30 Incredible Facts You Never Knew About the Kennedy Family

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 30, 2020 3:55:53 PM ET
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If the United States had a royal family, it would undoubtedly be the Kennedys. Even before John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Americans were fascinated by the seemingly perfect family. As the quintessential American family, everything about them was alluring, from their attractive good looks and intelligence to their money, regal lifestyle and endless political popularity.

In 2019, you might think there couldn’t be anything left to discover about the popular Massachusetts clan, but you would be wrong. Check out these 30 incredible facts that could take your understanding of America’s favorite dynasty to a whole new level.

Joseph Kennedy Had His Own Political Ambitions

The Kennedy children were involved in politics mostly because their father, Joseph (Joe) P. Kennedy Sr. had his own political ambitions. The American businessman and investor hoped to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, but he had to convince his good friend, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that he was right for the job.

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Photo Courtesy: J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

In 1937, Roosevelt invited Kennedy to his office. After hearing his request to be the U.S. ambassador, the president asked him, "Would you mind taking your pants down?" Kennedy was certainly shocked but ultimately dropped his pants. Roosevelt then explained Kennedy couldn’t be the country’s envoy in London because of his legs, as the ambassador’s induction ceremony involved wearing "knee britches and silk stockings."

He Continued to Dream Big

In 1937, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was appointed the first Chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission. This position built on his wartime experience as an assistant general manager of a Bethlehem Steel shipyard in the Boston area. Despite this appointment, Kennedy continued to aspire to a more significant role in politics.

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Photo Courtesy: Hans Wild/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Kennedy was not originally selected as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, but President Roosevelt finally agreed to appoint him to the position in 1938. Kennedy enjoyed this leadership position, which introduced him to London high society, and he hoped to succeed Roosevelt in the White House in 1940. That didn’t happen, of course, but perhaps that’s why he pushed his children to choose politics as their careers.

One Big Family

Sometimes, people forget just how large the Kennedy family was. Joseph and Rose Kennedy, who married in 1914, had nine children: Joseph "Joe" Patrick Jr., John "Jack" Fitzgerald, Rose Marie "Rosemary," Kathleen "Kick" Agnes, Eunice Mary, Patricia "Pat" Helen, Robert "Bobby" Francis, Jean Ann and Edward "Ted" Moore.

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Joe Kennedy Sr. had a tradition of giving his wife a gift every time she had a child. After giving her a diamond bracelet on the birth of their eighth child, Jean, Joe (jokingly?) said he would give Rose a black eye if she became pregnant again. As we know, she gave birth to Ted in 1932. She hid it well if she got a black eye.

Rose Kennedy Was a Countess

The Kennedy family is known for practicing the Catholic faith, which stemmed from the family’s matriarch, Rose Kennedy. A devout Catholic, Rose was deeply embedded in the "lace curtain" Irish Catholic community in Boston, where her father (John F. Fitzgerald) was the mayor.

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Kennedy’s strict Catholic faith often placed her at odds with her children. However, she remained committed to the church, and Pope Pius XII honored her with the title of Countess in 1951 to celebrate her dedication to the church as well as her "exemplary motherhood and many charitable works." Even after her 100th birthday in 1990, she rarely missed Sunday mass.

The Family's Strict Rules

In 2017, lost interviews with Rose Kennedy revealed she had extremely strict rules and regulations, including weighing her children once a week. They could not eat certain foods, like ice cream. She was also known to physically punish her nine children with a ruler or a coat hanger if they misbehaved at the dinner table. Lateness wasn’t tolerated, and they were instructed to present research reports at dinner.

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In addition, the Kennedy children were not allowed to cry. She kept this tradition in place for her grandchildren as well. Following John F. Kennedy’s death, Rose said, "It would be selfish and demoralizing to focus on our tragedies… If you cry, you’ll be sent back to wherever you come from. I insisted that."

