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How the mysterious and tragic story of JFK's forgotten sister is now being turned into an opera by NI composer

Two of the Kennedy brothers were assassinated, but what happened to their sister Rosemary, who vanished from public view at the age of 23? Belfast-born Brian Irvine's new work, to be premiered this summer, will tell her story. Kim Bielenberg reports

Rosemary (centre) with sister Jean and brother John F Kennedy in 1940
Rosemary (centre) with sister Jean and brother John F Kennedy in 1940
Rosemary (centre), Jean and Robert Kennedy in a photo taken in 1938 at Bronxville, NY
Joe Kennedy Snr

By Kim Bielenberg

She was a vivacious young woman who was born into one of America's most famous political dynasties as the sister of John F Kennedy. But after a fateful decision by her father Joe, Rosemary Kennedy vanished from public view - and was not seen for decades even by members of her own family.

To outward appearances, the childhood and youth of Rosemary Kennedy seemed normal enough for a girl with a privileged background. She kept diaries, wrote letters to friends, went to tea dances, and led a gilded life as the daughter of Joe Kennedy Snr, the wealthy US ambassador to London.

A photo from the Evening Standard in 1938 shows her cheerfully holding a bouquet next to her younger sister Kathleen and her mother Rose before she was presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The caption read: "Miss Rosemary Kennedy... in her picture dress of white and tulle embroidered with silver." But at the age of 23, Rosemary suddenly disappeared from the public gaze after Joe Kennedy, worried about her erratic behaviour, instructed doctors to give her a lobotomy, a brain-scraping procedure that was becoming popular at the time.

She was left permanently incapacitated and her plight was not publicly acknowledged until after John F Kennedy became president.

The story of Rosemary Kennedy is to be tackled in a new opera, Least Like the Other, written by Belfast-born composer Brian Irvine. It will have its world premiere at the Galway Arts Festival this summer.

The plight of the nine Kennedy siblings and some of their children inevitably led to talk of a Kennedy curse. The eldest sibling, Joe Jnr, was killed in action in the Second World War, Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948 and JFK and Bobby were both assassinated.

Less attention has been paid to Rosemary, the third sibling, who was hidden away for much of her life in an institution in Wisconsin.

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Accounts of her life suggest that her difficulties started from the moment she was born. The story went that when her mother Rose went into labour, the baby's head started to emerge, but the doctor was delayed. According to an account in the New York Times, by ordering Rose to keep her legs closed and forcing the baby's head to stay in the birth canal for two hours, the nurse caused a harmful loss of oxygen.

The extent of Rosemary's intellectual disabilities before she was lobotomised as a young woman are a matter of some debate.

A brief biography page on the website of the JFK Library says she was slower to crawl, walk and speak than her brothers. She had learning difficulties when she reached school age. Nevertheless, with special family tutors, she developed a limited grasp of reading, writing and arithmetic.

In the diary she kept as a teenager, she described people she met, and dances and concerts she attended. In a typical entry she says: "Walked with Peggy. Also went to horse races with her, and bet and won a dollar and a half. Went to the English Movie at five. Had dinner at 8:45."

In another entry, she tells of a visit to the White House: "Went to luncheon in the ballroom in the White House. James Roosevelt took us in to see his father, President (Franklin D) Roosevelt. He said, 'It's about time you came. How can I put my arm around all of you? Which is the oldest? You are all so big.'"

The Kennedy parents seemed keen to cover up her intellectual disabilities, and when her father was ambassador in London, she attended social events, carefully chaperoned by her brothers.

For a time she was reported to be training as a Montessori teacher and Joe Kennedy wrote to his wife Rose: "She is contented completely to be teaching with Mother Isabel. She is happy, looks better than she ever did in her life, is not the slightest bit lonesome…"

Events took a much darker turn when she returned to the US, however.

Unsettled by the move, Rosemary is said to have regressed. In her book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells how her customary good nature gave way to "tantrums, rages and violent behaviour".

She was confined to a convent school in Washington, but her cousin Ann Gargan said: "Many nights the school would call to say she was missing, only to find her out walking the streets at 2am."

The highly ambitious Joe Kennedy was keen to further the political careers of his sons and there is some suggestion that he feared that his daughter, seen by the father as increasingly wayward, could damage the family name by becoming pregnant.

In 1941, when Rosemary was 23, he turned to the surgeons James Watts and Walter Freeman, who were performing lobotomies as a cure for a variety of psychological disorders and what was termed at the time 'retardation'.

Watts later recalled how Rosemary was awake as he made a surgical incision into her brain through the skull and cut away tissue with an instrument that looked like a butter knife.

While Watts was scraping around, Freeman asked Rosemary to perform verbal tasks, such as reciting the Lord's Prayer or counting backwards. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped cutting.

Freeman described the procedure as "soul surgery", but it quickly became apparent that the operation had left a devastating impact.

Reverting to an infant-like state, Rosemary could no longer walk, could barely speak and was incontinent.

Joe Kennedy had apparently ordered the surgery without consulting his wife.

Some Kennedy observers believe that for the domineering father, it was not simply a matter of dealing with Rosemary's intellectual disabilities, which may have been exaggerated.

Did he destroy part of her brain rather than allow her to follow her own path in life, which may not have been the conventional route expected of a Kennedy sister?

Once the operation had happened and turned out to be disastrous, Joe was keen to move her away from the family. Rosemary was taken to several private institutions before her father placed her in the St Coletta home in Wisconsin, where she spent the last 57 years of her life.

According to the author Jack El-Hai, Rose Kennedy did not see her daughter for 20 years, and no family member seems to have visited her there until 1958, when JFK secretly paid a call while campaigning in Wisconsin.

It was not until JFK became President in 1961 that the family acknowledged that Rosemary had any kind of disability at all - and her problem was attributed to "mental retardation", rather than her lobotomy.

Her mysterious absence had previously been put down to "reclusiveness".

Gradually, as the domineering Joe Kennedy exerted less of an influence, Rosemary was re-integrated into the family, largely at the behest of her sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

The plight of Rosemary was said to be the driving force for Eunice championing the cause of people with intellectual disabilities.

When Rosemary died in 2005 at the age of 86, a Kennedy family statement described her as "a lifelong jewel to every member of our family".

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