Picks and Pans Review: The Kennedy Women

updated 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Laurence Leamer

In the spring of 1849, 27-year-old Bridget Murphy met a young farmer, Patrick Kennedy, aboard the Washington Irving as it sailed from Liverpool to Boston. In this well-paced, highly readable best-seller, Laurence Leamer cites that moment as the beginning of the Kennedy dynasty.

Five months later, Bridget married Patrick, who was by then working steadily as a cooper. Nine years later, after her husband's death, Bridget prospered with a tiny grocery store. One of her 25 grandchildren was the political family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy.

The author, whose previous work includes King of the Night, a biography of Johnny Carson, examines the lives of five generations of Kennedy women, beginning with Bridget and concluding with the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What sets this work apart from scores of other Kennedy books is its unique focus and the richness of its social, cultural and historic detail.

Although the The Kennedy Women is unauthorized, Learner did interview JFK's sisters Eunice (who made her sister Kathleen's letters available), Jean and Patricia; Senator Ted and his former wife, Joan; and six Kennedy cousins. His treatment is restrained, sympathetic and often moving.

Still, Learner includes some scandalous tidbits: Widowed Kathleen, he writes, was on her way to a weekend love tryst in the South of France when her plane crashed in 1948; in the mid-'60s Jean Kennedy Smith (Willie's mother) had a nearly yearlong affair with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner; and Joan was not the only Kennedy woman with an addiction to alcohol (according to Learner, Patricia also had a problem). Saddest and most shocking, though, is his account of Rosemary's lobotomy, a decision her father made because he feared his slightly retarded 23-year-old daughter might become pregnant when she began straying from the convent where she lived.

There was never a trace of feminism among the Kennedys. The women merely became adept at dissembling and at denial as the men in their lives lusted for power, money and other women. It took five generations before they were able to break away from an immigrant culture, which taught its daughters to "get up to let your brother sit down." (Villard, $27.50)

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