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Rose Kennedy: One tough broad who was a political matriarch

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Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch

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You could almost narrate a century of U.S. history through the story of Rose Kennedy’s life. At the time of her death in 1995, Rose’s 104 years in the political limelight spanned nearly half the American republic’s own life. Eulogized by Life magazine as “part nun, part enchantress, part ward boss and all mother,” in the course of her life Rose saw her family’s ascendency to the heights of political power and cultural capital.
Rose’s life seems more myth than fact—her father’s rise from tenement-poor second-generation Irish Catholic immigrant to congressman and mayor of Boston her husband Joe’s accomplishments in Washington and Hollywood, the millions he made in business, and his notorious service as the ambassador to England. Then there are Rose’s nine lauded children, among them a president, three senators, a congressman, an attorney general, two World War II military heroes, and an ambassador. Rose herself was an elegant public presence before Jackie was even a twinkle in the nation’s eye, a republican mother, inveterate globe-trotter, couture follower, and papal countess, an adept and indefatigable campaigner well into her eighth decade, and a formidable philanthropist. All the makings of a great American story are present in her family: pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, working for the common good, and garnering wealth, style, and influence.
Barbara A. Perry, a leading expert on the Kennedy presidency, shows how this legend was part of Rose’s legacy, an image she advanced on behalf of her husband and children, with Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch (W.W. Norton, $27.95 ). Following the 2006 release of Rose’s personal papers, Perry has painstakingly pieced together interviews, speeches, letters, and Rose’s own diaries to create an intimate narrative of the family as Rose saw and shaped it, shedding light on the workings of a woman who knew the value of creating and maintaining a pristine public persona.
While placing the narrative in the context of family history and world history—sometimes so closely intertwined in the Kennedy family as to be inseparable—the focus of Perry’s investigation is always Rose, in public and in private: the avid golfer, the frequent recluse, the mother obsessed with her children’s health and weight, their teacher of current affairs and the art of conversation. Perry uses Rose’s writings to understand how Rose saw herself, how she wanted to be portrayed, how she created a lasting legacy, and how she dealt with issues that were too painful or upsetting to write about directly. Rose endured her husband’s philandering without a murmur in her journal. She suffered great pain from the early deaths of four of her children and the lobotomy of a fifth child. A devout Catholic, she looked toward her faith for sustenance and persevered in public, campaigning for Ted and working with Eunice to sustain an organization to help the disabled.
In this magnificent biography, Perry brilliantly recounts the fascinating and at times heartbreaking life of a complex and determined woman and illuminates that life through Rose’s extraordinary vantage point in history. Born at the end of the Victorian age, Rose lived through a century of unprecedented change: the horse and buggy gave way to automobiles and planes; the suffragette protests gave way to women’s liberation; the torchlight parades for her father gave way to televised campaigns for three children. Rose Kennedy’s sons teased their mother about her punctilious nature, but they, her daughters, and the public adored this educated, athletic, camera-savvy woman who simultaneously lived one of the grandest and saddest lives of our times.

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