The American Dreamer

Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

The Matriarch

Rose Kennedy

The Namesake

Joseph Kennedy, Jr.

The Second Son

John F. Kennedy

The Leading Lady

Jackie Kennedy

The Righteous One

Bobby Kennedy

The Defiant One

Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy

The Hidden Child

Rosemary Kennedy

The Survivor

Edward "Ted" Moore Kennedy

The Fallen Star

John F. Kennedy, Jr.

The Living Legacy

Caroline Kennedy

The weekend after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a magazine reporter was summoned to the Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod for an exclusive interview. In the conversation that followed, the widowed Jackie Kennedy, making an indelible allusion, likened her husband to one of history’s most gallant figures: King Arthur. “There will be great presidents again,” she said, “but there will never be another Camelot.”

More than half a century later, the Camelot fantasy endures for the United States’ royal family, though perhaps not as much as it used to. Still, this fairy-tale version is far from accurate. What’s less often acknowledged is the family’s complicated legacy. It’s undeniable that many of the Kennedys, against the odds, overcame hardship to achieve mythical status. From Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the grandson of poor Irish immigrants who became a U.S. ambassador, to Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the United States’ first Catholic president and a diplomat in her own right, the story of the Kennedys is one that might never have been known were it not for American grit and ingenuity. And yet the family’s path was also rife with scandal and political missteps.

The Kennedys have made it all seem effortless, of course, but take a look underneath the facade and you will find a group of savvy strivers who fought their way, at times imperfectly, to the top.

For more on their influence and legacy, watch American Dynasties: The Kennedys, Sunday at 9pm EST on CNN.

The American Dreamer

Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

(September 6, 1888–November 18, 1969)

© William Hustler and Georgina Hustler / National Portrait Gallery, London

Before there was “Camelot,” there was Joseph Kennedy, Sr., the grandson of poor Irish immigrants who resolved to rise above the prejudices of his era. Considered second-class in his hometown of Boston in the early 1900s, Joe, Sr., was barred from certain schools, but his mother, a cleaning woman, was determined to seize the reins of American opportunity: She masked his Irish heritage and sent her son to elite institutions. From there, he secured a spot at Harvard.

© William Hustler and Georgina Hustler / National Portrait Gallery, London

At 25, Joe, Sr., became the youngest bank president in the country, as head of Columbia Trust. He went on to become the general manager of one of the nation’s largest shipyards, a stock market investor, and the owner of some of Hollywood’s most glamorous film studios. By the late 1920s, he had accumulated a net worth of $2 million, insulating himself from the havoc of the Wall Street crash.

A major contributor to the Democratic Party and a close friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, Joe Sr., became the first Irish-Catholic ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1938. Despite his success, he never fully embraced his Irish roots, though he did clear the way for his second son to do so.

“When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a stronger desire for liberty,” John F. Kennedy said during a 1963 trip to Ireland. “I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”

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The Matriarch

Rose Kennedy

(July 22, 1890–January 22, 1995)

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

Rose Kennedy raised men with strong political will, a trait she also possessed. In fact, had she been alive today, she might have become the first female president. Politics, in many ways, was her birthright. Long before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, the daughter of John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, Boston’s colorful mayor, was at the center of the political scene. Through her father, Rose learned how to command a room, to be at ease in public, and to run political campaigns.

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

At 21, Rose founded an organization called the Ace of Clubs to help raise money for charities and to foster the skills of young, unmarried women in the greater Boston area. Due to the social expectations of the time, however, she was discouraged from going to college. Instead, her father enrolled her in the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls school in Manhattan that did not grant degrees.

A woman in the early 1900s could only go so far, it seemed. So Rose resolved to raise children who would transcend the limitations imposed on her. In her home, dinner-table conversations were quizzes on current events, history, religion, and geography; her sweaters were pinned with famous quotations that Rose made her children memorize. Even as her kids became adults, Rose remained an estimable force. She hosted “Kennedy teas” during John’s 1952 Senate campaign, for instance, and met with voters every night for six weeks straight during her son’s run for president. Throughout, Rose worked to secure her family’s political legacy with unrivaled fervor.

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The Namesake

Joseph Kennedy, Jr.