The Family's Black Sheep

It seems every famous family has a black sheep. In the Kennedy family, it was the fourth child, Kathleen. Nicknamed "Kick" for her reported "irrepressible nature," Kathleen was very unlike her brothers and sisters. "She was the only rebel of the family," said biographer Lynne McTaggart. "She was the only one (in the Kennedy clan) who didn’t march down the prescribed road."

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Instead, Kathleen angered her parents by marrying a Protestant lord, William "Billy" Cavendish, heir to the Duke of Devonshire. Unfortunately, the marriage ended in tragedy when Cavendish died a few short weeks later in World War II. Kathleen also died at a very young age (28) in a plane crash a few years later in 1948. Only her father, Joe Kennedy Sr., attended the funeral.

Rosemary Kennedy's Disabilities

Rosemary Kennedy was born with mental disabilities. When Rose Kennedy went into labor, the obstetrician was delayed due to a pneumonia epidemic in Boston. To delay the birth, the nurse closed Rose’s legs, hoping this would slow down the labor. When that was unsuccessful, the nurse held Rosemary’s head in the birth canal for two hours, basically depriving her of appropriate levels of oxygen. Not surprisingly, this nightmare delivery led to Rosemary’s brain damage and physical disabilities.

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As Rosemary grew older, Joe and Rose Kennedy feared she would damage the family’s reputation and political ambitions. Because of this, Rosemary was hardly ever allowed to leave the house unaccompanied. As a result, she often ran away from home.

Rosemary's Failed Lobotomy

As devout Catholics, the Kennedys believed Rosemary’s mental illness was a sin. At the time, mental health was incredibly stigmatized and misunderstood. With this in mind, Joe Kennedy arranged for Rosemary to receive a lobotomy to hopefully improve her condition and counteract violent outbursts that had developed in her early 20s.

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In 1941, when she was just 23 years old, Rosemary received a frontal lobotomy in upstate New York. The procedure was supposed to help with mood swings, but it caused even more damage. The doctor scraped away at Rosemary’s brain tissue until she could no longer talk or walk. After the procedure, she was sent to a residential care facility in Wisconsin. For 25 years, none of the other Kennedy children or family members knew where she was.

Rosemary Inspired the Special Olympics

Even though Rosemary lived the rest of her life in a mental institution, not everyone in the Kennedy family forgot about her. Her younger sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is the founder of the Special Olympics, a sports competition for people with physical or intellectual disabilities. It’s believed that Shriver was at least partially inspired by Rosemary’s mental complications.

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Shriver commented, "The Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact, the fact that exceptional children — children with mental retardation — can be exceptional athletes, the fact that through sports, they can realize their potential for growth." Special Olympics, Inc. was established as a nonprofit charity in 1968, and events have included nearly 3 million participants.

Patricia Kennedy Wanted to Be a Star

To be a valued member of the Kennedy family, you needed to have political aspirations. However, this wasn’t the case for Patricia "Pat" Kennedy. Instead of wanting to be a politician, she was an aspiring movie producer. Her father believed she could be successful, saying, "Pat is the one with a head for business. She could really run this town (Hollywood) if she puts her mind to it."

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Kennedy worked as a production assistant for many patriotic and religious programs, including Family Rosary Crusade, and she eventually served as the producer of I Love to Eat, the first cooking program on network television. Through her work in Hollywood, Pat met actor Peter Lawford, and the two married in 1954.

Joe Jr. Should Have Been President

Joe Kennedy Sr. wanted Joe Jr. — his firstborn son — to become President of the United States. He was a junior officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, but he was unfortunately killed on August 12, 1944, while flying a secret mission. He was 29 years old at the time of his death, becoming the first of many Kennedys to suffer tragic and untimely deaths.

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At the time of his death, Joe Jr. already planned to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, supporting his father’s expectations. After his death, those expectations fell on Joe Sr.’s next son, John, who (as we know) eventually made it all the way to the White House.

