This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!

The Kennedys are arguably the most famous family in American history (sorry, Kim). But for every charmed luxury they’ve enjoyed, there’s been a tragedy or three; so many sad fates have befallen this brood that even Murphy’s Law is like, Ok, we get it. Damn! 

In case you’re not familiar with what has been dubbed the “Kennedy Curse,” here is an abbreviated CliffsNotes sampler: The eldest child of Joe and Rose Kennedy, Joe Jr. was groomed to run for President someday, but was killed in action during World War II before he had the chance. The expectation then fell to second-born son John, who was almost killed in WWII, but survived to become President, only to be assassinated. Then it was Robert’s turn to lead. He was assassinated the night he won the California Democratic presidential primary. Their sister, Kathleen, died in a plane crash while en route to the south of France with her new fiancé. Robert Kennedy’s mother and father-in-law perished in a plane crash. Ted Kennedy barely survived a plane crash, in which some of his traveling companions weren’t so lucky. JFK Jr. died in a… you get the idea.

These are familiar stories, but we rarely hear any mention of Rosemary, the Kennedy sister who disappeared from public view in her 20s. All these years of being a passed-over footnote are about to come to an end though, thanks to a biopic, starring Emma Stone, which plans to explore the unfortunate twists and turns of her life.

So what’s her story, you ask? I’ll tell you, but first:

Warning: this will depress the hell out of you, so gird yourself or flee from here at once in search of a feel-good YouTube video of kittens and puppies being best friends.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Rosemary as a baby, flanked by her older brothers Joe Jr. and John.
Rosemary as a baby, flanked by her older brothers Joe Jr. and John.

Rosemary’s entry into the world was as troubled as what came after it. The year was 1918. World War I was still raging and Spanish influenza was making its way around the world, killing millions. Because so many people in the Boston area needed care, the family physician wasn’t able to immediately pay the Kennedys a house call to deliver Rosemary. The attending nurse, who was fully capable of delivering the baby, ordered Rose to keep her legs closed until the doctor arrived. When this didn’t work, the nurse pushed the baby’s head back into the birth canal and held it there for two hours.

The effects of this decision only became clear as Rosemary grew older. Every infant milestone — crawling, standing, walking, speaking — arrived later than it should have. This delay continued at school; teachers advised that she repeat kindergarten and then the first grade too. 

Rosemary (third from the right) and her siblings.
Rosemary (third from the right) and her siblings.

Joe and Rose Kennedy, who both came from overachieving families, were known for placing high academic and physical expectations on their children, and they made no exception for Rosemary. Both parents believed that Rosemary could be “cured” through a combination of holding her to the same standard as her siblings, specialized education and experimental injections. Despite their best efforts, Rosemary would never advance intellectually past the fifth grade.

Rosemary's First Communion, an event that wouldn't have been possible if the Church had known about her disability.
Rosemary’s First Communion, an event that wouldn’t have been possible if the Church had known about her condition.

In the early 20th century, many elites were swept up in the eugenics movement, an ideology marked by a belief that some groups — immigrants, people of color, the poor and the disabled — had a “bad gene” and should not be allowed to breed. The Catholic Church, which was a major part of the family’s way of life, refused Communion and Confirmation to the disabled. If the Kennedys were to be honest about Rosemary’s challenges, their friends and other influential people would blame them for passing along defective genes and their religion would shun them and their daughter. Worried that the truth about Rosemary would sully the family reputation or complicate their political aspirations, Rosemary was sent away to various schools and her parents did their best to keep her condition a secret.

No one was more frustrated by not being able to make her parents proud than Rosemary. Her desire to please them can be felt in letters to her father: “I would do anything to make you so happy. I hate to [disappoint] you in any way. Come to see me very soon. I get very lonesome everyday.” 

rosemary kennedy smileLearning challenges and parental pressures aside, Rosemary was a very social, amiable person, known for her big smile. She loved fashion, swimming, and going out on the town. Her older brothers, Joe Jr. and John, would often accompany Rosemary to dances. “They waltzed her around the ballrooms, brought her punch, stood with her and shared a quiet laugh, stayed with her so that she appeared not different at all.”

Despite this compassion for his sister, Joe Jr. would later become radicalized on a trip to Germany in 1934 and adopt less than tender attitudes towards “undesirables,” including people with disabilities. He wrote home to his father: “[Hitler] has passed the sterilization law which I think is a great thing. I don’t know how the Church feels about it, but it will do away with many of the disgusting specimens of men which inhabit this earth.” His father seemed to agree in his reply: “I think your conclusions are very sound.”

