The Kennedy family is largely considered to be America’s unofficial royal family, and indeed, the proverbial crown has been incredibly heavy. Generation upon generation has experienced great triumphs and tremendous tragedies. Here is the untold truth of the Kennedys.
Political roots run deep
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (known simply as "Jack" or "JFK") became the most historically well-known of his namesake after being elected President of the United States in 1960, but the truth of the matter is that he was groomed for a life of public service by a string of political patriarchs. JFK’s father, Joe Kennedy, was a businessman who held a high position in the Democratic Party and was heavily involved with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s early campaigns, for which he was awarded several power positions (more on this below.) Joe inherited the political gene from his own dad, P.J. Kennedy, who was a leading figure in the party’s Boston branch in the late 1800s and served in the Massachusetts state congress for more than a decade.
JFK’s maternal grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, was also a prominent figure in Beantown at the turn of the century, serving as a state senator and congressman before becoming the mayor of Boston in 1906. Interestingly enough, Fitzgerald and P.J. were political rivals until their respective children, Rose Fitzgerald and Joe, united the families in matrimony.
Sadly, P.J. predeceased his grandson staking his claim to the White House, but both Joe and John Fitzgerald heavily participated in JFK’s early campaign strategies.
Joseph Kennedy Sr. supported Hitler
JFK’s father may not have fully realized his own political aspirations, but according to historians, he had a lot of high hopes and was willing to go to extremes to get his way—including dropping his trousers for then-sitting President Roosevelt to earn his much-wanted post as ambassador to the United Kingdom. Joe had been active in FDR’s initial campaign for the Oval Office and was reportedly appointed to the newly-formed Securities Exchange and Maritime Commission as a reward.
Joe and Roosevelt reportedly fell out of love with one another during World War II. According to the Daily Beast, the ambassador spent his time overseas consorting with "Britain’s notorious circle of Jew-hating aristocratic appeasers…His disreputable behavior sorely tested the limits of both the State Department’s and Roosevelt’s patience." As the Daily Beast reported, Joe’s "biggest fear was not that Hitler would be stopped, but that the West would try to stop him." He also reportedly suggested the United States adopt "a fascist-style economic program."
Despite their political and personal falling out, FDR sent Joe a personal letter of condolence when his eldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., was killed during WWII.
The disappearance of Rosemary
Perhaps the darkest moment in the Kennedys dynastic history dates back to JFK’s youth, when his then-23-year-old sister was secretly lobotomized at the insistence of her father. According to People, Rosemary was considered "intellectually disabled" and her father feared she’d become pregnant. After the "catastrophic" procedure, she had the "mental capacity of a toddler" and was sent away to live at a facility for the mentally ill, the magazine reported.
Rosemary’s brothers and sisters thought she had vanished. According to People, "it would be another two decades–after Joe became incapacitated by a severe stroke in 1961– before any of Rosemary’s eight siblings would learn the truth about their sister’s disappearance." After sending her away to the Saint Coletta Catholic institution, Rosemary’s father never saw her again.
The Kennedy ‘curse’
The Kennedy family has endured so many heartaches that some consider the lineage to be cursed. In 1944, JFK’s older brother. Joseph Jr., was killed in action during WWII. Before his death, Joe Sr. had hoped his eldest would eventually run for president. That paternal ambition was bequeathed to JFK.
Kathleen "Kick" Cavendish, JFK’s sister, died in a plane crash, along with her married lover, at just 28 years old in 1948. JFK was only 46 when he was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963, shortly before the close of his first term as the 35th president of the United States. His brother, Sen. Robert Kennedy (known as "Bobby," or "RFK,") was also assassinated at a hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California presidential primary in June 1968. He was 42 years old. The youngest brother, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, died from brain cancer on Aug. 25, 2009 at age 77. Of the nine children of Rose and Joe Kennedy, only one survives today: Jean Ann Kennedy Smith, the former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, who celebrated her 89th birthday in 2017.
This legacy of loss continued with the next generation. JFK and his wife, Jacqueline, suffered a miscarriage in 1955, gave birth to a stillborn daughter she called Arabella in 1956, and lost their premature infant son, Patrick Bouvier, after 39 hours in 1963, reported The Washington Post.
Additionally, RFK’s son, 28-year-old David Kennedy, was found dead of an overdose in a Palm Beach, Fla. hotel on April 25, 1984; David’s brother, Michael Kennedy, died at 39 in a 1997 skiing accident.