(July 25, 1915–August 12, 1944)

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

For all his financial success, Joe Kennedy, Sr., felt there was a glaring hole in his professional life: He never held elected office. In this regard, he raised his firstborn son to realize his unfulfilled political ambitions. Indeed, the child’s destiny seemed determined at birth, when his maternal grandfather, Boston’s mayor, announced to the press that the newborn would one day become president. At home, Joe, Jr. was groomed for a life of leadership, from monitoring his siblings’ etiquette to carving the meat at the head of the table when his parents were absent.

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

In the fall of 1940, as the country geared up for World War II, Joe, Jr., dropped out of law school to join the Navy Air Corps. In a time when the privileged and wealthy often evaded military service—even his father had dodged the draft—Joe, Jr., felt compelled to enlist. Whether he did so out of a sense of duty or because he felt it necessary to build his presidential bonafides didn't matter in the end; the decision would prove fateful, when, in 1944, he volunteered for a secret and dangerous mission, operating some of the first military drone aircraft.

It was a Sunday afternoon in the middle of August when the Kennedy household received word that the 29-year-old was missing in action. His death was the first in a series of misfortunes now referred to as “the Kennedy curse.” But while Joe, Jr., would never realize his Oval Office dreams, his death also cleared the way for his brother Jack. As the younger Kennedy put it to his friend Red Fay: “Now the burden falls on me.”

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The Second Son

John F. Kennedy

(May 29, 1917–November 22, 1963)

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

Jack was raised in a competitive household in which last place was unacceptable. But a sense of inadequacy followed him throughout his childhood. He grew up in the shadow of his father’s beloved firstborn son—who died in World War II—and an early battle with scarlet fever changed him forever. Fallen arches, bad knees, and chronic colds would plague him well into his presidency, as would a diagnosis of Addison’s disease. Historian and author, Alice L. George, speculates that Jack’s tendency to charm the medical staff at a very young age molded him into becoming a charismatic and admired leader.

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

“For Jack, history was full of heroes,” Jacqueline Kennedy once said, and yet he struggled in his role as leader of a global superpower. He was often so preoccupied with proving the United States’ might abroad—Bay of Pigs, Russia, the space race—that he ignored pressing issues on the home front. By 1963, the year he died, the civil rights movement had reached a tipping point. But the country’s 35th president wouldn’t come to speak out against Southern racism until his younger brother Bobby urged him to address the nation after Alabama governor George Wallace stood at the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from enrolling.

Jack was far from perfect. He had affairs, was known to occasionally cry, was paranoid, sick, fearful. But he also signed into law an act to abolish wage disparity based on sex; endorsed the nation’s biggest civil rights march; and steered the nation away from nuclear war. Jack was—and remains—a beaming symbol of purpose and hope to many Americans. But in the interstices of his greatest accomplishments, we see a man who was human, too.

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The Leading Lady

Jackie Kennedy

(July 28, 1929–May 19, 1994)

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

On Valentine’s Day in 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy was beamed into millions of TV sets across the nation. It was the first broadcast of the presidential residence in history, and on-screen, the First Lady stood in an elegant pencil skirt and pearls. “I think this house will always grow, and should,” she said in her breathy voice. “It just seemed to me such a shame when we came here to find hardly anything of the past in the house.”

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

Despite her reverence for the past, Jackie was a trailblazer who radically reshaped the public role of the First Lady. Her TV debut garnered rapturous reviews and even won her an Emmy. But what many didn’t know was that the broadcast was strategic—practically a Hail Mary for President Kennedy and his plummeting ratings. Although Jackie had never considered herself to be more than a liability to her husband’s political endeavors, she became a political asset. Her charm, wit, and smile made Americans almost forget about the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion just a year earlier.

Although she craved privacy, Jackie recognized the importance of her role and the power she had to shape appearances and narratives. The images Americans have come to know and love of Jackie and her family were curated by the First Lady. Among journalists, for example, she was known to edit her interviews. Even in the aftermath of her husband’s death, she worked endlessly to shape his legacy as an American hero and a martyr of the American cause.

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The Righteous One

Bobby Kennedy

(November 20, 1925–June 6, 1968)

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

When Robert “Bobby” Kennedy entered politics as his brother’s campaign manager in 1960, many questioned if he had the chops. Such skeptics were given additional fodder when JFK won the White House and appointed his brother attorney general. The president’s justification? The 35-year-old law school grad "needs some solid legal experience and this job should provide it."

