Jean Kennedy Smith, last surviving sibling of JFK, dies

Jean Kennedy Smith, a former ambassador to Ireland and champion of artists with disabilities who was the last surviving sibling of President Kennedy, has died, her daughter confirmed to the New York Times. She was 92.

Smith died Wednesday at her Manhattan home, her daughter Kym told the newspaper.

As the eighth of nine children of the prominent and famously Democratic Irish American clan, she became the first Kennedy woman of her generation to hold a serious political job when she was named U.S. ambassador to Ireland in 1993.

Invariably described as the “shy” or “nice” Kennedy, Smith lived much of her life out of the limelight and was considered an improbable choice for ambassador.

“It just hit me that it would be a really good idea at this point in my life,” she told Laurence Leamer for his 1994 book “The Kennedy Women.” “I thought, ‘Why not try?’ You know, I really wasn’t very optimistic I’d get it.”

After persuading her younger brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, that she wanted to continue the family tradition of public service, he prevailed upon President Clinton to appoint her to the post. She would hold the job for five years.

By all accounts, she took to the ambassadorship with gusto and “played a pivotal role” in Ireland’s peace process, the White House said in a 2010 release when she was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the presidential medal of freedom.

Many political observers gave her credit for speeding up the process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Untrained as a diplomat, Smith eschewed protocol and followed her instincts as she pushed for peace, sometimes making moves that career diplomats considered too controversial.

In one instance, Smith strongly urged the State Department in 1994 to grant a visa to Gerry Adams — then leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army — without first requiring him to denounce violence. When the IRA later declared a cease-fire, the visa was regarded as a key factor in the decision.

Being a Kennedy boosted her profile in Ireland, she later recalled, because “everybody here remembers the visit of my brother in 1963,” Smith told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. She was referring to a trip she made with President Kennedy to their ancestral homeland five months before he was assassinated.

Since her ancestors had immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland during a devastating potato famine in the mid-1800s, the Irish saw her return as a coming home, she later said.

Her husband, Stephen E. Smith, had been a key financial and political advisor to the Kennedy family, including overseeing the presidential campaign of another brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968 after winning the California primary.

But she moved to Ireland a widow. Her husband of 34 years had died of lung cancer at 62 in 1990.

“There’s no ambiguity about the Kennedys in Ireland, so doors opened for her,” Maurice Manning, a former Irish political leader, said in a 2009 Boston Globe article. “She was a very unorthodox ambassador, at times annoying people in government because she had her own agenda.”

“She was also “very socially gregarious,” Manning continued, “and gave the best parties of any ambassadors anywhere.”

Her public persona began evolving in 1974, when she founded Very Special Arts, an organization affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that provides opportunities in the arts for disabled people.

Both Smith and her sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who established the Special Olympics, said they were inspired by their oldest sister, Rosemary, who was born mentally disabled and spent most of her life in an institution.

As Smith expanded the arts program to more than 50 countries, she exhibited a new confidence, according to Leamer.

The program “showed not only what handicapped individuals could do, but what a women in her late 50s could do, a woman who had never had a career outside her family,” he wrote. “Suddenly, Jean was a public person in her own right.”

She was born Jean Ann Kennedy on Feb. 20, 1928, in Boston, the youngest daughter of self-made millionaire Joseph Kennedy and his wife Rose, the daughter of former Boston mayor John F. “Honey” Fitzgerald.

Of her eight siblings — four brothers and four sisters — she was closest to Edward, better known as Ted, who was four years younger than Jean. When Eunice died at 88 in August 2009, Smith missed her sister’s funeral to stay with Ted, who was in failing health and died two weeks later at 77.

Her older siblings could recall a more tranquil time, before tragedy began striking her generation of Kennedys, in a way that she could not.

Ted “and I were the babies, kind of the last gasp, so we don’t remember the close family life the other children had,” Smith told Leamer.

She was 13 when her sister Rosemary was institutionalized after undergoing a lobotomy, 16 when her brother Joe was killed when his warplane exploded and 20 when her sister Kathleen died in a plane crash.

At 8, Smith had been sent to boarding school, first in the U.S. and then England after her family moved to London for about 18 months beginning in the late 1930s when her father served as ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Majoring in English at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949. She also served as a family matchmaker there, introducing two of her brothers to their future wives. Her roommate Ethel Skakel married Robert, and fellow student Joan Bennett became Ted’s first wife.

In 1956, she married Smith, who was an executive of a transportation company founded by his grandfather. Their wedding in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York was modest by Kennedy standards but grand by almost any other.

She traded one life of privilege for another, raising her four children in a two-story apartment that overlooked Central Park on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Although her husband’s “womanizing strained their marriage,” according to the 2004 book “Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House,” the couple stayed together.

In response to his affairs, Smith began an “intimate friendship” in the 1960s with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, according to “The Kennedy Women.” Smith was adamant that it was only a friendship, according to the book, even though friends and Lerner’s assistant said otherwise.

The Smiths, who already had two sons, expanded their family twice more, in 1967 and 1972, by adopting two daughters.

In 1991, Smith was a fixture at the highly publicized trial of her son William Kennedy Smith, who was charged with having raped a woman near the family beach house in Palm Beach, Fla., after a night of drinking with his uncle Ted and cousin Patrick Kennedy. William, then 31, was acquitted.

For the most part, Smith tried to lead a private life and had “long been a model of public poise — a low-profile sophisticate committed to charity fund raising” who acted with “dignity and kindness,” People magazine said in 1991.

After she gleefully stepped on to the international stage as an ambassador, Smith characterized her efforts as being “part of the tide,” she told the Boston Globe in 1998.

“I really didn’t think of it as a Kennedy thing. I thought of it as a moment. A moment in history.”

Smith is survived by her two sons, Stephen and William, and two daughters, Amanda and Kym.

Nelson is a former Times staff writer.