Presidential Mothers: Rose Kennedy campaigned tirelessly for her sons

Published 1:57 pm Saturday, May 13, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

When thinking of the mother of the 35fth President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who had nine children, it seemed that she might be compared in some ways to the mother of the34th President, Dwight David Eisenhower, who had six sons.

After learning more about JFK’s mother, it became evident there could be no comparison because of one element—money. Martha Young Truman spent her life making do with little or no money.  Not so for Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy for whom money was never a problem after she was married. So, thinking of the comparing two outstanding but different, ladies ends.

Rose Fitzgerald was born to John Francis (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald and Mary Josephine Hannon Fitzgerald on July 22, 1890.  Rose’s ancestors were Irish settlers who came to this country after a horrible potato famine hit Ireland.  The area of Boston where Rose was born was a ghetto with houses and people crowded together, dirty streets, poor facilities for sewage, etc. The Irish faced terrible discrimination—signs in businesses said, “Irish Need Not Apply.”

Honey Fitz decided the key to getting his family out of the squalid situation in which they lived was politics.  He set about learning which strings to pull at the precinct level in order to be successful politically. He learned well, and, as the result, he moved along from job to better job.  As he did so, the family’s living conditions improved so much that it finally owned a mansion in Dorchester.

The book, “First Mothers, The Women Who Shaped the Presidents” by Bonnie Angelo, says, “Rose realized that she would always be excluded by the Brahmins of Beason Hill and Pride’s Crossing, but she would match them and more. Being shut out of their society left a scar, but Rose set out to eradicate it by bringing up a new generation that would outshine those who regarded her, and her family, as inferior, simply because they were Irish.”

Rose went to school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic school.  She was a good student, and she was certainly a good Catholic.  Rose’s father, was elected to some lesser jobs, but he wanted to be Mayor of Boston.  He was a great campaigner, who loved to have a pretty girl on his arm, and that pretty girl was usually his daughter, Rose.  Honey Fitz’ wife was retiring and not interested in going with her husband to loud campaign events, which were made even louder with Honey Fitz belting out “Sweet Adeline” at every stop.  Honey Fritz won the job he so coveted. He became the Mayor of Boston, but that did not really mean that the Irish were totally accepted.

Rose met and started dating Joe Kennedy during the last weeks that she was in school. Joe, like Rose’s father, went to Boston Latin School.  Joe then went to Harvard where he graduated.  Once he was graduated, Joe began to get involved in all kinds of business activities

He had time for Rose, however, and the two were married on Oct. 7, 1914, in a small wedding with members of the families and a few friends present.  The Kennedys honeymooned at the Greenbrier Hotel at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., which became one of Rose’s favorite vacation spots for the rest of her life.

Rose and Joe settled into a house at 83 Beale St., in Brookline, Mass.  On July 25, 1915, the first Kennedy child, a son, who they named Joe Jr., was born at their home with Dr. Frederick L. Good attending.

One May 29, 1917, a second son was born at that house, who was named John Fitzgerald Kennedy and who was called Jack. He was named for his grandfather, the great politician, John Fitzgerald, called Honey Fitz. On Sept.13, 1918, a third Kennedy child, Rosemary, was born. In just over three years Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy had given birth to three children. From the time the first child was born, the family had a nurse and a maid so as hard as it was to have so many children so fast, the load was somewhat alleviated by having help.

Rose, was a devoted mother who kept track of all needed information about her children on cards—dates of illnesses, dental appointments, appointments with teachers, etc. She also wrote notes and attached them to her dress with safety pins so she would not forget an important date such as an appointment with a doctor.   She sometimes looked like a walking bulletin board.

Joe Kennedy got involved in more and more businesses and accumulated more wealth. The book, “Rose, The Life and Times of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy” by Charles Higham, goes into great detail about all the businesses in which the head of the Kennedy household was involved, and it is really mind boggling.

Joe got deeply involved with the movie industry, and it is said that he had an affair with a movie star. The rumors did not seem to bother Rose who had the attitude that “boys would be boys.” If Rose got exhausted from caring for her family, she would leave the children with a nurse and her other servants, and go on a vacation with or without her husband.

She often sailed to Europe on an ocean liner and would visit the most famous clothing saloons of Paris. She would spend great amounts of money on fashionable new clothes. Spending money on trips or on clothes never seemed to be a problem for anyone in the family. Even though she spent a great deal of money on the latest fashions, she was stingy concerning household expenses—she demanded that lights be turned out when a person left a room, that leftovers be saved, etc.

The Kennedys moved to a larger house in Brookline and then to Bronxville, N.Y.  Joe Kennedy also bought a large house at Hyannis, Mass., which is on Cape Cod along Nantucket Sound, which is family has always enjoyed and still owns. He also bought a house at Palm Beach, Fla. where the family enjoyed winter vacations. Rose Kennedy, always a devout Catholic, went to Mass every morning no matter where she was, and she was determined that all of her children would follow Catholic doctrine.

The Kennedy babies kept coming. Kathleen, who was called Kick, was born in 1920. Eunice was born in 1921.  Patricia was born in 1924.  Robert, who was called Bobby, was born in 1925.  Jean was born in 1928. The last Kennedy child, Ted, was born in 1932.

The first great tragedy which the family faced was Kick’s death in 1920 in an airplane crash. Joe Kennedy Jr., the son that Joe,Sr. started early grooming to become President of the United States almost as soon as he was born, was killed in a plane crash on Aug. 12, 1944. After Joe Jr’s death, the family decided that John Fitzgerald, called Jack, should finally be elected President.

Jack first ran to be the Representative from Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives.  As soon as he decided to run, the whole Kennedy family went into campaign mode and worked hard to be sure that Jack was elected.

No one worked harder than Jack’s mother, Rose.   She and her daughters invited ladies to tea—many ladies to many tea. Jack campaigned hard and his family campaigned hard; Jack won that campaign and later the ones to serve as one of the U.S. Senators from Massachusetts. One candidate who was defeated by Jack said, “It was those damn teas that beat me!”

When Jack decided to run for President, the family went into overdrive. Rose went from one campaign stop to another all day long. She dressed to suit the group with whom she would be meeting. If she was meeting with high society ladies, out came the high-fashion dresses, the furs, and the beautiful jewelry.  If she was visiting with a group in a poor part of a city, she would wear an off-the-rack dress and a cloth coat—sometimes she would change clothes in the back of the car as she went from one event to the next.  When Rose Kennedy asked someone to vote for her son, it was hard for that person to say, “no.” Rose not only campaigned for Jack but for her other sons when they ran for office.

In 1963,  tragedy hit the Kennedy Family again.  President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. This was almost more than Jack’s father, who had had a stroke, could bear.  Jack’s mother’s faith was the thing that carried her though Jack’s assassination and all the other trials that the family endured.

Then, Robert (Bobby) was assassinated while campaigning in California.

Again, Rose set an example for the rest of the family, but her heart was broken as it was on Nov. 18, 1969, when her husband, Joe, died.  The members of her family and the people of the nation marveled at the strength shown the woman of small statue in the face of such tragedy and at the fact that she never faltered in her faith.

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy died on Jan. 22, 1995 at the age of 104.  It was only in her last years that she did not go to Mass and go for a walk each morning.

All of her children are now dead, but Rose’s influence is still felt by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and also by people in this country who saw her as a great role model.