Rose Kennedy, 104, Dies; Matriarch of a Dynasty

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose 10 decades of life encompassed extraordinary triumphs and epic tragedies, died Sunday at the age of 104.

Mrs. Kennedy died from complications of pneumonia at 5:30 p.m. at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., said Scott Ferson, a spokesman for her son, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

“Mother passed away peacefully today,” the senator said in a statement. “She had a long and extraordinary life, and we loved her deeply. To all of us in the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families, she was the most beautiful rose of all.”


The senator and his wife, Victoria, and several other family members were present when Mrs. Kennedy died. Also at her side were daughters Patricia Kennedy Lawford, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Eunice Kennedy Shriver; Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, and many grandchildren.

President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton extended their sympathies to the family.

“Very few Americans have endured as much personal sacrifice for their country as Rose Kennedy,” the President said in a statement. “She played an extraordinary role in the life of an extraordinary family.”

Mrs. Kennedy had been in virtual seclusion for years. On her 100th birthday, 370 people gathered in a tent on the huge lawn at the Cape Cod compound to pay tribute to the matriarch of one of America’s great political dynasties. A film of her life was shown, and family members and guests listened to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

Many in the crowd cried as the mother of both an assassinated President and a slain presidential contender sat in a wheelchair in her room, the victim of a stroke in 1984, looking down on her tribute.

A decade earlier, she had celebrated her birthday by leading a grandparents’ march to raise funds for the Special Olympics.


Despite all that was written of the sorrow that shadowed her later life, she perhaps summed it up best when, at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, she met with the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

“It’s wrong for parents to bury their children,” she told the African ruler. “It should be the other way around.”

In just six shocking years, two of her sons--President Kennedy and his younger brother Robert, who sought the presidency--were assassinated. Her youngest child, Edward, survived the crash of a private plane only to face the crash of his car into a pond on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island in 1969, causing the death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne.

And as the 1960s drew to a close, there was more sadness. Her husband, Joseph P. Kennedy, the former ambassador to Britain who had suffered a stroke that left him speechless and paralyzed for eight years, died Nov. 18, 1969, at age 81.

In all, Rose Kennedy lost four of her nine children.

Tempering this was her place as the only mother in history to see three of her sons elected to the Senate and one of those elected to the White House.

For all the splendor and the sorrow, she remained a woman of style, substance, privacy--and emotional steel.


“She may look as fragile as a violet, but don’t be deceived for a minute,” a close friend, Marie Greene, once said. “If Rose had been a boy, she--not Jack--would have been the first Catholic President of the United States.

“No one really knows her,” one of her nieces said. “Believe me, she’s not going to tell her priest or her hairdresser what’s really inside.”

There were some clues, however. Politics ran in the blood. When she was 5 years old, her father, John F. (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, was elected to Congress; when she was 15, he became the mayor of Boston. Some of her friends called her the “ageless colleen.”

She was deeply religious. Fellow worshipers at St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis called her “Pope Rose.” To her oldest friends, she was “Rosie Fitz.”

She loved art, had great compassion for the mentally retarded-- one of her five daughters was institutionalized--and communicated with her numerous grandchildren by newsletter. In the privacy of her home, she studied French.

She enjoyed playing golf well into her later years and strolling by herself in Paris in semi-disguise. She loved Givenchy clothes and looked regal and elegant in pants suits--at the age of 80.


She also understood from her childhood the hardships political families often must endure.

“I was certainly not happy about that at the time,” she once said about her father’s absence from home because of politics.

“I’m sure none of us were, especially my mother. Yet I have come to realize this is a price that members of a ‘political family’ have to pay. I watched my own sons and their wives and children go through the same strains and disappointments. But there was a compensatory side to father’s infrequent presence at home. Modern candidates seem to have to live with political matters all the time. In my father’s time, a politician’s home was still his castle.”

She had her own motto: “I know not age, nor weariness nor defeat.”

Her son John called her “the glue that has always held the family together.”

“I just made up my mind that I wasn’t going to be vanquished by anything,” she once said. “If I collapsed, I knew it would have a very bad effect on other members of the family.”

Rose Kennedy began life on the hot summer’s night of July 22, 1890, in the kitchen of the Fitzgerald home in the north end of Boston. Her mother, the former Mary Josephine Hannon, was slender and petite--traits her child inherited. Rose was christened Rose Elizabeth, which quickly became Rosie.

She was the jewel of her father’s eye, and they were alike in many ways. The politician and his daughter shared the same gregariousness, sentimentality, a flair for politics and a liking for fashionable clothes. Both father and daughter were ambitious, athletic, self-disciplined. As an adult, Mrs. Kennedy pinned notes to her clothes to remind her of events.

Despite the flamboyance and flattery that traditionally mark a Boston politician, Fitzgerald’s home had more than a trace of the flinty Yankee.


“There were Saturday afternoon dances at our high school,” Mrs. Kennedy wrote in her autobiography, “Times to Remember.”

“They were ‘mixers,’ with the boys and the girls allowed to invite friends from other schools in Boston and the region. It was all quite decorous, but I was never allowed to go. My father was a great innovator in public life. But when it came to raising his daughters, no one could have been more conservative.

“When you put the Yankee ethic and the Irish Catholic ethic together, the results are formidable. Which was sad. After all, you are only young once.”

