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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS : Rose Kennedy Doesn't Tell All With Much Literary Flair : TIMES TO REMEMBER by Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy ; Doubleday $25, 461 pages

March 24, 1995|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First published more than 20 years ago, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's autobiography has been reissued with a brief introduction by four of her surviving children.

Completed when the author was 84, the book is primarily a personal history fleshed out by diary notes, letters and a generous selection of photographs. Graceful, modest and supremely ladylike, "Times to Remember" is also fascinating American social history, tracing the rising fortunes of two Irish immigrant families who came to America in the mid-19th Century to escape the famine that devastated their homeland.

Quoting Emerson, Kennedy reminds the reader that "properly there is no such thing as history, only biography"--defining her own memoir as "a book about my husband and myself, with something about our parents and a great deal about our children, in their settings, their humanity, their natures and their destinies."

By the end of the book, it is clear that she has completely succeeded in her intent, though anyone expecting astonishing revelations or undisclosed incidents will not find them here. The crucial words in her preface are "something" and "a great deal," clues that you are not to expect "everything" or even a single snippet of information that has not been previously reported in the millions of words written about this singular family.

Personal history need only be as candid as the author wishes to make it, and Kennedy was the Grand Duchess of Discretion, the Empress of Euphemism. She concentrates upon the praiseworthy, of which there was more than enough to fill another volume of equal length, and gives short shrift to the rest.

Read this book to learn how one woman managed to sustain herself and her family in the face of incredible trials and devastating tragedies. Read it as a testimonial to the cardinal virtues--prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude--by one whose life was a shining example of four.

The account of Rose Fitzgerald's early years as the well-loved daughter of an eminently successful Boston politician is lively and candid. She was a vivacious, attractive young woman, reared gently but strictly. Her style in recounting those years of convent school, parties, holidays, travel and her courtship by Joseph Patrick Kennedy is charming and frank, for good reason.

The only time she ever disobeyed her parents was when she and Joe Kennedy devised stratagems to see one another more frequently than her family wished. Once they ducked into a Christian Science church to avoid notice; on other occasions Joe filled out her dance card with false names. By the time the roaring '20s were under way, Rose was married and the mother of several children. By 1932 there were nine.

Her husband was a shrewd and an eminently successful banker; one left virtually untouched by the Great Depression. Life in the Kennedy household continued as before, with summers on Cape Cod and winters in Palm Beach.

Although there were loyal retainers to look after the details, Rose herself deftly managed the large establishments, often alone for months at a time while Joe was away overseeing his increasingly diversified business interests.

The author mentions Joe's success in the film industry ("Gloria Swanson was our house guest for a couple of days in Bronxville and brought along her small daughter"), discusses his support for Franklin Roosevelt and the appointment as ambassador to England ("The British press seemed fascinated by the idea of a large and lively Boston Irish family descending on the London diplomatic scene"). She writes of the years abroad with verve and considerable humor.

Domestic details and amusing anecdotes abound; difficulties were overcome and the Kennedys' lives seemed charmed until the death of their eldest son, Joe Jr., at the controls of a bomber in flight over England in 1944, and of their daughter Kathleen in an alpine plane crash in 1948.

Their daughter Rosemary had been ensconced in an English convent specializing in mental problems until the family returned from England and her condition abruptly deteriorated. ("Rosemary's was the first of the tragedies that were to befall us. . . . A neurological disturbance . . . had overtaken her, and it was becoming progressively worse. . . . The advice, finally, was that Rosemary should undergo a certain form of neurosurgery.") The procedure was unsuccessful, and Rosemary would spend the rest of her life in custodial care.

The catastrophes that followed are handled with delicacy, restraint and a remarkable lack of self-pity. The disaster at Chappaquiddick is covered in two pages. ("From my own impressions of (Ted) during the days following, his actions and ideas were those of a person in a state of shock.")

Kennedy doesn't tell all, but what she does discuss is recounted with considerable literary flair. Others have been eager and willing to fill in the various blanks beneath the dignity and lofty principles of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. She, after all, promised only "Times to Remember" and they are, essentially, all here.

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