JFK Had Many Medical Issues

President John F. Kennedy suffered from many deadly illnesses and physical challenges throughout his life. Some occurred in childhood, including scarlet fever and whooping cough. He also had Addison’s disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands, and he dealt with ongoing pain from many chronic lower back ailments.

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However, Kennedy never allowed his medical challenges to slow him down. When he was inhibited from serving in WWII, he strategically manipulated the system in his favor. Then, while recovering from spinal fusion surgery in 1954, he used his free time to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage. Kennedy kept his illnesses a guarded secret from the public, probably to avoid showing his opponents any signs of weakness.

People Thought JFK Died in WWII

Despite his medical setbacks, President John F. Kennedy was extremely successful as a soldier serving in WWII. In 1943, he helped orchestrate and champion a key survival mission that involved sinking a Japanese gunboat and then saving his own crewmen when their boat was also struck.

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Photo Courtesy: Frank Turgent/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After Kennedy received a medal for his performance in the Pacific, he was reported missing in action. The message was sent to Joe Kennedy Sr., but he kept the news to himself. He planned to tell his wife and children a week later, but he was saved from doing so when he was notified of John’s survival during that week. Ted Kennedy wrote in his memoir, True Compass, that Joe. Sr. allegedly withheld the information because he was determined to "remain hopeful" for John’s survival.

How John Met Jackie

Jacqueline "Jackie" (Bouvier) Kennedy was a journalist by trade. She had editor roles at Vogue magazine and the Washington Times-Herald. As part of the same social circle, President John F. Kennedy was introduced to Jackie at a dinner party in 1952 by a mutual friend, journalist Charles L. Bartlett.

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Jackie was immediately attracted to John’s physical appearance, charm, wit and wealth. The couple shared similar values, including Catholicism, and had shared interests in writing, reading and traveling abroad. Their relationship grew more serious, and John proposed after winning the 1952 U.S. Senate election. Of course, she didn’t say yes right away.

Jackie Kept John Waiting

Jackie Bouvier had the distinct honor of being assigned to cover the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London for the Washington Times-Herald. She completed this job assignment — a prestigious one, to be sure — while keeping John waiting. Would she accept his marriage proposal? That was the big question of the day.

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After a month in Europe, Jackie returned to the U.S. and finally accepted Kennedy’s marriage proposal. She resigned from her work in journalism, and the two were married on September 12, 1953, at St. Mary’s Church in Newport, Rhode Island. The wedding was an elaborate social event with an estimated 700 guests attending the mass ceremony and approximately 1,200 at the reception. From that day on, John and Jackie Kennedy became an iconic couple.

But They Almost Broke Up

Like many married couples, John and Jackie Kennedy had relationship troubles. Jackie became unhappy in the marriage, mostly due to John’s infamous affairs with Hollywood actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich. John pleaded, "You must have known when you married me, I can never be faithful. I can’t help myself. It’s a compulsion."

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Following two miscarriages, Jackie plunged into depression and was sent to Valley Head Psychiatric Clinic in Massachusetts, where she received electroshock therapy that she called "the nightmare ride of my life." Jackie wanted to divorce John, but Joe Kennedy Sr. bribed her with $1 million to stay married. The divorce would have had a negative impact on John’s presidential pursuits.

They Had Four Children, Not Two

Most people know that John and Jackie Kennedy had two children: Caroline Bouvier Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. These children carried on the Kennedy legacy, but the couple actually had two additional children, both of whom died very young.

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Photo Courtesy: Robert Knudsen – provided by Mikki Ansin/Getty Images

In 1956, Jackie gave birth to a stillborn baby girl, who the couple decided to name Arabella. Years later, on August 7, 1963, Jackie gave birth to Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. However, he was born five-and-a-half weeks premature and weighed less than five pounds. He died two days later from a pulmonary disease. Unfortunately, Jackie — and her two surviving children — would also lose John three short months later.

Was the Family Cursed?

