What do Rose, Pat, and Teddy Kennedy, young Elizabeth Taylor, music legends Arturo Toscnini and Igor Stravinsky as well as silent film star (and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth’s dear friend, Patrick Plunket) Fannie Ward have in common with two young Jewish women fleeing Hitler, a host of Americans, and a guy known as “Naughty Nighty”? All are on the U.S.S. Manhattan as it leaves Europe in September 1939–as the Nazis are invading Poland.
The story of the voyage begins before the sailing. Rose Kennedy is struggling with her disabled eldest daughter, the beautiful and tragic Rosemary whose mental age was that of a small child, but whose physical and sexual maturity was that of a woman of her chronological age–21. Rosemary’s sexual prowling, her unmanageable temper and the resultant seizures as well as the Kennedy’s need to “hide” Rosemary’s “defects” would soon put the Kennedy family on track to the most horrific mistake of their lives–Rosemary’s tragic lobotomy.
Though, in later years, Mrs. Kennedy would write about how the children helped Rosemary and how she was a valued part of the family and during the White House years of their brother Jack, Eunice Kennedy Shriver would found the Special Olympics as a way of honoring Rosemary, the truth was she was shunted from school to school and hidden away. Only her father, isolationist Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, could control Rosemary. It was to him that the fateful decision to try the new surgical procedure fell. And, it was on him that the guilt rested for the remained of his life.
This book is both historical fiction and historical “what it.” I loved Cubby’s story. An “if only” for the ages. An “if only” that so many deserve. The author did a fabulous job creating that–as well as creating Stravinsky seeing his “Rite” reborn and re-shocking people. I loved, too, that the Confessing Church–the break-away part of the church in Germany that refused to have Christ and Christian rituals be Nazi-fied, the church of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was mentioned favorably in the story. What a shame though, that all self-proclaimed American Christians were shown as bigots and loud-mouths.
Stravinski and Toscanini
I also found it odd that, in that day and age, Rachel had apparently shared such a deeply private part of her life with relatives and gotten her self disowned. Naughty Nighty himself, joyously proclaiming, “Cocktails–of course–my cock, your tail” [something like that] was probably not a good idea given that he sailed in and out of British ports. Homosexuality was a crime and was enforced well into my lifetime.
I loved all the inter-weaving of the famous and the unknown. The author spins a marvelous story, presenting characters with depth and personality. He built such tension that I had to sit in the driveway and listen to more of one part of the story–I couldn’t leave it till I knew the outcome!
A few odd things
JFK certainly received attention for his book, Why England Slept, but seeing him as President or envisioning all the boys going into politics wasn’t a realistic idea at the time of this story–Teddy after all was only about eight. Joe, Jr. was the “Crowned Prince” and the one upon whom Joe, Sr, had his hopes pinned. JFK came to the fore only when his elder brother was killed in the war. I also have no idea why, in the consultation for Rosemary’s surgery, the doctors kept calling Joe Kennedy “Senator.” He never held elective office.
“Taps,” and not the British “Last Post” was played at JFK’s funeral–they are not the same piece of music [see below]. This error is really a bit offensive.
The author, although British, seems not to realize that quite a portion of the British Aristocracy were in favor of appeasement and many openly supported Fascism–at least until the war finally began. This is a strange omission.
Finally, how odd to hear of someone in a “puddle of sick”? I know, from reading countless British books and seeing British t.v. that “sick” means “vomit” but this would be odd to many, many Americans who call “being ill” being “being sick.” The British “being sick” would be “vomiting” or “throwing up” to Americans. This was one place the publisher should have changed the wording for the American edition. Minor point.
If you are interested in Rosemary Kennedy’s life, you may want to see Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter that I reviewed here.