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The Kennedy Who Changed the World



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In this “revelation” of a biography (USA TODAY), a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy.

While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter, Eunice, was hijacking her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Her compassion was born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary, at her revered but dismissive father, whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons, and at a government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality.

Now, in this “fascinating” (the Today show), “nuanced” (The Boston Globe) biography, “ace reporter and artful storyteller” (Pulitzer Prize–winning author Megan Marshall) Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow. Granted access to never-before-seen private papers, including the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London, McNamara paints an extraordinary portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.


[Y]ou are advising everyone else in that house on their careers, so why not me?


A correction in the New York Times on August 28, 2009, noted a number of errors in a photo caption that had accompanied the obituary of US Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts the day before.

The caption, the nation’s newspaper of record acknowledged, “misidentified two of his sisters and omitted a third in some editions. In some editions, Eunice’s name was omitted, and in some editions, Rosemary and Kathleen were reversed.”

Invisible or interchangeable. That was the lot of the daughters of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, relegated to the role of decorative accessories to the outsized ambitions, first of their father and then their brothers. Charming London society when Joe was US ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s in the late 1930s. Hosting ladies’ teas during Jack’s first congressional race a decade later. Accompanying one of their brothers during the continual campaign that defined the Kennedys’ lives for more than a half century. From Jack’s ascendancy as the first Catholic president, through Bobby’s ill-fated run for the White House, to Ted’s long career in the Senate, Eunice, Pat, and Jean—the three Kennedy sisters not lost young to tragedy—were a silent backdrop to the nation’s storied political dynasty.

In the case of Eunice, that image was wildly out of focus. There was nothing silent or ornamental about the fifth of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s nine children. Even as she hatched the idea for those tea parties, Eunice chafed at such a circumscribed role in what was fast becoming the family business. “Dear Daddy, I know you are very busy,” she wrote to her father at Hyannis Port, probably in the late fifties. “I also know you are advising everyone else in that house on their careers, so why not me?”

The answer was simple: as much as Joe Kennedy loved all of his children, his sons, not his daughters, were his priority. Born in 1921, only a year after women in the United States secured the right to vote, Eunice came of age a generation before the second wave of feminism expanded expectations and professional opportunities for women. In many ways, her struggle to be seen—on the public stage and in her own family—mirrors the experience of so many ambitious women in mid-twentieth-century America who had to maneuver around the rigid gender roles that defined the era.

But nowhere were those roles more deeply ingrained than in the household of Joseph P. Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy surely was not thinking of his sisters when he wrote in praise of his father: “In how many families have the young been stultified? Again and again, young men with ability and talent have been kept from taking their places in the affairs of business or on the national stage because an older figure refused to make room and insisted on the glory and attention until the very end.” When Joe Kennedy died in 1969, the subheadline above his obituary in the New York Daily News reflected the societal value accorded his five surviving children: “He Left One Son,” it read.

Eunice accepted that hierarchy at an early age. “I am sure it’s normal for girls to look up to their older brothers with some admiration and sense of dazzlement, but in our case it was fairly extreme,” she said. “To us, they were marvelous creatures, practically godlike, and we yearned to please them and be acceptable.”

Until the end of her life, Eunice would give fulsome credit to her brothers in the White House, the US Justice Department, and the US Senate for initiatives that had been her ideas. She would cede the spotlight to the boys, but she would use her wits, her famous name, her father’s fortune, and her brothers’ influence to make her own mark. In the process, she would advance one of the great civil rights movements, on behalf of millions of people across the world with intellectual disabilities. When she died, two weeks before her more celebrated kid brother, Ted, it was Eunice who left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound and lasting legacy.

Her vision elevated a Chicago parks program into Special Olympics, which, on its fiftieth anniversary, served more than 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries with more than 1 million coaches and volunteers. Her fervor transformed her family’s unfocused charitable foundation into an engine for scientific research at universities from Stanford, to Wisconsin, to Johns Hopkins. Her prescience led to the creation of a federal research institute devoted to maternal and child health. Her determination to empty Dickensian institutions for the mentally retarded sparked an unprecedented national commitment to community-based group homes, educational inclusion, and job training that changed the lives of millions who had been warehoused and forgotten.