Many historians and individuals believe the Kennedy family is cursed. Joe and Rose Kennedy had nine children, and four of them died untimely deaths: Joe Jr., Kathleen, John and Bobby. In addition, Rosemary was institutionalized for the duration of her life, and Ted was nearly killed in a plane crash.

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Photo Courtesy: Richard Sears – provided by Mikki Ansin /Liaison Agency

The "curse" didn’t end with the first generation of the Kennedy family. In fact, several of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s grandchildren also met tragic ends, including John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash with his wife in 1999. It’s ridiculous to say the Kennedy family really is cursed, but the Catholic church seemed to think John F. Kennedy was going to die multiple times before his assassination in 1963.

JFK Received Last Rites Three Times

In the Catholic church, the last rites are the final prayers and ministrations given to an individual of Catholic faith shortly before death. Later in life, Ted Kennedy wondered if his family was really cursed, pointing out that his brother, John F. Kennedy, received last rites three times before his eventual death.

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In 1947, John fell gravely ill while on a boat trip back to the U.S. from England, and a priest performed last rites. He received last rites again in 1951 when he had a dangerously high fever while traveling in Asia. Finally, in 1954, he received last rites after a spinal fusion surgery caused him to slip into a coma. His fourth and final last rites were given on the day of his assassination.

JFK Bugged the White House

President Richard Nixon wasn’t the first president to record conversations in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room. In 1962, John F. Kennedy installed a secret taping system that was connected to a recording device in the White House basement. The device captured almost 300 hours of meetings and telephone conversations.

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Some conversations were scandalous, including conversations about Martin Luther King Jr., as well as discussions about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The motivation behind this decision is disputed amongst historians and politicians, but many believe Kennedy’s claim that he installed the system to help document content for his future memoir. Is that the truth? We’ll never know.

Jackie Started a School at the White House

Jackie Kennedy was concerned about her children being in the spotlight during her husband’s presidency. She wanted to keep Caroline and John Jr. away from the press. Any time she or her children left the White House, the press followed them, making it difficult to do simple things like take Caroline to school. Jackie decided to open a school on the third floor of the White House.

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Photo Courtesy: John F. Kennedy Library/Getty Images

Not wanting to neglect others who might appreciate the convenience, she invited other children to participate in the school. Her third-floor school was eventually transformed into a legitimate kindergarten classroom with qualified teachers, 10 students and a couple of "class pets." It must be cool to say, "Yes, I went to kindergarten at the White House."

Jackie Was Fluent in Three Foreign Languages

Jackie Kennedy was a force to be reckoned with in many ways. During her educational training to become a journalist, she became fluent in Spanish, French and Italian because she wanted to travel the world as a journalist. Although her career was cut short due to her responsibilities as John F. Kennedy’s wife, her language skills proved to be useful.

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Photo Courtesy: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

While on the presidential campaign trail, Jackie was able to communicate John’s campaign objectives to voters who didn’t speak English. John wasn’t fluent in other languages, so having Jackie by his side nudged these voters in the direction of voting for him as president. It’s true what they say: Behind every great man is a great woman.

JFK Was Going to Drop Lyndon B. Johnson

Before his assassination, John F. Kennedy was making plans for reelection. He evaluated his opponents — one of which was George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father. In a 1963 conference, Kennedy commented, "That guy (Romney) can be tough." Unfortunately, Kennedy never had the chance to launch his campaign for reelection.

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One of Kennedy’s considerations while making plans for reelection was his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy as president after his assassination. Kennedy’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, revealed in her 1968 memoir that the President was considering switching out his running mate with Florida Senator George Smathers, North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford or another Democrat. Kennedy was assassinated three days after making the suggestion.

Jackie Didn't Change Out of Her Stained Pink Suit

Following John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Jackie Kennedy refused to change out of the pink suit she wore while sitting beside her husband in the motorcade. The suit was stained with John’s blood. When Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson asked if she would like to change before standing next to him as he was sworn in, she responded, "Oh, no, I want them to see what they’ve done to Jack."