John F. Kennedy Jr., who so famously saluted his father’s coffin in front of the world, died July 16, 1999, when the plane he was piloting off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard crashed into the Atlantic. The 38-year-old and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, 33, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, 34, were killed in the crash.
JFK’s long list of alleged affairs
Although Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis remains one of the nation’s most beloved former first ladies, JFK was said to have carried on extramarital affairs with a host of women—some more famous than others. Most notorious was his alleged romance with iconic actress Marilyn Monroe, who so famously dazzled him with her "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" stage performance in 1962.
He was also reportedly linked to stripper Blaze Starr, who claimed to have carried on an affair with the then-future President in a 1989 People magazine interview. Actress Marlene Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, claimed her mother had a brief fling with JFK in the White House several years after she’d been courted by his married father, Joe Sr.
JFK’s alleged dalliances also reportedly included affairs with Jackie’s secretary, Pamela Turnure, with the controversial and allegedly mob-connected Judith Campbell Exner, with White House interns Mimi Alford, Priscilla Wear, and Jill Cowen, and with Swedish socialite Gunilla von Post.
Did Jackie have a scandalous side too?
She may have appeared pristine to most of America, but "Jackie O" has been linked to her own series of scandals, which allegedly took place before and after her tenure as first lady. For starters, reports suggest she intentionally played up her French pedigree above her Irish heritage (thus the emphasis on the Bouvier name). She also reportedly had a long-standing pen pal relationship with a priest–that connection was brought to light through a series of increasingly personal letters spanning 14 years that were recovered from her personal archives. It was also revealed posthumously that she held controversial opinions about other high-profile figures of her time, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lady Bird Johnson.
Perhaps most stunning of all was the intimate connection drawn between Jackie and her late husband’s younger brother, Bobby, following JFK’s death through RFK’s own assassination. Rumor has it Jackie’s relationship with her eventual husband, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (who had also dated Jackie’s younger sister,) initially began in retaliation over Bobby’s other extramarital affairs. According to the Daily Mail, Aristotle and Jackie "had an open marriage until his death in 1975.
The other Jack Junior?
A financier named Jack Worthington II came forth to claim that he was the biological son of the late JFK in a 2008 interview with Vanity Fair. The Kennedy family rebuffed his story, but Worthington claimed his mother revealed his true parentage when he expressed concerns about potentially passing down a genetic condition connected to the man he called dad, Jack Worthington. The younger Jack claimed his mother, a former beauty queen, said he needn’t worry about the genetic condition because his true father was JFK.
Jackie’s White House
The issues of their marital sanctity notwithstanding, Jackie was an absolute boon for JFK’s popularity and made a lasting impact on the White House with her signature style. Her fashion sense is still revered today., and as first lady, she oversaw a $2 million renovation at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She offered the first televised tour of the presidential estate on Valentine’s Day 1962, which attracted 80 million viewers.
It was Jackie who also likened the Kennedys to royalty when she drew a connection between her late husband and King Arthur of Camelot just days after his death. So the story goes, Jackie met with Life magazine journalist Theodore White soon after burying her husband. During that interview, she connected his death to the mythology of the storied king, revealing that she and JFK were fans of the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical Camelot and that her late husband was particularly fond of the lyrics, "Don’t ever let it be forgot/ that once there was a spot/ for one brief shining moment/ that was Camelot." In Jackie’s words, "There will be great Presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot… It will never be that way again."
White’s story, published Dec. 6, 1963, forever linked the name "Camelot" to JFK’s term in office and the Kennedy legacy at large. It seems fitting, then, that the Secret Service code name for JFK was "Lancer," which sounds a lot like Lancelot.
JFK battled serious health problems
Because he did not die of natural causes, people tend to forget that JFK battled several serious illnesses during his life. Though many of his ailments were kept secret during his campaign, his myriad health issues reportedly included serious childhood bouts with scarlet fever, colitis (which was initially suspected to be leukemia,) measles, mumps, whooping cough, bronchitis, appendicitis (which necessitated an appendectomy,) ulcers, and chronic lower back problems. During his service in the Navy, he suffered a back injury during a tour in the Solomon Islands in 1944 that ended his military career.
