As the sister of John F Kennedy and the eldest daughter of the formidable and famous Kennedy clan, Rosemary Kennedy should have been American Royalty like so many of her siblings. Instead, she was the family’s dirty little secret—and her horrific fate casts a dark pallor on the vaunted American dynasty.
Rosemary Kennedy Facts
1. She Was American Royalty
On September 13, 1918, Rosemary Kennedy was born into an America in the middle of fighting WWI. Rosemary’s family life, however, was a far cry from the blood and toil of the battlefield: Her parents Joseph and Rose Kennedy were powerful movers and shakers in the political world, and eagerly awaited the birth of their first daughter and third child. Until it all went so wrong.
2. Her Birth Was A Disaster
One of the other world events going on at the time of Rosemary’s birth was the vicious epidemic of the Spanish Flu, which was felling people in massive numbers. As it turned out, this was more than just a bad omen—it was the very beginning of Rosemary’s tragic fate.
Because of the demands of the flu on doctors, the evening that Rosemary’s mother went into labor there was no physician available to see her through the birth. Frantic, the attending nurse made a fateful and horrific decision.
3. Her First Hours Were Harrowing
The nurse demanded that Rose Kennedy hold her legs closed while in full labor; she wanted to prevent the baby being born before the doctor arrived. The consequences were disastrous. Little Rosemary’s head sat in the birth canal for over two agonizing hours, cutting her off from precious oxygen.
Still, the newborn came home to her powerful family, and the Kennedys may have hoped it was all going to be okay from then on. It was not going to be ok.
4. She Disappointed Her Family
As you might expect from the family that would go on to groom not just President John F Kennedy, but also two senators in Robert and Ted, the Kennedy elders were demanding parents who expected their children to be perfect. So imagine their horror when Rosemary began failing to meet regular childhood development milestones, and had difficulty crawling even when she was two years old. And they did not react well.
5. Her Parents Kept Her A Secret
Obsessed with presenting a pristine image, the Kennedys made a cruel choice. Instead of openly seeking help for Rosemary, they all but tried to hide her disability from the world, with Rose Kennedy confiding to almost no one about her little girl’s difficulties and pretending that everything was proceeding normally with her development.
Yet as time went on, it became more and more obvious.
6. She Was Different From The Others
As Rosemary grew, so did the Kennedy family. Rose would eventually give birth to a total of nine children, and soon their dinner tables were full of hungry teenagers and the classic quick Kennedy banter. Yet in these get-togethers, Rosemary was markedly different, seeming “baffled” by the repartee and remaining serenely quiet.
Indeed, Rosemary’s whole personality was much sweeter than that of her siblings; her mother once said, “She was so willing to try to do her best, so appreciative of attention and compliments, and so hopeful of deserving them”. One of Rosemary’s other qualities, however, was about to throw her parents into a panic.
7. She Was Gorgeous
By the time Rosemary was a pre-teen, it was very obvious that while she may not have inherited the Kennedy gift of the gab, she did inherit their upper-class Irish good looks. Indeed, her older brothers, particularly her next-eldest brother John, had to “fend off suitors” who were trying to get close to the naïve, beautiful girl.
Perhaps because they were worried about her, Rosemary’s parents had a drastic idea.
8. Her Parents Sent Her To A Convent
Throughout these years, the Kennedys had tried everything they could think of to turn Rosemary into a little debutante doll, with no whiff of “imperfections” like a disability. First, they used private tutors, who still struggled to teach her to read and write, but when she was 15—and just growing into her beauty—her parents shipped her off to convent.
And it was even more chilling than it sounds.
9. She Was Heartbreakingly Isolated
Although Rosemary had attended boarding schools before, her time at the Sacred Heart Convent in Rhode Island was something else entirely. For one, it must have been an incredibly isolating experience: Her parents made sure the nuns educated her completely separately from the other students.
Of course, they probably hoped the one-on-one attention would benefit their daughter more than a full classroom, but this scenario also surely kept Rosemary’s troubles hush-hush, too. And that wasn’t the only way they tried to keep it secret.
10. She Was A Society Girl
While Rosemary was at Sacred Heart Convent, her parents were still wheeling and dealing in high society, and her brother John was as promising a young man as they could have hoped. Seeking to put both siblings out more into society, Rose arranged for John to accompany Rosemary to a tea-dance around this time. And the reaction afterward was heartbreaking.
11. She Tried To Hide Her Differences
Rose and Joseph Kennedy were so determined to make their daughter “okay” in their eyes that after the dance wrapped up for the evening, one of the crowing compliments Rosemary got was that she was “not different at all”—as long as John was on her arm and leading her through the dances, that is.
The Kennedys could simply not accept their daughter for herself, whatever that might have looked like. It was a dark tendency, and it would get much darker.