In 1938, FDR appointed Rosemary’s father as ambassador to the United Kingdom. The entire family relocated and it wasn’t long before Rosemary and her younger sister Kathleen were presented to the King and Queen in a debutante “coming out” to high society. Despite only having two weeks to prepare (most women dedicated months), Rosemary aced all the customs she had been taught and, apart from a minor stumble in front of the royals, had a perfect evening of socializing and dancing with high-profile, eligible bachelors. British newspapers were enamored with Rosemary and her dress, and favored her greatly over her sister in their coverage of the events, much to the dismay of her mother.

Rosemary (L) with her mother and sister Kathleen on the day of her presentation to the King and Queen.
Rosemary (L) with her mother and sister Kathleen on the day of her presentation to the King and Queen.

As Rosemary settled into life abroad, her circumstances continued to improve. Her parents enrolled her in a Montessori school, which traded the competitive qualities of Rosemary’s home life for a more reassuring, confidence-building approach. Rosemary flourished, academically and socially. Her lead educator wrote her parents that Rosemary had made “remarkable progress” and that there had been “a great change in her lately.” After visiting her, Joe Sr. agreed: “She is happy, looks better than she ever did in her life, is not the slightest bit lonesome.”

rosemary kennedy smileJust as Rosemary was finally finding comfort and happiness, history intervened. Germany was getting more and more aggressive on the continent and Rosemary had to first be moved out of London and then out of England entirely.

Back in the States, Rosemary became more rebellious, her behavior more erratic. “Every day there would be fights where Rosemary would use her fists to hit and bruise people.” She was known to break out of school to roam the streets of D.C. Rosemary’s actions worried her parents. The Lindbergh tragedy had made many prominent families paranoid about their children being targeted in kidnappings or worse. Wrought with stress over Rosemary’s safety and their social standing, Joe Sr. and Rose reached a breaking point and began to desperately seek surgical solutions.

Rosemary, a year before the lobotomy.
Rosemary, a year before the lobotomy.

Joe Sr. had heard news of a new surgery called a prefrontal lobotomy, which was performed as therapy for people with mental disorders, LGBT people, women who were considered too sexual, criminals and addicts. The surgery had only been practiced for three years in the States. 80% of the patients were women. Evidence suggested that this experimental surgery was risky, unreliable, often damaging and sometimes lethal (9% of all patients died). The American Medical Association strongly advised against the practice until further studies could be done. Despite all this, Joe Sr. arranged for Rosemary to undergo the operation without consulting his wife or anyone else in the family.

Rosemary’s head was shaved. She was strapped to an operating table and kept awake for the surgery. The doctors asked her to sing songs like “God Bless America,” recite the Lord’s Prayer and tell stories, as they cut into her brain, only stopping after she had gone quiet. “They knew right away that it wasn’t successful.” The attending nurse is said to have been so traumatized by what she saw that she quit her profession.

What was once a manageable behavioral problem was now something far worse. Rosemary, then 23-years-old, had regressed to the state of a two-year-old, losing her ability to walk and speak. Joe Sr. immediately sent Rosemary to a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York, much to the confusion of her siblings and others. “[Why] after all these years, did she have to be institutionalized now? And why couldn’t any of the family see her?”

Joe Sr. allegedly told his wife it would be best for her not to visit Rosemary so she could get “accustomed” to her new living arrangement. They told everyone else that she was off studying to be a teacher or getting involved in social work. Eunice, the sibling Rosemary was closest to, said that she didn’t know where Rosemary was for over a decade. In letters to the family, Joe Sr. kept up a vague facade that Rosemary was “getting along quite happily,” never once mentioning the surgery. After 1944, all mentions of Rosemary in family letters stopped.

By 1948, John had been elected to the House of Representatives and had aspirations for higher offices. Joe Sr. started to worry about the secret of Rosemary getting out and spoiling things, so he made arrangements to have Rosemary relocated to an institution in Wisconsin, where she would live for the remaining 56 years of her life. He never visited.

In 1958, John secretly went to see Rosemary and only then did he realize the severity of what had been done to her. This traumatic revelation inspired him to eventually use his power as President to enact several pieces of legislation that funded research and programs for the disabled.

Eunice was also doing what she could to enact change, first dedicating money from the Kennedy Foundation to research, then founding Camp Shriver, a retreat for disabled kids, and eventually creating the Special Olympics. These efforts, coupled with John’s political actions, changed America’s public perception of the disabled in a major way. In Ted Kennedy’s words, she “taught us the worth of every human being.”

