A nation and a family mourn and wonder what might have been
By Margaret Carlson
July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:26 p.m. EDT (2026 GMT)
To be a Kennedy is to lead two lives--the official one the
family seeks with bright idealism and ruthless ambition, and the
private one it tries to preserve behind the hedges of a seaside
estate. But to be a Kennedy is also to understand how those two
worlds can reinforce each other. Camelot stands not just for the
elegant touches of the Kennedy presidency--an exhortation at the
Berlin Wall, a journey into the hollows of Appalachia--but also
for the carefully selected moments of the family at play. John
F. Kennedy Jr. was urban royalty with a public conscience, a
black-tie aristocrat who took the subway.
When a bullet has struck or a plane has crashed, Senator Ted
Kennedy has been left to marry his family's private tears to
those of the nation. He has done it so often and so well that we
remember him most fondly for the goose-bump lines in his
eulogies; he shines brightest in the darkest suit.
Last week, when he again stepped up to a pulpit, this time to
eulogize his nephew behind the closed doors of the Church of St.
Thomas More in New York City, we could not hear the quiver in his
voice. And we didn't have to. It was there in the practiced
cadences, the defiant wit, the stubborn Catholicism that insists
on seeing all the way to the gates of heaven. "He and his bride
have gone to be with his mother and father, where there will
never be an end to love," Kennedy said. And he promised that this
family, at least, this old and bruised and sturdy family, would
stand by in an eternal wake. "He was lost on that troubled night,
but we will always wake for him, so that his time, which was not
doubled but cut in half, will live forever in our memory and in
our beguiled and broken hearts."
But there is one thing he did not promise, and that's what
separated this day of mourning for the Kennedys from all the
others. There was no rhetoric of the kind Ted Kennedy used at the
1980 Democratic Convention, when he said, "The dream shall never
die." A Kennedy friend who was there told TIME, "I've seen this
family in other sad circumstances, and I'm telling you, this was
different. This gang is shell-shocked, blown away. This wasn't,
'Let's have 10 family members get up and say the torch is passed,
time for a new generation.' None of that. This was a funeral."
On the day that he would help launch a frantic search for his
nephew, Ted was leading a fight in the Senate for a more
expansive Patients' Bill of Rights. But by nightfall on that
Friday, when no one in Hyannis Port had heard from John and
Carolyn, it was Ted who called John in Manhattan, hoping he had
not left. But he got only the voice of a friend whose air
conditioning had broken down and who, at John's invitation, was
staying in his Tribeca apartment. Yes, John had left. No, he had
not been heard from. The Senator reached Hyannis Port the next
day and began the vigil. On Sunday, Coast Guard Rear Admiral
Richard Larrabee switched to a search-and-recovery effort. This
put an end to the hope that anyone would be found alive. Ted
issued a statement of the family's "unspeakable grief," lowered
the flag to half-staff and then went to the side of the person
he knew would be suffering most.
He flew by helicopter to Caroline's country house in
Bridgehampton, N.Y., to comfort the niece he treats like a
daughter over the loss of her brother, whom he loved like a son.
There was a torch being passed after all. In the '60s, Ted
Kennedy's generation orchestrated the death rituals. Now the old
Senator was going to let Caroline, a member of the new
generation, take charge. There were terrible decisions to be
made, but not before Uncle Ted shot baskets with Caroline's kids
until they could be heard squealing with delight behind the
On Wednesday he climbed back into a helicopter for the return to
Hyannis Port, where he took his two sons Teddy Jr. and Patrick, a
Congressman, on a gruesome chore. Seven miles from shore, they
boarded the salvage ship Grasp and then watched as three bodies
were raised from 116 ft. under water. The cameras were far away,
and Ted wore his dark glasses, but one picture captured the
crumpled grief on his face. He had never looked so old.