Fueled by a religious conviction that every life, no matter how compromised, has value, she left her fingerprints on everything from the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963; to the 1976 Hyde Amendment, restricting the use of federal funds for abortion; to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, barring discrimination against the disabled in every area of public life.

And yet for all of her influence and impact, Eunice Kennedy Shriver lives in public perception at the fringe of her brothers’ life stories rather than at the center of her own. Of the hundreds of books written about the Kennedys, none has focused on the member of the clan who made its most enduring mark.

This biography is an attempt to correct that record.

I did not know Mrs. Shriver in life, although it was impossible as a reporter at the Boston Globe for almost thirty years not to have covered her and members of her family. As a congressional correspondent during the Reagan administration, I got to know her brother Ted, who represented Massachusetts in the Senate for forty-seven years, and from him I first heard the word most often used to describe his sister: formidable. The adjective echoed again and again in interviews with family and friends, with senators and congressmen, with the assistants she fired with numbing regularity and the professional staff she drove no harder than she drove herself—even with the five Shriver children, who carry on her work.

Today her name is synonymous with Special Olympics, but Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s career in public service began decades before she opened the first games on a sunny July Saturday at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1968. She worked at the US State Department two years before Jack arrived on Capitol Hill in 1947. She administered a task force at the US Department of Justice on juvenile delinquency fourteen years before she talked Bobby into tackling that issue as attorney general in 1961. She denounced the long prison terms meted out to the nonviolent offenders she counseled at Alderson, the federal penitentiary for women in West Virginia, more than twenty-five years before Ted championed that same cause as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the late 1970s.

Eunice Kennedy took home only one paycheck in her life, from her first job, at the US State Department. She sent that check for $60 to her parents in Palm Beach, Florida, to spend “on something grand.” Thereafter, she declined the proffered annual salary of $1,800 and became a “dollar-a-year-girl,” the informal appellation for those wealthy enough to work without regular compensation. During and just after World War II, Washington was full of young women whose well-connected fathers found them interesting unpaid employment in what was expected to be a brief interval between college and marriage.

That interval lasted a decade in Eunice’s case; the interesting work lasted a lifetime. When she married in 1953, it was to the man her father chose for her, the man who would become her devoted partner in parenthood, religious faith, and social justice, the passions that fueled their marriage and their lives. In the late fifties, while her father mapped out her brothers’ political careers, he entrusted to Eunice and Robert Sargent Shriver the resources of the family’s charitable foundation. Over the years, the letterhead would identify Jack or Bobby or Ted as president of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, named for their oldest brother, killed in combat in World War II, but it was always Eunice who ran the show, turning a small family foundation into an engine of social change.

She exerted no less sway when Jack arrived in the Oval Office, goading her older brother into putting mental retardation on his agenda for the first time in his political career, pushing him to throw the weight of the US government behind efforts to combat juvenile delinquency, and prodding him to create the medical research institute devoted to women and children that today bears her name.

With the same persistence, she badgered lawmakers and eight US presidents after Jack, influencing public policy across four decades on issues that helped define the social upheaval of her times. In the 1960s, as the movement to decriminalize state abortion laws gained momentum, she partnered with the Harvard Divinity School to convene the first international conference on the issue. In the 1970s, even as she chastised the women’s liberation movement for devaluing motherhood, she argued for both publicly funded child care and a welfare system that did not penalize mothers who stayed home to care for their children. In the 1980s, she lobbied for services for pregnant teenagers with the same vigor that she opposed the use of federal funds for fetal research. In the 1990s, she championed expanded educational, employment, and housing opportunities for those living with intellectual disabilities well into productive adulthoods because of medical advances spurred by her relentless advocacy on their behalf.

The ultimate family loyalist, Eunice was also in many ways the anti-Kennedy. Her work upended her father’s dictum that only first-place finishers count. She idolized her father, but his competitive zeal had proven disastrous for Rose Marie, the older sister the family called Rosemary, who had been lobotomized in 1941, in a botched attempt to treat the mental illness that compounded her intellectual disabilities. The surgery, initiated by Joe without his wife’s knowledge, left their twenty-three-year-old daughter incapacitated, exiled from her family by the patriarch’s decree until Eunice brought her out of the shadows after her father’s domineering voice had been silenced by a stroke in 1961.

