Who’s Who of the Kennedys: 9 Notable Members

The Kennedys may be the closest thing the United States has to a royal family and have been dedicated to public service since the early 20th century.

Jan 27, 2024By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

kennedys notable members


The first of the Kennedys to arrive on American soil from their homeland of Ireland did so in an attempt to escape the potato famine. Stemming from Boston, the family built an empire and a political dynasty that still holds power in the modern day. Patrick Joseph Kennedy first became heavily involved in the Boston Democratic Party in the late 19th century, and his descendants followed suit, becoming presidents, members of Congress, and more. This is the story of nine of the most notable Kennedy family members.


1. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

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Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. Source: JFK Hyannis Museum


Born in Boston in 1888, Joseph P. Kennedy was the son of self-made businessman and politician Patrick James (PJ) Kennedy. Joseph Kennedy was born during his father’s 3rd term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. As he grew old, it became apparent that his father’s business acumen and political ambitions were passed down to his son.


Aside from being an investor in real estate, entertainment, and alcohol sales and gaining significant amounts of wealth from such businesses, Kennedy also dabbled in politics. He served as a US Securities and Exchange Commission chairman and the American ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938.


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A Portrait of the Kennedy Family in 1939. Source: National Portrait Gallery of the UK


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However, with tensions running high in Europe, Kennedy took an appeasement stance toward the Nazis, a policy with which the people of the US had grown weary. Ultimately, Kennedy resigned in 1940, but his commitment to public service was enough to inspire the majority of his nine children, of whom he would outlive four.


2. Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy

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Rose Kennedy, matriarch of the Kennedy family. Source: biography.com


Born in Boston in 1890, Rose Fitzgerald was the eldest daughter of Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. Rose grew up in the public spotlight and as a member of one of the most wealthy families in the city. She was well-educated and a socialite and eventually fell in love with the youngest bank president in US history, Joseph P. Kennedy.


Rose’s father did not like Kennedy, but Rose kept up her courtship with him. The couple married in 1914 and went on to have nine children during their nearly six-decade marriage. Rose raised her children with political ambition and hope in the United States’ Democratic system, and many of them would go on to be incredibly successful. However, her and her family’s life was also marred by tragedy.


The eldest Kennedy daughter, Rosemary, was born with a learning disability and underwent a lobotomy in an attempt to treat the disability in 1941. The procedure was disastrous, leaving Rosemary institutionalized for the rest of her life. Her eldest son, Joe Jr., died in combat three years later when his US Navy plane exploded during a secret mission. Unfortunately, this would not be the last blow to Rose’s children, as one daughter, Kathleen, died in 1948 in a plane crash, while two of her sons were assassinated in 1963 and 1968. She lost her husband the same year her son, Robert, was killed.

Rose Kennedy was a staunch Catholic and was named a Papal countess before her death. She died in 1995 at the age of 104, and her son, Ted, eulogized her by saying, “She sustained us in the saddest times — by her faith in God, which was the greatest gift she gave us—and by the strength of her character, which was a combination of the sweetest gentleness and the most tempered steel.”


3. John F. Kennedy

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A portrait of John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. Source: The Los Angeles Times


The second-born of Joseph and Rose was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a son they named after Rose’s father. John was born in 1917, and by 1920, it was apparent that he was a sickly child. He contracted scarlet fever, from which he almost died when he was only three years old, and his health continued to plague him for the rest of his life.


Despite his sickly nature, John, better known as Jack, was attractive, athletic, and strove to succeed. Though he was not the best student, he graduated from Harvard and later joined the US Navy during World War II. While his brother, Joe Jr., was killed in action in 1944 when his plane exploded, Jack came back from the Pacific front a decorated hero. He, along with 11 other Naval officers, had survived an attack on their ship from the Japanese near the Solomon Islands. To survive, the men, including Kennedy, had to swim several miles until they reached land and help arrived.