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

The appointment was a clear case of nepotism. It caused such a row, in fact, that it rightfully ushered in the federal nepotism statute. And yet, Bobby proved himself capable, armed with righteous ambitions. As attorney general, he doubled down on the growing threat of organized crime, which had been largely ignored by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover until 1957. He also took interest in civil rights, reminding the president in a 1963 report that racism was still far from resolved “not only in the South...but throughout the country.”

Bobby would eventually pursue the presidency, on the heels of JFK’s death. Unfortunately, on the 1968 campaign trail, he would meet the same fate as his brother; another victim of tumultuous political times, he was shot and killed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. As he lay mortally wounded, he was still concerned with the welfare of those around him, asking hotel busboy Juan Romero, "Is everybody okay?"

Romero cradled Bobby’s head, placed a rosary in his hand, and responded: "Yes, everybody's okay."

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The Defiant One

Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy

(February 20, 1920–May 13, 1948)

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Kathleen Kennedy and Billy Hartington seemed like the perfect couple. The second Kennedy daughter, nicknamed “Kick” for her free-spirited nature, was a favorite of her doting parents. Billy, meanwhile, was in line to become the Duke of Devonshire. Although they had their differences—he was shy and reserved, she was everything but—it was their divergent faiths that would cause Kick a lifetime of strife. Specifically, it was her mother, Rose, a devout Catholic, who opposed her daughter’s marriage to a Protestant.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

To her, it was an unforgivable act of defiance.

On the day of the wedding—a small, quiet affair in a registry office—Kick’s eldest brother, Joe, Jr., was the only Kennedy to attend. “Marrying outside of the church was probably the worst sin one could commit,” Kick’s namesake and great-grandniece once said.

Just four months after their union, Billy was sent to the Belgian front and was killed by a German sniper. Two years later, Kick would begin an affair with Earl Peter Wentworth Fitzwilliam, a Protestant, drinker, gambler, and married man. Their relationship would push Rose even further from Kick. In a final attempt to reconcile with her family, Kick planned a trip to see her father in Paris. Two days before their meeting, a 10-seat plane, flying in turbulent conditions, crashed in the mountains, killing everyone on board, including the defiant Kennedy. Only her father attended the funeral, and her remains were left in a small church graveyard in Edensor, England.

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The Hidden Child

Rosemary Kennedy

(September 13, 1918–January 7, 2005)

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

In the 1940s, two American psychiatrists aggressively marketed the lobotomy as the next big mental-illness cure. Doctors James Watts and Walter Freeman were not surgeons, but they first performed the dangerous and controversial procedure in 1936 and continued to evangelize on its behalf, both at home and around the globe. Eventually, they caught the attention of Joe Kennedy, Sr.

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

In a time when disabilities were widely misunderstood, Joe, Sr., desperately wanted to correct what he viewed as a blemish on the family reputation: his eldest daughter, Rosemary. Although Rosemary was not significantly disabled, she stood out in a house full of competitive siblings. She was frequently held back in school, was never allowed to leave the house alone, and often ran away in frustration. Physicians offered malformed diagnoses, while the Catholic church deemed her an abomination. As a solution, Rosemary was sent to a convent, but she quickly fell out of line. Preoccupied with the political careers of Bobby and John, Joe, Sr., frantically searched for a fix.

At 23, Rosemary had her curls shaved and was strapped to an operating table against her will. The procedure turned out to be disastrous; she was left mentally incapacitated and never recovered from the brutal surgery. Posing a threat to the family’s veneer of perfection, Rosemary was institutionalized and hidden from public view for 20 years.

Though she suffered in silence for that time, Rosemary’s tragedy became a cause for redemption among family members who had no say in the operation. Her older brother Jack, as president, established the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, while Eunice, her sister and later her caretaker, went on to become one of the founders of the Special Olympics.

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The Survivor

Edward “Ted” Moore Kennedy

(February 22, 1932–August 25, 2009)

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

On the evening of July 18, 1969, while most Americans were home watching updates on the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, Edward “Ted” Moore Kennedy, along with his cousin Joe Gargan, hosted a campaign reunion party and cookout at a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island, on Martha’s Vineyard.