12. She Was A Royal Debutante
In 1938, Rosemary’s parents threw her into the deep end yet again. The patriarch Joseph Kennedy had just become the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and the Kennedy family were fully hitting their stride when it came to social influence. High on their power, Rose and Joseph decided Rosemary would come out as a debutante to none other than King George VI of the United Kingdom and his wife Queen Elizabeth. Spoiler: Bad idea.
13. She Struggled With Etiquette
One of the biggest hurdles for Rosemary—who could still only read and write at around a fourth-grade level—were the rigors of royal manners. In particular, palace etiquette demanded that when her parents presented her to the king and queen, she had to go through a full and very complex royal curtsy.
Rosemary practiced for hours to get it right. But when the day came, it all fell apart.
14. She Had A Mortifying Debut
Nervous and knowing her parents would accept nothing less than perfection, Rosemary walked into the event…and almost tripped right over herself. She barely avoided falling right in front of the monarchs, who politely pretended not to notice and stood there with fixed smiles on their faces. But it was her mother’s response that was truly cringeworthy.
15. Her Mother Was In Denial
In true Kennedy fashion, Rose Kennedy somehow managed to look at that near-disaster and see only what she wanted to see. She never mentioned that Rosemary had nearly fallen or otherwise discussed the snag in any way. In fact, she treated Rosemary’s embarrassing debut as nothing short of a triumph to anyone who asked. Then she pushed even further.
16. She Went On A World Tour
Now in her 20s, Rosemary was still as beautiful as ever, whatever intellectual battles were going on behind the scenes, and Rose Kennedy began using her to as much advantage as she could. The next year, Rosemary went with the rest of her family to watch the coronation of Pope Pius XII in Rome, and also visited the White House.
She was now officially a debutante. Yet this celebrity also had terrifying pitfalls for the family.
17. She Was In The Gossip Pages
The Kennedys had wanted to present Rosemary as a beautiful debutante, and they certainly got the world’s attention—but with this attention came unwanted questions. Society magazines now wanted to write Rosemary up in their pages, yet both Rose and Joseph Kennedy thought that any interview their daughter gave would give away her disabilities.
Since they couldn’t have that, they came up with yet another way to lie through their teeth.
18. Her Father Controlled Her
While the family did allow some interviews for Rosemary, Rose and Joseph controlled most of the information that got out to the press, filling it with idyllic little tidbits that surely had nothing to do with reality. They told Woman’s Day that she was “studying to be a kindergarten teacher”, while the publication Parents got the more whimsical response that “she is said to harbor a secret longing to go on the stage”.
It was an exhausting amount of subterfuge, but we still haven’t seen anything yet.
19. She Put Out Fake Statements
Around the time of these puff pieces, The Boston Globe asked for an interview with Rosemary. The Kennedys’ reply was over the top. Joseph Kennedy actually had his assistant write out a “response” from “Rosemary” that read, “I have always had serious tastes and understand life is not given us just for enjoyment. For some time past, I have been studying the well-known psychological method of Dr. Maria Montessori and I got my degree in teaching last year”.
He then had Rosemary herself painstakingly copy out those words—likely blatant lies—in her own writing. Still, compared to what came next, this was child’s play.
20. She Regressed Suddenly
By 1940, Rosemary was on top of the world, at least in the public eye where no one had access to her private life. But when she came back from her “triumphant” debut in England, something seemed to snap. According to Rosemary’s younger sister Eunice, the 22-year-old Rosemary’s mental and emotional abilities regressed almost overnight.
And then the real trouble started.
21. She Had Strange Fits
As Rosemary turned into a bona fide woman, she began developing terrifying symptoms. She started to have seizures, or at the very least some kind of convulsions, that confused and scared her family and often left her incapacitated. Unfortunately, though, that was the least of what Rosemary was going through.
22. She Had A Violent Temper
Although Rosemary’s seizures were alarming in their own right, it seemed her entire personality began to change as her mental faculties degraded—and not for the better. Soon, at least according to her family, she was prone to vicious outbursts and rages over the smallest of things, often even physically attacking family members.
Desperate to keep their idealized public image, her parents went back to an old strategy to control Rosemary.
23. She Got Expelled
Fed up with Rosemary’s erratic and unpredictable behavior, the Kennedy clan sent her to a “summer camp” in Massachusetts in the hopes that it would all blow over. It was doomed from the start. Not only was Rosemary expelled for her continued antics, but a successive stint in a Philadelphia boarding school lasted only a few months.
At the end of their ropes, Joseph and Rose Kennedy brought out the big guns.
24. She Went Back To A Convent
In a last-ditch effort, the Kennedys shipped off Rosemary to yet another convent school, much like the one she’d spent her teenage years in. But this time, things were very different: Rosemary was an adult who had tasted independence, and she wasn’t about to let more nuns tell her how to live her life. The difficulties began almost immediately.
