and was full of life and beloved by her brothers and sisters as each was born and began to thrive within the family. However, from all accounts she was also a bit slow and could be moody, though apparently everyone recognized, understood, and accepted her limitations. Rose would later say that her daughter also had a tendency to mix up her letters when writing, which would perhaps suggest that she was dyslexic. (As an adult, Rosemary called Rose’s secretary, Barbara, “Arbarb,” hinting at such a condition.) Suggesting that there wasn’t a great deal of alarm about Rosemary’s condition is that when she was nineteen and Eunice sixteen, the two went to Switzerland together without a chaperone. In a family where the mandate was always that the older children take care of the younger, it seems fairly obvious that if Rose trusted Rosemary to be responsible for her younger sister, she must have felt that the young woman could handle it.
“Over the years, a great deal of mythology has been created and then disseminated as fact regarding what happened to Rosemary, and much of it is impossible to interpret because of the passing of so many years,” observed the noted author Gore Vidal. Vidal had a long and sometimes contentious relationship with the Kennedys; his mother married a man who was later Jackie’s stepfather. “Certain doctors supposedly suggested that Rosemary should be institutionalized. However, according to family legend, Joseph supposedly wouldn’t hear of it. ‘What can they do for her there that we can’t do for her here?’ he had purportedly asked. Rose wholeheartedly agreed, or so the story goes.” In fact, it does seem to be true that Rose—by her own admission—worked diligently to keep her daughter well read, educated, and able to traffic in the Kennedys’ fast-paced world. It appears, at least based on Rose’s memoir, Times to Remember, that she wanted Rosemary to fit in with the rest of her brothers and sisters, and that Rosemary did just that—for a while, anyway.
It is agreed by all parties that things took a dramatic turn when Rosemary was about twenty. Though no one seemed to understand why, the young woman’s condition began to worsen, and from some accounts she became argumentative and even violent. It was thought that she had become frustrated that she couldn’t keep up with all of her ambitious and competitive siblings as they began to evolve emotionally and physically. As a result, it was posited, she had begun to resent them—and many of her other relatives as well. When she had a physical altercation with her paternal grandfather, Rose and Joseph supposedly realized they had a problem on their hands that they were unequipped to solve. “Mother took Rosemary to any number of doctors,” Eunice Kennedy Shriver would recall many years later. “It was always the same—put her away, lock her up… the family is too competitive… she will never find a place. Of course, families had been told this for generations.” Is this true or not? Since it came from Eunice, one has to assume that it likely is true—or that at the very least it’s what Eunice was told.
“Eventually, the Kennedys apparently sent Rosemary to a Catholic boarding school, a decision that did little to rectify the situation,” recalled Sancy Newman, who knew Rosemary very well as a youngster. “Unhappy with the sense of confinement, Rosemary supposedly took to sneaking out at night, spending evenings away, and, it was feared, maybe being sexually active as well. What if she were raped? What if she became pregnant? As the legend that’s been handed down to the family members has it, fears for Rosemary’s safety began to mount, and along with them Joseph’s reservations. Looking back on it now all these years later, it seems clear that she had some kind of psychotic break that today would probably have been treated with drugs. Who knows? Perhaps she became bipolar. Or was suffering from depression. But retarded? No. I never thought she was retarded.”
Though there are still questions as to what really was going on with her, Rosemary Kennedy was beginning to present a big problem to the family, and as Joseph Kennedy saw it, one that might even have had the potential to interfere with the Kennedys’ social status and political ambitions. Of course, most people would view Joseph Kennedy as coldhearted in this regard, others as downright cruel. However, one thing was also true about him: He was practical, a man of action who prided himself on his ability to look at a problem with clear-eyed, unsparing vision and then take care of it expeditiously. Indeed, Kennedy did decide to take matters into his own hands where his daughter Rosemary was concerned, and the stunning decision he would make about her in 1941 would yield results nothing short of disastrous.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a new surgical procedure called a lobotomy was being developed in the United States, ostensibly to treat serious emotional problems such as schizophrenia and severe depression. Its success in extreme cases was being trumpeted in some medical circles, though most conventional wisdom at the time viewed the surgery as being extremely risky.