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Photo Courtesy: Art Rickerby/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Jackie’s suit is now an iconic, unforgettable symbol in American history. It’s stored in the National Archives and Records Administration. However, the famous matching pink hat she wore on that fated day has yet to be found. Historians can only hope it will one day show up.

Jackie Compared the JFK Administration to Camelot

Following her husband’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy began publicly speaking about the Kennedy administration. A week after John’s death, she sat down for an interview with Life magazine. In it, she talked about John’s favorite Broadway musical, Camelot, starring Julie Andrews.

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Photo Courtesy: Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Jackie referenced the lyrics: "Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was Camelot." She explained, "There will be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot." Translation: There will never be another President John F. Kennedy. Since then, the Kennedy administration has been referred to as "Camelot," a one-of-a-kind administration.

JFK's Assassination Was a Turning Point in American History

John F. Kennedy’s assassination is regarded as the first major television news event of its kind. It was an event recorded live on television, which added to the impact of delivering the news of the assassination to Americans. News coverage, most famously by news anchor Walter Cronkite, united the country. All three major U.S. television networks suspended their regularly scheduled programming from November 22-26, making it the longest uninterrupted news event in the U.S. until the news coverage related to September 11, 2001.

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The American public was upset about Kennedy’s assassination, and many people were confused and arrived at their own theories. The assassination marked a turning point and a decline in the faith of the American people in their government. In many ways, this sentiment continues today.

Bobby Kennedy Predicted Barack Obama's Presidency

Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy had his own political aspirations, hoping to carry on the legacy left behind by his older brother, John F. Kennedy. From 1961-64, he served as the 64th U.S. Attorney General. From 1965-68, he was a U.S. Senator for New York. In 1968, Bobby ran for president, but he was unbelievably assassinated before the election.

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Photo Courtesy: Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

However, before his death, the popular candidate made a bold prediction. Bobby commented, "In the next 40 years, a black person can achieve the same position that my brother (John) has." That’s exactly what happened 40 years later in 2008 when the U.S. elected the first African American president, Barack Obama. Coincidence? We don’t think so!

Jackie Became a Book Editor

After Bobby Kennedy’s assassination on June 5, 1968, Jackie Kennedy decided she had to get her children out of the country. She said at the time, "If they’re killing Kennedys, then my children are targets." On October 20, 1968, she married her long-time friend Aristotle Onassis, a wealthy Greek shipping magnate who provided her the security and privacy she desperately needed. She took his legal name, becoming Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

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Photo Courtesy: Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

However, following her second husband’s death in 1973, Jackie decided to move to New York to pursue a book editing career. She worked as a consulting editor and then eventually moved up to Senior Editor at Doubleday Publishing, a position she held until her death in 1994.

There Were Premonitions About John F. Kennedy Jr.'s Death

An aide to John F. Kennedy said he often worried about what would happen to his son, John F. Kennedy, Jr., who loved helicopters. Kennedy wondered what would happen when "He’s old enough and wants to learn to fly." No one was more frightened of John Jr. flying than Jackie, who insisted he not get a pilot’s license.

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Photo Courtesy: Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma/Getty Images

However, after Jackie’s death in 1994, John Jr. got his pilot’s license anyway. Obviously, it turned out that his parents were right to be afraid. On July 16, 1999, he died when the light aircraft he was flying crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard. His wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, also died in the crash.

Where the Kennedys Are Now

The Kennedy family is quieter today than in the 1950s and 1960s, but they are still a prominent clan to the American public. Joe and Rose Kennedy’s youngest daughter, Jean Kennedy Smith, is still alive at age 91. Caroline Kennedy continues to work as an attorney, editor and author, and she serves on the board of directors for Boeing Company.

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Photo Courtesy: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s children, including Maria Shriver, have remained in politics. Maria was married to Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor and the former Governor of California. Every living member of the Kennedy family has their roots embedded in some form of politics. Their grandfather and great-grandfather, Joe Kennedy Sr., would be very proud his family name continues to be well-respected by the American public.