Rosemary Kennedy: The Cofounder of Special Olympics

When I was writing The Kennedy Women, my multi-generational history of five generations of Kennedy women, I became close to Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Whenever I mentioned her sister Rosemary, Mrs. Shriver tensed up and I soon learned that I had to be extraordinarily sensitive if I were going to bring up the subject of her sister.

In November 1941, her father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., had agreed to what turned out to be a tragically botched lobotomy of Rosemary that morphed a beautiful, mildly intellectually challenged young woman into a young child. It was the psychological watershed in the history of the Kennedys. Up until then the family had been a marvelous sanctuary within where everyone was safe and happy, but now the world inside the precincts was as uncertain and troubled as the world outside.

Rosemary was shipped away and for years her name was not ever mentioned. Nine-year-old Edward Kennedy was closer to his sister than any of his siblings. He learned the most precious things in one's life could disappear in an instant, and it was best not to care too much or trust too deeply.

Twenty-year-old Eunice was a deeply intelligent, feeling young woman. She could not begin to process what had happened. She profoundly loved her father, and it was beyond her what he had done without the knowledge of his wife, Rose Kennedy.

As a student at Stanford, Eunice could barely eat. She was clearly disturbed and would lay in bed staring at the ceiling. Her mother came out to visit and try to help her but Rose spoke about everything but Rosemary and the operation.

In the mid fifties, Eunice went to talk to her father about the future of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation whose purpose was "the relief ... of the indigent sick or infirm, to prevent pauperism and to promote ... sanitary reforms, habits of thrift ... savings and self-dependence among the poorer classes". Eunice said the foundation should focus on mental retardation. She did not mention Rosemary, but what could Joe say?

After her father had a stroke in December 1961, Eunice wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post that dealt with Rosemary in a veiled way without mentioning the lobotomy and pushed her brother, President John F. Kennedy, to foster the first legislation dealing with the intellectually disabled. And in 1968, she founded Special Olympics, fostering athletic programs for those who until then had only sat and watched. Special Olympics has grown to a worldwide organization and may be the single best thing the Kennedys have ever done.

Mrs. Shriver was the moral center of the Kennedy family. As smart and as good as she was, there was so much that she repressed. I kept gingerly asking her whether Rosemary was the real reason that Eunice was so profoundly concerned with the intellectually disabled and wasn't her beloved sister the true inspiration of Special Olympics? Mrs. Shriver kept saying no until one day, she turned to me, her head cocked, and said, "You know maybe you're right, maybe there's something there but I just can't see it."

I have written a one-person play, Rose, about the Kennedy matriarch, starring Kathleen Chalfant that opens for previews at the Clurman Theater on 42nd Street in New York November 21. Much of the emotional power of the play comes from Rose telling about her daughter's tragic life. It is so terrible and so revealing that audience members cry openly. "This is not something the world did to us," Rose says. "This is something we did to ourselves."

Kate Clifford Larson has written a book, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, that for the first time tells her full story. It is time that Eunice's son, Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, publicly recognizes that his aunt is the cofounder in spirit of Special Olympics, and makes her part of the story of Special Olympics. That is the least Rosemary Kennedy deserves.