Two new books explore the mystery of why Rosemary Kennedy's brothers and sisters were not told the truth about her condition

By Liz McNeil
Updated September 03, 2015 07:45 PM
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Credit: Courtesy JFK Library Foundation

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.

When Rosemary Kennedy, the daughter of Joe P. Kennedy and Rose, died quietly in 2005 at 86, she was surrounded by her remaining siblings: Eunice, Pat, Jean and Ted. While they had spent time with Rosemary in the later years of her life, the two-decade period after her 1941 lobotomy when her siblings didn’t see her or know where she was – has long remained a mystery.

For the first time, two new books, excerpted in this week’s PEOPLE, answer some of the questions surrounding their separation.

In Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, author Kate Clifford Larson describes how the lobotomy was kept a secret from the family for twenty years.

It began in 1941, when Joe spoke to Rose about the surgery that, he was told, would make Rosemary more docile and “less moody.” At Rose’s request, Rosemary’s younger sister Kathleen researched the procedure – which the American Medical Association eventually warned against – and told her mother, “It’s nothing we want done for Rosie.”

“If Rose told Joe her misgivings about the surgery, he didn’t listen,” writes Larson. “Without informing her, he ordered the procedure be done as quickly as possible.”

The lobotomy was catastrophic. Rosemary emerged “almost completely disabled,” writes Larson, with the ability to “only speak a handful of words.”

Rosemary’s younger sister Jean was told that she “had moved to the Midwest and become a teacher,” Larson writes. The youngest, Ted, feared “he had better do what Dad wanted or the same thing would happen to me.”

It wasn’t until 1961, after Joe had a debilitating stroke that left him unable to speak, that Rosemary’s siblings were told she was living at St. Coletta, the Catholic facility in Jefferson, Wisconsin, where she resided from 1949 until her death.

“Joe was told you don’t visit because it’s too emotionally devastating to their routine so that’s what he did,” says Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, the author of a new book The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women. “But with their mother now in charge, things began to change. Mrs. Kennedy wanted her to be socialized.”

Eunice, with whom Rosemary was quite close, made regular visits and invited her sister to her home. She also made regular calls to the nuns who cared for her. “Eunice was concerned about her health, how much exercise she was getting, the same as Mrs. Kennedy,” says Koehler-Pentacoff, whose aunt, Sister Paulus Taylor, was Rosemary’s longtime caretaker.

Ted’s visits were more relaxed. “Ted connected with her on an emotional level – not as the parent, not the person who said, ‘You better eat that, or how much exercise did you get,’ ” says Koehler-Pentacoff. “He was just concerned with Rosemary having a good time. He was just more easygoing and relaxed. Jean [Kennedy Smith] and Pat [Lawford] also came and had her to their homes. Rosie loved it.”

While author Kate Larson believes JFK briefly went to see Rosemary in 1958 while on the campaign trail, little is known about the visit.

In 1963, Rosemary watched coverage of his assassination on TV. “The nuns told her what was happening and she was glued to the television,” says Koehler-Pentacoff. Afterwards, she says, Rosemary seemed “morose and sad.”

Even after her death, Rosemary’s siblings and family members asked the nuns for information about her, Koehler-Pentacoff says. “They asked, ‘What do you think about Rosemary? What do you think was wrong with her?’ Very basic questions,” says Koehler-Pentacoff. “Rosemary’s siblings really didn’t know the truth. At the time, very little was known about people with mental illness.”

Both authors credit the Kennedy siblings with raising awareness about mental illness in later years. Inspired by Rosemary, Eunice in 1968 founded the Special Olympics for people with special needs, a program that started as a summer camp in the backyard of her Maryland home. “For them to do everything in their power to make life better for everybody, we owe them gratitude,” says Koehler-Pentacoff. “When you think about what the Kennedys did for the intellectually disabled worldwide, all those advances would not have happened as quickly as they did without them. We have Rosemary to thank for that.”

Larson agrees. “Rose and Joe were not compassionate people so how did they raise all those kids to be compassionate people, to do remarkable things for people with disabilities and the disadvantaged?” she asks. “It had to come from somewhere and I think it came from Rosemary.”

RELATED VIDEO: The Untold Story of JFK’s Sister, Rosemary Kennedy, and the Disastrous Lobotomy Ordered by Her Father

For more on Rosemary Kennedy and her tragic fate, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday