Tragedy follows America's Kennedys; On a day meant for joy, the family once again draws together in pain


The Kennedys were gathered in Hyannis Port yesterday for what was to be a joyous occasion -- the wedding of Rory, the daughter Robert F. Kennedy never lived to see. Instead, they found themselves uniting in the all-too-familiar rituals of grief in what seems likely to become the latest in the unending series of tragedies that has struck this family.

"It's like a novel with one bad chapter after another, and there's no end to the . . . [book," said John Seigenthaler, a friend of the Kennedy family, shortly after learning of the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr. off Martha's Vineyard. "You cry until the tears won't come. I just don't understand, I cannot understand why this family has to suffer this way."

Kennedy; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and her sister, Lauren Bessette, were feared dead after remnants of the plane John Jr. was believed to have piloted washed ashore not far from the former Martha's Vineyard estate of his mother, the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. John Jr. and his sister, Caroline, were the only members of their immediate family left.

Members of the extended family at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis reportedly attended a Mass with two priests who had arrived there for Rory's wedding. They were the same two priests who had presided at the funeral for her brother, Michael, who died at 39 in a skiing accident two years ago in Aspen, Colo.Rory had cradled him in her arms as he lay dying on the mountain.

"They're out there on the margin, almost all of them," said Bobby Kennedy's one-time press secretary and longtime Kennedy friend, Frank Mankiewicz, trying to explain the family's frequent tragedies. "They're out there on the edge, whether it's fighting something politically or running for office or playing hard. It's almost something genetic."

The family tragedies begin with an act of daring in 1944. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., 29, one of nine children of patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, was flying over the English Channel on a secret World War II bombing raid so dangerous it had been dubbed a suicide mission. He was supposed to flip a switch to lower deadly explosives while ejecting from the aircraft at the same moment. The plane exploded and his body was never found.

Four years later, another Kennedy sibling, Kathleen, died in another plane crash. The 28-year-old Kathleen -- for whom Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is named -- was flying from London in a private plane for a weekend in the South of France. Her plane crashed in fog near Lyons.

Ethel Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy's wife, was 27 when both her parents perished as their small airplane exploded over Oklahoma during a business trip in 1955. Her brother George died in a plane crash in an isolated Idaho canyon nine years later.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy was seriously injured and narrowly escaped death in yet another plane crash in 1964, a few months after the assassination of President Kennedy, when a two-engine plane slammed into a foggy apple orchard in Southampton, Mass. That crash killed two, the pilot and an administrative assistant to the then 32-year-old senator.

The nation marks the Kennedy family's grim anniversaries. It was 30 years ago today, when Edward Kennedy, leaving a party on Martha's Vineyard not far from where his nephew's plane was feared to have crashed, drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. An aide to the senator, Mary Jo Kopechne, was later found dead in the submerged car.

But it has always been the immediate family of the former president -- gunned down in Dallas in 1963 -- that has carried the greatest fascination for Americans, and the heaviest emotional weight.

John Kennedy Jr. was born just two-and-a-half weeks after his father won the presidential election in 1960, and the country hungrily devoured the occasional pictures of the boy with the puckish grin growing up in the White House.

President Kennedy understood the power of those pictures -- his photogenic family enhanced his own popularity, and while Jacqueline Kennedy was said to have steadfastly tried to keep her children out of the spotlight, the president often allowed those pictures when she was not looking.

Those images became part of the national memories that followed John Jr. into adulthood. Even as he made his way in New York literary circles with his magazine, George, those watching him could still remember the child photographed by Look magazine peering from under his father's Oval Office desk.

"This is our first television family -- we watched that family and that family was part of the national consciousness in the way that others have not been," said author David Halberstam.

It is the heartbreaking photograph of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket that has become as recognizable a symbol as any of his family's never-ending tragedies.

With President Kennedy, politics became more personal and a politician's family started to matter.

Kennedy's campaign plane in late 1959 was called "The Caroline," after his daughter, a point warmly noted by journalists at the time. John Jr. became an even more critical piece of that American tableau after President Kennedy's death, crystallizing the nation's sorrow with his own heartbreaking stoicism at his father's funeral.

"We were newer and innocent and we grabbed onto those photos," said Halberstam, who covered President Kennedy for the New York Times. "We have that photo of John Kennedy Jr. saluting at his father's casket. The country is drawn in -- as if that family is part of our national bloodstream."

The century dominated by JFK's political image now draws to a close with his son's tragedy. John Jr. becomes another Princess Diana -- heir to a legacy, beautiful and famous and perpetually young.

