Jean Kennedy Smith: The Last Surviving Sibling of JFK Remembers the Death of Brother Joe Jr.
She was number eight, “Jean, the sidekick,” nine years younger than JFK and the favorite playmate of her younger brother, Teddy, number nine.
Growing up, she saw the rise of her family’s political dynasty; the long held dream of her fiercely ambitious parents, Joe and Rose Kennedy. Now 86, Jean Kennedy Smith is the last surviving sibling of the family that at times seemed as deeply cursed as it was blessed.
“It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend that I am the only member of our original family still living,” writes Smith in her new memoir The Nine of Us, a rose-colored look at her childhood.
Kennedy Smith, who has four children with her husband Steve Smith (who died in 1990), chose not to write in-depth about the assassinations of JFK or Bobby. Nor does she address the trial of her son, William Kennedy Smith, who was charged and acquitted of rape in a 1991 trial in Palm Beach, Florida, that made headlines.
She does, however, write movingly of the death of their eldest brother Joe Kennedy Jr., a navy pilot whose plane exploded when he was on a secret mission in Europe in World War II. The family was told of his death in August 1944, when two local priests from the church in Hyannis Port knocked on the door.
“We had just finished lunch on the wide front porch,” she writes of that long ago Sunday afternoon. “Dad was taking a nap upstairs; Mother was reading in her sitting room. A group of us was in the living room listening to the radio.”
When the priests first asked to speak with Joe Kennedy, Rose guessed they were there to seek a charitable donation.
“She asked if Dad could speak with them later, as he had just gone up for a nap,” writes Kennedy Smith. “They paused and told her the reason for their visit – that Joe was missing in action.”
Her parents led the priests to a private room and spoke behind a closed door.
“When they emerged, it was clear to all of us that they were stricken,” she writes. “Softly they told us that Joe was missing and presumed dead. It was impossible to believe. As the priests provided the details, the reality of the situation sank in. ‘I want you all to be particularly good to your mother,’ Dad said, voice shaking.”
“I did not want to believe it,” she writes. “I stood up from where I sat and dashed out the front door and jumped on my bike and pedaled down to the church. There I went to the pew in the front, where I cried and prayed by myself. My adored brother and godfather was gone.”