Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rosemary Kennedy's Day Off

This little known true life tale is seldom discussed, but since my friend Lorraine ("a Kennedy expert") wrote about it on the 30th anniversary of the Chicago incident (October 5, 2005), I thought I would repost her recap here.

The event screams for an Oliver Stone feature-film retelling and has an uncanny similarity to 2 films shot on the same Chicago streets where it happened. As you read about lobotomized 57-year-old Rosemary Kennedy's day of freedom, you may be reminded of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and Baby's Day Out (1994).

October 5, 1975 was to have been a reunion of sorts for sisters Rosemary and Eunice Kennedy, the latter was in Chicago attending a fundraiser for her husband, democratic presidential candidate R. Sargeant Shriver. The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi brought Rosemary to Chicago to meet Eunice. Eunice had a full Sunday of activities planned for Rosemary – morning mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Madison Street, lunch at the Palmer House, and then a long walk along the glorious Lake Michigan lakefront.

After the 11 o’clock mass, Rosemary was at Eunice’s side in the church vestibule when Eunice stopped to examine some religious booklets. When she looked up into the crowded vestibule, Eunice told police, Rosemary was gone. Eunice, along with the priest and two other women searched the church for a half hour. Eunice went into the street and flagged down a passing squad car. The police woman drove Eunice slowly up and down the surrounding streets, not realizing she was the wife of the 1976 democratic presidential candidate or that the person they were searching for was the retarded sister of the late President Kennedy.

Eunice finally identified herself and the policewoman notified Lt. Joseph Locallo, watch commander for the Chicago Police Department’s Central District. Fearful that Rosemary might be found by a person who could hold her for ransom or harm her, Lt. Locallo ordered 50 police officers to ride or walk the Loop streets looking for her.

Meanwhile Rosemary, dressed in a belted, puffy white coat and red pants, strolled the streets. She carried no money or identification, and because of the lobotomy that her father ordered for her decades before, she was unable to talk except to identify herself. For the first time in 24 years Rosemary was free, away from the scrutiny of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, who never gave her a moment’s peace. Downtown Chicago was unusually crowded that Sunday. Rosemary was swept away in the crowd hurrying down the sidewalks, joining the flow of life like a seasoned urbanite.

For the next five hours Rosemary was lost while a frantic Eunice rode in the back of a squad car searching for a glimpse of her sister’s red pants. Police radios broadcasted Rosemary’s description at regular intervals. Soon, the Chicago media also heard of Rosemary’s disappearance. They, too, combed the streets looking for her, not so much to find her, but to be the first to get fresh photos of President Kennedy’s retarded sister.

WGN radio reported that Sen. Ted Kennedy, the lone surviving son of Joe and Rose, had also been contacted. One can only imagine his conversation with Eunice. (“GODDAMIT, EUNICE, HOW COULD YOU LOSE HER!”) Police searched public buildings, restaurants and alleys, but no Rosemary.

Finally, Peter Nolan, a reporter for WBBM-TV, spotted Rosemary as she walked north on Michigan Avenue, looking at display windows in the Monroe Building at 104 S. Michigan Ave., about five blocks from where she disappeared. Nolan asked if she was looking for Eunice. “Yes,” Rosemary replied, quickly turning back to her window shopping. Two policemen observed the encounter and took Rosemary away.

After Rosemary was reunited with Eunice at 800 S. Michigan Ave., Eunice cried, “Rosie, are you all right?” The two sisters were interviewed at the Central District station. Security was tightened to keep away the swarm of reporters, but still they managed to get pictures of Rosemary leaving the station in her snowsuit jacket with her nun caretakers and Eunice looking sheepish and embarrassed.

“Goodbye, thank you very much. You were marvelous, your whole force was,” Eunice told the district commander, clutching his hand. Eunice left with Ald. Edward Burke, a friend of the Kennedy family who was active in fundraising for the mentally retarded. Rosemary was returned to St. Coletta’s School for Exceptional Children where she remained out of sight until her death at age 86.

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