Related Stories

 Click here for more political coverage from TIME magazine.


TIME On Politics
TIME magazine

Tragedy Strikes Again

As it has done too often, the Kennedy clan gathers to mourn an untimely death, the painful result of a senseless accident in Aspen

By Nancy Gibbs

(TIME, Jan.12) -- Within hours of Michael Kennedy's senseless death on a vertical football field in Aspen, Colo., the cliches -- of "vigah" and hubris, crossed stars and a genetic predisposition to take stupid risks -- had piled up so high, it was hard to dig through to the sad story beneath.

Michael's friends mourned him as a smart, hardworking, bighearted man who, had he died a little sooner or a little later, might have been remembered as a hero. He founded a university in Angola, gave loans to women-owned businesses in Ecuador and ran a company that supplies heat to 147 homeless shelters in Boston. He spent much of his life doing generous things, but just enough doing reckless things to join the long index of scandals and self-destruction in untold Kennedy histories to come.

On New Year's Eve, the family had gathered at the Sundeck restaurant on top of the mountain in Aspen, fame's playground, waiting for the slopes to clear at the end of the day so they could have the hill to themselves to continue the annual family downhill football game. The ski patrol was not keen on this bit of Kennedy showboating and had warned that it was a dangerous sport -- skiing fast and close, without poles, tossing a football through improvised goals as the sun sank and the shadows stretched and the slopes turned gray and icy. Aspen has had less snow than normal this year, 24 inches of hard-packed base on mid-mountain. Members of the patrol had been warning the Kennedys off the game all week; the night before the accident, a senior official of the Aspen Skiing Co., which runs the mountain, contacted Michael's mother Ethel to try to halt this family tradition. "They told her there was a rough game going on," a source close to the company told TIME. "They wanted it stopped."

But Michael, 39, was an expert skier and a cheerful quarterback; he even brought along a video camera to record the game for the family archives. By 3:30 the restaurant was closing, the lifts had stopped and the ski patrol was telling the lingering Kennedys and their friends that it was time to head down. Nevertheless, 36 members of the Kennedy party prepared to play. "Michael is the ringleader, without question," says New York City social columnist R. Couri Hay, who describes himself as a longtime Kennedy acquaintance, and whom the National Enquirer quickly made a special correspondent last week. Ethel, however, did not join the march to the slope. Sipping cocoa at the restaurant, she had announced that she did not want to ski alone and was taking the gondola back.

The clan split into two teams: Michael was captain of one, his sister Rory the other, both wearing matching rust-colored ski suits. A game the previous day had left the score tied, Hay recalls, though there was amiable bickering over a goal. "Then they said, 'We'll play tomorrow -- death to the loser.'"

Michael set off down the mountain with the camera and the small, soft plastic football. The run was about 150 ft. wide at the top and well-groomed but quickly narrowed as the trees closed in on either side. After the first goal Michael handed the camera off to a friend. "He skis off, he turns around to get a pass, he slams into a tree head first, he falls down unconscious," reports Hay, who says he was a few feet away. He heard someone say into a walkie-talkie, "Max, Max, it's an emergency! Ski patrol, ski patrol, it's an emergency!" A friend groped for a pulse. The children yelled, "It's my father! Please help my daddy!"

It was sister Rory who stayed calm and went to work. She was the baby of the family. After Robert Kennedy was killed in 1968, Ethel asked each of her older children to act as a sort of guardian angel over a younger one: Michael was assigned Rory, born six months after their father died, and they spoke almost daily. Rory began giving mouth-to-mouth and then started pounding on her brother's chest, counting off "One. Two. Three. Four."

"Michael, now is the time to fight," she said. "Don't leave us." Someone felt a faint pulse. Rory turned him on his side, so he wouldn't choke as he started breathing again; she wiped her face with snow, then spit out the blood in her mouth. Michael's children knelt, crossed themselves and prayed, "Our Father, who art in heaven..." As paramedics worked, Rory gathered the children up and told them to think good thoughts.