In reclaiming her discarded sister, Eunice was redressing not just her father’s choices but her own. How had it been so easy to acquiesce in the banishment of the sister she had taught to sail, with whom she had hiked the Alps and danced at debutante balls, to have put the inconvenient Rosie out of her mind as well as out of her sight?

Did she agree with her father, who wrote to one of the nuns caring for the institutionalized Rosemary in 1958 that “the solution of Rosemary’s problem has been a major factor in the ability of all the Kennedys to go about their life’s work and to try to do it as well as they can”? Had Rosemary been sacrificed so they could thrive?

There would be a mania in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s efforts to expiate that familial guilt for the rest of her life; a relentlessness that could intimidate subordinates who did not share her sense of urgency, congressional staffers who failed to do her bidding, and federal bureaucrats who obstructed her path.

Tantalizing signs of Eunice in the public record—photographs at the House of the Good Shepherd in Chicago, memos over her signature at the US State Department, letters she dictated at the US Justice Department, her handwritten observations at Alderson prison—only hinted at the social activism in which she was engaged as a young woman.

The files of Special Olympics and the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and archives from Boston to London, from Palo Alto to Washington, DC, helped clarify the contours of her life, just as conversations with scores of her colleagues, family, and friends filled in its features. Unrestricted access provided by her children to her uncatalogued private papers—thirty-three boxes packed with everything from the well-ordered scrapbooks she kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London, to the poignant thoughts on motherhood she scrawled on a scrap of notepaper after a day of bodysurfing with twelve-year-old Maria at Hyannis Port—deepened the portrait.

What emerges is a complicated figure—a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it. A devout Catholic in a secular age, she was a daily communicant likelier to be carrying rosaries in her purse than a wallet. An ambivalent feminist, she embraced the cause of gender equality but rejected the idea that access to abortion was necessary to achieve it. A champion of self-discipline, she enfolded without judgment those in her family who fell victim to depression or substance abuse or eating disorders, a private struggle she was loathe to confront in herself. A communitarian at heart, she elevated the welfare of the whole above the supremacy of the self, less as a political philosophy than a reflection of her Catholic belief that everyone is part of the body of Christ.

For all of that, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was not the saint her admirers hope the Vatican will one day declare her to be. She enjoyed the entitlements of wealth too much to emulate the selflessness of the women she revered most: Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day. Meekness did not become her. Patience was not one of her virtues. She resembled more the pioneer aviator whose pictures covered her walls as a teenager. She admired Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Eunice said, for her “courage and toughness in a male world and as an explorer of the unknown.”

Eunice followed in her footsteps. She was part visionary and part master tinkerer, quick to recognize a good idea and quicker still to appropriate it in the service of her cause. She was “an intellectual mechanic,” in the view of one of her mentors, Arthur J. Dyck, an ethicist who held a joint appointment at Harvard’s Divinity School and its School of Public Health. “She wanted to fix things.”

In Rockville, Maryland, she stunned the neighbors by operating a summer camp for retarded children on the grounds of Timberlawn, the 250-acre estate the Shrivers leased when they followed Jack to Washington in 1961. In Paris, she horrified the staff by turning the marble foyer of the ambassador’s residence into play space for retarded children from nearby institutions when her husband was US ambassador to France. In China, she ignored protocol to elbow her way inside institutions for retarded children to see for herself the conditions in which they lived. In Washington, she went straight to the Oval Office to chide President Bill Clinton about changes to federal welfare regulations that took hard-won benefits from those she continued to call her “special friends” long after the phrase had fallen out of favor.

If that girl had been born with balls, she would have been a hell of a politician,” Joe Kennedy is reputed to have said of Eunice, an observation that reflected less on her talents than on the limits of his imagination. The self-made multimillionaire could envision either of his older sons the first Catholic president but could not picture his daughter in public office—not among the seven women serving in the House when Jack arrived there in 1947 or the three women in the Senate when he entered the upper chamber in 1953. Breaking barriers was for Kennedy men, not Kennedy women. Men play and women pray; that was Joe Kennedy’s attitude toward his wife and daughters.