© John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

By then, Ted, the youngest Kennedy brother, had been serving as a U.S. senator since 1962, succeeding his brother when he moved on to the presidency. In that time, he had earned a reputation as a skilled orator, and few would have argued that his political career was off to a promising start. That would all change, however, when his cookout made headlines the following morning.

At the party, around 11 p.m., a campaign worker named Mary Jo Kopechne asked Ted for a ride home. Though he had been drinking, the senator obliged. After taking a sharp turn, Ted’s Oldsmobile careened off a wooden bridge and into a tide-swept pond. He survived; Kopechne did not. Ten hours later, the incident was finally reported, but only after Ted made several on-the-record phone calls to his friends, family, lawyers, and advisors. Speculation that the senator had been buying time to establish an alibi ran rampant.

In the fallout from the incident, Ted pleaded guilty to leaving the scene and received relatively light sentencing, resuming his post shortly thereafter. He would also issue a televised statement. While Kennedy’s power and influence might have helped him avoid more serious charges, the accident derailed any presidential aspirations he might have had and served as a permanent stain on his conscience, even as he held his Senate seat until the day he died. In 1998, in a 60 Minutes segment, he would reflect, saying, “That will remain with me for my whole life."

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The Fallen Star

John F. Kennedy, Jr.

(November 25, 1960–July 16, 1999)

Photo by Brownie Harris/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

From the moment he was born, John F. Kennedy, Jr., was consumed by a culture of celebrity. Arriving just two weeks after his father’s election to the presidency, John, Jr., was forever in the public eye: his baptism, his first Christmas, his first teeth, even the time he caught a cold. Before he turned four years old, he had already been the subject of one of the nation’s most haunting photographs, in which he was captured saluting his father’s casket.

Photo by Brownie Harris/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

As he grew older, John, Jr.’s short but colorful life remained well-documented. Through the press, we followed his progress through college, law school, and the bar exam. Eventually, fittingly, he founded his own publication, George. Like his father, he possessed wealth and charisma, becoming a socialite and attracting famous girlfriends. In 1988, he was named “The Sexiest Kennedy” by People magazine. It wasn’t all glamorous, though. The tabloids also picked up on the darker bits of his life, like the details of his imperfect marriage with Carolyn Bessette and the decline of his magazine.

Also, like his father, John, Jr., couldn’t escape the family curse. In 1999, he, Carolyn, and Carolyn’s sister Lauren died when the airplane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. But even in death, the American public can’t get enough of the fallen star: In a 2017 interview with CNN for a program about the crash, Carole Radziwill, a Kennedy cousin who was the last person to speak to the couple, recalled how Carolyn said, “I love you” and “I’ll call you when I land.” Per Radziwill, “That was the last I ever heard from her or anyone."

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The Living Legacy

Caroline Kennedy

(November 27, 1957–Present)

Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

The American public was intent on Caroline Kennedy becoming the country’s next princess. For the first few years of her life, the media couldn’t get enough of the little girl who walked her father to the Oval Office every morning and rode her pony on the White House lawn. But the limelight didn’t last. After her father’s assassination, Caroline moved far from the nation’s capital and curious onlookers. Unlike her brother John, Jr., she prioritized maintaining a balance between privacy and politics.

Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Caroline, a 1988 Columbia Law graduate, became a lawyer, a published writer, and eventually, a U.S. ambassador to Japan during President Barack Obama’s administration. To this day, she serves on a number of civil rights and education committees. In 2008, Caroline vied to replace Hillary Clinton’s seat in the Senate, but the buzz was quickly extinguished when she withdrew her bid for “personal reasons.”

Although she didn’t go on to fulfill her family’s political legacy of being elected to office, Caroline’s second cousin, Joseph P. Kennedy III, would. Earlier this year, with a smile pleasantly familiar to his great-uncle’s, the U.S representative delivered his party’s official response to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address. For many, the speech was a trip down memory lane. For others, it hinted at a bright future. (Joe III has been called the “next best hope for his party” and even the “Kennedy Comeback.”)

As he put it that night, “Politicians can be cheered for the promises they make. Our country will be judged by the promises we keep. That is the measure of our character. That’s who we are.”

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