We now know that the frontal lobes of the brain are involved in motor function, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgment, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior. In a sense, it could be said that the frontal lobes are also responsible for a person’s imagination, for the part of one’s personality that inspires desire and ambitions for the future. It was reasoned back in the 1930s and 1940s that a possible explanation for violence and anger in the personalities of some mentally disturbed people sprang from a sense of extreme frustration that their dreams and aspirations could never actually manifest due to their handicapped nature. Therefore, it was posited, if the frontal lobe of a person’s brain were compromised and, thus, the part of the brain that creates hope and motivation also became impaired, certain behavior problems could be eradicated as well. How? Because the patient would then have no unrealistic notions about what he or she could achieve and would blend into society in as well-adjusted a manner as possible.
Today the notion of destroying a vital part of a person’s brain sounds barbaric. It’s difficult to imagine that once upon a time there were doctors who actually specialized in this field, but in fact there were quite a few in the 1940s. During a lobotomy operation, an ice-pick-like device—in some cases, an actual gold-plated ice pick!—or a device resembling a blunt knife was usually inserted under a patient’s eyelid and above the tear duct, then hammered into the brain through the thin bone of the eye socket. With that instrument firmly in place, the doctor then simply swished it about, thereby destroying the brain’s frontal lobes. Unfortunately, there were no cameras or other kinds of monitoring devices at the time to determine what was actually happening in or to the patient’s brain. Instead, the patient was simply put under a local anesthetic and, as the doctor slowly did his work, asked certain questions. When the answers became vague and the patient seemed more distant and detached than previously, the operation was considered over and successful. Horrifying… yet true.
In 1941, Joseph Kennedy consulted with some of the more avant-garde doctors of the time, who told him that a lobotomy was a new and exciting solution to an old problem of mental illness. Other doctors disagreed, and vehemently so. When Joseph eventually discussed the operation with Rose, she asked her daughter Kathleen to look into it. Kathleen came back and told her mother that it was most certainly not the way to go where Rosemary was concerned. It was by no means a solution to mental retardation and was only used on patients with severe psychiatric or emotional illnesses that could otherwise not be treated, and even then it was far from widely accepted. Only about sixty of these operations had been performed up until that time, and with mixed results. Most of the patients were severely brain damaged, though. There was no getting around it. Rose was satisfied to hear as much and told Joseph what Kathleen had learned. As far as she was concerned, the case was closed.
For Joseph, though, it wasn’t closed at all.
While Rose was out of town, Joseph took it upon himself to take his daughter to a hospital to have the terrible operation performed on her—apparently without telling a single person in his family about it.
In Rosemary’s case, rather than go through the eye as usual, doctors drilled right through the top of her skull. One doctor then inserted the surgical instrument and moved it around, destroying brain matter in the process. Meanwhile, another doctor asked certain questions of Rosemary: Could she recite certain prayers? Sing certain songs? Count backward from ten? They made an estimate about how far to continue “swishing” based on how she responded. Finally, when Rosemary couldn’t make sense of the questions, it was decided that the operation was over. Afterward, everyone agreed that it hadn’t gone very well. Maybe not surprisingly, Rosemary Kennedy came out of the surgery completely retarded, with virtually no sign of her former personality left in her. She could barely speak and was for all intents and purposes perhaps no more than five years old in her mind. Her head was tilted, she was incontinent, severely brain damaged, and could no longer speak or reason. At just twenty-three, her life was all but ruined.
By some accounts, Joseph was horrified by what had happened to his daughter. By other accounts, he was, if not wholly pleased, at least somewhat satisfied. Rosemary was at first hospitalized, but then Joseph shipped her off to an institution, where she would spend the next seven years.
“When Rose returned home from her trip, Joseph told her and the rest of the family that while she was gone he had taken Rosemary in for a doctor’s examination,” said Sancy Newman. “It was decided then and there—or so Joseph had lied, anyway—that it was no longer possible for the family to care for her at home. He maintained that Rosemary—like thousands of others at the time—had to be just locked away. And that was the end of it.”