Perhaps the least introspective member of a clan scornful of self-reflection, Eunice wasted little energy ruminating about the second-tier status of women in her family, but it hardly escaped her notice that her father had vetoed Jean’s plan to become a doctor or a nurse and Pat’s ambition to pursue a career in business or the law. Of the sisters, only Eunice broke out of the box to which her gender consigned her, finding her way around their father to secure her place in the world and in history.

Needless to say, after so many years of coming here to celebrate Jack and all the boys, it is nice to have an evening for one of the women,” she told an audience gathered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston in 2007 to honor her. Her lips were parted in a smile, but her teeth were clenched.

Instead of stewing about the double standard, she had forged her own path, competing as a young woman with her brothers in athletics, the one arena where gender did not trump skill in the Kennedy family. She was the best sailor in a group of natural mariners, the best tennis player among siblings who had volleyed on the grass courts of Wimbledon and the clay at Cap d’Antibes. Trained by her father not to lose, she rarely did, despite a physical constitution so delicate her family called her “Puny Eunie.”

In Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s stubborn refusal to accept either her body’s own limitations or her father’s low expectations, the seeds of more than Special Olympics were sown. The same willful determination would chart her course on behalf of those denied a chair in the classroom, a place on the playing field, or a job in the workforce. She would provide them with the chance to thrive that had been denied to Rosemary, the sister whose fate, their mother wrote in her memoirs, was “the first of the tragedies that were to befall us.”

It was “all so unnecessary” and so wasteful, Eunice wrote, remembering the long hours her mother had spent working with Rosemary and “taking her to psychologists and to dozens of doctors” only to be told her situation was hopeless. The disastrous lobotomy fulfilled that bleak prophecy, convincing Eunice that doctors knew no more about the causes and treatment of mental retardation than the eugenicists who, early in the twentieth century, had advocated forced sterilization as the most effective means of ridding society of those medicine variously labeled idiots, imbeciles, or morons.

To try to understand what the so-called experts did not about mental retardation became the purpose of Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s life. It is impossible to make sense of that life without examining the cause that gave it meaning. Her story is that story, too.

Eunice was not the first to express outrage at the plight of those children. Her efforts built on a nascent movement led by parents struggling to keep their disabled children at home, by lawmakers fighting for funds to educate those children, by park workers developing recreational programs for them, by progressive superintendents at state institutions championing their right to be treated with dignity, and by civil rights lawyers seeking court orders to force reform on less enlightened asylum administrators.

Her genius was not in getting there first. It was in finding and promoting the best ideas and carrying them out on a grand scale. She used the Kennedy name to kick open doors all over the world, and for more than forty years, she barged through them, hectoring, demanding, and working harder than anyone in the room to get done what others said could not be done.

It turned out that Joe Kennedy had been wrong about his daughter. Her sex did not disqualify her from a career in politics. No one in Congress who tried to cut an appropriation she wanted, no one in a corporate boardroom who tried to dodge a sponsorship role in Special Olympics, no acquaintance who tried to avoid volunteering at the games doubted that Eunice Kennedy Shriver was as equipped as any man to work her will and get her way.

But a mercurial temperament, common enough in men but anathema in women, might well have proven an insurmountable bar to elective office. Impatient and insistent, she was the definition of impolitic. In her missionary zeal, she did not much care whom she offended in pursuit of her aims. She left it to others to smooth the feathers she invariably ruffled along the way. The same was said of her father and of her younger brother Bobby. But they were Kennedy men, not a Kennedy woman.

The qualities that might have inhibited a career as a politician enhanced Eunice’s effectiveness as an advocate. Good intentions did not impress her; results did. She measured herself, and everyone around her, by what got done, not by what got promised. It is no wonder then that President Kennedy instructed his aides to “just give Eunice what she wants,” not because she was an irritant, although she could be that, but because he trusted that, on issues that mattered to her, his sister had figured out what worked.

Her influence did not end that awful day in Dallas. For more than four decades, Republican and Democratic presidents alike took her calls, read her memos, and responded to her requests. Presidents from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush honored her. In 1984, Ronald Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1998, Bill and Hillary Clinton celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Special Olympics with her at the White House.