Nevertheless, on the day of her coming-out party, the Boston City Council voted to postpone its scheduled meeting, and more than 450 guests--including the council members--took part in the celebration.

She graduated from Dorchester High School at age 16. Although she had passed the entrance exams for Wellesley College, her father thought she was too young to attend. Instead, she spent a year at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Boston and took piano lessons at the New England Conservatory of Music.

In 1908, when her father lost a bid for reelection as mayor, she traveled to Europe with the family, an experience she never forgot. She stayed in Europe to attend a convent school in Holland, where she studied German and French.


When she returned to Boston after a year in Europe, she began dating her future husband, who was still a student at Harvard. Joseph Kennedy was not a typical undergraduate. He was assistant freshman football coach and part owner of a sightseeing bus that toured Boston’s historic landmarks.

In the beginning, Kennedy was not a favorite of Honey Fitz. But when Kennedy became one of the youngest bank presidents in the country at the age of 25, his prospective father-in-law was impressed. The Kennedys were married in October, 1914, in a small service attended by family and friends in the private chapel of Cardinal William O’Connell of Boston.

“Neither of us wanted a public fiesta,” she said.

Joseph Kennedy’s rise to millionaire is an American success story. At the beginning of their marriage, when Rose was pregnant with their first child, he worked 16 hours a day in a bank. A job in shipbuilding followed. After learning the brokerage business as manager of the Boston branch of Hayden Stone & Co., he began investing privately. He soon became a millionaire and was known as “the lone wolf” banker of Wall Street.

He actively supported the New Deal and became the first chairman of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him ambassador to Britain.

On July 15, 1915, the couple’s first child, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., was born and motherhood became the centerpiece of Mrs. Kennedy’s life. Babies followed so regularly that one friend remarked facetiously: “She had the doctors crazy, she had her babies so fast.”

As a mother, she was loving but strict with money. “We never gave (the children) allowances that were any bigger than those of the neighborhood children,” she once said. “We never put value on anything just because it was expensive.”


If the triumphs of her life came relatively early, so did the tragedies. Her third child, Rosemary, was mentally retarded. On Mrs. Kennedy’s 93rd birthday, the family presented a check for $1 million to the home for the retarded in Wisconsin where Rosemary has lived for 40 years.

Then on Aug. 2, 1944, she learned that Joe Jr. had been killed while serving in Europe during World War II.

It was years before the family knew the precise circumstances. He had been flying a fighter plane loaded with thousands of pounds of high explosives on a top-secret mission against Germany. The plane had blown up in midair.

A month later, the husband of daughter Kathleen, William John Robert Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington and a captain in the Coldstream Guards, died in action in France. Kathleen died in the spring of 1948 in a plane crash in France.

The Kennedys had three other daughters: Eunice, who married Sargent Shriver, former Peace Corps director, 1972 Democratic vice presidential candidate and a U.S. ambassador to France; Patricia, whose marriage to actor Peter Lawford ended in divorce, and Jean, who married Stephen Smith, an investment counselor who died in 1990, and was appointed ambassador to Ireland by Clinton.

Mrs. Kennedy had 30 grandchildren and 41 great-grandchildren. One of the grandchildren, Robert’s son David, was found dead in a Florida hotel room in 1984, and officials said he died of a drug overdose. Another, President Kennedy’s son Patrick, died shortly after birth.


Although Joseph Kennedy’s role as his sons’ political patron is better known, Mrs. Kennedy was an ardent campaigner when John F. Kennedy sought the presidency in 1960.

She preceded him into New Hampshire and appeared at four or five campaign stops a day, stretching out in the back of a car for a nap. Before the Wisconsin primary, she spent eight days in the state, marveling at her son’s youth and vigor and announcing that he had been raised on “political lullabies.”

Once she was asked about the political ambition in her family.

“If you’re in politics, I suppose you always work to get to the top,” she replied, coating her ambition for her children with blandness.

When Camelot collapsed in gunfire in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Mrs. Kennedy was in Hyannis Port, responding as the matriarch of the family. She soothed other family members. She periodically walked alone in fog and drizzle along the sand dunes of Cape Cod for solace.

She returned to the family compound to mask her grief with practicality, even remembering, according to a friend, extra pairs of black stockings for her daughters to wear at the funeral in the nation’s capital. But in Washington, she was too upset to walk in the funeral procession.

In her memoirs, she wrote of her emotions after receiving word of President Kennedy’s assassination.


“I spent much time in our front yard or on our beach, and walked and walked and walked, and prayed and prayed, and wondered why it had happened to Jack,” she recalled.

“Everything--the culmination of all his efforts, abilities, dedication to good and to the future--lay boundlessly before him. Everything was gone and I wondered why.”

She took to the stump again for her son Robert when he sought the presidency in 1968. When word of his death in Los Angeles came, she again was in Hyannis Port.

“I kept busy in my room, sorting, rearranging, doing anything to keep busy, because I had to keep moving. And I prayed,” she later wrote. “And I wondered. I still couldn’t believe it, although I knew it was so.”

Well into her eighth decade, she was asked about her philosophy of life.

“I find it interesting to reflect on what has made my life, even with its moments of pain, an essentially happy one,” she answered. “I have come to the conclusion that the most important element in human life is faith.”

Times wire services contributed to this story.