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  Kin, But Less Than Kind

By Constance Casey
Sunday, September 4, 1994; Page X02

The Kennedy Women
The Saga of an American Family
By Laurence Leamer
Villard. 933 pp. $27.50

I began by putting yellow Post-Its on the top of pages to mark instances of cruelty described by the author in The Kennedy Women, 100 years of the matriarchs, wives and sisters of the political dynasty. Before long there were so many Post-Its that, if the yellow paper had been stiffer, riffling them would have made the sound of shuffling a full deck.

Leamer's sympathetic book (among his previous celebrity biographies is King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson) is touted as "the triumphs and the tragedies." But once you exclude the vicarious achievement of having a male relative amass a fortune or win an election, there's not much real triumph. Even before the famous tragedies, the Kennedy women suffered from small but debilitating cruelties -- affection withheld and insult given.

As Leamer paints the family portrait, the obvious villain is Joseph Kennedy Sr., whose callousness toward the women in his family ranges from bizarre to unforgivable. As a 20th anniversary gift, he gave his wife, Rose, a trip to Europe and then sent her off alone. When his oldest daughter, Rosemary, who had probably suffered brain damage at birth and was slow to learn and erratic in her behavior, matured into a very pretty woman, the elder Kennedy arranged for her to have a lobotomy -- literally to have part of her brain removed. To be kind, he was probably fearful for her (she had begun to wander off alone), but he was also terrified that what was known at the time as "feeblemindedness" would be exposed. Rosemary is still alive, aged 76, at a Wisconsin school where she has lived since 1949, in the infantile state to which the operation reduced her.

Joe Sr. is a far more sympathetic person in relation to his easy-to-love daughter, Kathleen. It was he who backed the rebellious Kathleen when she married a Protestant Englishman. "You are still and always will be tops with me," he cabled her as his wife Rose feverishly sought to have the marriage annulled. Leamer sees Rose as a "relentlessly positive little girl" (relentlessly holding on to life at age 104), a severe mother and a chilly wife. In his characteristically feminist way, he pins much of the blame for Rose's stiffness on her father. John Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston in Rose's teenage years, denied 18-year-old Rose her greatest wish -- to go to Wellesley College -- because he feared offending Catholic clergy and voters. If the mayor's daughter strayed, other young Catholic women might succumb to the allure of the comparatively godless Wellesley campus.

Rose's older daughters, Kathleen and Eunice, and her daughter-in-law Jacqueline are Leamer's heroines. Kathleen, the second daughter, born in 1920, seemed to friends to be "the soft Kennedy." When her brother, John, was on a PT boat in the South Pacific, she returned to wartime London to work at the Red Cross. There she married her Protestant, William Cavendish, the Marquess of Huntington; they'd met at Buckingham Palace during her father's stormy tenure as ambassador. William Cavendish was killed in Germany a few months after the Allied invasion. After the war Kathleen fell in love with another English aristocrat, a rakish, arrogant man who, like her father, couldn't stand to take advice. Over the objections of the pilot, they took off in a small plane to fly through storms from Paris to the Riviera. Leamer, who has, interestingly enough, also written a book about death-defying mountain climber Willi Unsoeld, is at his best in imagining Kathleen's last moments.

Kathleen is the Kennedy woman he likes; Eunice he grudgingly admires. He calls her "scrawny," "skinny," "sickly," "unkempt." but he also says she's the smartest Kennedy daughter and the only one with a sense of herself as a person with a role in the world outside the family. Eunice did social work in a West Virginia prison and a Chicago settlement house before she married Sargent Shriver. Leamer implies that John Kennedy as president-elect did her an injustice by not making her a member of the cabinet, but those were different times.

Leamer, whose book was pushed into print ahead of schedule when Jacqueline Kennedy died, concludes with the accepted view that she eventually found her bearings through pride in her children and work as an editor. Leamer can be quite catty about Jackie being catty. He reveals that, at the dinner after the wedding of the daughter of Patricia Kennedy Lawford and, the actor, Peter Lawford. Jackie switched place cards so that she, not the unhappy Patricia, could be at the center of attention next to the handsome father of the bride.

In her first months as First Lady, Jackie was depressed, recovering from the birth of her son. Leamer implies that she risked postpartum bleeding and death when she dragged herself to the White House for a pre-inauguration call on Mamie Eisenhower. The medical evidence for this is uncompelling. More significant is the sad story of Jackie's second pregnancy (her first ended in a miscarriage). After the 1956 convention, at which John Kennedy narrowly missed being nominated for vice president, he went sailing in the Mediterranean. Left behind, Jackie delivered a stillborn child.

The other sisters, Patricia and Jean, a pair in being lanky, pretty, shy and younger, and sisters-in-law Ethel and Joan are by comparison lost in the shuffle. We know that Pat and Jean reacted differently to sexual betrayal: They were unfaithful themselves. Leamer's Ethel is "puckish," "prankish," "graceless." Joan's story is a strong argument for early divorce, and a cautionary tale about the way public life distorts private life. When her husband considered running for president, Joan's psychiatrists were consulted to see if her alcoholism would damage his chances.

Leamer's talent is for enthusiastic amassing rather than serious delving. He has found neighbors and school friends no one ever talked to before and a trove of Kathleen's letters, some interesting, some not. When at a loss to explain a relationship, he defaults repeatedly to the word "matrix." Why tell the story again if we can't understand more? The new details can only reassure us in the old conviction that the rich are not really happy.

Leamer's final heroines, briefly sketched, are Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who have earned law degrees and apparently stable marriages. They seem to be unwilling to put up with the acts of cruelty, small and large, that their grandmother, aunts and mothers accepted as unremarkable.

Constance Casey is an assistant editor of Book World.

© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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