After his military career ended, Jack began what would be an incredibly successful political career. He first served as a member of the House of Representatives, then as a Senator for Massachusetts, before finally becoming the 35th president of the United States in 1960. While he was a senator, he also married Jaqueline Bouvier, a reporter for the Washington-Herald who was 12 years his junior.


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President Kennedy and the First Lady in the presidential motorcade in Dallas, November 22, 1963. Source: Time


Kennedy was the youngest president ever to be elected at only 43 years old, and his administration took the reins at the height of the Cold War. The Kennedy administration only narrowly avoided nuclear war with the Soviet Union after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis and began what would be known as the Space Race with the USSR as well. Kennedy’s presidency was marked by the tension felt in the world at the time, both in the context of the Cold War and the struggle for Civil Rights in America.


In a bid to secure his reelection, Kennedy went on tour in the Autumn of 1963, where he was to make several stops in traditionally conservative states, such as Texas. During one such stop in Dallas, on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was shot while riding in a parade being held in his honor. Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin, was apprehended quickly, but less than 24 hours later, he, too, was assassinated by Jack Ruby.


John F. Kennedy’s legacy sticks in the minds of people all over the world. His short time in office was significant for the strides he took to make life better for all Americans. His assassination is controversial and has inspired several conspiracy theories. Kennedy made plenty of enemies while in office, but he is remembered fondly by the majority of Americans today.


4. Robert F. Kennedy

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Robert F. Kennedy on his brother’s campaign trail in 1960. Source: PBS


Rose and Joseph Sr.’s seventh child was Robert F. Kennedy, better known as Bobby or RFK. He followed in the footsteps of his older brothers, first by serving in the Navy and then graduating from Harvard. Bobby Kennedy went on to get a law degree from the University of Virginia and got a job with the Justice Department, but then left his post to help campaign for his brother, Jack, in 1952.


Bobby Kennedy was also a part of JFK’s administration in the White House. He served as the United States Attorney General, where his main focus was cracking down on organized crime. He also was a major advocate for Civil Rights, and his progressive ideals would be incorporated into his political career for the rest of his life.


After his brother was assassinated in 1963, Bobby remained in government at the national level, becoming a senator for Massachusetts in 1964. Again, he followed in his brother’s footsteps when he ran as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1968.


Unfortunately, Bobby continued to follow a similar trajectory to his brother in death as well. Shortly after winning the influential California Democratic Primary, Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. The assassin was a young Palestinian man named Sirhan Sirhan, who allegedly shot Kennedy over his support of Israel.


5. Ted Kennedy

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Sen. Edward Kennedy talks with reporters before appearing on “Face the Nation,” Jan. 29, 1978, in Washington. Source: The Wall Street Journal


The youngest of the Kennedy siblings was Edward “Ted” Kennedy, born in 1932. He quickly followed in his family’s well-tread footsteps by completing his degree in the Ivy League and beginning a life of public service after graduating from the University of Virginia’s Law program in 1959.


After his brother Jack’s election as president, Ted was elected to fill his older brother’s seat as a Senator of Massachusetts. He would remain in office for the rest of his life, though he would go no higher than the Senate. Though Ted’s ambitions were bigger, the infamous 1969 Chappaquiddick Incident would stain his character for the remainder of his life.


Kennedy was driving his brother’s former campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne, home from a party when he crashed his car in a lake and left his passenger to die. Kopechne suffocated in the sealed cab of the car, and Kennedy walked away from the incident without any injuries. When he tried to run for president in 1980, his campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, probably in no small part due to his involvement in Kopechne’s bizarre and untimely death.


Regardless of his unsuccessful rise in American politics, Ted Kennedy was the third-longest-serving Senator in American history when he died in 2009. He was known as the “Lion of the Senate” for his fierce defense of progressive policies and his unwavering commitment to social and economic justice.


6. Eunice Kennedy Shriver

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Shriver encourages Special Olympian Karen Fosdick on her way to a gold medal in 1983. Source: NPR


The fifth Kennedy child was Eunice Kennedy, born in 1921. Like the rest of her siblings, she was well-educated and dedicated to her ambitions. Eunice graduated with a degree in sociology from Stanford in 1943 and went on to serve in the Department of State and the Department of Justice before eventually becoming a social worker for a women’s penitentiary in West Virginia.