Back in Bridgehampton, Caroline was calling the shots. She
remembered how happy John had been to have engineered his wedding
on Cumberland Island in Georgia in near total secrecy, and she
wanted to make sure the ceremony marking his death would be no
less private. So, with Ted's help, she arranged to have John
buried even farther from the mainland, his ashes and those of
Carolyn and Lauren Bessette committed to the deep from the deck
of an American warship. Seventeen relatives arrived at Woods Hole
at 9 a.m. to be taken by the cutter Sanibel to the U.S.S.
Briscoe, which had steamed up from Virginia overnight by special
request of the Secretary of Defense. The only things those left
onshore could see were the bright whites of the officials, the
black of the mourners and a puff of smoke as the Briscoe motored
out to the point at which the most powerful telephoto lenses
could register just the silhouettes of the mourners. The family
bore their loved ones' ashes, three wreaths and three American
flags. Caroline held her husband's hand as he clutched a canvas
bag. Red, white and yellow blossoms trailed the ship as it headed
back to shore.
It seemed entirely right that the young boy with the salute
should be buried by the Navy at sea, not far from the beach of
Hyannis, where he and his father had built sand castles, and just
west of the rocky shore of Martha's Vineyard, where he had spent
quiet summers after his father was gone. It would have been too
much for the country to watch Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bury her
son, but she was there, nonetheless, in her daughter Caroline.
"It was as if Jackie were orchestrating these ceremonies," said
Kennedy social secretary Letitia Baldrige.
Caroline was five years old when she clung to Jackie's gloved
hand at her father's funeral. Jackie had known that her black
veil and a riderless horse were right for the slain President. So
when it came time to think about how to lay her brother to rest,
Caroline sensed that she should take her brother to sea, not to a
plot at Arlington National Cemetery, and not to a cemetery that
might be transformed overnight into another Graceland.
She was also determined to keep the family's deliberations--and
its sorrow--out of view. When she found out that someone from the
family was offering reporters details of life inside the
compound, she asked Ted to shut that down. One of John's closest
friends, former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, said he
"paid dearly" for appearing on TV. Though he'd already booked a
flight from New Orleans to New York for the memorial service, he
pointedly wasn't invited.
Some reports said Ted, as curator of the Kennedy political
legacy, had urged a service that would satisfy the public need
to say goodbye--something in a cavernous cathedral befitting
cardinals and Presidents--even if the sad truth was that a piece
of the dream had died for him this time. "You could just see
this was a father-son relationship," said Senator Alan Simpson.
"I'm sure it's ripped the very fabric of Ted's life." John was
the little boy Ted imagined could grow up to be President. He'd
taken John under his wing from the moment his father was killed,
staying in the White House after the Kings and Prime Ministers
and generals had left, to celebrate John's third birthday. He
had led the singing of Heart of My Heart late into the night.
Caroline chose St. Thomas More, a small, neighborhood Roman
Catholic church a few blocks from their mother's Fifth Avenue
apartment, where she and John had gone to Mass as children.
Despite reports of family friction over the choice of venue, a
source familiar with the arrangements told TIME, "From Day One,
it was always going to be at this church." The church, with its
English pastoral, beige-stone sanctuary, is plain, and for the
ceremony it was furnished simply. Two white hydrangea flower
arrangements sat on either side of the altar on the floor. To
gain access, almost every guest--from Senators to George magazine
staff members to Kennedy White House veterans--had to show an
invitation about the size of an index card with the guest's name
printed on it. The family was so set on privacy that not even the
church staff could attend the service.
