THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING KENNEDY
By Laurie Graham
Harper, $24.95, 368 pages
REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN
If Nora Brennan had indeed come off the boat fresh from Ballynagore in Ireland and become a nursery maid in the household of what was to become one of America's most famous families, it is tempting to think this is the kind of memoir she would have written and tucked away in her tallboy after retirement.
Laurie Graham's "The Importance of Being Kennedy" is fiction so tartly and lavishly spiced with fact that it makes the reader wonder about the sources of Ms. Graham's research. Nora the nanny doesn't spare the woman she worked for— "Herself" is what she calls Rose Kennedy, wife of Joseph Kennedy. That's when she is being charitable and not observing that for a mother of nine, the Kennedy matriarch was "a woman with a heart as hard as the hob of hell."
Nora's bitter words about her employer appear to stem from her devotion to the Kennedy children, some of whom, like Jack, Bobby, and Teddy, were to claim political fame, while others, like Kathleen and Joe, were to die in war and tragedy.
After Rosemary, one of the Kennedy brood, was consigned by her parents to a mental institution after a lobotomy, Nora never forgave the parents. She also takes a few digs at the tubby and pampered Teddy and his sister Patricia, who in Nora's opinion, took after her mother. It is interesting that the poor Irish serving girl turned nanny was as tough as "Herself" and quite capable of talking back to the uncompromising woman she worked for. She doesn't spare Joe the patriarch either, reporting on his philandering with his "sweeties" such as actress Gloria Swanson, in between impregnating his wife and seducing any available help. Nora's story emphasizes she was not one of those who tolerated his attentions.
This is a titillating and amusing, yet odd book, because it walks such a fragile line between what is known fact and what the author has embellished and concocted. She gleefully dishes dirt on the family, yet contends that it was on their devoted nanny that the young Kennedys depended as a refuge from their privileged yet demanding world.
Unfortunately, the setting and the story teller suspend the story between mischief and memory as the nanny's version of life with the Kennedy clan is discovered in a notebook found in Nora's home after her death. Nora's revelations, in Ms. Graham's telling, also came from Nora's nephew, who recalled having lunch with her in New York in the late Forties and admiring her well-cut suit. To which his aunt responded, "It's one of the perks of working for a lady who keeps up with trends. When the rest of the world won't be seen dead in a garment, it can always be passed along to the help."
Nora's husband, ducal retainer Walter Stallybrass, also contributed, recalling his wife's comment that "old man Kennedy didn't need any gypsy curse to bring him calamities. He brought them on himself, the way he thought he could buy the world, pushing those lads into the spotlight."
It is Stallybrass who discloses that Nora kept a diary of her Kennedy years in exercise books, which represent her final comments on upstairs from downstairs.
The rebellious Kathleen, nicknamed "Kick" emerges as Nora's favorite Kennedy child, and it is on her behalf that the nanny is most bitter. Defending the girl against Mrs. Kennedy's uncompromising religious beliefs, Nora portrays the mother as so lacking in compassion that she never forgave Kathleen for marrying the older son of the Duke of Devonshire, because although he was an English aristocrat, he was a Protestant. The gospel according to Nora tells how Mrs, Kennedy berated her daughter even after her husband was killed in World War II, and didn't visit Kathleen's grave after she died.
Nora's memoir also makes it clear that she had a life of her own that was at risk because of her attachment to the Kennedys. Nora's husband was part of the huge staff of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and it is to the couple whom she calls "Their Graces" that she owes the survival of her marriage and a place to live. She sharply compares the behavior of the Duke and Duchess toward their wayward daughter-in-law with the attitude of the Kennedys.
Employing the ultimate class distinction, she makes it clear that it is the difference between breeding and money. Even Jack, whose sickliness is charted from his babyhood to the time he fulfilled his father's expectations by reaching political peaks, is obliquely criticized for a visit to what he calls "Nora's roots" in Ireland, when he exudes charm and pronounces the wretched remains of her childhood "cute."
Living out retirement in a cottage on the Devonshires' Chatsworth estate, Nora is reduced to keeping an eye on Stalin the pet pig. In many ways Ms. Graham's Nora is the personification of the immortal nanny who knew everything and said nothing — but took notes.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.