25. She Was A Bad Catholic
Instead of sitting around at the convent and perfecting her prayers, Rosemary rebelled in a scandalous way. She began regularly sneaking out of the convent at night, much to the horror of the nuns at the school and her own parents, as they all quickly realized she was escaping. But given what they suspected she was doing on these nights off, they had a right to worry.
26. She May Have Had Secret Dalliances
Once more, the Kennedys thought Rosemary’s beauty was a dangerous thing: Although they couldn’t prove exactly why Rosemary was sneaking out of the convent, the nuns believed she was meeting men back in town and very possibly even sleeping with them. Everyone was scandalized at the thought of Rosemary getting pregnant…but these fears had far greater consequences.
27. Her Parents Were Ashamed Of Her
While Rosemary was going through this obvious crisis, her family’s response, particularly that of her father, was fundamentally selfish. Joseph Kennedy was even more sure that his eldest daughter was inevitably going to embarrass him and ruin her brothers’ chances at brilliant political careers as well as her sisters’ social opportunities.
It led him to an absolutely horrific act.
28. Her Father Found A Chilling Answer To His Prayers
Mental illness was little understood at the time, but there was a chilling new “solution”. A lobotomy. The procedure was meant to calm agitated patients—with utterly disturbing methods. In the surgery, doctors cut off the neural connectors in the frontal lobe, with the intention of almost biologically sedating difficult patients.
When Joseph Kennedy heard about the procedure, he thought it was the perfect thing for Rosemary. It was really a nightmare.
29. She Went Through A Horrific Procedure
On November 1941, when Rosemary was 23 years old, she underwent a lobotomy procedure with Dr James Watts and Dr Walter Freeman. The details are harrowing: As they worked, they had Rosemary “recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing ‘God Bless America’ or count backward” to see how far they needed to cut. They only stopped when she grew nonsensical.
The gruesome job done, they sent Rosemary home to recover. It didn’t take long for the family to realize that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
30. She Had A Botched Lobotomy
Rosemary had gone into the lobotomy suffering from occasional, if unpredictable, fits of anger. She came out a tragedy. As the days passed and she was supposed to be getting better, it became clear she was actually much worse. The doctors had cut too far, and she could now barely speak at all, at least with any intelligible speech. And that was far from all.
31. Her Mental Capacity Was Ruined
According to many of the Kennedy accounts, Rosemary had always struggled intellectually even as she managed to make it to a grade four reading and writing level. But after her lobotomy, her mental capacity plummeted to that of a toddler’s, undoing her years of dedication and hard work in one fell swoop. Yet still, the horror show continued.
32. She Lost The Ability To Walk
Unfortunately, Rosemary’s condition didn’t stop at incoherent speech, nor did it end with the degradation of her mental capacity. By this time, the eldest Kennedy daughter couldn’t even walk anymore—and in relation to this lack of physical control, she also became incontinent. It was truly a nightmare come to life, but her father had more betrayals in store.
33. Her Father Was A Villain
Joseph Kennedy was the mastermind behind Rosemary’s lobotomy—as biographer Laurence Leamer noted, “Joe liked to cut away at a problem and then move on”. In fact, he actually didn’t even tell his wife Rose that he was planning to lobotomize their little girl until after the procedure. And once this was done, Joseph dug himself deeper.
34. Her Parents Isolated Her
With the botched lobotomy so obvious every time they looked at Rosemary’s face, Joseph and Rose did what they always did. They pretended and ignored, whisking Rosemary off to an institution as soon as they were able, first in New York state and then in Wisconsin at the St Coletta School for Exceptional Children.
Even there, the Kennedys did everything they could to isolate her from prying eyes, building her her own campus residence that people nicknamed the “Kennedy Cottage”. That wasn’t the only way they isolated her, either.
35. Few People Knew Her Secret
The Kennedys had always been obsessed with secrecy. But Joseph Kennedy took it to a whole new level when it came to Rosemary. He reportedly kept her lobotomy, subsequent condition, and her location an almost total secret even from her own brothers and sisters. Instead, the family line was that she was a recluse. And then he did her even dirtier.
36. She Lived A Very Un-Kennedy Existence
Rosemary lived a completely separate life from her family at St Coletta’s, and her pleasures were meager and simple. Two nuns took care of most of her needs, as she could no longer be even semi-independent. They sometimes allowed her to sit in a car for a drive, take a dog for a walk, or do some pottery under teacher supervision. It might sound idyllic, but it wasn’t.
37. Her Family Abandoned Her
Throughout this time, there are scant records of Rosemary’s parents Joseph or Rose visiting her at St Coletta, at least with any regularity. Rose Kennedy certainly didn’t visit her daughter for over 20 years, and most of the siblings didn’t know enough about her fate to drop by either. This lonely life continued for decades—until it reached a breaking point.
