From the two corners of the country comes recent news that one of the “Kennedy Compound” family homes in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts will be preserved as an historic site, and that another Presidential home, that of Gerald and Betty Ford in Rancho Mirage, California has a chance for a similar fate – if the potential buyer of the property, currently on the market with all its furnishings intact, has the foresight to recognize its significance (see that article with photos here at: https://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/02/09/jerry-betty-fords-desert-house-time-to-preserve-it/
It’s hard to think of the Victorian shingled Bush family summer home in Maine or Jimmy Carter‘s 50s rambler in rural Georgia in the same league as Mount Vernon or Monticello – but they are. Those who either inherit or purchase such properties have the power to either preserve or erase the most personal type of perspective on a bygone President and his times and oftentimes a larger symbol in the national narrative.
Ever since the 1960 presidential election of John F. Kennedy, the American people glimpsed his joys and tragedies and those of his siblings, their spouses and children by focusing on the white-clapboard New England summer home owned by their parents, former U.S. Ambassador to England Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. In the ensuing half-century, the closest the public got to seeing the family’s life there was limited to the view from tourist boats in Nantucket Sound, facing it. Only rarely did pictures show any of the seven family bedrooms, four servant bedrooms, basement movie theater, sauna, enclosed pool, tennis court and four-car garage. Soon enough, the public can see it all for themselves. On Tuesday, January 30, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate announced that this “big house,” among three other smaller family houses composing the so-called “Kennedy Compound,” was being donated by the family for use as the institute’s conference center. As his son and namesake stated, “”This house was my family’s epicenter, where my grandparents, father, uncles and aunts would retreat to connect with one another through heated political debates in the dining room and rousing games on the front lawn.”
Here, through a sampling of some 80 years worth of Kennedy family photographs is a preview of what life was like not only in the Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy House, but also the President’s House, the Robert Kennedy House and the Teddy Kennedy House.
The Joe and Rose Kennedy House, or “The Big House“
In 1926, businessman Joseph P. Kennedy (born 1888) had first rented the then-smaller house on Marchant Street. He bought it two years later and began expanding it to accommodate his growing family of nine children and widened the windows to take in the sweeping, dramatic view on one side, of Nantucket Bay. Down a sloping hill, there is a side entrance where an outdoor beach shower was installed, and an entrance into the basement where Kennedy first began screening copies of the Hollywood movies he produced with his own small film company. Eventually, first-run feature films were screened there for his children and grandchildren, Rose Kennedy once quipping that it was a good way to save money otherwise spent at commercial theaters. On the main floor there was a sun room, living room, “television” room, dining room and guest bedroom.
Kennedy married Rose Fitzgerald (born 1890), the daughter of Boston’s mayor, in 1914. Married for 55 years, their first child, Joseph, Jr. was born just nine months after their wedding and the rest of their nine children came in regular succession. To what degree later stories about his philandering were true or exaggerated, he and Rose worked as a team in shaping the values and sense of purpose of their maturing children. Although they had a winter house in Palm Beach, Florida, the two Irish Catholic native Bay Staters always considered Hyannis Port their true home, a sentiment adopted by all of their children.
Through the 20s and 30s, as he consolidated his great wealth, Joe Kennedy was often on the road while Rose took an extremely active role in educating their children in their homes in Boston and then in New York. In the summer, however, Joe made certain to return for long stretches of time, imploring not just his sons but his daughters to adopt a fiercely competitive attitude in their sporting activities with each other, even encouraging rivalry. More importantly, he emphasized their need to strenuously support each other as one team when encountering those outside the family. Rose Kennedy was a strict disciplinarian, not above grabbing a coat hanger to keep them in line when necessary, censoring any criticism they made of their father and even denying them a place at the dinner table if they came too long after the appointed time. It forged an energetic camaraderie among them all, parents and children, always with Hyannis Port as the setting, with tennis tournaments, swimming competitions and sailboat races.