Every award, whether from the Lasker Foundation for her contributions to medical research, or from the University of Notre Dame for her embodiment of Catholic principles, cited compassion as the engine that propelled her to fight for the forgotten. That she was moved by their plight is indisputable. But empathy alone did not fuel her activism. There was also rage. Rage at the impotence of a medical establishment that had no answers for her sister. Rage at the lack of respect for life in a society more focused on personal fulfillment than communal responsibility. Rage at the inability, or unwillingness, of government to deliver on America’s promise of equality for all its citizens, no matter how diminished their capacities.

There is little doubt that at least some of that passion was private anger redirected to the public sphere. Anger at the adored but autocratic father who lobotomized a beloved sister. Anger at the pious but passive mother who submitted to Rosemary’s long banishment from the family. Anger at herself and her siblings for allowing themselves to edit the inconvenient Rosemary out of their lives for so many years.

Ironically, it was from the father who had underestimated her that Eunice learned how best to advance her cause. “It is not what you are, it’s what people think you are,” counseled the man who, in one generation, recast the Kennedys from Irish American strivers into American royalty. Social acceptance, of a Catholic president or a retarded child, first required a change in public perception.

That is exactly what Eunice engineered in 1962, when she invited photographers from the Saturday Evening Post magazine to capture images of laughing children in pony carts, on rope swings, in the swimming pool of her backyard; and in 1968, when she recruited professional athletes as their coaches; and in 1972, when she convinced Roone Arledge to televise Special Olympics on ABC’s Wild World of Sports.

When she told me what she wanted, I thought, ‘Nobody is going to watch this, a bunch of crippled kids running around,’?” Frank Gifford, the former New York Giants running back and the program’s host, recalled more than forty years later. “We captured it all on film, and it was one of the most moving things I have ever done. It took away the despair and the fear. They were just kids, having fun. After we put it on television, we picked up crowds all over the country. No one could tell her it wouldn’t work.”

In adopting Joe Kennedy’s marketing methods, Eunice Kennedy Shriver had turned her father’s idea of competition on its head. In the process, she proved herself more than the equal of any man in the Kennedy clan.

About The Author

Roger Pelissier

Eileen McNamara spent nearly thirty years as a journalist at The Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and was among the first to raise the alarm about clergy sexual abuse. She is now the director of the journalism program at Brandeis University. She is the author of Eunice, Breakdown, and The Parting Glass (with Eric Roth).

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 23, 2019)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451642285

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Raves and Reviews

“An ace reporter and an artful storyteller, Eileen McNamara has rendered an indelible portrait of a Kennedy sibling every bit as savvy and accomplished as her celebrated brothers. Indispensable.”
—Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast and Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

“What a perfect combination of author and subject. The great Eileen McNamara shows how Eunice was the real deal Kennedy: tough, effective, and committed to social change.”
—David Maraniss, New York Times bestselling author of Barack Obama: The Story

“McNamara gives us what’s been missing in our vision of America’s First Family: a look at the woman who defied Joe Kennedy’s absent expectations for his daughters, an appreciation for how Eunice made the ignored rights of the intellectually disabled into one of the great civil rights causes, and reason to believe the implausible claim that it was Eunice—not her more celebrated brothers Jack, Bobby and Ted—who crafted the Kennedys’ most monumental legacy.”
—Larry Tye, New York Times bestselling author of Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon

“Spectacular! Who better to write such a terrific biography of Eunice Shriver than Eileen McNamara, who devoted her own Pulitzer Prize-winning career giving voice to victims and the disadvantaged. In McNamara’s piercing reporting and lovely prose, the neglected story of the Kennedy brothers’ indomitable sister gets told for the first time.”
—John A. Farrell, author of Richard Nixon: The Life

“An exemplary biography: thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and just the right length. It deserves a wide readership.”
Publishers Weekly

“Along with providing insights into Eunice’s roles as wife, mother, sister, and daughter, McNamara uses her journalistic prowess to produce a complete and detailed portrait of this spirited and magnetic activist.”

“Compelling.... A clearly written biography crammed full of memorable anecdotes about each of the Kennedys through four generations, about Eunice's influential husband, Sargent Shriver, and about dozens more characters from domestic politics, international diplomacy, and high society.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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