'Dropped into a very special life'

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott

Everyone over a certain age has clear memories of where they were when they heard about the death of President Kennedy. It’s a question still asked of anyone in their 60s and beyond. Immigrant Kathy McKeon heard it in 1964 in her first months in the United States. She was just 19 and the person who wanted to know was the elder child of the slain president. “Where were you when it happened, Kath?”

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The 7-year-old Caroline had figured out by herself that as her father was very popular and well-loved, and because he was Irish, then the people of Ireland must be very sad, too. The young McKeon confirmed that they were, and told her that everyone had a picture of him beside that of the pope. Her mother had the images on her kitchen wall.

As the scene plays out in the memoir “Jackie’s Girl,” it’s clear the child is at ease showing her grief to the newest member of her mother’s live-in staff. Indeed, it was McKeon’s instant rapport with John Jr., as he talked about his spaniel Shannon, that proved enough for Mrs. Kennedy to decide that she should start work the next day. There was no need for a reference or a background check or even an interview. The connection came about when a long-time aide, Boston Irishman John Joseph “Mugsy” O’Leary, inquired of a cop patrolling in front of 1040 Fifth Avenue if he knew of a “nice Irish girl” who he could recommend for a job with Mrs. Kennedy. The police officer mentioned his cousin from County Monaghan, who hadn’t been long in the country (and, as it turned out, was rather unhappy with her demanding first boss).

Although, Kathy McKeon would at times be a fill-in governess for the children, her job title was assistant to Mrs. Kennedy and it entailed organizing her wardrobe, among other duties.

It was in certain respects an “Upstairs Downstairs” story like thousands of others; the difference being her employer was one of the most famous people in the world, one who, she writes, had a big influence on the woman she became. And the bonds would endure long after her 13 years of employment were over. “Jackie’s Girl,” as the matriarch Rose Kennedy called her, would also become part of the family.

It’s the tale, McKeon says, of a “bumbling Irish farm girl, dropped so improbably into such a life, such a special life.” Yet, it’s also the story of a young woman from a poor farming family – she was the fourth of eight children – finding her way in 1960s New York. Eventually, the former camogie enthusiast met a quietly-spoken soccer player from Leitrim named Seamus and when the pair married, she switched to being a live-out member of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Booklist commented in a starred review: “Celebrity watchers who covet an insider’s role will find McKeon’s frank yet benevolent memoir to be both a sobering reality check and an engaging foray into the ever-fascinating world of the Kennedy dynasty.”

Kirkus said: “McKeon's delightful memories have been tucked away for 50 years, and thankfully, she has brought them out to share the enchanting magic of Camelot with us all."

Kathy McKeon

Date of birth: Dec. 11, 1944

Place of birth: Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan

Spouse: Seamus McKeon

Children: Clare McKeon McIntire, Shane McKeon, Heather McKeon O’Dell, and six grandchildren: Keira, Conlin, Braden, Quinn, Eamon and Ronan.

Residence: Long Island, N.Y., and Naples, Fla.

Published work: “Jackie’s Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family,” which readers can vote for this week in the RTÉ Radio 1's The Ryan Tubridy Show People's Choice Award category in the Irish Book Awards.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Never give up if you think you have a good story to tell.

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“The Village” by Alice Taylor.

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