One can only wonder about the psychological impact such an event may have had on the Kennedy siblings. After all, one day they had a sister, and the next day they didn’t. Once, Ted Kennedy’s longtime friend and former Harvard classmate, the writer Burton Hersh, asked him what he as a youngster thought when his sister suddenly disappeared from sight. Ted mulled the question over for a moment before answering, “I thought that I’d better do what Dad wanted, or the same thing could happen to me.”
New information now reveals that Rose Kennedy and some of her children began visiting Rosemary in 1949—eight years after she was committed.
Apparently, the private institution in which Rosemary had first been ensconced was no place Joseph wanted his wife and older siblings to visit. Therefore, at the advice of his close friend Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston—who would for decades be the spiritual adviser for the entire family—Joseph had Rosemary moved to a Catholic community in Jefferson, Wisconsin, then called St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children, today known simply as St. Coletta’s. There, Joseph oversaw the construction of a private home for his daughter on the grounds of the Alverno Nursing Home, a facility that was owned by St. Coletta’s, which would become known by the staff as the Kennedy Cottage. It would be here that Rosemary would spend the next sixty years of her life until her death in 2006 at the age of eighty-six, under the care of St. Coletta’s staff, always in the company of two caretakers from that community, both of them sisters of the order of St. Francis of Assisi.
It is certainly difficult to believe that Rose Kennedy and the rest of her family were not aware of Rosemary’s lobotomy during all the years that they visited her at St. Coletta’s, especially since Rose and Kathleen had once discussed the pros and cons of just such an operation. Could Rose have not put two and two together to figure out what had happened to her daughter? However, the story that’s been handed down in the family over the years is that no one knew about the awful operation until well after Joseph was gone and some of the family members began asking questions.
What cannot be disputed is that the Kennedys kept secret the fact that Rosemary was retarded and living in a home, certainly not an unusual thing to hide back in those days. In fact, during JFK’s campaign it was said by the family that Rosemary was off leading a private life as a teacher in a convent in Tarrytown, New York. The first time the public had a clue that something was wrong with her was in the July 1960 issue of Time when Joseph was quoted as saying she had been suffering from spinal meningitis and convalescing in a Wisconsin nursing home. “I think it’s best to bring these things out into the open,” he said.
Two years later, in an essay Eunice Kennedy Shriver wrote for the Saturday Evening Post in September 1962, she provided a revisionist version of what had actually occurred—with no mention of the lobotomy, of course:
“In 1941… my mother took Rosemary to psychologists and to dozens of doctors. All of them said her condition would not get better and that she would be far happier in an institution, where competition was far less and where our numerous activities would not endanger her health. It fills me with sadness to think this change might not have been necessary if we’d known then what we know today. My mother found an excellent Catholic institution that specialized in the care of retarded children and adults. Rosemary is there now, living with others of her capacity. She has found peace in a new home where there is no need for ‘keeping up,’ or for brooding over why she can’t join in activities as others do. This, coupled with the understanding of the sisters in charge, makes life agreeable for her. Like diabetes, deafness, polio or any other misfortune, mental retardation can happen in any family. It has happened in the families of the poor and the rich, of governors, senators, Nobel prizewinners, doctors, lawyers, writers, men of genius, presidents of Corporations—the President of the United States.”
In 1977, Rose Kennedy’s secretary, Barbara Gibson, made a startling discovery in the attic of Rose’s home—Rosemary’s leather-bound diaries, going all the way back to the late 1930s when she was in England with her family while her father was ambassador there. They are fascinating to read in that Rosemary’s words paint a vivid picture of a very normal young girl concerned about her nutrition, her schooling, her interest in fashion and in sporting events, and her social life. “Have a fitting at 10:15 Elizabeth Arden’s,” reads one entry. “Appointment dress fitting again. Home for lunch. Royal tournament in the afternoon.” On board the ship taking the family to England, she wrote, “Up late for breakfast. Had it on the deck. Played ping pong with Ralph’s sister, also with another man. Had lunch at 1:15. Walked with Peggy. Also went to horse races with her, and bet and won a dollar and a half. Went to English movie at five. Had dinner at 8:45. Went to the lounge with Miss Cahill and Eunice and retired early.”
