According to some reports, a feeble Rose Kennedy, who turned 104 on July 22, is frequently entertained by her attendants with screenings of film footage depicting happy moments and only happy moments in the often unhappy history of her extraordinary family. This tenacious attachment to the positive and refusal to countenance the negative may be the secret of long life. But as Laurence Leamer makes exhaustively clear in The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family, it's also a form of living hell in which the women of this outsize dynasty have been trapped for generations.
Although Leamer begins his gossipy genealogy with Joseph Kennedy's grandmother Bridget Murphy, who came to Boston in 1849, the spine of the saga is the rigid backbone of Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, pious Catholic daughter of the first mayor of Boston to be called before a grand jury on charges of corruption. Rose learned how not to see what she didn't want to see from her father a man who ruled her life until she married Joseph Patrick Kennedy in 1914, whereupon Kennedy then and for the rest of his life assumed that imperious position. ''He lived in a world where women served him,'' the author writes, ''and in doing so, appeared to fulfill their own destinies.'' Rose in turn passed this harsh education in piety, stoicism, and appearances onto her daughters and daughters-in-law: No matter how much it broke their hearts and damaged their self-esteem, they stuck around as their men erred, strayed, swaggered, or fell.
Kennedy by Kennedy, Leamer (who has also produced biographies of Johnny Carson, Ingrid Bergman, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan) catalogs casualties of feminine body and spirit: Rosemary, Rose's oldest daughter, mentally retarded and hidden away from the family after a botched lobotomy (at age 75 she lives, as she has since 1949, cared for by nuns in Wisconsin); Kathleen, the most defiant and popular of the sisters, who died in a plane crash in 1944, flying off for an adulterous weekend; Eunice and Pat and Jean, plus daughters-in-law Jackie and Ethel and Joan, all of them (except Eunice, the most politically minded of them, with the strongest marriage) trained as Kennedys to put up with the philandering of their husbands, all of them prepared to smile for the camera. ''[Eunice] saw that to [Jack] sex was both a diversion, his chosen opiate, and an assertion of life,'' Leamer writes in his goopy style that owes more of its flavoring to women's-magazine celebrity profiles than to rigorous biography. ''Jean had put up with her husband's sexual antics for many years as if they were part of the obligatory penance of a Kennedy woman.'' Oh, woe! Oh, juicy bits!
There's no dearth of juicy bits in this book, rushed out ahead of schedule, presumably to satiate readers mourning the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But the real news in this tome may be that with the generation of Rose Kennedy's grandchildren, a new freedom of spirit appears to be blooming in young women who no longer feel constrained to hide behind or bolster their wifty Kennedy brothers and cousins and husbands. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend emerge in The Kennedy Women as strong, expressive individuals whose Kennedy mantles are no longer corsets. Would this qualify as happy news to Rose Kennedy if she knew or as a scandal? B-