In 1961, when Elizabeth Koehler was 4, she had a special friend, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, who was 43.
She describes her relationship with Rosemary in her touching and revealing memoir ”The Missing Kennedy,” which she’ll talk about at the Commonweath Club on Wednesday.
“When Rosie got excited, it was really sweet. She would wiggle. She couldn’t contain her joy,” says Koehler-Pentacoff, a Walnut Creek-based writer who brings to light previously unknown details about the mentally challenged Kennedy sibling in her unique book.
She describes how Rosemary, after being institutionalized for years, came under the care of her aunt, Stella Koehler (aka Sister Paulus), a loving Wisconsin nun.
Elizabeth’s childhood was filled with monthly visits to see her aunt and Rosie, whose life was forever changed at age 23, after her father Joseph Kennedy (without his wife’s knowledge) authorized an unethical doctor to lobotomize her in 1941.
As a youngster, the attractive Rosemary was “slow,” and as young woman, she could be temperamental and violent.
Immediately after the lobotomy, she could not walk or talk, and was incontinent.
Doctors told Joe to keep the Kennedy family away from her, and that remained the case for two decades, until he had a stroke. Then his wife Rose told nuns at Saint Coletta that Rosemary (who died in 2005 at 86) could lead an expanded life.
“Her sister Eunice (Shriver) was the mover and shaker,” says Koehler-Pentacoff, who illustrates how Rosie’s life ultimately prompted the Kennedy clan to bring issues surrounding mental health to the public, including starting the Special Olympics.
Interestingly, the personal book, which has many evocative photographs, also shows parallels between the Koehler and Kennedy families.
Koehler-Pentacoff says the seed for writing “The Missing Kennedy” came to her in a dream in which David Kennedy (the son of Robert Kennedy, who suffered from mental illness and died of a drug overdose at 28), said, “If my grandfather were alive today, he would want to hide me, too.”
But the author of nine books adds, “I didn’t want to make anybody uncomfortable; Rosie was like a member of our family,” explaining that she contacted the Kennedys in the process of telling her story.
Aside from the few who want to “dish dirt” about America’s famous family, Koehler-Pentacoff has received positive reaction to the book, which she sees as a way to continue to open dialogue about people with mental challenges.
“It’s about what good can come. This was a horrible tragedy that gave rise to opportunities,” says Koehler-Pentacoff, who sums up her feelings: “I know Rosie has made me a better person.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Commonwealth Club, 555 Post St., S.F.
When: 5:15 p.m. March 23
The Missing Kennedy
Published by Bancroft Press