From Rosemary’s writings, she seemed carefree and well-adjusted, not at all troubled. She seemed to have had a learning disability, that much is clear from some of the writings in which she writes of trouble in school, and also she seemed dyslexic in her writing, just as Rose had suggested. These diaries, though, were not written by anyone who was severely retarded—they were too concise, too clear, too specific in nature. Rose Kennedy was not happy about their discovery, however. “More than thirty years had passed since her daughter had been institutionalized and Rose and the rest of the family had long ago settled it in their minds as something they could have done nothing about,” observed Barbara Gibson. “They didn’t even want to think about how things might have been different if Joseph had not acted on his own to solve what he viewed as a problem. Indeed, as far as they were concerned, all of it was just better left in the past.”
“Throw them out,” Rose told Gibson of the journals. “We don’t need them now. Just get rid of them.” Barbara Gibson didn’t throw them out, though. She kept them.
Joseph Patrick Kennedy
What can one make of the fact that Joseph P. Kennedy was so beloved and revered not only by his own children but by their spouses as well, despite his responsibility for what had happened to his daughter Rosemary? It doesn’t overstate it to say that Sargent Shriver, for instance, hero-worshipped the man, as did Stephen Smith. And the love that Ethel, Joan, and Jackie felt for him was boundless. “Dear Grandpa, you brought all the joy into my life, more than one should dare hope to have. And because of that—all the pain,” Jackie once wrote in what appeared to be musings jotted down for a possible memoir, the pages ultimately being sold at auction. “I will remember you. And I will love you until I die.”
Though Joseph could be extremely tough and unyielding, there was a paradoxical loving quality to him that was difficult for his children and their spouses to resist—especially given that Rose was by nature so removed and even icy. Not only was she rarely demonstrative, but she also became extremely uncomfortable when anyone around her displayed raw emotion. For instance, even during the darkest of times when Jackie and Ethel grieved their slain husbands, Rose—by her own admission—would have preferred they do so in private, not in front of her or any of the other family members. It was Joseph who openly showed the most love—tough love, yes, but love just the same. It was Joseph who made the Kennedys feel they were a family, and so it was he to whom everyone was most loyal.
Admittedly, trying to reconcile Joseph the good father with Joseph the man who did what he did to Rosemary Kennedy presents a conundrum, but grappling with such contradictions is essential when trying to understand him. Before setting his sights on politics, he’d made a fortune in the stock market, a huge impact on the film industry in Hollywood (during which time he famously had an affair with Gloria Swanson). He’d also been ambassador to Great Britain under Roosevelt, a tenure that ended very badly. Eleven days after Kennedy’s arrival in Great Britain, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces pushed their way into Austria. In a shortsighted assessment of the situation based on discussions with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Kennedy maintained that the action in Europe had “no long range implications,” quoting Chamberlain as likening Germany to “a boa constrictor that had eaten a great deal and was trying to digest the meal before taking on anything else.” This would be the first of many miscalculations for Joseph. His efforts to promote U.S. isolationism and his continued antiwar stance, it now seems, were based in a large measure on his fear that his three older sons—Joe Jr., Jack, and Bobby—would be placed in harm’s way, fighting a war that he insisted would be our Armageddon. After making a number of speeches that were at odds with U.S. policy concerning Hitler’s aggressive march through Europe, Kennedy was asked by FDR for his resignation in 1940.