Around this time, Rose decided to visit Rosemary. It had been over 20 years. Upon seeing her mother after all this time, Rosemary became very upset and “recoiled” from her.

Rosemary with JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy.
Rosemary with JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy.

By the ’70s, Rosemary began to attend family vacations. Being around her mother was stressful for her, but her nephews and nieces did their best to create a supportive, loving environment, filled with desserts, swimming, card games, music and other things Rosemary loved. She ended up making quite the impression on Eunice’s sons. Anthony Shriver, who built a room for Rosemary in his home, founded Best Buddies International, a non-profit that provides disabled individuals with a mentor, as well as employment opportunities. And his brother, Timothy, took over the role of Special Olympics CEO from his mother.

Rosemary lived out her days in a cottage specifically built for her and her caretakers on the grounds of the Wisconsin institution. She was popular with the staff and other residents, enjoyed swimming, going out for joy rides, playing card games, and spoiling her pets (a canary named Skippy and a poodle named Lollie). In 2005, Rosemary died of natural causes with her four surviving siblings by her side.


Want another lesson in little-known history? Get a load of this:

Meet Walburga, the Married Woman Who Hid a Secret Lover in Her Attic for a Decade

And for more on Rosemary Kennedy, listen to this episode of The Cooler:

  • Amber Severson

    I’m sorry. She didn’t live in a cottage. She lived in a LARGE HOUSE ON A HILL (what most of us in Wisconsin consider a mansion. Maybe small by East coast terms) overlooking the rest of the St. Collette’s nunnery, green house and campus, in Jefferson, Wisconsin. She very seldom had visitors or left HER home. As soon as she passed, the funding that was coming into St. Colletta’s from the Kennedy’s stopped. She was warehoused there. We all know it. If you lived here you would know it as well. You would think that St. Colletta’s might continue to see funding from the Kennedy’s after decades of faithful CATHOLIC care for their family member. NOPE. So much for the benevolent Kennedy’s.

  • Bob Cooley

    “The Catholic Church, which was a major part of the family’s way of life, refused Communion and Confirmation to the disabled.”

    This is so counter-intuitive I spent 20 minutes trying to confirm it on the internet. My conclusion is it’s an assumption that fits the author’s world-view.

  • Devon

    Wow, a story filled with so many words like “it is said that” and “allegedly”. Come back when you have facts and not insinuations.

  • Rebecca

    The fact that the Catholic Church denies Communion and Confirmation is incorrect. My brother is a priest and he informs we that this is not a true teaching. Just another ignorant assumption by an uneducated individual. Also like saying if you do not have a Catholic wedding or if your parents never married you’re a bastard in the churches eyes. Wrong again. Considering around 100 years ago many priests and nuns had been orphans…total nonsense. I also saw three individuals who took first communion this Sunday in church who have Downs Syndrome. Just plain silly, ignorant, uneducated statement by another person who does not know anything about this religion.

  • Observer1051

    I hope Joe Kennedy is rotting in hell for what he did….

    • Molly

      If you lived back then, you would have been advised to do the same thing. No one knew any different way to deal with a mentally challenged child—–so grow up— and be thankful that we are better informed now.

      • Erin T

        Agreed. I am no apologist for Joe Kennedy, but remember this was considered a revolutionary way to help the mentally ill. Dr. Moniz received the Nobel prize for developing the procedure. In hindsight this is considered the committee’s most egregious error. But, hindsight as they say…..
        As to his treatment of her post lobotomy, even in the context of the times, is despicable.

      • Observer1051

        WRONG…. The fact that HE made those decisions, WITHOUT telling anyone else in his family, including his wife, ESPECIALLY since it was not a proven procedure, makes it an “underhanded way” to try to help, but if it failed (which it did), just “hide her away”…. Not only was it barbaric, but it was WRONG, and I would NEVER have done that…. And if you read the article, you would have seen that she was not so bad BEFORE this barbaric procedure… It’s sad that people just wanted to HIDE those who THEy deemed less than perfect. of course, in TODAYS “informed” society, we merely KILL THE CHILDREN BEFORE THEY ARE BORN! It’s called ABORTION. But hey, you make your decisions, and I make mine… BUT NEVER THINK YOU KNOW HOW I THINK, FEEL, AND ACT! I stand by my statement….

        • Molly

          And never think you know how Kennedy felt and what he knew decades back. You seem to be a Monday morning quarterback—always ready to say what someone should have done without ever having experienced it.

