Culture

The Kennedys: Fact or Fiction

The Kennedy family © JFK Library Archive

Editor's Note:

Kerri Maher is also the author of This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World under the name Kerri Majors. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and founded YARN, an award-winning literary journal of short-form YA writing. A writing professor for many years, she now writes full-time and lives with her daughter in Massachusetts, where apple picking and long walks in the woods are especially fine.

When I began researching and writing The Kennedy Debutante, I was in the luxurious position of not knowing that much about the Kennedy family. Of course, I knew the highlights of JFK’s presidency, and I’d seen many of the movies made about his assassination, plus I knew assorted interesting facts about other members of the family — that Eunice founded the Special Olympics, for instance — but I was not what one would call a Kennedy devotee.

This turned out to be a real boon to writing and researching the family because I didn’t enter the material with a lot of preconceived ideas about the real people who would become my fictional characters. So much of what I read in the course of my research was refreshing and new.

I loved learning, for instance, that Rose Kennedy — one of the wealthiest and best dressed women in the world — loved a bargain. In one of her marvelous round-robin letters to the family in 1943, she wrote, “ I have never seen such crowds in New York City, especially at Bergdorf’s, where they seem to be buying those expensive shoes at $20 a pair.” First, I burst out laughing at the whole notion of “expensive” $20 shoes! Then, the many layers of this detail sank in, including that Rose was a woman who thought about money, who noticed details, and who wanted to send messages to her children about what was expensive and what wasn’t. This one small detail in her own voice reinforced many other things I read about Rose and the family, such as how she kept track of her children’s weight on index cards, and how each of the children had to live within a budget — in fact, Kick corresponded frequently with the family money manager about her allowances for clothing and the like.

There were places where I bumped up against what I thought were facts about the Kennedys, and my preconceived ideas were either supported or upturned. For instance, I’d, of course, heard that JFK was a playboy and that he’d likely had an affair with Marilyn Monroe, among other women. But to be honest, I’d never been sure how much credence to give those rumors until I began reading about his antics as a handsome, smart ambassador’s son abroad; perhaps more so, my ideas about Jack evolved after learning about his first proposal of marriage to Francis Ann Cannon, a Protestant, and how she turned him down, then about his devotion to journalist Inga Arvaad, and how his father stood between her and his son. I thought, if it had become clear to Jack as a very young man that he would never be allowed to have the women he truly wanted, surely he would have wondered if there was any point in settling down at all.

Another mythic character I struggled with was Joe Sr. I had, of course, heard that Joseph P. Kennedy was deeply anti-Semitic, prone to ugly comments about Jewish people he knew in the film industry and the press. So I was surprised to learn that as an ambassador, he actually tried to help Jewish people out of Germany. And I discovered that his isolationism and appeasement of Hitler, had less to do with his feelings about Jewish people than his quite fatherly desire to keep his sons’ generation out of a bloodbath. In fact, I found Joe to be a sympathetic parent in many respects, which made it hard for me to believe he would have cold-heartedly subjected his oldest daughter Rosemary to a lobotomy, as some have assumed. Though Joe was not the focus of my research and I would never purport to be an expert on him, what I learned about him did reveal him to be more complex than I had once believed.

Best of all, I knew absolutely nothing about Kick when I started The Kennedy Debutante, so I didn’t have to contend with any prior knowledge about her. I was enthralled as I learned about her love for Billy Cavendish, and her deep and formative bonds with older siblings Joe Jr., Jack, and Rosemary. Her life unfolded to me as it will to readers, who I hope will be as surprised, saddened, and inspired by her story as I was.