Stories About The Kennedy Family So Intense They Sound Made Up - But Aren't
Members of the Kennedy family are often called "American royalty" because they might be the closest thing we have to a ruling family. The Kennedy parents, children, and other members of the family tree have built a multigenerational political dynasty that many European monarchs would be proud of. They've also had more than their share of scandals, enough to make a Windsor blush.
Most Americans know the biggest Kennedy scandals and tragedies by heart. The JFK and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, JFK Jr.'s fatal plane incident, Ted Kennedy's infamous night in Chappaquiddick, and the whole Marilyn Monroe situation have all become part of American folklore. But those are just a fraction of the many larger-than-life stories about the famed family.
Here are nine lesser-known Kennedy family stories that sound made up, but aren't.
- Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain
Like that of many politicians, Bobby Kennedy's political affiliations, if not his views, shifted over the course of his life. The Kennedys were Irish Catholic Democrats. But they were also one of the wealthiest families in Boston, and weren't above using personal connections to achieve their goals. Bobby managed his older brother's successful Senate campaign in 1952. A year later, Bobby joined the staff of influential Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy. A family friend of the Kennedys, McCarthy led the infamous anti-communist witch hunts that ruined the lives of hundreds of Americans.
According to the JFK Library, Bobby Kennedy was so disgusted by McCarthy's techniques that he resigned after six months. He would go on to serve as a lawyer for Senate Democrats, and later was JFK's attorney general. Today, Bobby is considered a liberal icon, but he was initially reluctant to support the civil rights movement. When he finally did, it was as much a move made out of sympathy as it was made in the interest of securing the Black vote for the Democratic Party.
- Photo: Richard Sears, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain2570 VOTES
JFK’s Younger Sister Was Lobotomized For Her Mood Swings, And The Family Covered It Up For Decades
Of all of Joseph Sr. and Rose Kennedy's nine children, their third child, Rose Marie, or "Rosemary," was the least well-known. And that's how the family wanted it.
Rosemary never had a real chance to thrive. When her mother went into labor, the doctor was delayed and the attending nurse physically held Rosemary inside Rose's birth canal for two hours. The lack of oxygen most likely gave Rosemary brain damage. As a child, she struggled both academically and developmentally. She often experienced what were described as "fits," which were most likely either seizures or mental health episodes. When she reached her teen years, it was clear something had to be done. But in the 1920s and '30s, mental illness was misunderstood and viewed negatively, and sending Rosemary to a mental institution wasn't an option for a family with political ambitions.
Instead, in 1941, Joseph Sr. arranged for Rosemary to have a lobotomy. It was thought lobotomies could cure depression and "aggression," but the procedure was new and not yet approved by the American Medical Association. Rosemary's lobotomy only caused harm: She immediately lost most of her ability to speak and talk. The family relegated her to an institiution in Wisconsin, where she lived for most of the rest of her life.
The other Kennedy family members seldom visited their sister until they reestablished a relationship with her in the 1950s. Over time, the Kennedy family came to advocate for people with physical and disabilities.
Rosemary's younger sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, in particular, had a special relationship with Rosemary. "She had a lot of pain and anger around the way Rosemary was treated," her granddaughter, Christina Schwarzenegger, told People Magazine.
"She'd sit with Rosemary, play flash cards with her and try to help with her speech," recalled Shriver's son Tim. "She'd order all the sweets Rosemary loved — angel food cake, puddings, creams. It made Mommy happy that she'd found a way to bring Rosemary back to life, back to the family."
Shriver founded the Special Olympics in 1968, in Rosemary's honor.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain3470 VOTES
Two Months Before His Death, JFK Had Lost Hope Of Reaching The Moon By 1970
Although he was assassinated six years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, John F. Kennedy still contributed to the mission's success. Months after Yuri Gagarin was the first person to orbit Earth, JFK's "moon speech" at Rice University in 1961, pictured on the right, inspired the nation to surpass the Soviets and win the space race. In the speech, he pledged that America would land on the moon by the end of the decade. But privately, he wasn't so confident that it would happen.
Two years after that speech, the Apollo space program dragged on and it became clear how much money and time would be required. It was also clear that NASA wouldn't land on the moon during JFK's presidency, even if he was to be reelected in 1964. With public interest flagging and Congress reducing NASA's budget, JFK admitted in a meeting with NASA administrator James Webb that he didn't think the Apollo program would survive.
