Eunice Kennedy Shriver—dare we identify her as the sister of President John F. Kennedy and the mother of Maria Shriver of NBC News?—is a fascinating and accomplished woman who deserves to have her story told apart from those of her famous brothers.
This is the premise of a new biography by Eileen McNamara, a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1997 while writing a column at the Boston Globe. McNamara now teaches journalism at Brandeis University. McNamara will speak about “Eunice: the Kennedy Who Changed the World” during a brunch sponsored by the Chase Library in West Harwich on Wednesday, Sept. 12 at 11 a.m.
In the book, McNamara writes that her biography is “an attempt to correct that record” of Shriver being portrayed at the “fringe” of her brothers’ stories rather than at the center of her own. Why has it taken until 2018 for someone to correct the record of this woman who died at age 88 in 2009?
“It has always been far too easy to write women out of history,” McNamara said in an email interview last week. “Eunice’s extraordinary accomplishments, many of which her own children did not know, have been overshadowed by the more public careers of her brothers.
“All her life, Eunice was defined by her relationship to powerful men: The daughter of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy; the sister of President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert F. and Edward M. Kennedy; wife of Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps and Lyndon Johnson’s architect of the War on Poverty.”
Shriver was born in Brookline in 1921, the fifth of the nine children of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. In 1968 Shriver founded the Special Olympics for people with intellectual disabilities. Her interest in those with intellectual disabilities was sparked in part by the life of her older sister Rosemary, who was lobotomized in 1941 in an effort to deal with “the mental illness that compounded her intellectual disabilities,” McNamara writes.
Shriver’s story played out “behind the scenes rather than on the front page,” McNamara says. “She hijacked her father’s fortune and her brother’s political power to change the lives of millions of people around the world with intellectual disabilities. And yet people still say to me, ‘Eunice. Wait, which one was she?’”
McNamara devoted seven years to writing this comprehensive biography. She could not have written it without the contents of 33 boxes of uncatalogued papers held in a storeroom of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. “Because the family had not formally deeded them to the library, the National Archives did not own them,” McNamara says of the boxes. “I could not read them until we arranged to transfer them temporarily to Brandeis, a process that took more than a year, despite the permission of all the Shriver children.”
She adds, “It was an amazing act of trust on the part of the Shriver siblings because they knew they would have no control over the conclusions I drew from material they had never read. The letters, diaries, memos, speeches and drafts of legislation she wrote offered a window into every period of her remarkable life. From her convent school days in London to her graduation from Stanford, from her social work with juvenile delinquents in Washington in the 1940s to her work with incarcerated women in West Virginia and Chicago in the 1950s, the material made clear that her social activism began long before that of her more famous brothers.”
McNamara is no stranger to the Cape, having spent much time in Brewster when her three children were small. “I don’t sail, as Eunice and her siblings did so competitively, but—standing on their lawn in Hyannis Port during my research—it was easy to see the pull of the ocean off the Cape for them,” she says.
As well as Hyannis Port, McNamara traveled to New York, Connecticut, London, California, Chicago, Paris and Washington to visit the places Shriver had lived and worked. She also spent a good amount of time in archives in many states.
When she began her research for “Eunice,” McNamara knew little more about Shriver than that she founded the Special Olympics. But while reporting for the Boston Globe over the course of 30 years, McNamara served as the paper’s Congressional correspondent and got to know Edward Kennedy.
“From him I first heard the word most often used to describe his sister Eunice: formidable. My respect for her only grew during the years of research and writing. She could be difficult, demanding and irritating but she was also relentless, determined and committed,” McNamara says. “She did what few women in her generation managed to do—she made the White House and Capitol Hill take heed when she spoke.”
Tickets for the Sept. 12 event are available for $40 at the Chase Library, 7 Route 28, West Harwich. Call the library at 508-432-2610 for more information.