On Thursday the Senator stayed up past midnight working on his
eulogy and, after flying from Hyannis Port to New York, polished
it at his sister Pat Lawford's apartment. Plans were so
last-minute that when staff members turned in for the night, it
was still unclear whether Caroline would speak; the program was
not printed until 1 a.m. It was her decision to ask Ted to
deliver the eulogy. But even if she didn't eulogize John, it was
she and her children who became the emotional center of the
service. She reminded the mourners about the love of literature
that her mother had bestowed on her and John, and then read
Prospero's speech from Shakespeare's The Tempest, a play in which
he had performed. It was an acknowledgment that her brother had
lived on a big stage but had understood that its "insubstantial
pageant" would fade. "We are such stuff as dreams are made on,"
she quoted, "and our little life is rounded with a sleep." There
were muffled sobs as Caroline's husband Edwin and her children
Rose, 11, Tatiana, 9, and John, 6, lit candles and hip-hop artist
Wyclef Jean sang, "It was time for me to go home/ And I'll be
smiling in paradise," from the Jimmy Cliff reggae song Many
Rivers to Cross.
There were also tears down mourners' faces when fashion-industry
executive Hamilton South, in his eulogy for Carolyn Bessette
Kennedy, praised "her graceful bearing, her special allure" as "a
physical expression of an inner fact."
But Caroline was the focus of the service's most wrenching
moment. Ted came close to breaking down when he reached the part
in his eulogy that celebrated the closeness between her and John,
the brother who, even as a grownup, would reach out naturally to
grab his sister's hand. "He especially cherished his sister
Caroline," Ted said in his eulogy, his voice trembling,
"celebrated her brilliance and took strength and joy from their
lifelong mutual-admiration society." Caroline stood up to hug her
uncle as he descended from the pulpit.
The memorial service was a somber reminder that for patriarch
Ted, the grandest unseen achievement has been in finding a way
to be a genuinely loving presence in the hearts of so many
Kennedy children left fatherless. Weddings, graduations,
birthdays, christenings--Teddy is always there with his booming
voice, his animal imitations, his begging anyone who can pick
out a tune at the piano to keep the music going. He gave
Caroline away at her marriage to Edwin Schlossberg in 1986, and
when it was all over, Jackie hugged him on the steps outside Our
Lady of Victory on Cape Cod and beamed, as if to say what a job
we have done. He toasted John at his intimate island wedding in
1996. He took John and Caroline on rafting trips. He kept vigil
with them at the bedside of their mother, who succumbed to
cancer at 64, and gave a eulogy at that funeral.
With such a large family, it has been a miracle that he could be
so many places at once. On the day he gave away in marriage his
brother Bobby's daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, he went to
the hospital where his eldest son Edward had had a cancerous leg
amputated. Soon after, the Senator went skiing with young Teddy,
who quickly took to the slopes on one leg. When Teddy beat him to
the bottom of the hill, the Senator made a fast turn to spray the
boy with snow while wiping away tears. Last Friday, at the
reception following the memorial service, it was Kennedy again
who helped lift the spirits of those around him. He told stories
and jokes, and found his voice to sing the hymn Just a Closer
Walk with Thee.
As he rose to the occasion one more time, Ted became the public
man his elder brothers would have been proud of and the private
one that untimely deaths in his family have required. Whether
from too much tragedy or too little character, for a while every
good thing Ted did was erased by a bad one like Chappaquiddick.
But when he married Victoria Reggie in 1992, he found a partner
who would change his life.
He now drinks club soda and runs off during the Senate's official
dinner window to be with his stepchildren Curran, 16, and
Caroline, 13. He's a constant presence at their plays and
sporting events, and has even been known to get personally
involved in pulling a loose tooth.
If his private life is shaped by his love for children and
stepchildren, his public one is still shaped by his concern for
the little guy, the one who parks your car, rings the cash
register at the convenience store, catches the early bus. As he
left town he was trying to expand health care, and when he comes
back from burying his nephew, he will be fighting to raise the
minimum wage. Leaving the Coast Guard cutter that brought the
family and friends back to Woods Hole after the burial, he shook
hands formally with the officers in their dress whites but gave
the crewmen in working blues a slap on the back. It was a
gesture that surely would have made his nephew smile.
--With reporting by Melissa August and Ann Blackman/Washington
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Cover Date: August 1, 1999