It was Joseph’s zest for politics and for seeing his sons in powerful government positions that became the focus of his life when he returned from England. His firstborn, Joseph Patrick Jr., had come thirteen months after Joseph’s and Rose’s wedding. It was quickly decided by Joseph that his namesake would be the tyro who would anchor his dreamed-of political dynasty. Two years later John arrived. More children would follow in quick succession over the next six years: Rosemary; Kathleen, known as “Kick”; Eunice; Pat; Robert; Jean; and, finally, another son, Ted. These children would be brought up with a strict and unflinching code of ethics, determination, and the fiercest of all desires—to win. Their dining room would become a lecture hall with constant discussions about current events and politics. “I don’t think much of people who have it in them to be first but who finish second,” Joseph told his offspring. It was nothing if not a deeply competitive life for all of the young Kennedys.
When Joe Jr. was killed in the war, Joseph focused on his son Jack, who, while not as immediately sharp and charismatic as Joe, was still the best thing the family had going for them—at least as far as Joseph was concerned. “Joseph wheeled and dealed his way into politics,” said Hugh Sidey. “Maybe buying elections, maybe not, but definitely at the forefront of the family’s ascension into high government. None of it would have happened if not for Joseph’s dogged determination. The family owed everything to Joseph, to the way he pulled strings for them, the way he supported them financially and emotionally, the way he pushed them when, frankly, they didn’t want to be pushed. It was all because of Joseph.”
In 1961, Joseph Kennedy was felled by a debilitating stroke while golfing in Palm Beach, Florida, leaving him unable to speak and walk. This was just the beginning of another series of tragedies in the family. In another two years the vibrant young president, JFK, would be assassinated in Dallas. Next would be Ted’s near loss of his life in a 1964 airplane crash. Then, before the decade was over, Joseph’s third son, Bobby, would be killed in Los Angeles following a rousing victory speech made after winning the California Democratic primary for l968’s presidential election.
Either overlooking the tragedy that had befallen Rosemary Kennedy or chalking it up to Joseph having done the best he could in a difficult situation, the Kennedy family firmly maintained then—as they do today—that everything they were in terms of strength and resilience was because of the character and example of their patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy. They would also always acknowledge that their great wealth and political power were the direct result of his hard work and business acumen. Everything they were, in fact, was connected to who he had been in their lives, even their spirituality, for Joseph was extremely religious and passed on that ideology to his family members, most of whom would also be very devout in their faith.
“Everything we have, we owe to Grandpa,” is how Ethel Kennedy would put it to her children before a visit to the Big House. “So when you go in to see him,” she would say—and at this time Joseph was an invalid as a result of his stroke—“remember that everything you have, every toy, every pet, the house we live in, everything we owe to Grandpa.”
President Barack Obama perhaps said it best when, following Sargent Shriver’s death in 2011, he referred to him as “one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation.” Many historians feel Sargent would have—should have—made a great president, that he would have made a significant impact on this country’s landscape in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s had he had the opportunity to do so. Not only did he have the energy, the imagination, the magnetism and sense of purpose and duty, but he also possessed what seemed like an organic need to be of service. He cared about society, and he cared deeply. However, one significant stumbling block kept him from advancing his political career: the ambition of the Kennedy family.
First, though, a little history about the man his friends and family called simply “Sarge”:
Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. was born in Westminster, Maryland, in 1915, his German forebears among the early settlers of Baltimore. The Shriver family is descended from David Shriver, who signed the Maryland Constitution and Bill of Rights at Maryland’s Constitutional Convention of 1776. Sargent’s father, Robert, was a banker who had married his second cousin, Hilda Shriver. The Shrivers were hardworking, though not affluent. Following admission on full scholarship to Canterbury, a private school in New Milford, Connecticut, Sarge graduated in 1934 and spent the next seven years at Yale, where he earned both his undergraduate degree in 1938 and his law degree in 1941. As a member of America First, an antiwar organization, Shriver opposed the country’s entrance into World War II. But as a patriotic American, he volunteered anyway, serving in the Navy for five years, rising through the ranks to lieutenant and earning a number of commendations for valor. He later recanted his opposition to the war.
