Inside Rosemary and Rose Kennedy's dramatic reunion 20 years after Rosemary's disastrous lobotomy

By Liz McNeil
Updated September 02, 2015 02:20 PM
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Credit: Getty; Kennedy Family Collection/JFKL

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.

Rose Kennedy always worried about her eldest daughter Rosemary, who was born mentally disabled in 1918. Rose and her husband Joe P. Kennedy consulted with specialists, enrolled Rosemary in schools where she would be cared for and nurtured and always made sure her eight siblings tried to include her. But after Rosemary’s disastrous lobotomy in 1941 that left her with the mental capacity of a young child, Rose did not see her daughter for two decades.

It was not until 1961, after Joe had suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated, that Rose visited her daughter at Saint Coletta, a facility for the mentally impaired in Jefferson, Wisconsin. Rosemary lived there for over 60 years until her death in 2005.

In this week’s PEOPLE, the authors of two upcoming books about Rosemary shed light on the mystery surrounding the fraught relationship between Rose and her eldest daughter.

In The Missing Kennedy, author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff shares memories of visiting Rosemary at Saint Coletta, where her aunt, Sister Paulus, was one of her caretakers. She also describes the reunion between Rosemary and her mom that shocked the nuns.

When Rosemary first saw her mother at the Milwaukee airport after 20 years, she ran to her,” writes Koehler-Pentacoff. “The nuns quickened their pace, their dark robes flapping after them.”

As Rose opened up her arms to welcome her daughter, Rosemary “beat her mother’s chest with her fists shrieking with a primordial ‘AAAARRRCK!’ ”

The nuns tore her away from Rose. “The lobotomy,” she writes, “had not erased the past twenty years from Rosemary’s memory. She knew her mother had not been there when she needed her most.”

In the years that followed, Rose visited her daughter and would often call Saint Coletta to ask about her health and even check on her weight. (Voluptuous in her youth, Rosemary loved to indulge, especially in dessert.)

Rosemary even visited her mother at her home in Hyannisport, but the pain was always evident.

In her new book Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter author Kate Larson writes about the strain beneath the surface.

During one visit, Larson writes, when Rose was swimming in her pool with her secretary Barbara Gibson, Rosemary’s aides encouraged her to swim with her mother.

“She refused,” writes Larson. “Gibson watched as Rosemary looked ‘straight ahead, like a child who has been punished.’ Rose whispered ‘Oh Rosie, what did we do to you?’ ”

For more on Rosemary Kennedy and her family, pick up a copy of this week’s PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday