Originally posted at cincinnati.com.
A few years ago, had you flashed a photo before me of each Kennedy wife in her prime, I would have been able to identify her in basic terms: Rose the matriarch, Ethel the devoted widow, Jackie the fashionista, Joan the troubled beauty, Vicki the second wife.
But the Kennedy fascination eventually took hold of David Batcher, my coauthor, and me, and as we researched The Kennedy Women: Triumph and Tragedy in America’s Most Public Family (Lyons Press, $26.95), we learned some tidbits we found surprising. Here are six fun facts:
1. Ethel almost became a nun. It’s hard to imagine a woman who ultimately gave birth to 11 children having once considered a life of celibacy, but Ethel hesitated when Robert F. Kennedy proposed to her. Though she was wild and free spirited, she was as devout in her Catholicism as they come. “How can I fight God?” Bobby had asked his sister Jean. Ultimately, the gentle Nazarene was no match for JFK’s brooding little brother.
2. A young Jackie watched her parents’ divorce play out on the front pages of the newspapers. Jackie’s father, the dashing “Black Jack” Bouvier, was a serial philanderer. This hurt her mother, Janet, but the final straw came in 1936, when theNew York Daily News published a photo of Black Jack and Janet in which, just out of Janet’s sight line, Jack held the hand of his mistress. Things got uglier from there. By the time the divorce was final, in June 1940, Jackie, then only 10 years old, had developed her lifelong distrust of the media and an obsession with privacy in family matters.
3. Joan campaigned – and won the election – for her husband in 1964. Despite constantly being referred to as “radiant” and “beautiful” in newspaper stories about her, Joan always felt a bit insecure. In fact, she described herself as a shy loner. Then, seven months after JFK was killed in Dallas, a small plane carrying Joan’s husband, Teddy, on a campaign trip crashed, killing the pilot and a campaign aide. Teddy escaped with his life, but narrowly, with his broken back laying him up for months. That meant no campaigning to keep his Senate seat, prompting Joan to step forward and campaign on her husband’s behalf. It was her finest hour as a Kennedy wife, and Teddy handily won re-election.
4. Rose believed that a mother should spend at least one day a week with her children. And she thought this was generous. With nine children (the first five born within six years), the woman who birthed JFK approached motherhood as the management of an enterprise. She kept detailed notes about their doctors’ visits and growth milestones. Less of an emphasis was put on spending quality time with her brood. A mother instilled values, beliefs and habits in a child, but Rose believed that much of the daily care could be outsourced. Still, she applauded herself for not leaving the child-rearing entirely up to hired help. “If a mother never takes care of her children, she really has no first-hand knowledge of what the nurse is doing,” she once wrote.
5. Vicki fought with doctors to ensure Ted Kennedy could speak at the Democratic National Convention. After Ted was diagnosed in early 2008 with a malignant brain tumor, Vicki became his most vocal advocate. She helped him prepare for weeks to give a speech at his party’s convention in August 2008, only to have his appearance threatened last minute not by the disease, but by a kidney stone. Vicki agreed to let doctors give her husband one dose of a potent pain medication that would have interfered with his speech-giving abilities, then was furious when a nurse gave a second dose without permission. Despite the pain meds, Ted managed – with Vicki at his side – to stand before the cheering delegates and give his final convention speech.
6. Ethel knew how to party. It’s hard to imagine a presidential candidate today having a wife known for throwing raucous parties that led to police calls, but that’s how Ethel rolled. While she and Bobby lived at their Hickory Hills estate during his attorney general and Senate years, Ethel threw wild shindigs that ended with luminaries like historian Arthur M. Schlesinger being tossed into the pool.
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