What Jean Kennedy Smith taught me about the 'Camelot' dynasty

What Jean Kennedy Smith taught me about the 'Camelot' dynasty
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As I headed for the door of Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith’s Sutton Place apartment in Manhattan, I turned back to thank her for granting me an hour-long interview about her mother Rose, whose biography I was writing in 2010. But before I could take my leave, the ambassador called to me, “Have you seen my hallway?” We had chatted in her tastefully appointed living room, but I hadn’t wandered down the long hall that seemed quite private.

Now invited to do so, I realized that she was eager to show me her personal “hall of fame.” For the Kennedys, family is always paramount, followed by public service — a tenet that Ambassador Smith upheld until her death on Thursday. I marveled at her vast array of mementoes, centered around a large oil painting of her eldest brother and godfather, Joe Kennedy Jr., in his Navy uniform. Among the first of many unfathomable Kennedy tragedies was his death on a dangerous bombing mission, for which he had volunteered during World War II. “How handsome he was,” I remarked, and his sister smiled at the thought of her beloved brother. 

“Here is a letter from Teddy when he was just 6,” she explained, pointing to a framed scrawled note. Sen. Edward Kennedy had died of brain cancer only one year before my interview, and clearly the ambassador still missed his presence in her life. As the two youngest of Joe Sr. and Rose Kennedy’s boisterous brood of nine, brother and sister often paired up. There they are in London, wide-eyed children, watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in 1938. As Teddy’s life ebbed in 2009, Jean stayed with him at the family compound in Hyannis Port. They poked fun at each other, using British accents, and sang songs from the 1940s, according to the senator’s stepdaughter, Caroline Raclin

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Even at 7 years of age, Jean’s young life was inextricably intertwined with history. She received a phone call from President Franklin Roosevelt, congratulating the young girl on her first Communion. For her 2016 memoir, “The Nine of Us: Growing Up Kennedy,” Ambassador Smith chose a photo of her entire family on the grounds of the American embassy in London, where her father served as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s in the tense pre-war years. At age 10, she is grasping his arm and holding her sister Rosemary’s hand. The eldest Kennedy daughter, Rosemary, suffered from intellectual challenges, diagnosed in the 1920s as “mental retardation.” In her honor, Jean founded Very Special Arts, now VSA, a program for those with disabilities to express their talents through painting and drawing.

As we continued touring her archival collection, the ambassador led me to her proudest professional possessions: memorabilia from her historic tenure as U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Ireland during the Clinton administration. She and Teddy had played important facilitative roles in the 1998 Northern Ireland peace accords, of which they were both justly proud. For her efforts, President Obama awarded Ambassador Smith a 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor established by John F. Kennedy. One of her prized mementoes on her apartment wall was a poem, composed for her by Irish laureate Seamus Heaney. “Let’s read it,” she urged me, like a teacher prompting a student to stand and recite.

I always found it a bit ironic that “Camelot,” derived from the paradigmatic British narrative of legendary King Arthur, would become the label attached to the first Irish-Catholic presidency, via Jacqueline Kennedy’s reference to the Broadway musical, as she grieved her husband’s traumatic death. President Kennedy was indeed an Anglophile, starting with his boyhood delight at reading about gallant Knights of the Round Table. And, according to his widow, he loved the “Camelot” soundtrack by Lerner and Loewe. Yet, in 1963, he made a nostalgic trip to the Emerald Isle, “the land for which I hold the greatest affection,” JFK proclaimed, as he departed Shannon Airport. Jean accompanied her brother on his sentimental final journey to the Kennedy homestead in County Wexford.

When we met on that September morning a decade ago, the ambassador told me that she missed all of her siblings, her parents, and her husband, Stephen, the family’s financial manager and political strategist, who succumbed to cancer in 1990. But, like her mother, she stood ramrod straight, even at age 82, her figure as svelte as a schoolgirl athlete. She reflected the family’s determination to survive and thrive, like her great-grandparents who had fled the 19th century’s Irish potato famine and landed at Boston’s wharf with nothing but the tattered clothing on their backs.

Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Jacksonville mandates face coverings as GOP convention approaches Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary Celebrities fundraise for Markey ahead of Massachusetts Senate primary MORE had moved the family away from Boston’s anti-Catholic prejudices and settled in a tony New York City suburb by the late 1920s. There Jean would grow up, when the family wasn’t based in London, or decamping to their homes on Cape Cod and in Palm Beach. She would attend college and settle in New York City and raise her own family. Her mother had insisted that Jean and Teddy be born in Boston, primarily to be attended by her trusted obstetrician. Yet it also ensured that their roots remained firmly embedded in the Irish traditions that their grandfather, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, embodied as mayor of their native city.

The ambassador preferred that I not record our conversation, but she allowed me to take notes. As I scribbled on my tablet, I heard her voice catch when she described her mother’s response to a teenaged Jean’s request to go skiing with her friends one Christmas. The otherwise stoic diplomat tearfully related her mother’s response: “Your father and I have lived our lives. Now it’s time to live yours.” Their youngest daughter lived hers to the fullest.

Barbara A. Perry is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. She is the author of three books on the Kennedy family. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.