How matriarch Rose Kennedy's fixation on dieting affected her eldest daughter, Rosemary

By Liz McNeil
Updated September 07, 2015 03:35 PM
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More than seven decades after JFK’s troubled sister Rosemary was left disabled by a disastrous lobotomy, two new books reveal the heartbreaking details of a dynasty’s darkest secret. Subscribe now for more on the forgotten Kennedy.

Rosemary Kennedy, the third of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose’s nine children, was one of the most striking of all the Kennedy daughters. Yet in Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, excerpted in this week’s PEOPLE, author Kate Clifford Larson depicts a vivacious and curvy beauty with a “perfect smile” who was always on a diet to please her strict parents.

Once, after she put on a few pounds during the winter months, Rosemary, who was intellectually disabled, wrote to her father from boarding school, knowing he disapproved. “I am so fond of you,” she wrote in her childish script. “Sorry. to think that I am fat. you. think.” Joe responded to the school: “She is getting all together too fat and I told her in no uncertain terms.”

“Rose and Joe were concerned about all the kids’ weights,” says Larson. “It was constant theme throughout their whole lives. Every letter Rose wrote to the kids, from the time they were small to adulthood, she would comment on their weight. One was too fat, one was too thin, one should we be watching their weight. And it was constant theme for Rosemary. In many of her letters, she would comment she was on a diet and and she would say ‘You’ll be so proud of me, I’ve lost some weight.’ ”

Even after Rosemary underwent a lobotomy at age 23, leaving her with the mental capacity of a small child, her parents remained fixated on her weight. In her upcoming book, The Missing Kennedy, author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff said Rose often called the nuns at Saint Colleta in Jefferson, Wisconsin – where Rosemary lived for the six decades following the lobotomy – to inquire about her diet.

“When she would visit, Mrs. Kennedy would say ‘Rosemary, you’ve had enough, you don’t get any dessert tonight because you need to lose weight,’ ” says Koehler-Pentacoff, whose aunt Sister Paulus was Rosemary’s longtime caretaker. “It was very ‘these are the rules, you need to lose weight.’ So afterwards Sister Paulus would go into the kitchen and get an extra dessert from the refrigerator and give it to Rosemary because Rosemary lived for those little treats.”

“Mrs. Kennedy did love her but she was more of a disciplinarian,” she says.

“If I had dinner with her and there was dessert, Rosie would definitely be looking out for it,” recalls Koehler-Pentacoff. “She might clap her hands or smile or laugh. She could say ‘dessert’ or ‘ice cream.’ She loved things like that. She loved parties and visitors and food. If we said ‘Okay, we brought a box of candy,’ her eyes lit up and after dinner she’d get to have a piece of candy.”

Looking back, the author credits Rosemary’s love of simple pleasures as one of her lasting and favorite memories. “The thing about Rosemary,” says Koehler-Pentacoff, “is she taught us to appreciate the simplicity in life.”

For more on Rosemary Kennedy and her tragic fate, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.