Among those many Americans who achieved something approximating fame during the 20th century, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy stands out as enigmatic and elusive. She indeed enjoyed a measure of celebrity — her picture was on the covers of popular magazines, she was frequently interviewed on radio and television and seen in the company of royalty — but familiar though her face certainly was to millions, renown came to her not through any accomplishments of her own but through those of others: her rich and controversial husband, Joseph P. Kennedy, and three of her sons — Jack, Bobby and Teddy — all of whom served in the U.S. Senate, all of whom ran for the presidency and one of whom was elected to it. Beyond that, the public knew about and sympathized with her because of the numbing losses with which her family was afflicted: a son and a daughter killed in plane crashes, two sons assassinated, a daughter turned into a near-vegetable by an ill-advised lobotomy.

All of us grew accustomed to seeing her in black, mourning one death after another, but the woman behind that stoic figure was and remains, long after her death in 1995 at the age of 104, a mystery. This biography by Barbara A. Perry of the University of Virginia intends to celebrate her — among the adjectives that repeatedly crossed my mind as I slogged my way through it were “fawning” and “fatuous” — yet the Rose Kennedy who emerges in Perry’s hagiography is quite unattractive: cold, controlling, spoiled, petty, self-indulgent, shallow, obsessed with publicity and image, vain, and uptight. The over-indulged daughter of John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the very embodiment of the ebullient, gregarious and ethically suspect Boston Irish politician, she traveled in fast circles from the start and, having received “pomp and attention” on a trip to England as a girl, “she would crave it for the rest of her life.”

Why the fiercely ambitious young banker Joe Kennedy fell in love with her is difficult to ascertain, if indeed love is what he really felt. His own father, Patrick Kennedy, was a Boston Irish pol as well and an occasional rival of Honey Fitz; Joe, with his keen eye for the main chance, may well have seen a useful alliance to be formed by marriage to Rose. Certainly it wasn’t an arranged marriage, since Honey Fitz resisted it firmly for a long time, and it cannot have been a mere marriage of convenience as the eventual production of nine children attested. Letters from Joe to Rose over the years, quoted here and in David Nasaw’s vastly superior “The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy” (2012), suggest that he felt genuine affection for her, but this did not prevent him from having flings, some of considerable duration, with Gloria Swanson, Clare Booth Luce, Marlene Dietrich and countless others less well-known.

Joe may have valued her less as a wife and companion than as a breeder, as he kept her almost constantly pregnant from the birth of Joe Jr. in 1915, when Rose was 25, until that of Teddy 17 years later. Perry reports that by the mid-1930s, “still a decade short of menopause,” Rose made “numerous trips to Europe, often without Joe, along with choosing to let him move to Maryland and take his vacations without her”; this, Perry suggests, “could have been her method of contraception in the final years of her fertility.” Herself the daughter of a serial womanizer, Rose decided early on that denial was the way to cope with “three generations of philandering men in her life.” Perry writes elsewhere: “With divorce never an option, she seized all of the positive perks of being married to the man she had fallen desperately in love with as a teenager. Fame, fortune, and the lifestyle they facilitated were her rewards for accepting an unfaithful husband.”

As a mother she was strict and perhaps not unduly loving. Perry recalls how Ted, who wrote affectionately about her in “True Compass,” the memoir published shortly after his death in 2009, nonetheless acknowledged that “spankings and whacks with a coat hanger were in her arsenal, as were banishments to the closet.” Could this have had anything to do with what Perry describes as “her usually sublimated anger over Joe’s philandering”? The possibility seems real enough to me, but who knows? She rode herd on all her children, however, attempting to force-feed them her “guiding principles” — “self-improvement, discipline, responsibility” — along with the conservative Catholicism to which she was faithful throughout her life.

‘Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch’ by Barbara A. Perry ( Norton )

Perry says that she “was a ‘helicopter parent’ long before the twenty-first century term came to describe hovering mothers,” but when the kids got sick or otherwise found themselves in trouble, it was Joe who took over. This was especially true in the case of Jack, who from infancy was sickly and whose medical treatment Joe presided over with meticulous attention to every detail. It was also Joe who, without consulting Rose, irresponsibly — if with decent intentions — authorized the lobotomy in 1941 that turned Rosemary into a sad and diminished version of the sweet, if mercurial, person she had been. That obviously wasn’t Joe’s hope or expectation, but once it happened the family filed away and forgot Rosemary for a long time. Not until the 1960s did Rose begin to speak out publicly about mental retardation, and the honors that came her way for her efforts in that regard seem inappropriate for a woman who had turned her back on her unfortunate daughter for so long.

Perry reports all of this and much more — Rose’s extravagant expenditures on designer fashion, her ceaseless globe-trotting, her obsequiousness in the presence of the rich, the famous and the royal — with what frequently seems to be complete obliviousness to what it says about her subject. Thus, for example, two days after the Bay of Pigs disaster, Rose went with the president and first lady to dinner at the Greek Embassy: “Despite the week’s serious developments, Rose was pleased that she chose to wear ‘a pink chiffon dress made by Greek designer Dessess in Paris,’ which ‘everyone seemed to like.’ ” On the gelid, snowy day when her son was sworn in as president, “not wanting to be photographed in her informal winter attire, Rose sat incognito on a side aisle.” In response to which the ever-empathetic Perry gushes: “How sad that she couldn’t share her joy with Jack for fear of being photographed in her snow togs.”

There is no evidence of irony there, only of a determination to portray Rose Kennedy as adoringly as possible. Further evidence is to be found in some of Perry’s chapter headings: “Mater Admirabilis,” “Ambassadress Extraordinaire,” “Pluperfect Rose.” She recites at endless length the itineraries of Rose’s speaking tours on behalf of her sons’ various political candidacies but backs hurriedly away from any suggestion that Rose was a minor participant in a major undertaking. She does acknowledge Jack Kennedy’s “view that his father was responsible for the Kennedy children’s success,” but she objects that when JFK said, “Well, no one could say that it was due to my mother,” the remark was only “reportedly declared to [Arthur] Schlesinger.” Inasmuch as the words were recorded by the assiduously sycophantic Schlesinger in his diary, it seems safe to say that Kennedy actually, not “reportedly,” said them.

The icing on this wholly indigestible cake is Perry’s prose. At one point she gently chides Rose for a trivial grammatical error, but she herself drops howlers all over the place: “Joe Kennedy began the education dream that John Fitzgerald had truncated”; “Reminiscing decades later about her clandestine courtship, she expressed a youthful giggle”; “She would no longer remain obsequious to his judgment”; “Gloria Swanson, the epitome of his penchant for exotic women”; “Rose’s Victorian, indeed puritanical, nature developed a scheme”; “Perfection impressed Rose, but she didn’t realize that soon the lights of Paris and all of Europe would be extinguished”; “Not only did Joe undermine Rose’s ‘irresponsibility’ lessons, he modeled the very sort of immoral behavior that Jack and Teddy embraced.”

Clunky, clotted, graceless prose. Small wonder it’s an almost unreadable book.


The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch

By Barbara A. Perry

Norton. 404 pp. $27.95