Smith is the founder of Very Special Arts (VSA), an internationally recognized non-profit dedicated to creating a society where people with disabilities can engage with the arts. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama for her work with VSA and people with disabilities.
As Ambassador to Ireland, Smith was instrumental in the Northern Ireland peace process as President Bill Clinton's representative in Dublin. She was heavily criticized after advocating for the U.S. government to grant a visa to Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, although her family would claim this influenced the IRA declaring a ceasefire in 1994. Irish President Mary McAleese conferred honorary Irish citizenship on Smith in 1998 in recognition of her service to the country.
Jean Kennedy was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on her elder sister Kathleen's eighth birthday. She has been described as the shyest and most guarded of the Kennedy children. She attended Manhattanville College (at the time a Sacred Heart school, and still located in Purchase NY), where she met and befriended two future sisters-in-law: Ethel Skakel, who married her older brother Robert in 1950 and Joan Bennett who married her younger brother Ted in 1958.
On May 19, 1956, she married Stephen Edward Smith in a small chapel of the Roman Catholic Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. The Smiths maintained a lower profile than some other members of the extended Kennedy family. During the early 1960s, they settled in New York City. Jean gave birth to two sons:Stephen Edward Smith, Jr. (born June 28, 1957), attorney
William Kennedy Smith (born September 4, 1960), physician
The couple also adopted two daughters:Amanda Mary Smith (born April 30, 1967)
Kym Maria Smith (born November 29, 1972)
Smith was intricately involved with the political career of her older brother John, working on his 1946 Congressional campaign, his 1952 Senate campaign, and ultimately his presidential campaign in 1960. She and her siblings helped Kennedy knock on doors in primary states like Texas and Wisconsin and on the campaign trail played the role of sister more than volunteer, citing her parents' family lesson of "working together for something."
Kennedy Smith and her husband were present at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, when Sirhan Sirhan shot and fatally wounded her brother Robert after he had won the Democratic 1968 California U.S. presidential primary.
In 1974, Kennedy Smith founded Very Special Arts, now known simply as VSA "the international organization on art and disabilities." VSA is a non-profit affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. It is dedicated to creating a society where people with disabilities learn through, participate in and enjoy the arts. VSA annually serves over 7 million people across American and in 52 countries. Smith has traveled extensively throughout the world on behalf of VSA to advocate for greater inclusion in the arts for people with disabilities. Her book, Chronicles of Courage: Very Special Artists, co-written with George Plimpton, was published by Random House in April 1993. In 2011, Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama for her work with VSA and the disabled.
In 1993, Smith was appointed by U.S. President Bill Clinton as the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, continuing a legacy of diplomacy begun by her father, who was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom during the administration of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As ambassador, she played a pivotal role in the peace process in Northern Ireland for almost five years before retiring the post. She successfully advocated for the U.S. government to grant a visa to Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, which directly led to the IRA declaring a ceasefire in 1994. As a demonstration of her ecumenical views, on at least one occasion she received communion in a cathedral of the Church of Ireland, an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion.
Irish President Mary McAleese conferred honorary Irish citizenship on Smith in 1998 in recognition of her service to the country. During a ceremony, McAleese praised Smith's "fixedness of purpose." Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern told Smith, "You have helped bring about a better life for everyone throughout Ireland."
In 1994, Smith came to the forefront of American foreign policy when she championed the granting of a U.S. visa to Gerry Adams. Smith has been lauded for her work in the region, but was criticised for supporting the visa for Adams. Her family have claimed this was a key step in the success of the peace process in the years that followed. In her brother Ted's memoir, he described that "Jean was convinced that Adams no longer believed that continuing the armed struggle was the way to achieve the IRA's objective of a united Ireland," and that "It took only a couple of hours' conversation with Jean after we landed to discover what was the most important thing on her mind – the opportunity for a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland stalemate."
She was reprimanded by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher for retaliating against two foreign-service officers at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, Ireland, who had objected to her recommendation to the U.S. government to grant Adams the visa and had sent in a "Dissent Channel" message. The Foreign Service Journal called the U.S. State Department's report on the matter "scathingly critical". Her management of the embassy came under criticism by the Boston Herald in December 1996, which obtained internal U.S. State Department memoranda and e-mail, for putting pressure on embassy staff to spend taxpayer money to refurbish her residence in Dublin. Smith was also the subject of an allegation of violations of U.S. conflict-of-interest laws. The U.S. Department of Justice issued a press release on September 22, 2000, announcing that she had paid US$5,000 in a civil settlement to resolve the allegations.
On September 17, 1998, seven months after the historic Good Friday Agreement, Smith retired as ambassador.
In October 2016, The Nine of Us: Growing Up Kennedy was published, an autobiographical account of the Kennedy clan, ranging through the decades of the 20th century.
Smith has won a number of awards for her work in Ireland and in the disability community. In 1995, she was honored as Irish American of the Year by Irish America magazine and a year later had an uncredited role in the film Michael Collins (1996). She was awarded honorary citizenship by the Government of Ireland in 1998 and in 2007, Smith received the Gold Medal Award from the Éire Society of Boston, for her peace efforts in Northern Ireland and for her humanitarian work with disabled children. She has also received the Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service, the Margaret Mead Humanitarian Award, and the 1997 Terence Cardinal Cooke Humanitarian Award.
In 2009, Smith was honored with the Tipperary Peace Prize along with her brother Ted Kennedy for their support of the peace process in Northern Ireland. In February 2011, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, for her work with people with disabilities.
On March 15, 2011, Smith was inducted into Irish America magazine's Irish America Hall of Fame.
Smith, who holds a number of honorary degrees, serves on the board of directors of both the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the International Rescue Committee, and has also served on the Board of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Her husband, Stephen Edward Smith, died of cancer on August 19, 1990. The following year their younger son William, then a student at Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C., was accused of rape in Florida, but was acquitted after a highly publicized trial. Her elder sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver died on August 11, 2009. Smith did not attend Eunice's funeral on August 14, 2009, choosing to stay with their brother Ted, who was ill; he died on August 25, 2009, leaving her as the last surviving child of Joe and Rose. She attended his funeral on August 29, 2009.