Shriver’s first encounter with the Kennedys came in 1946 when family patriarch Joseph recruited him to serve as director of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, a home furnishings enterprise. A year earlier, Joseph had bought the monolithic limestone and terra-cotta landmark in Chicago for $13 million, which, at half of what it cost to build, was a very good investment. “People often ask where the Kennedys’ greatest source of income comes from,” Sargent Shriver once said while taking a journalist on a tour of the property. “Well, here it is.” (Though it was an off-the-record remark, it was published just the same. Shriver would never make such a statement on the record.) In fact, over the years it would be the income generated by the rental of office and exhibit space in Merchandise Mart that financed the public and private lives of all of the Kennedys, from Joseph and Rose down to the second generation and the third and—today—even the fourth and fifth. At the time Joseph hired him, Sargent had been working as a journalist, first at Time and then Newsweek. He became an official part of the Kennedy family in 1954 when he married Eunice at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
Many people today believe that Sargent Shriver started the Peace Corps. That’s not exactly true. It had actually been President John F. Kennedy’s idea, but Sarge implemented it.
In JFK’s first public utterance following his oath of office on becoming president, his inaugural speech in January 1961, he threw down the gauntlet to the American people, imploring, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” This call to service did not fall trippingly off his tongue; it came together following his anguish over the exact wording of how to elicit the most profound response from an eager public willing to fall loyally into lockstep with the new leader of the free world. President Kennedy later pointed out that the Soviet Union had “hundreds of men and women, scientists, physicists, teachers, engineers, doctors, and nurses… prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism.” The United States had no such program, and Kennedy wanted to involve Americans more actively in the cause of global democracy, peace, development, and freedom. He turned to Sargent Shriver, asking him to organize a Peace Corps Task Force. An executive order dated March 1, 1961, less than two months after Kennedy’s inauguration, established the Peace Corps with Sargent Shriver as its first director. After half a century of service, the Peace Corps continues to be vital and to grow. Inspired by JFK’s vision, it has become an agency devoted to world peace, with volunteers helping individuals to build better lives for themselves, their family, their community, and their country.
After Sargent Shriver distinguished himself in the administration of JFK, he continued to serve Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy’s death, creating for LBJ the Office of Economic Opportunity (later the War on Poverty and eventually the Shriver Center) and serving as its first director. It was through the OEO that Shriver created Head Start, a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services brilliantly conceived as an early intervention program to provide education and nutrition for low-income children and their families. “It was not primarily an IQ idea,” Sargent said of Head Start, “it was an idea of intervening early in their lives to… help them become more capable of going to school, which is normally the first hurdle outside the home a person faces.”
Sarge always seemed to recognize that there was more to life than politics, maybe unusual in a family like the Kennedys where, at least for the men, politics often seemed to matter more than anything. To Sarge, his family was paramount. He had a strong moral code and passed it on to his children. “He’s the one who taught me it’s never worth stabbing someone in the back to get ahead,” his daughter, Maria Shriver, would recall. “He said that talent and smarts always wins out, that if you’re good, you’ll get the great job. He said never let a puffed-up ego make decisions for you.”
Another priority for Shriver was his faith. “Wherever he traveled to, the first question off his lips would be, ‘Where is the nearest Catholic church?’ ” his son Mark Shriver observed. “Daddy was joyful till the day he died and I think that joy was deeply rooted in his love affair with God. Daddy loved God and God loved him right back. Daddy let go. God was in control and, oh, what a relationship they had.”
“A Very Good Shriver”
Repeatedly over the years, the needs and desires of various Kennedy family members and their advisers would take precedence over what would have been in Sargent Shriver’s own best interest. Because he was unfailingly loyal to his wife’s family, there was always a sort of glass ceiling to how much Sarge would be able to achieve as a public servant. Not that his accomplishments weren’t many and weren’t historical in their own right, because they were. However, one has to wonder how much more he might have accomplished if not for the fact that one Kennedy or another was always standing in his way—first in 1959, then in 1964, 1968, 1972, and finally in 1976.