After moving to Chicago to focus more on her career in social work, Eunice joined and became head of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, which sought to help those with intellectual disabilities. This was close to Eunice’s heart, as she was deeply affected by her sister Rosemary’s lobotomy and subsequent institutionalization.


In 1968, with the spirit of her sister in mind, Eunice founded the Special Olympics. She initially began with a summer camp for children with disabilities at her home in Maryland, but the organization grew until the First International Special Olympic Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago in the summer of 1968.


Eunice Kennedy Shriver was honored with many awards for her work with the Special Olympics, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Legion of Honor, and the Prix de la Couronne Française. She was married to Sergeant Shriver, a former US Ambassador to France and US Vice Presidential candidate, with whom Eunice had five children, including the journalist and former First Lady of California, Maria Shriver.


7. Jackie Kennedy Onassis

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Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, pictured in 1960. Source: The Wall Street Journal


Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was born in 1929 to a wealthy New York stock broker, John Bouvier. She was raised in the lap of luxury in the Hamptons and was well-educated, graduating from George Washington University with a degree in French literature in 1951. Onassis then became a reporter for the Washington-Herald and soon met Senator John F. Kennedy in 1952.


The couple was married a year later and welcomed their two children, Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr., in 1957 and 1960, respectively. The same year that her son was born, Jackie was seemingly catapulted into the spotlight when she became the youngest First Lady in American history at 31 years old. She became an icon in the United States, from her learnedness to her style to how she decorated the White House.


Jackie was a scholar, which carried over into her restoration work in the White House. She went to great lengths to restore the interior with pieces owned by several former American leaders, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. She saw the project not as a redecoration but as a restoration of the White House as a symbol of America, filled with symbols of American history.


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Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pink suit and pillbox hat. Source: Town & Country Magazine


When her husband was assassinated in 1963, Jackie was sitting in the seat next to him. Her stoic manner during that day made her even more respected, and her blood-stained dress and hat have become symbolic of the tragedy. During this period, she was famous for coining the term “the Camelot Era,” which came to define the legendary administration in the years to come.


Jackie Kennedy remarried in 1968 to Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate. The couple was only married for seven years before Onassis’s untimely death in 1975. Jackie Kennedy Onassis went on to become an editor, first at Viking Press and then at Doubleday. She passed away in 1994 at the age of 64 from cancer and is buried next to her first husband, John F. Kennedy, in Arlington National Cemetery.


8. & 9. John F. Kennedy Jr. & Caroline Kennedy

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Caroline Kennedy stands between her parents while her mother holds John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1961. Source: The JFK Library


The two children of Jackie and John F. Kennedy are Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr. Caroline, the eldest, was born in 1957 and has lived her life relatively out of the limelight, considering the massive fame and notoriety of her family and their personal lives.


Caroline attended Harvard, like her father, and got her law degree from Columbia University. She married Edwin Schlossberg, a designer, in 1986 after meeting him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the pair worked. They have three children. The most that Caroline has ever been in the spotlight is under the administration of President Barack Obama, for whom Caroline served as Ambassador to Japan from 2013 to 2017.


John F. Kennedy Jr. was more well-known to the public, beginning with the photo of his salute to his father’s casket when he was only three years old. JFK Jr. quickly became one of the country’s most eligible bachelors as he grew older. Despite his family’s long legacy at Harvard, JFK Jr. received his undergraduate degree from Brown University and his law degree from New York University.


JFK Jr.’s career changed throughout the years, from being a Manhattan assistant district attorney to acting to finally founding and publishing George, a magazine that sought to fuse politics and entertainment. In 1996, he married Carolyn Bessette, but the couple’s lives were sadly cut short when, in 1999, JFK Jr. accidentally flew his plane into the Atlantic Ocean, killing himself, his wife, and his sister-in-law.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.