Fortune and misfortune
Through fate, folly or the evil of others, the Kennedys have
become the first family of pain
By Richard Lacayo
July 19, 1999
Web posted at: 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT)
The first time John Kennedy Jr. registered in the national
imagination, he was at the side of a coffin. On his third
birthday, holding a flag and saluting his murdered father, he
was already mastering the Kennedy protocol of premature
farewells, the leave-takings that are nearly as much a family
tradition as touch football and big weddings. The assassination
of J.F.K. seemed to many people the terrible culmination of a
Kennedy-family saga that began in the ambitions of father Joe.
It turned out instead to be just the most spectacular episode in
a family history littered with misfortunes: plane crashes and
assassinations, overturned cars and drug overdoses, death by gun
and death over water.
Some of these tragedies came unbidden, like the assassinations
and the plane crashes. Some were partly self-inflicted, like the
drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, which happened
30 years almost to the day that J.F.K. Jr.'s plane went down in
waters not far from there. Taken together, they make a chain of
mishaps that has shadowed the Kennedy name for more than a
half-century. But when John and Robert Kennedy were
assassinated, their death seemed, if nothing else, at least
commensurate with the drama and weight of their public life.
When their children die prematurely, it can seem almost as if
fate were picking them off for sport.
The mystique of the Kennedy curse is such that even one of the
clan's own members, Chris Lawford, the son of Peter Lawford and
Pat Kennedy, could say once, "The Kennedy story is really about
karma, about people who broke the rules and were ultimately
broken by them." The story begins with the son of a Boston
saloonkeeper, Joseph P. Kennedy, the founding father who became
chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and
ambassador to Britain. By 1957, he had also assembled a $100
million fortune, some of it in ways that were not entirely
wholesome, including bootlegging during Prohibition. But his
ambitions went much further than mere wealth. At his 25th
Harvard reunion, he described his occupation as "public
affairs," and to that end he single-mindedly directed the
destiny of his four sons.
Joe's first choice to accomplish the family's ascent to real
power was his eldest, Joe Jr. When Jack Kennedy made the papers
for his exploits as skipper of PT-109, the father sent the press
clippings to Joe Jr., then a 29-year-old naval air lieutenant,
to provoke him into getting started on his own heroic legend. It
worked all too well. In the summer of 1944, Joe Jr. volunteered
to fly a plane loaded with explosives into a Nazi missile site.
The plan was for him to bail out before the plane struck its
target. Instead he was killed when the plane exploded
prematurely over the English Channel. It was later discovered
that the missile sites Joe Jr. was supposed to destroy had been
abandoned by the Germans some time before his flight.
The senior Joe Kennedy had already in effect lost his eldest
daughter Rosemary, who was mentally disabled. Kennedy biographers
still argue over how serious her disabilities were. But in 1941,
without consulting his wife Rose, Joe decided to subject Rosemary
to a prefrontal lobotomy that left her deeply retarded. Rosemary,
now 80, has been institutionalized ever since. In 1948 another
daughter, Kathleen, died in a plane crash over France after her
companion urged their pilot to fly through bad weather.
But it was Joe Jr.'s death that unnerved the elder Kennedy most
completely. Not long after the disaster, the family received a
letter that their son had posted just before he died. Rose
Kennedy later recalled that "Joe simply threw the letter on the
table and collapsed in his chair with his head in his hand,
saying over and over that nothing would ever be the same again."
It would never be the same either for Jack, who inherited the
burden of his father's ambitions and bore them to Congress, then
to the White House and finally to Dallas. J.F.K. once said that
"just as I went into politics when Joe died, if anything happened
to me tomorrow, my brother Bobby would run for my seat. And if
anything happened to him, my brother Teddy would run for us."
After the assassination, however, R.F.K. entered a long and deep
depression. "Without Ethel," a friend once said, "Bobby might
well have gone off the deep end." He found some solace in
Sophocles and Aeschylus, but it was only in March 1965, when he
scaled Mount Kennedy, the 13,900-ft. Yukon peak, that he was able
to overcome his own darkness.
