Rose was born in Boston in 1890, the eldest child of a congressman. By the time she turned 15, her father, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald was one of the most popular and colorful mayors Boston had ever known. She was educated in a convent school, and the religious training she received became the foundation for her life.
Rose married Joseph P. Kennedy in 1914 and settled in Brookline, a Boston suburb. Ten years later, her husband was a multimillionaire. In their first 18 years of marriage, the couple had nine children. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was born in 1915, John in 1917, Rosemary in 1918, Kathleen in 1920, Eunice in 1921, Patricia in 1924, Robert in 1925, Jean in 1928 and Edward in 1932.
Rose spoke several languages and was an accomplished pianist. Petite and slim, she dressed stylishly. During the ’30s she was named the best-dressed woman in public life by a poll of fashion designers.
Family, religion and politics were the foundations of her life. She loved politics and she used the skills she had learned from her father in her sons’ political campaigns. She gave carefully prepared speeches and addressed voters on intimate terms. She hosted many “Kennedy teas” sponsored by the Democratic Party. During John’s presidential campaign in poorer neighborhoods, she’d put on a babushka and talk to the women about children. If the next speech was held in a wealthy neighborhood, she’d change her shoes in the car and wear a mink jacket.
“Rose had great vivacity at times and was quite sparkly,” says Diana Hardcastle. “She was a very powerful figure in the family. Those boys were a bit scared of her.”
“She suffered a lot of grief with the death of four of her children and the institutionalization of a fifth,” adds Hardcastle. “Rose lived through one Gothic tragedy after another, yet she had extraordinary composure. In public and in television interviews, she’d sit still with one hand on top of the other; knees closed together, with a very straight back and very held together, even when she talked about emotional things.”
Her religious faith was profound. Hardcastle explains: “In one interview that I watched she said: ‘Despite all of these hardships, I know that I will not be vanquished.’ She was so stalwart! She was a woman of spirit…and in a certain sense, the spirit of an era.”
For relaxation, Rose played golf or swam off the beach at Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. During the 1970s, she would walk the village streets alone, unrecognized by most passersby. In her later years she devoted herself to fundraising and public education about the mentally handicapped, donating millions of dollars through her husband’s foundation to institutions throughout the U.S. She died in her Hyannis Port home in 1995 at the age of 104.