THE story of the Kennedy family is a never ending, real-life soap opera. The drama, which ranges from epic tragedy to sordid melodrama, includes dedication to worthy causes and tawdry self-destructive behavior.
In ``The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family,'' Laurence Leamer tells it all in a tone that varies from neutral narrative to warm sympathy. The book moves from one individual to another in anecdotes that range in length from a paragraph or two to several pages. By focusing on the women, Leamer provides a fresh view of familiar - and unfamiliar - facts about the men.
Immigrant Bridget Murphy Kennedy can fairly be credited with founding the family fortune. Widowed early, she earned enough money from her small East Boston store to start her only son, Patrick Joseph (P.J.), in the liquor business. He prospered and became a state senator. The next generation saw two major Irish Catholic political families joined when Rose Fitzgerald, the mayor's daughter, married Bridget's grandson, Joseph Kennedy.
The center of this history of women is Rose, yet she remains somewhat enigmatic and shadowy throughout. A devout Roman Catholic and proud mother of nine children (Joe Jr., Jack, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Pat, Bobby, Jean, and Ted), she seems to have ignored her husband's flagrant infidelities, behavior echoed by many of her daughters and daughters-in-law. Conscientious in supervising the health, athletic activities, and education of her offspring, she apparently gave them everything but warmth.
Rose did not stop Joe when he insisted that ``slow'' Rosemary undergo a lobotomy intended to control her occasional outbursts of temper. The operation left her with even less mental capacity than before. Joe Jr.'s death in World War II and the plane crash that killed Kathleen shortly after the war were other losses that Rose endured stoically before the tragedies of Jack and Bobby.
Like her other daughters - and her son's wives - Rose played a strong supporting role in the political careers of the Kennedy men. When Jack Kennedy first ran for office in Massachusetts, his mothers and sisters organized receptions and teas across the state, an enormously successful strategy that was repeated in many subsequent campaigns. Yet when Jack became president, he did not give women a significant number of jobs in his administration, and none of the Kennedy women made any effort to push for the advancement of women. Not until Jean Kennedy Smith was appointed ambassador to Ireland by President Clinton did any Kennedy woman have a political position in her own right.
Completed just after Jackie Kennedy Onassis's death last May, the final chapter describes her funeral and the thoughts of many of the Kennedy women during the service, and then concludes with an anecdote about Rose. Now, age 104, she watches videos of the Kennedys edited to delete the unhappy events. ``Rosemary was young and beautiful,'' Leamer writes. ``Joe Jr. did not die in the plane exploding over England. Kathleen lived on eternally young.... Jack never flew to Dallas, Bobby never reached Los Angeles on his presidential campaign, and Teddy never drove across a tiny bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick. Joe was always loyal and strong and good. And Jackie was still alive.''
For those who want the full story of America's ``royal'' family, Leamer's book offers the uncut version.