And when Bobby was shot, it was Ted who seemed to go numb. A
Kennedy aide recalled Ted in Bobby's hospital bathroom, "leaning
over the washbasin, his hands clutching the sides, his head
bowed... I never expect, for the rest of my life, to see more
agony on anyone's face." Ted had already grown weary of politics
and was emotionally spent. He confided to a friend that what he
really wanted was to set sail around the Caribbean with his
family and enjoy life, a fantasy Jack used to have. Close
friends started to question his emotional state, watching his
mood swings and his distracted conversations. More and more
people began talking about his drinking habits, predicting that
his love of the fast life would end badly.
By the time he had to bury Bobby, in June 1968, the 79-year-old
Joe Sr. was so distraught that he did not go to the funeral. If
he was able to transfer his hopes to Ted, it was not for long.
The next summer brought Chappaquiddick, which seemed to doom
Ted's chance for the White House. When Ted told his father about
it, the ailing old man, already made speechless by a stroke,
simply dropped his head to his chest. By November of that year,
he was dead.
But if there really is a Kennedy curse, by now it may be nothing
more complicated than the burden of growing up under the weight
of the family legend. The third generation of Kennedys once
included 29 cousins. Like his sister Caroline, John Jr. managed
to carry his celebrity lightly, acknowledging the claims of his
ancestry without being burdened by them. He even went to Brown
University to avoid the mythic baggage of being a Kennedy at
Harvard. And many of the Kennedy cousins inherited the
public-spiritedness of their parents' generation. Bobby's
daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is Maryland's Lieutenant
Governor. Ted's son Patrick is a Congressman from Rhode Island.
But quite a few of them also inherited a sense of entitlement
that edged into recklessness and worse. They played daredevil
games with one another and other people that led to tragedies
like the 1973 accident in which Joe Kennedy III, Bobby's eldest
son, overturned a Jeep, leaving one of his passengers, a young
woman, paralyzed for life. They sauntered into episodes like
William Kennedy Smith's night on the town with his Uncle Ted,
which ended with the encounter that left Smith accused (and
ultimately acquitted) of rape.
Bobby's children grew up fatherless, and some of them grew up
fast and hard. His second son, Robert Jr., ran into drug
problems early and was arrested for heroin possession in 1983,
just a few weeks after he finally passed the bar exam. He was
given two years of probation and ordered to spend time in
community service. Bobby Jr., now a much respected environmental
lawyer and activist, put the problem behind him. His younger
brother David was not so lucky. For days after his father was
murdered, David, who was 12 at the time, did not speak a word.
Later he complained that no one in his family would talk to him
about his father's death.
By his teens, David was struggling with a drug problem. His
brother Robert Jr. gave him his first tab of mescaline at 13,
and 10 years later he was mugged in a sleazy Harlem hotel that
was known as a drug supermarket and shooting gallery. It was
David's girlfriend Pam who was paralyzed in his brother's Jeep
accident. Although the family repeatedly sent David to rehab, in
1984 he died of an overdose of cocaine, Demerol and Mellaril in
a hotel room near the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach, Fla.
Michael, Bobby's fourth son, was 10 when his father died. For
most of his life, if he turned up in the news at all, it was for
work such as heading a nonprofit company that provided heating
oil to homeless shelters in Boston or for his marriage to
Victoria Gifford, the daughter of the sportscaster and football
hero Frank Gifford. Michael didn't make real headlines until
1997, when he was accused of having conducted a five-year affair
with a girl who baby-sat for his three children. The girl was 14
when the affair began.
Soon after Kennedy and his wife separated, in 1997, the Boston
Globe reported that Victoria had found Michael in bed with the
girl two years earlier. He had claimed then that heavy drinking
was at the root of it all and entered rehab, but sobriety didn't
improve his judgment much. The relationship continued until the
girl left for college. When the story broke, Michael resigned as
campaign chairman for the gubernatorial bid that his brother Joe
had planned; a few months later, Joe announced that he was
leaving the race. But something worse than humiliation was in
store. On New Year's Eve 1997, while playing football on skis
with his cousins on the slopes of Aspen, Colo., Michael was
killed when he struck a fir tree head on. He was 39.
It was Michael's sister Rory who cradled his head as he lay
dying that night, crying, "Stay with us, Michael!" and trying
vainly to save him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while his
children cried and prayed by his side. And it was Rory, 30, a
documentary filmmaker, whose wedding John Jr. and his wife were
headed for when their plane went down. Big weddings are part of
the Kennedy-family tradition. And as she would know, so are
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Cover Date: July 26, 1999