The Kennedy family first gained national recognition when Joe Kennedy was named the U.S. Ambassador to England by President Franklin Roosevelt and the family relocated to England in 1938. His increasingly isolationism views put him at odds with FDR and he resigned in 1940. The family returned to Hyannis Port. It was in their home that Joe and Rose Kennedy got the news in August 1944 that their eldest child Joe, Jr., (born 1915) a naval pilot had been killed when his plane exploded during a volunteer mission. A year later, Joe had third child Rosemary (born 1918) undergo a lobotomy in an effort to condition what he viewed as increasingly erratic behavior, but it so reduced her capabilities she was institutionalized. Three years later, his fourth child Kathleen (born 1920) was killed in an airplane crash. By then, his second child John (born 1917), known as Jack, had been serving in the U.S. Congress as a Massachusetts for several years, first elected in 1946. He was elected to the U.S. Senate and began serving in 1953, marrying later in the year. Joe Kennedy’s great ambition was for Jack’s election as the first Irish Catholic President. All the family’s joint efforts focused in that direction, daughters Eunice (born 1921), Patricia (born 1924) and Jean (born 1928) and their husbands Sargent Shriver, Peter Lawford and Steve Smith all playing various roles in reaching that goal.
With his brother Bobby (born 1925) serving as campaign manager, Senator John F.. Kennedy won the presidential nomination in July 1960 and returned to Hyannis Port. From that point on, the nation and then the world came to forever link the small New England summer beach town with the Kennedy family. Reporters and photographers swarmed Hyannis Port, especially annoying the candidate’s wife Jacqueline, who insisted on setting some boundaries to maintain her own privacy. Consequently, most of the political meetings and media interviews of the 1960 campaign took place in the “big house” of Joe and Rose Kennedy.
Following his election victory and 1961 inaugural ceremony, Hyannis Port became known as the “President’s hometown.” Jackie Kennedy and her two children, Caroline and John, would settle there in early summer 1961 and stay for several months into early fall, with the President making long weekend stays, flying on Air Force One and then transported by helicopter to what the press soon dubbed “the Kennedy Compound.” This was a reference to the three other nearby homes owned and occupied by Joe’s three sons Jack, Bobby and Teddy (born 1932), and nearby homes of daughter Eunice Shriver and Jean Smith (Pat Lawford and her family, who lived in California were more intermittent summer residents). The President continued to use “the big house” for meetings and the house’s oceanfront lawn of bright, emerald green and oval driveway with a snapping flag became the most familiar icon of the Kennedy Compound.
With the family’s love of the sea, the President’s summer weekends always included time out on either a sailboat or a yacht cruise. With his strong affinity for the sea, President Kennedy, like his mother, found great restorative power in simply walking alone (trailed by Secret Service agents) along the beachfront. As he remarked, “I always come back to the Cape and walk on the beach when I have a tough decision to make. The Cape is the one place I can think, and be alone.”
Just thirteen months after seeing his son elected President, Joe Kennedy suffered a stroke which left him physically incapacitated and no longer able to speak. Often frustrated in his new limitations, he spent long summer days siitting in his wheelchair on his front porch watching his grandchildren play and waiting for the moment when the President’s helicopter would land. While a niece became his caretaker, his children and in-laws made the effort to keep him included in their activities and a center of attention, many taking turns coming to spend time in the big house with him. The most notable event was their gathering for his 75th birthday dinner on September 7, 1963, and an ensuing party with gaf gifts and jokes to cheer him.
Joe Kennedy became more deeply depressed following the assassination of the President less than three months after his 75th birthday celebration and never recovered from the the assassination of his son Bobby in 1968, dying a year later. Rose Kennedy, whose religious faith carried her through the family tragedies, emerged as a stronger personality over the 26 years of her widowhood. She took a leadership role in her efforts on behalf of mental retardation, began granting frequent national television interviews and avidly campaigning for her youngest son Teddy in his U.S. Senate re-election campaigns, following his initial election in 1962. As she aged into her 80s, Rose remained physically vigorously. She was fearless in plunging into the ocean and became a disciplined golfer, and even tried to learn how to ride a bike. As the family matriarch, she hosted holiday and summer gatherings at the big house, her personality dominating the mood there. Though mentally strong, she became frail as she entered her 90s, but her daughters Eunice, Jean and Pat and son Teddy annually organized large celebrations there for her July birthday.
