Catherine Bigelow, Society Columnist
In spite of a sea of kelly green ensembles filling the Four Seasons ballroom Nov. 28 at The Ireland Funds America’s Women’s lunch, Maria Shriver, the fete’s honoree, opted for elegant all black. Shriver, the award-winning journalist, mental-health advocate, author and former first lady of California, is also a niece of slain President John F. Kennedy. She had no need to exhibit her Irish; the “ould sod” is ingrained in her DNA.
“In our family, you were an Irish Catholic Democrat,” she recalled, with a laugh. “That was actually more important than your first name.”
And with that Kennedy legacy, tickets to this group’s “Women in Leadership” series sold out like that.
Led by co-chairs Mary Driscoll Tobini, Suzi Tinsley and Theresa Driscoll Moore, who joined forces with Ireland Funds America VP Marjorie Muldowney, this 11th San Francisco event celebrates accomplished Irish and Irish American women while benefiting the fund’s education, cultural, development and peace programs in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Shriver was joined by her friend and fellow journalist Lee Woodruff, last year’s fund honoree, in a spirited conversation about what it means to be Irish, what it was like growing up in the storied Kennedy clan and how she became a journalist.
That career was partially inspired by her grandmother, Rose Kennedy, whom she described as “an extraordinary woman of faith, strong and impeccably dressed every day. She had her own version of reality and stuck to it. That’s a very Irish thing to do.”
Yet her united family stance, one she summarized as “This is the way it is; this is the story and don’t deviate,” left Shriver with questions. And her early foray into journalism was forged by a desire to find out the real, true story.
She also recalled traveling with her late father, Sargent Shriver, in 1972 during his vice president candidacy: All the angry, stressed political people sat in the front of the plane. The journalists, who were laughing and having fun, sat in the back.
“So I sat in the back, too. The journalists seemed to run the campaign, deciding what was written or seen on TV,” Shriver said. “The journalists felt more like my tribe and the place to develop my own identity: Who Maria was and not what the Kennedy thing was.”
That “Kennedy thing” includes Shriver’s devotion to the Special Olympics, founded by her late mother, Eunice Shriver, about whom Shriver has written a new book that launches in April. Her father’s illness inspired Shriver to establish the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement. And her faith has sustained Shriver through numerous tragedies that befell her family.
“I lean tremendously on my faith and a key group of friends who have lifted me up when I couldn’t get up on my own,” Shriver said. “That’s the way I live my life today: from a place of deep reflection, deep prayer and deep gratitude.”
As the room erupted in a standing ovation, Woodruff noted that many in the room grew up in a time when Shriver’s uncles were heroes to countless Americans.
“But you’re our hero,” Woodruff enthused, as Shriver waved away the praise. “No, Maria, put a period on that. You’ve just described a life of devotion, gratitude and assisting others. Nothing more to be said here, girlfriend.”