38. Her Truth Got Out
In 1961, Joseph Kennedy got everything he’d ever wanted when he watched his son John F Kennedy campaign for and then become President of the United States. Feeling it was finally safe, it was only then that the patriarch revealed to the public that his daughter Rosemary had been institutionalized for her mental issues. But he left out a crucial detail.
39. Her Father Tried To Hide His Sins
Joseph Kennedy had spent so much of his life hiding away anything that didn’t seem picture-perfect that even his “confessions” were half lies. So while he admitted to the fact that Rosemary was in an institution, he completely left out that he had given her a lobotomy. You know, the one that all but ruined her life. Still, karma was coming for him.
40. Her Father Got A Taste Of His Own Medicine
In late 1961, Rosemary’s father finally got his just deserts. Joseph Kennedy suffered a massive stroke the same year that his golden boy John F Kennedy became president. Like Rosemary, Joseph Kennedy’s mental faculties were now much diminished and he had difficulty walking. More than that, he finally let his other children in on where their oldest sister was living.
But it would take a greater tragedy for them to see her again.
41. Her Father’s Death Freed Her
It took eight long years for Joseph Kennedy to finally fade away, and the patriarch of the Kennedy clan passed in 1969, having lived through his son John’s assassination. It was only then that the spell broke enough for the surviving Kennedy children to begin visiting Rosemary at St Coletta’s. And when they got there, they must have been shocked at what they saw.
42. She Overcame An Incredible Obstacle
Despite the horrific treatment her family had put her through, Rosemary was a fighter—and she had undergone a stunning transformation. Over the years, she had worked immensely hard to be able to walk again, though she still walked with a limp. And while her speech never truly recovered and her arm was palsied, she was able to find ways to communicate.
Yet there were much darker legacies to deal with.
43. She May Not Have Had A Disability
To this day, unsettling rumors follow the story of Rosemary Kennedy. Namely, because the Kennedys were so secretive about her, experts still struggle to understand the nature of Rosemary’s mental capacities and disabilities. Indeed, some believe Rosemary wasn’t even mentally disabled at all—and that the truth was much different.
44. She May Have Had An Emotional Disorder
According to one interpretation of Rosemary’s life, she suffered from mental illness, quite possibly depression, rather than a mental disability. Tragically, it was all the same to her ambitious parents. Indeed, they may have thought that mental illness would be even more damaging to their reputation and to John Kennedy’s shot at the presidency.
And as incredible as this may sound, there is some damning proof for this.
45. Her Own Doctor Didn’t Believe She Had A Disability
Even one of the doctors who performed Rosemary’s lobotomy, James Watts, later confessed that he didn’t think she had a mental disability. Watts himself subscribed to the idea that she simply suffered from depression. This was still sometimes treated with lobotomies in the 1940s. But it’s Rosemary’s own diaries and words that reveal the most stunning truth.
46. Her Diaries Give Heartbreaking Insight Into Her Life
Before her lobotomy, Rosemary wrote copiously in her diaries, and her recollections indicate a relatively normal life full of social events in high society. Just a year before the procedure, in fact, she wrote to her father, saying “Darling Daddy, I am so fond of you. And I love you so much”.
While these messages can’t prove her mental capacity, they certainly don’t indicate violence in her behavior. Perhaps, then, Rosemary’s worst “sin” was simply being different than the rest of her ambitious family.
47. The Whole Story Finally Got Out
In the end, Rosemary’s secrets nearly died with the Kennedy clan. Joseph Kennedy had kept his eldest daughter and her difficulties so under wraps that the truth about her lobotomy didn’t come out until nearly two decades after his passing, in 1987. Still, there is one silver lining to Rosemary’s experiences.
48. She Helped Inspire The Special Olympics
In the 1960s, Rosemary’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics. And though Shriver stated that many people and their stories had inspired her to start the games, Rosemary was one of the kinds of people who she wanted to see more of in sports.
49. She Had A Long Life
In the end, Rosemary suffered through a much worse kind of “Kennedy Curse” than any of her family—but she did manage to outlive many of them. Infamously, her two eldest brothers Joseph Jr and John Kennedy died violently, as did her younger sister Kathleen and her younger brother Bobby. Meanwhile, Rosemary’s simple, quiet life went on until 2005.
And she got a heck of a send-off when the end came.
50. Her Family Paid Her One Last Visit
On January 7, 2005, Rosemary Kennedy passed from natural causes at the ripe old age of 86, surrounded by her surviving siblings Jean, Eunice, Patricia, and Ted. At that time, she was still living in Wisconsin, where she spent her years after the lobotomy.