"[R]ight now, space has lost a lot of its glamour," Kennedy mused in the meeting with Webb. “If I get re-elected, we’re not going to the Moon in our period, are we?” Webb didn't think so, and Kennedy concurred, saying "We're not going."
JFK was felled that November, and it's possible his passing saved the space program. Determined to make JFK's pledge a reality, President Lyndon Johnson was able to get more funding for NASA and see the project through.
- Photo: U.S. Department of State, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain4411 VOTES
JFK Got Schooled By Khrushchev At Their 1961 Summit In Vienna
Every presidential administration has had its missteps, some more than others. When John F. Kennedy was sworn in on January 20, 1961, he was the youngest president ever elected at age 43. This was groundbreaking, but in some cases it also proved to be a liability. Like when he met 67-year-old Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev for a two-day summit in Vienna in 1961.
Coming into the meeting, JFK was eager to establish himself on the world stage as a formidable leader, but his disastrous Bay of Pigs incursion months earlier made this difficult. Khrushchev, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to dominate his inexperienced counterpart, and he did.
The summit was supposed to be an informal sharing of views, but JFK was unprepared, and Khrushchev took advantage. They discussed nuclear weapons, the countries within their respective spheres of influence, and the relationship between their two nations. Khrushchev refused to give ground on any topic. At one point, JFK tried to debate Khrushchev about Marxism, and Khrushchev ran circles around him.
The meeting failed to calm relations between the US and USSR. Shortly after, both countries amped up its respective military spending and accelerated the nuclear arms race. Later, Khrushchev descibed JFK in the meeting as "inexperienced" and even "immature." For his part, JFK had to admit that he was outmaneuvered, telling a New York Times reporter that Khrushchev "just beat the hell out of me."
- 5502 VOTES
John F. Kennedy's service in the US Navy during WWII made him a hero long before he became president of the United States. But he wasn't the only military hero in his family. His older brother, Joseph Jr., was also a decorated veteran. Joseph Sr. viewed his eldest son as the best choice to fulfill his own political ambitions, but after Joseph Jr.'s passing, that shifted to JFK.
Joe Jr. left law school early and joined the Navy in 1941, and a year later completed fighter pilot training school. By 1943, he had completed 25 bombing missions over Europe, enough to get permission to return home. Instead, he remained in England and continued to fight. In 1944, the Allies were working on "Operation Aphrodite," a project to develop a remote-controlled bomber. Limited technology meant that a fully remote-controlled device wasn't yet possible. Instead, two pilots would fly a bomb-laden B-17 Flying Fortress most of the way to the destination and bail out. Then, a trailing aircraft that could control the B-17 would guide it to the target.
Joe Jr. volunteered to be a test pilot for Operation Aphrodite. Shortly after takeoff, his plane malfunctioned and blew apart over Suffolk, England. He perished at age 29.
Two days before the ill-fated mission, Joe Jr. wrote a letter to John:
For the last ten days I have been stuck out in the country, far beyond striking distance of any town. Every day, I think will be my last one here, and still we go on. I am really fed up, but the work is quite interesting. The nature of it is secret, and you know how secrett [sic] things are in the Navy.
[…]I have been having a rather pleasant time over here, until the last ten days. I was alll [sic] set to go to Virginia Gilliat's (Lady Sykes) for my leave, and had arranged for another beauty to be present, and then gave it up for this job. I'm probably a damn fool.
[…]Tell the family not to get excited about my staying over here. I am not repeat not contemplating marriage nor intending to risk my fine neck (covered in the back with a few fine silky black hairs) in any crazy venture.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Kennedy family first became wealthy in the 1920s, during the era of Prohibition. One of the enduring myths about the Kennedys is that they built their fortune on bootlegging. (This myth was started in the 1960s and '70s by conspiracy theorists looking to explain JFK's slaying.) The real story is a bit less salacious, but it did involve booze.
Alcohol was part of the Kennedy family saga in America since the beginning. Joseph Sr.'s father, Patrick J. Kennedy, pictured on the right, was a Boston saloon owner and whiskey importer who eventually became a local ward boss and state senator. By 1933, Joseph Sr. was already a wealthy and successful businessman. Just before Prohibition was set to be repealed that year, Joseph Sr. used his connections to make lucrative deals with British distillers like Dewar's and Gordon's Gin to import booze into the US. The deals made Joseph Sr. even richer. Ten years later, he sold his liquor franchise for $8.2 million (about $100 million in 2020).