Higham's 'Rose': the Kennedy matriarch

April 02, 1995|By Carole Klein | Carole Klein,Special to The Sun

"Rose: The Life and Times of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy," by Charles Higham. 454 pages. New York: Pocket Books. $23

Charles Higham writes about movie stars and royalty. Now, he turns to Rose Kennedy. And why not? The Kennedys are America's royal family, and icons of popular culture. Books about Joe, John, Bobby and Ted Kennedy could already fill a good-sized book case, but the section on Rose is still pretty empty.

Unfortunately, Mr. Higham's addition to the Kennedy bibliography does not do the genre of celebrity biography proud. Only readers who enjoy light remnants of gossip, or the most superficial accounts of well-known lives will find this book worth pursuing.

Writing a book that tries to tell a good story to a mass audience is a perfectly legitimate endeavor. But Mr. Higham's account provides no context for Rose Kennedy's story to enfold. He skips blithely from one fact of her life to another, without ever attempting to identify any of his subject's primary motives or deeper needs.

This is too bad. Some of Mr. Higham's work has been well received, and Rose Kennedy offered a great opportunity to flex his literary muscle. Mrs. Kennedy has been justly admired for her maternal commitment, her courage, faith, and "indomitable" spirit. This has become almost a cliche. Mr. Higham's portrait of her suggests a deeper, often darker story that unhappily (for me at least), he never explores.

XTC In families, there is a difference between authority and power. A typical, if exaggerated, family model of their generation gave Joe Kennedy, the father, ultimate authority over his children.

However, it was the mother who was responsible for guiding their intellectual and emotional growth.

This was a responsibility she fervently executed, focusing demands of great achievement on the Kennedy sons. Mr. Higham is benevolent about Mrs. Kennedy's ambition for the boys, and never asks what price they may have paid to win her approval. Indeed, the author is quick to excuse any behavior of Mrs. Kennedy that might suggest criticism of her mothering style. If she spanked Joe Jr. or Jack with a coathanger, "This was standard treatment for children at the time." This same reason apparently explains why she never embraced or indulged them.

Her much-lauded stoicism seems chilling at times, yet is never probed by the author, only commended. When she learned of Joe Jr's. death, her remaining three sons and three of their sisters were about to launch a boat from their Hyannis Port dock. "Still in command of herself," says Mr. Higham (admiringly), Rose told them the news. "They were in agony, but she advised them to proceed with their boat trip. They were Kennedys; they did."

Although she had no career expectations for her daughters, she was no less scrupulous about their moral and intellectual development, and she did not take well to being disappointed. Later in life, Rose Kennedy worked to raise funds for the retarded, but she placed Rosemary, her severely retarded daughter, in a home, and did not visit the girl for nearly nine years.

One plus of Charles Higham's book is that I now find Rose Kennedy far more interesting than when I only knew the sainted myth. Unfortunately, when his book ends, the complex, erratic woman behind that myth remains hidden from sight.

Carole Klein, now a professor of writing at The New School for Social Research in New York City, is the author of "Mothers and Sons," "The Myth of the Happy Child" and other books about parent-child relationships. She has taught at Goddard College in Vermont, the State University of New York and New York University.

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