Following his divorce, Teddy Kennedy moved into the big house in 1982 with his frail mother, joined by his second wife Vicki after their 1992 marriage. Rose Kennedy died in her home in 1995, and her son promised to honor her wishes that the big house be not only historically preserved with the furnishings remaining as they had been since practically the 1960 presidential election but used for some charitable purpose.
The President’s House
Following their September 1953 marriage, then-U.S. Senator from Massachusetts John F. Kennedy and his wife, the former Jacqueline Bouvier lived for three years with his parents in the “Big House,” in a first-floor room, thus making the Joe and Rose Kennedy House technically a presidential residence. In 1956, they bought their own nearby home, entered from Irving Avenue. They lived here throughout the 1960 campaign and election. With thousands of tourists flooding Hyannis Port for a glimpse of the new President and First Lady in the summer of 1961, however, and with the house being visible from the street it sat on, Irving Avenue, it not only lacked privacy but proved to be a security risk. In the summer of 1962 they rented a home from a family friend Morton Downey on a spit of land known as Squaw Island, walkable to the big house along the beach. The following summer, they occupied the more remote home of his brother Teddy and his family.
While Bobby and Teddy Kennedy played pivotal roles in mid-20th century national politics, their enduring historical legacy is forever anchored by the presidency of John F. Kennedy. And First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a central part of that presidency. Thus, the story of the nearby Irving Street house where she and “Jack” lived in the summer and well into autumn before and during his presidency will have to be made part of the historical interpretation of the “big house” for visitors.
Of the many places she lived, Jackie Onassis said her Hyannis Port home was always the most important to her because, “it’s the only place we ever really lived together.” Days after his state funeral, she retreated her to join the extended family’s Thanksgiving weekend gathering. It was then that she bid Life magazine journalist Teddy White to the President’s House to express her thoughts on the tragedy. During the interview, she famously gave the romanticized moniker of “Camelot” to his brief presidency. During her summers there from 1964 to 1968, the President’s widow continued her work on securing her late husband’s legacy. here she met with potential architects to design the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, implored author William Manchester to remove material from interviews she granted him for book The Death of a President, which she commissioned and penned a memorial essay for Look magazine, not without a bit of friendly conflict from brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy who sought to tailor it in a way that might benefit his run that fall for the U.S. Senate seat from New York. Jackie insisted that she was “the writer” while he reminded her that, no, “you’re Jackie Kennedy.”
Except for a 1969 visit to the dying Joe Kennedy, after Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 assassination and her remarriage to Aristotle Onassis four months later, Jackie Onassis did not return to the President’s House until 1975, three months after Onassis died. Saying she often felt “ghosts” there that overcome her with sadness, she moved into her own Martha’s Vineyard home six years later, returning for occasions like her daughter’s 1986 wedding.
After his mother’s 1994 death, John Kennedy, Jr. lived in the President’s House alone and then with his wife Carolyn Bessette after their marriage two years later, until his own 1999 death. Though bringing in art and other touches reflecting his generational taste, he kept the presidential-era furnishings intact. The bedroom, for example, still had his father’s golf club bag and windbreaker with the presidential seal, still in the closet.
In 2005, as the surviving member of the presidential family and solely responsible for a multitude of houses that had never been her own, all with thousands of objects in them, his sister sold his and all of the historic furnishings left in the President’s House, at a second highly-publicized Sotheby’s auction. If the time comes when it is sold to someone outside the family with an interest in restoring it, auction photos document the object locations on the main floor rooms and reproductions could perhaps be crafted to simulate what it once looked like. The President’s House is now the property of Teddy Kennedy, Jr. and his wife Kiki, and their two children.