It started in the spring of 1959 when there was scuttlebutt that Shriver might run for governor of Illinois. Because he had strong connections in that state and a solid groundswell of support, he toyed with the idea. He hadn’t even made a decision one way or another about it, though, when Joseph Kennedy heard the rumblings. “What’s this I hear about you maybe running for governor?” Joseph asked his son-in-law one afternoon at La Guerida, the Palm Beach estate. Sargent said he hadn’t made up his mind yet but that, yes, he had been approached and there seemed to be significant interest. “Well, let me help make up your mind,” Joseph said. “It can’t happen. The whole family is behind Jack for president right now. So forget it. Jack needs your help with his campaign.” And that was the end of that—at least for the time being.
“Not only did Joseph ask for Sargent’s assistance, Jack also had asked for his help… as did his wife, Eunice,” Hugh Sidey recalled. “That was a lot of pressure. There wasn’t much Sargent could do but sublimate his own desires for that of the family’s, which would, as it would turn out, become a recurring way of life for him.”
In temperament and personality, Sarge wasn’t as shrewd as JFK or as cunning as Bobby, and everyone knew it. Sarge was thought of not only by some of the Kennedys but also by many of their counselors—men who wielded great influence over members of the family, such as speechwriter Ted Sorensen and Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell—as a lightweight, a pretender to the throne. They looked at him as naive, a romanticist who believed too much in the good of people, rarely recognizing man’s duplicitous nature. (That was certainly an ironic view of him, especially when one considers that President Kennedy’s New Frontier would be built on a platform of idealism.) “They believed Shriver had good ideas and was obviously able to make them work in government, but because he wasn’t a real Kennedy, he’d never have the same drive, ambition, and smarts as a real Kennedy,” is how veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas put it. Maybe Bobby said it best when once asked what he thought about Sargent Shriver: “He’s a very good Shriver,” was his response. Ted also felt that way. Surprisingly, so did Stephen Smith, Jean’s husband, who was also not a “real” Kennedy but, in his view, at least never tried to act like one.
The next time Sargent Shriver’s ambition was thwarted was in 1964. At the time, Lyndon Johnson had been considering possible running mates for the presidential election, and Sargent weighed heavily on his mind. Johnson respected Shriver so much that on the day JFK was shot he promised him that if he could, he would one day show just how much he appreciated him. By 1964, with three years of success with the Peace Corps under his belt (Time magazine had reported, “The Peace Corps has captured the public imagination as has no other single act of the Kennedy administration”), Shriver continued to demonstrate the leadership qualities he had shown as an important member of the Johnson cabinet as special assistant to the president. However, Shriver’s role within the Johnson administration always found him in a difficult position—stuck in the middle between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy and the Kennedy family.
Johnson wasn’t in office very long before Bobby made it clear that he might be interested in running against him in the 1968 election. For that reason, RFK never felt comfortable that Shriver was still a part of LBJ’s administration. For his part, Bobby had lasted as attorney general under LBJ for only ten months after his brother’s death, before departing to run for, and win, his seat in the Senate representing New York. But Shriver was still working for LBJ. “The fact that LBJ had such a direct pipeline to the Kennedys through one of their own, namely Sargent Shriver, troubled a lot of the family members,” said Jack Valenti, who handled press relations for Lyndon Johnson (and went on to become the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America). Some even thought that Shriver’s being a pipeline to the Kennedys was precisely why LBJ had brought him into his administration in the first place. Others would find this a simplification of LBJ’s thinking, though it’s difficult to believe that it hadn’t at least crossed his mind, especially considering his crafty personality. In fact, Johnson had other reasons for wanting Shriver around.
Of all the Kennedys, LBJ loathed Bobby Kennedy with a burning, searing passion. Everyone knew it—and everyone also knew that Bobby felt the same way about Johnson. Still, because of the memory of JFK, Johnson suspected he would have a clear advantage at the polls if he could at least try to stomach Bobby on the ticket with him. But that was asking a lot—more than LBJ could conceive of, in fact. One way for him to avoid the problem of aligning himself with a running mate he detested was to associate himself with the next best thing in the campaign—a Kennedy brother-in-law and, it could be argued, the best of the bunch: Sargent Shriver. To LBJ, this seemed like a very good strategy. “Most people liked and respected Sargent, and LBJ could put up with him a lot easier than he could any other Kennedy family member, with the possible exception of Jackie,” said Jack Valenti. Because it became such a serious consideration for him, word of a possible LBJ-Shriver ticket soon leaked to the press.