JFK underwent spinal fusion surgery to relieve his chronic pain from collapsed vertebrae in 1954, and the surgery nearly cost him his life—he even went into a coma and had his last rites administered by a priest. However, he ultimately pulled through and wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, while recovering from the operation. During his presidency, he also reportedly suffered with the Addison’s disease, which required regular steroid treatments, as well as urinary tract infections, allergies, and a short run-in with mood disorientation—that’s all on top of the lifelong gastrointestinal issues and chronic back pain that continued to plague him.
To maintain his powerful presidential image, JFK’s medical records were kept under wraps for decades. When they were finally made public, the nation was shocked to learn about the commander in chief’s many hospitalizations, chronic pain, and assorted medications.
Did a back brace contribute to JFK’s death?
JFK’s undercover suffering may have played a role in his death. When he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald while riding in a convertible touring Dallas, the president was wearing a corset-style back brace which held his frame upright, even after he was hit in the shoulder and neck. The Parkland Hospital physician who treated JFK for his fatal injuries, Dr. Kenneth Salyer, speculated that if JFK was not wearing the back device, he may not have been hit by the second bullet, which impacted his head and ultimately took his life.
"The first shot that hit him went through the soft tissue of the back of his shoulder…and exited through his trachea. That same bullet went through John Connally’s chest, through his right hand and into his thigh and knocked him completely down in the car," Salyer told CBS News. "And then this is the second shot of JFK… He’s still upright as a target, because he has the brace on, which makes it possible for Lee Harvey Oswald to hit him with a second shot. I think that would not have happened if he had gone down like John Connally did."
JFK Jr. and Caroline’s marriage was no fairy tale
Though their marriage was viewed by outsiders as a fairy tale union, insiders have claimed their relationship was plagued by alleged infidelity, drug use, and potentially even domestic violence. According to Vanity Fair, just days before the fatal plane crash, JFK Jr. and Carolyn’s alleged marital woes had reached a fever pitch, with "John John" telling a friend that he and his wife had reached an impasse over the decision of whether or not to have children together. JFK Jr. supposedly wanted to start a family; Caroline did not.
"It’s impossible to talk to Carolyn about anything." JFK reportedly told a friend (via The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America’s First Family for 150 Years.) "We’ve become like total strangers."
Caroline has been hawking the family estate
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the last surviving child of JFK and Jackie, has picked up the political torch of her family name, serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. But like so many others before her, she has also been mired in controversy. In 2013, she was criticized for attempting to sell the family’s real estate properties for $45 million. This occurred after she and JFK Jr. had already raked in more than $34 million from the sale of their mother’s personal items just two years after Jackie O.’s death. For the latter auction, "even the doors from Jackie’s White House dressing room were ripped off their hinges and put on the block," reported the New York Post.
That aforementioned controversy must not have bothered her too much, because Caroline put some additional personal effects up for sale in 2015—this time, including some never-before-seen family photos.
The family code of silence
In his biography A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction (via People), Sen. Ted Kennedy’s son, Patrick, detailed not only his own personal struggles with addiction and depression but shed light on the familial vow of silence that had lived on through generations of Kennedys. He revealed in his tell-all that after the death of JFK and RFK, his father "went on in silent desperation for most of his life, self-medicating and unwittingly passing his unprocessed trauma onto" his children. As a public figure, Ted "never got to grieve. He had to be there for his country. He had to be there for my family. He had to be there for my Uncle Bobby’s 11 children, and John and Caroline."
Patrick’s elder brother, Edward Kennedy Jr., claimed those statements were inaccurate, but Patrick told 60 Minutes that he expected to receive some backlash for his revelations. "This is like breaking the family code here," Patrick said. "I am now outside the family line. I was hostage to the family code that no, don’t say anything about it. Anything you said, it’s disloyal. It’s against the family code." He said that hush hush maxim also extended to the notion of seeking counsel for mental issues because psychiatrists might be tempted to break their confidentiality credo and spill the family secrets.
Other stories about this so-called code of silent solidarity have tarnished the family legacy. In the book Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Dark Side of the Dream (via the Toronto Sun), author Jerry Oppenheimer writes that JFK. Jr., as assistant district attorney, was pressured to support his cousin, William Kennedy Smith, who went to trial for allegedly raping a woman on a beach vacation. Smith’s "alleged predatory behaviour was a family secret," the Toronto Sun reported. "Against his own wishes (and his mother’s, Jacqueline Onassis), JFK Jr. went twice to the courtroom—during jury selection—in a public display of support…or else harmful information about him would be leaked [by his own family] to the press."