The Bobby Kennedy House
Ethel Kennedy has resided continuously at the Hyannis Port home that she and her late husband Robert Kennedy bought in the late 50s. Having sold her home in McLean, Virginia, she now lives there full-time. The Bobby Kennedy House was the working headquarters of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential election and campaign, starting weeks before the convention. It was here that the candidate, his brothers, sisters and their spouses gathered early on Election Day and stayed up throughout the night into the early morning, following the exit polls and awaiting news of Kennedy’s razor-thin victory over Vice President Richard Nixon.
During the presidential years, the large number of children at the Bobby Kennedy House made it the gathering place for scheduled play activities of all the third-generation cousins.
Not only did all of her eleven children mature into adulthood during their summers there, but the house remains full and busy with her many grandchildren who now come to visit her there. Among them is Joseph P. Kennedy, IV, the son of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s eldest child, former U.S. Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy, III. From the time John F. Kennedy first went to Congress in 1947 until the end of his nephew Patrick Kennedy’s tenure as Congressman from Rhode Island in 2011, a Kennedy family member was continuously in the legislature. Joseph Kennedy, IV, twin to his brother Matthew, may mark the family’s return to Washington, having recently announced his 2012 candidacy for the Congressional seat of retiring House member Barney Frank.
Some of Ethel Kennedy’s children, including sons Max and Bobby, Jr. have bought homes nearby, though long after the presidential years. Other cousins, such as Maria Shriver, also have homes in the area.
The Teddy Kennedy House
Located on a spit of land known as Squaw Island, Teddy Kennedy lived in a home here with his wife Joan and their three children from the late 1950s until 1982. Once owned by her own family, the Bennetts, Joan Kennedy has continued to live in the property she now owns, even after she and Teddy divorced in 1981. In the summer of 1963, the Teddy Kennedy family loaned the home to President Kennedy and his family. Here they came after the death of their infant son Patrick and where the President granted a CBS interview on the lawn to Walter Cronkite. Despite the divorce and remarriage of her former husband, Joan Kennedy is included in the extended family’s gatherings, from holidays to the recent groundbreaking for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston, next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
The Kennedy Compound and its Legacy
The Joe and Rose Kennedy House may not technically be President Kennedy’s House, but his story is an integral part of the big house’s narrative, where his congressional, senate and presidential bids were planned and executed. Further, the house is testament to how much of his success and rise to the presidency was achieved by the driving ambition of his father, the faith of his mother and the purposefully united effort of his siblings and in-laws. As a public institution and, at some point, an historic site opened to the public, the Joe and Rose Kennedy House symbolizes something larger than one presidency; it will evoke the public service legacy of a family that produced three United States Senators who helped shape a half a century of national political issues.
In a statement released by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, Jean Kennedy Smith, the former Ambassador to Ireland and the last of her generation, eloquently summarized the meaning to her of the Joe and Rose Kennedy House being used as a study center and eventually being opened to the public as a museum. In a way, it best summarizes the symbolism of the house:
“My parents created a very loving and exciting environment for our entire family here. Through their guidance and enthusiasm we developed our deep interest in American history and a very real desire to give back to our country in some capacity what we had received. It is a great tribute to my parents that it will now permanently be a place where thoughts and ideas are exchanged, and new generations of leaders can come for inspiration and guidance.”
ADDENDUM: TO SEE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE RENOVATIONS TO THE RECENTLY-PURCHASED ROBERT F. KENNEDY HOME KNOWN AS “HICKORY HILL” IN MCLEAN, VIRGINIA, LONG THE PLACE OF POLITICAL AND SOCIAL GATHERINGS, GO TO: https://soundzen.org/
Jack and Jackie Kennedy Home Movies & Pictures of their Presidential Easters (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Kennedy house donated (politico.com)
- Kennedy homestead donated for use as research institute – Boston Globe (bostonglobe.com)
- Main House At Kennedy Compound Given To Institute (boston.cbslocal.com)
- Kennedy compound on Cape Cod donated for charitable use – Reuters (reuters.com)