How Another Pandemic a Century Ago Complicated the Birth of JFK's Younger Sister Rosemary
"Rose goes into labor at home, as planned. But Dr. Good is detained," James Patterson writes in a new book. "All physicians have been pressed into service to treat the sick and dying"
With a new book, James Patterson has turned his storytelling abilities toward the history of the Kennedys — including the traumatic birth of Rosemary Kennedy, younger sister of the late President John F. Kennedy, during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Patterson’s The House of Kennedy recounts the family’s high and lows in a novelistic style based on factual information and previous biographical research.
In a vivid passage, he tells of Rosemary’s birth a century ago, which was complicated by medical resources being focused elsewhere on disease — a striking, if accidental, parallel to today’s fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic.
In urgent present tense, Patterson writes of that September 1918 day:
“Rose goes into labor at home, as planned. But Dr. Good is detained. All physicians have been pressed into service to treat the sick and dying. … Rose was willing to wait, but the baby is not. She is already in the birth canal.”
Patterson continues: “The nurse orders Rose to squeeze her legs tightly together to delay the birth, and, incredibly, goes so far as to push the baby’s partially exposed head back into the birth canal for two excruciating hours—depriving the baby’s fragile systems of oxygen—until Dr. Good arrives. When the doctor finally arrives, he delivers a baby girl and pronounces her healthy.”
But healthy Rosemary was not.
The House of Kennedy — a historic look at a clan at the very center of American society for years, as prone to political success as sudden tragedy — pulls from the findings of biographers and Kennedy artifacts. Among its stories is that of the long-hidden Rosemary and her health struggles, which only became public in recent decades.
One of nine children, Rosemary was “beautiful.” But her mother, Rose, soon realized that her namesake was different from her other kids.
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“Rosemary lacks the coordination her two older brothers readily displayed as toddlers, struggling with tasks as basic as walking or holding objects,” Patterson writes. “Joe desperately consults doctors and psychologists for a ‘cure,’ but medicine has yet to make sufficient pharmacological or therapeutic advancements.”
In the language of her era, Rose says, according to Patterson: “I never heard of a retarded child.”
The Kennedy parents were embarrassed by Rosemary’s “delays.”
“I would much rather be the mother of a great son or daughter than be the author of a great book or the painter of a great painting,” Rose is quoted as saying in The House of Kennedy.
“[T]hey tried to hide Rosemary’s condition from their friends, and even from Rosemary herself,” Rosemary’s nephew Tim Shriver wrote in a 2014 book. “There would have been people who might have whispered about ‘bad blood’ in the family. They also believed Rosemary would be happier if kept unaware of how different she was. But the code of silence led Rosemary to become confused and frustrated when she could not keep up.”
She was raised much like the rest of her siblings — even as she fell further and further behind them, developmentally — until her parents sent her to boarding school starting at age 11.
Then, when the family moved to London because patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy was named the ambassador to the U.K., 19-year-old Rosemary traveled with them. She did well there, to a point.
Though she was loved for her affectionate and eager-to-please personality, her parents also grew more uncertain of how to handle her as she physically matured, becoming capable of violent tantrums and (Joe feared) possible sexual exploitation at the same time her brothers were looking toward their own prominent futures.
Her father considered irreversible alternatives.
“Darling Daddy,” Rosemary, 22, wrote in a 1940 letter. “I am so fond of you. And I love you so very much.”
A year later, her life took a devastating turn when Joe Sr. had her given a lobotomy — then an experimental procedure believed to make mentally ill patients more docile.
In 2016’s Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, Kate Larson wrote that the surgery involved drilling holes in Rosemary’s head and inserting a spatula into her cranium to sever her frontal lobes.
It reduced her to the behaviors and mental capacity of a toddler, with severe physical limitations.
“I don’t know what it is that makes eight children shine like a dollar [coin] and another one dull,” Joe Sr. reportedly explained to journalist John Siegenthaler. “I guess it’s the hand of God.”
Rosemary was placed at St. Coletta, in Wisconsin, until her death in 2005.
Her father didn’t visit her and her mother wouldn’t see her for years. Later in her life, her family — including her siblings, who said her fate was largely kept from them — spent more time with her again.
Still, Patterson writes: “Rose would never forget the preventable tragedy that Joe brings on their eldest daughter. She dedicates her memoir, ‘To my daughter Rosemary and others like her—retarded in mind but blessed in spirit.’ ”
The House of Kennedy is on sale now.