Book Talk: Scholar unearths Rose Kennedy

July 15 [Mon], 2013, 15:17
By Suzanne Barlyn

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rose Kennedy's public image as the stoic matriarch of America's most famous political family is one that she carefully cultivated, but writer Barbara Perry reveals a more vulnerable side in "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch."

The biography of Rose Kennedy, who lived to age 104, includes hundreds of details from her voluminous personal diaries and letters made public by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in 2006.

Perry, a senior fellow and associate professor in the Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia, has written other books, including "Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier."

Perry spoke to Reuters about her interest in the Kennedy family and her research process.

Q: What sparked your lifelong interest in the Kennedys?

A: My mother took me to a JFK rally in Louisville when I was four. On October 5, 1960, my mother piled me and my two older brothers into our '56 Chevy and drove to downtown Louisville. It helped me to understand his grip on the American people.

Q: Was there a process for deciding who would write Rose Kennedy's biography?

A: No. Presidential libraries are sponsored by the National Archives, in part, and they are public facilities. Anyone can go into the archive room at the library and say "I'm here to look at the Rose Kennedy papers."

In my case, I had to figure out how to narrow down from the 250 boxes what would be most useful. What was difficult was the sheer voluminous numbers of papers, and files, and photographs. She lived to 104 and kept everything.

Q: How did you work through the volumes of papers?

A: I decided to begin with her 1974 memoir, "Times to Remember." There's a huge component of Rose Kennedy's papers devoted to producing that book. Particularly, I was interested in her image creation.

I began combing through all of the things she collected to do that book and then very quickly got into what I will call the oral history - the many, many taped conversations that her ghost writer, Robert Coughlan, did with her and of her as they began to produce that book.

Q: Your book shows a less perfect side. What were you trying to do by bringing out those details?

A: First of all, let Rose be Rose. I just felt her voice had often been subsumed under the men's. That was one of my goals - to let her speak through her diary and through her letters, memos and oral history.

But it's not always an edifying message - because she could be a difficult woman, so caught up in this image making that I think she maybe sometimes lost the larger meaning of life or put people off in her own family. The concept of creating an image of oneself, or ones' family is going to involve some sleight of hand. I came across that on occasion.

Q: I really liked her bouffant hair.

A: Yes, that she was so proud of. She was pretty proud she didn't go gray, just like her mother.

On her travel list, I discovered a wig stand and a wig. Ladies like that had their hair done at least once a week and at least more often. I'd see in her date book - whenever she was about to do a big event, off to the hairdresser she would go, or the hairdresser would come to her home.

She was totally into the image thing. The matron of makeover.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Dan Grebler)