Scott Stossel has a very telling story in his excellent book Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. One day in the spring of 1964, Sargent Shriver was at the Kennedy compound relaxing when Bobby Kennedy happened by. Shriver and Kennedy had always had a difficult, though usually respectful, relationship. Though they tolerated each other because of Eunice, the two were like oil and water. Whereas Shriver was amiable, good-natured, and diplomatic, Bobby was moody, explosive, and dogmatic.
“What’s this I hear about you being on the Johnson ticket as vice president?” Bobby asked his brother-in-law, according to Sargent’s later memory of events. The two men faced each other, standing just inches apart. Bobby tended to invade another’s “personal space” when he was being confrontational. Shriver would recall feeling immediately uncomfortable.
“Well, nothing has been decided,” Shriver said cautiously. “So, I’m not sure what will happen.”
Suddenly, in one swift and threatening moment, Bobby reached out and pulled Sargent in by his collar. “Let me make something clear,” he said in a tone that could only be described as menacing. “There’s not going to be a Kennedy on this ticket,” he said. “And if there were, it would be me.”
Shriver didn’t know how to respond. “Well, like I said,” he told Bobby, backing away from him but still standing his ground. “Nothing’s been decided.”
Bobby sized him up for a moment, then turned and walked away without comment.
After Joseph Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash death in World War II and JFK’s assassination in 1963, it fell upon Joseph’s third son, Bobby, to once again fulfill what the ambassador had always considered the family’s destiny—the presidency of the United States. Born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh of nine children of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and her husband, Joseph, Robert Francis Kennedy inherited not only his maternal grandfather’s lack of height but also, as it would happen, his feisty determination. The runt of the litter, he would one day grow into an alpha male, but not before struggling academically with his early education, attending by actual count seven different public and Catholic schools from grades one through twelve. He even repeated the third grade in public school in Bronxville, New York, after his family moved there. He always seemed to be challenged by his older brothers, and, like them, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve before his eighteenth birthday in 1944 and signed up for V12 officer training. Bobby also followed his older brothers to Harvard and, despite his size, made the varsity football team, earning a letter his senior year. Unlike them, though, he chose the University of Virginia for law school, enrolling in 1948 and receiving his degree in 1951, following his marriage a year earlier to Ethel Skakel. He graduated from law school in June 1951, and a month later, in July, his and Ethel’s first child, Kathleen, was born. The rest of their brood followed in rapid succession: Joseph in 1952, Robert Jr. in 1954, David in 1955, Mary Courtney in 1956, Michael in 1958, Mary Kerry in 1959, Christopher in 1963, Matthew in 1965, Douglas in 1967, and Rory in 1968, six months after Bobby’s death.
Making babies would prove to be a sideline for Bobby Kennedy as he also busied himself with the family’s business—politics.
In late 1959, Bobby left the Senate Rackets Committee to run Jack’s successful presidential campaign. Proving himself to be an important adviser to the president, Bobby was rewarded by being appointed to head the Justice Department as attorney general. He was dogged in his resolve to rid America of the underworld, to the point that some of his adversaries—and colleagues, for that matter—thought of him as an angry lightweight pugilist, always eager for a good scrap. In fact, no attorney general in history had ever wielded the kind of wide-ranging influence on a president’s administration that Bobby did.
Bobby also became a tireless implementer of his brother’s civil rights program, going after elected officials and others in authority in the Deep South who would deprive blacks and other minorities of their basic civil rights. At the forefront of great change, he and JFK shared a vision that voting was a means to the solution of racial injustice. Together they introduced the most sweeping piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With strong support from LBJ, it was passed after Jack’s death.
Excerpted from After Camelot by Taraborrelli, J. Randy Copyright © 2012 by Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Excerpted by permission.
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