          • Alexis Snider

            Mr. Kennedy’s actions were well recorded. Anyone should be free to measure them and weigh them, and quite frankly I myself find them wanting. Nobody would improve greatly if we were only allowed to evaluate based on self discovery. Heaven forbid we should all have to have a disabled daughter before we decide cutting out parts of their brain might not be such a good idea, and then treating them like they don’t exist and make up stories to excuse their absence. Much like your comment above, I don’t need to write such diatribe myself to see that you could benefit from better critical thinking skills.

      • Rilly Rill

        Mentally challenged due to what reasons? Her new brain was likely injured in that birth incident, did he not know this?
        It wasn’t some accident that she had mental issues. His career was more important than his blood. And then he went on to be a voice in the community on the issue. Horrible history!

  • Flying_Sword
  • Sam AKA Unknown

    Effing disgusting. To do that to your own daughter and not even tell your wife, her mother. Unbelievable. And to support the views of Hitler? Kennedy. Clinton. They are all the same.

    • relO627

      Yea, Trump seems very welcoming to non whites….derrr.

      • Buster Ricotta

        just another white guy…Kennedy, Clinton and Trump.

        • relO627

          That .01% black support for trump puts him not in the above mentioned class.

          • Buster Ricotta

            Didn’t know it was a “class”. So 1/10th of a percent blacks support Trump? He still just another white guy. If Trump had a 100% of blacks support and by support you mean votes, he is still just another white guy as were/are JFK and Clinton. I didn’t know you had the authority on categorizing people in classes. You must be very special. Hitler did that as did Stalin. You must be very special indeed.

          • relO627

            Yes, mama learned me well, classes can be defined such, a group of politicians, a group of bunker builder right wingers, etc. So yes in that class above Trump is the odd man out in terms of minority support in terms of votes, he does have the uneducated white male vote locked up though. But correct, that is a group of white males you listed above.

  • relO627


  • ThinkingForMyself

    Those “progressives” sure loved their eugenics.

    • Todd Heath

      So did the right wing “regressives”. Eugenics was extremely popular in the southern United States.

      • ThinkingForMyself

        Possibly. But eugenics is a pure progressive idea from its birth. It fits perfectly with the progressive notion of engineering society into some perfect form from their vision of perfection and order.

        • Todd Heath

          I want citations about your claim of Eugenics being a progressive notion. I’m not buying into your assertions, especially in light of the FACT Anglo-Americans, and many Europeans, considered people of color genetically inferior, prior to the popularizing of Eugenics.

          • ThinkingForMyself

            You might look at who the early founders and supporters of eugenics were. Virtually all progressives: Francis Galton, W. E. B. Du Bois, Margret Sanger, Oliver Wendell Holmes (see Buck v. Bell as a very specific example), Teddy Roosevelt, etc. Those are only the most notable and famous. There are many others, most of which were progressives. Then there were the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations who were also ardent advocates and put money towards research in this area.

            Finally, you can check out “Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era” (available on Amazon).

            BTW…The Nazis learned from the Americans on this one. Not the other way around.

  • alboy2

    Joseph Kennedy, Sr., has always proven himself to be one of the worst people in the world. Lobotomizing his daughter and then secreting her in mental hospitals? What a bastard. Oh, did I forget to mention him making his fortune by running liquor during Prohibition? It’s amazing his children turned out to be decent human beings.

  • Michael Kelley

    I’m grateful for the kennedy foundation for helping my brother(down syndrome) to live a very exciting,full life,doing special Olympics and just opening doors for his condition to be accepted ,where just a few years ago, things would have been very different.

  • Will Sampson

    so Joe Sr was first a bootlegging criminal and later an ingnorant pretensious butcher. And did he end up in prison as he should have?

  • Molly

    This is an often told story. What this article and others fail to say is that Kathleen Kennedy’s life was lived long before most of us were alive and what was done for and to her was not at all unusual. People live their lives in the present—not 50-60 years in the future. To choose to dramatize people’s decisions of decades ago as being wrong and unfeeling is ridiculous. Judging in hindsight is ignorant.

  • Joe Shore

    It’s kind of ironic that three sons of Kennedy all died from brain injuries and disease.


Emmanuel Hapsis

Emmanuel Hapsis is the creator and editor of KQED Pop and also the host of The Cooler. He studied creative writing at University of Maryland and went on to receive his MFA in the field from California College of the Arts. In his free time, he sings his heart out at karaoke.

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