This story of grief repeated itself in John Jr.'s short life. John Jr. himself lost a sibling in 1963, when Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was born prematurely to the president and his wife. The baby died three months before his father's assassination.

That child, along with an unnamed stillborn sister and John Jr.'s parents, are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Assassinations and births are uncommon bookends here.

Six months after Bobby Kennedy's assassination in 1968, Ethel Kennedy gave birth to a daughter (named Rory for her father because Ethel liked Rory better than Robert). This Kennedy daughter is one of the most poignant symbols of the Bobby Kennedy years -- born at a time when her mother, Ethel, was tragically alone. A Gallup poll after Rory's birth named Ethel as the most-admired woman in America.

Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy were said to have borne their own pain without public bitterness, but with a private assurance that it was God's will.

"Rose Kennedy always said, 'The Lord never sends us a cross too heavy to bear,' " Mankiewicz said of the matriarch, John Jr.'s grandmother, who died four years ago. "They may feel loss is just a part of their life."

But John Jr. himself suggested that in some cases, his family's hard luck was not altogether a matter of fate. In a column in George in 1997, in an apparent reference to his cousin Michael's affair with a baby sitter and his cousin Joseph's marital difficulties, John Jr. called those Kennedys "poster boys for bad behavior."

"Two members of my family chased an idealized alternative to their life," John Jr. wrote in an editor's letter. "One left behind an embittered wife, and the other, in what looked to be a hedge against mortality, fell in love with youth and surrendered his judgment in the process."

The family traces its American roots to 1849, when an impoverished Irish immigrant named Patrick Kennedy sailed to Boston from County Wexford, Ireland. A few years later, Thomas Fitzgerald joined him there, from County Limerick. Their grandchildren, Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, were married. The slain president was among their brood.

The Kennedys went on to define a political era in this century. Many Kennedy children followed their parents into the liberal traditions of public service that they espoused. They became politicians, advocates for the disadvantaged and proponents of social reform.

But as several Kennedys pursued this path, the family's tragedies became increasingly sensational. David Kennedy, a son of Robert Kennedy, died in 1984 of a drug overdose in a hotel near the family's vacation home in Palm Beach, Fla. A year earlier, Robert Kennedy Jr. had received a suspended sentence for heroin possession.

A decade before that, in 1973, another one of Robert Kennedy's 11 children, future congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, was charged with reckless driving when his Jeep overturned, leaving his brother's girlfriend permanently paralyzed below the chest.

And there were more scandals: Before his death playing a football game with a water bottle on the slopes of Aspen, Michael was accused of having an affair with his family's teen-age baby sitter. Before that, a Kennedy cousin, William Kennedy Smith, was accused of raping a woman in 1991 at the family's Palm Beach estate. He was acquitted later that year.

Edward Kennedy's son, Edward Jr., had his right leg amputated in 1973 because of cancer; his other son Patrick J., now a congressman from Rhode Island, sought treatment for cocaine addiction as a teen-ager in 1986.

One of the oldest surviving Kennedys is 80-year-old Rosemary, another daughter of Joseph and Rose. Mentally retarded, she was given a lobotomy that failed and has been institutionalized since 1941.

Yesterday, friends of the Kennedy family were once again called upon to explain the tragedies and once again found themselves numb almost beyond words.

"Oh my gosh, Rory's wedding," gasped Peter Edelman, a former adviser to Bobby Kennedy, upon hearing that John Jr. had been flying to Hyannis Port for the family celebration. "Isn't that so that's so that's so awful. Rory has all her father's heart and commitment. Some people draw strength from tragedy, but no one can be anything but so terribly hurt by this."

Kennedy biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin noted the family's epic resilience. "There was the sense that the family was a shield for them," she told NBC. "These tragedies only make them bond together more."

Those heartbreaks forged a bond between John Jr. and the rest of his family, particularly his sister, Caroline. Goodwin remembered asking Jackie Kennedy Onasis how she felt having raised two children with such a strong shared friendship. "It's the best thing I've ever done," Goodwin recalled the mother saying, looking her straight in the eye.

Now, once again, friends expect more bravery from the Kennedys.

Former aide and close friend Seigenthaler remembers the night in northern California that he spent alongside Edward Kennedy as Bobby Kennedy lay dying in Los Angeles. The brother and his family were characteristically stoic in accepting their public pain -- students of a kind of grief that would never leave them.

"You would never hear them discuss their pain, you would just observe the pain and wonder at their strength and courage," Seigenthaler said. "I saw my own tears, but I don't recall Ted's. Except it was clear, there was no doubt in anyone's mind, about the pain, about all the pain that was there."

Sun staff writers Tom Bowman and Devon Spurgeon contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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