Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the New York Times bestselling author of 20 books, including ‘The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded’ and most recently ‘The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.’During his lifetime, Joseph P. Kennedy, the founder of the Kennedy dynasty, was described in print as a Horatio Alger hero and chaste Roman Catholic. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, who died in 1969 at the age of 81, was usually pictured with his wife Rose and one or more of his nine children, including President John F. Kennedy.Published pictures never showed his well-sculpted, green-eyed Hyannis Port secretary, Janet Des Rosiers, who was his mistress for nine years. A sugar-coated, self-censored account of her affair with Joe Kennedy has appeared in her self-published book ‘A Good Life.’But when she revealed the affair for the first time in an interview for my book ‘The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded,’ Des Rosiers gave me the real story with intimate details, along with her unvarnished opinion of Rose.
At the age of 24, Janet Des Rosiers, who later married and became Janet Des Rosiers Fontaine, had a creamy complexion, green eyes, brown hair, and gorgeous legs. She never failed to get second glances. In retrospect, Des Rosiers decided, that was what Joe had been looking for in a secretary.’He was very taken with me,’ Des Rosiers recalled in her alluring voice. ‘He made up his mind right then I would be his.’In December 1948, three months after he had hired her as his secretary, Joe seduced her.Their first encounter was in the two-bedroom house he rented for her in West Palm Beach, about 10 minutes from the Kennedy home in Palm Beach. When Joe came to see her there around 8 one evening, he began kissing and undressing her. She was not surprised. He had begun referring to her quarters as ‘our’ home. Their affair would last three times longer than Joe’s affair with actress Gloria Swanson.When Joe seduced Des Rosiers, she was a virgin. ‘Joe was not surprised that I had not had sex,’ she said. ‘He taught me everything.’Des Rosiers understood that Joe could be ruthless, but she never saw that side of him.’He was fun, he was warm, he was thoughtful, never demanding, very considerate, and very gentle,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t very difficult to fall in love with him. He was very charming. He overwhelmed me.’He was also ‘well-endowed.’Joe and Des Rosiers would meet for assignations in her apartment in Hyannis, in the rented house in West Palm Beach, in Joe’s apartment in New York or in Boston, or in Joe’s villa when they traveled to the Riviera for the summer. When Joe Kennedy’s wife Rose was away, as she often was, Joe would insist that Des Rosiers move into the Hyannis Port home and have sex with him in his bedroom.
‘Sometimes, I would just move in for a week or two,’ she said. ‘The servants assumed what was going on, but they all liked me. I think they were glad because they adored him, and anything that made him happy they approved of.’Even though Joe was 60 when he and Des Rosiers began the affair, they made love as often as once a day.’The lovemaking went on for hours,’ she said. ‘There was joy and ecstasy and laughter and giggles, eating chocolate cake and drinking milk at midnight in the kitchen,’ Des Rosiers said.In June 1952, Joe bought the Marlin, a 56-foot, two-propeller yacht that could reach 32 knots. Most of their lovemaking occurred there, as Frank Wirtanen piloted the boat. Back home, Rose busied herself going to church or writing reminder notes to herself.’We used to go out on the Marlin many afternoons,’ Des Rosiers recalled. ‘I’d take the work and Mathilda [a maid] would pack a lunch.’ After Joe dictated a few letters, they would have a Dubonnet, then a gourmet lunch. They would repair to Joe’s cabin.Sometimes they swam off a secluded Nantucket beach or went angling for blue fish. Rose hated the boat. She went out on it only once, Des Rosiers recalled.Des Rosiers concluded that Rose was aware of Joe’s affair with her and with others such as Gloria Swanson. She decided that Rose not only tolerated Joe’s philandering but approved of it, since it took pressure off her.’She must have known I was around all the time and not unattractive,’ Des Rosiers said. ‘I used to massage Joe’s scalp and neck with Rose in the living room…I don’t know what she thought her husband was made of.’Des Rosiers recalled that midway through their affair Joe, Rose, and some of Joe’s friends were having lunch in the dining room in Hyannis Port. Des Rosiers was in her office off the living room, but she could hear Rose’s shrill voice.’I heard Mrs. Kennedy say, ‘Men always fall in love with their secretaries.’ She said it in a way so that I didn’tfeel any reference to me,’ Des Rosiers said. ‘She didn’t say it with any malice. Then Joe got a very importanttelephone call. When he entered my office, I said jokingly, “Oh, oh, the jig’s up.” The man absolutely fell apart laughing. He roared out loud.’Joe called Rose ‘Mother.’ He never confided in Des Rosiers what he thought of their marriage. ‘I never heard him be impolite or raise his voice with her,’ Des Rosiers said. ‘There was no undercurrent of hostility. He seemed to respect her. They got along well, like friends. In that way, the household was amicable.’It wasn’t a normal husband-and-wife relationship. I think they had given that up a long time ago, including sex. I don’t think he loved her.’ In fact, they rarely kissed, and then only on the cheek.Des Rosiers was annoyed by Rose’s habit of pinning notes to herself. When Rose hassled her servants, it upset her. ‘Mrs. Kennedy carried a little paper pinned to her chest, and she went from room to room looking for things that had to be done or improved upon,’ Des Rosiers recalled. For example, she would write that a cushion had to be recovered or an old magazine had to be discarded.’She believed that every free moment of your life had to be occupied with learning or work,’ Des Rosiers said. ‘She would be having lunch with her grandchildren, and it was like a school. Rose didn’t walk into a room to relax and enjoy the setting. It was to make a note of this or that has to be done.’
Rose had a penurious streak, which often found expression in how she treated the servants.’Did you pay her for that hour? She didn’t work that hour,’ Rose would tell Des Rosiers, who was paymaster as well as secretary and mistress.’Rose was penny-wise and pound foolish,’ she said. ‘She would spend millions on her dresses over time, and then get upset at me if a servant was paid for an hour he didn’t work.’On a trip to France, Rose berated Des Rosiers because she had bought too many boxes of facial tissues and rolls of toilet paper to be used once they got there. ‘She would pick on the help,’ Des Rosiers said. ‘If you’re a good Christian woman, you should be compassionate toward those who serve you night and day.’Most of all, Rose seemed concerned about her looks. She would often run around the house with a cosmetic mask on her face.One afternoon, Joe’s chauffeur was driving Joe, Rose, and Des Rosiers in Joe’s Rolls-Royce in Vence in the south of France. ‘We drove to Matisse’s Chapel,’ Des Rosiers said. ‘She put a black mask over her eyes so her face muscles could relax.’This was really beautiful scenery, which she missed.’At the same time, Rose constantly practiced her French, using language records. Her accent remained dreadful.Given how much time she was away from the Hyannis Port home, Des Rosiers concluded that Rose did not like to be there. ‘She was at Palm Beach a lot in the winter,’ she said. ‘But she went to Paris a couple of times a year or to Vienna or Switzerland, always by herself. Then she went to see her mother in Boston.’
After Jack became president, he asked Des Rosiers to work for him as one of his secretaries in the White House. But she was unhappy with her position, which required working from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. After a few weeks, she told Jack she wanted to leave. ‘He said, ‘You know, Janet, if I had known what this job was like, maybe I wouldn’t have worked so hard for it.’Jack asked her what she planned to do. She told him she was going to Paris for a year. “Would you like to be secretary to the American ambassador in Paris? I’ve just appointed him,” the president said. So he made an appointment with James E. Gavin. “In five minutes I had the job,” she said.