"When I arrived there, there were 15 or 20 people screaming for help," said Michael Ferrara, a senior paramedic and the first member of the ski patrol to reach Kennedy. "Very quickly we realized there was one very injured man." He took over the CPR and helped fit Kennedy with a cervical collar. The ski patrol brought him down the mountain on a toboggan, covered in a yellow blanket. The Rev. Lawrence Solan administered last rites at Aspen Valley hospital and presided over communion for 15 family members. Kennedy was pronounced dead at 5:50 p.m.; the official cause of death was "massive head and neck trauma," and deputy coroner Tom Walsh found no trace of drugs or alcohol in the body. Michael's estranged wife Victoria was spending the holiday in Vail with her father, sportscaster Frank Gifford, and she arrived to take the children.

Michael's body was flown home on Kevin Costner's jet to the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., where weddings and triumphs are traditionally celebrated, and disgraces and tragedies escaped. The family draped the porch in blankets for privacy, as the flag once again was shimmied halfway down a flagpole and prying lights and cameras collected around the compound. Kennedys, Cuomos, Schwarzeneggers, Shrivers and Lawfords arrived to pay their respects. As night fell over Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, the gates were locked, but the Kennedy family headstone was lighted by the workers' spotlights as they prepared to dig yet another grave.

The drama unfolded on New Year's Eve, a day the Kennedys spent celebrating the fact that another bad year had finally ended. The family measures misfortune on its own scale; the terrible years have ended in violent death, the merely bad years are defined by crimes and misdemeanors. Right up until dusk on the very last day of 1997, this looked to be the latter. The worst moments of the year were more tawdry than tragic, though bad enough to derail Michael's promising political career. During his years running the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp., and helping his Uncle Ted win a tough Senate re-election fight in 1994, Michael had earned a reputation as a creative philanthropist and political counselor. He was all set to run his brother Joe's campaign for Governor of Massachusetts, and then maybe run for office himself. But that chapter reached its ugly ending last April, when Michael's 16-year marriage publicly collapsed amid accusations that he had had an affair with the family baby sitter, allegedly beginning when she was just 14.

Prosecutor Jeffrey Locke eventually decided not to press charges of statutory rape, but the damage was done. It turned out that in 1995 Michael had sought treatment for alcoholism and then, a year later, for sex addiction. Joe, embroiled in public discord with his former wife over the circumstances of the annulment of their marriage, withdrew from the race. He and Michael were dubbed "poster boys for bad behavior" by cousin John F. Kennedy Jr. in an editorial in his magazine George.

In the months after the meltdown, Michael retreated to his seaside home in Cohasset, south of Boston, and immersed himself in his work. But shame is fleeting; heir to a tradition of repentance and reinvention, Michael consulted a publicist to help get the spotlight off him and onto the work he was doing for Citizen Energy. In October he appeared at an AIDS conference at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. And there were reports that he was trying to restore some stability to his private life as well. Though separated, he and Victoria missed at least one divorce hearing, and they were seen dining cordially in various Boston restaurants. "The normalcy was for their children," says Tom O'Neill, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. "The kids are at the core."

An older generation of Kennedys died fighting for the great causes of the century: Joe Kennedy Jr. went down over the English Channel, fighting Hitler. His brothers John and Robert were assassinated in the midst of crusades -- against communism, for civil rights -- that they were prepared to die for. This younger branch of the family has always sailed smaller boats in higher winds. As a teenager, Michael jumped off a 75-ft. cliff above the Snake River in Wyoming during a rafting trip. Brother Robert, while at Harvard, leaped 10 feet between two six-story dorms on a dare. He was arrested in 1983 for heroin possession. Joe II drove his jeep off the road in 1973, paralyzing family friend Pam Kelley. Brother David died in 1984 of a drug overdose. It is all more than any family can bear, especially without the abiding solace of martyrdom to some cause greater than a thrill and a game.

--Reported by Terry McCarthy/Aspen, Charlotte Faltermayer/New York and Tom Witkowski/Boston

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: January 12, 1998

Bobby And Ethel's Brood: The Weight Of Legacy
The Rubin Rescue
Tragedy Strikes Again
The Deadly Trainer
A Picture Worth A Thousand Words
Notebook: Clinton And Doggy Detente

Barnes & Noble book search

Archives   |   CQ News   |   TIME On Politics   |   Feedback   |   Help

Copyright © 1998 AllPolitics All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this information is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.
Who we are.