Washington -- So private and little-known was William Kennedy Smith until recently that captions under newspaper photos of him and a more famous cousin had been known to read, "John F. Kennedy Jr. and friend."
All that changed, of course, early last month when a 29-year-old Florida woman claimed she was raped by Mr. Smith, 30, over Easter weekend at the Kennedy mansion in Palm Beach.
And yesterday, Palm Beach police said they will recommend that a sexual assault charge be filed against Mr. Smith, a fourth-year medical student at Georgetown University and one of the 28 Kennedy cousins. Mr. Smith denies any wrongdoing.
The younger son of Jean Kennedy Smith (sister to President John F. Kennedy) and Stephen Smith, William Kennedy Smith has been on the cover of every supermarket tabloid, in the headlines of every U.S. newspaper, and the subject of such TV gab shows as "Geraldo" and "Current Affair" as a result of the alleged crime.
Those who know Mr. Smith say the charges of rape seem incongruous with the low-key, studious medical student who draws and paints as a hobby, has participated in his mother's Very Special Arts program for disabled children, studied political science and then history at Duke University, drives a Volkswagen convertible and who, at least until recently, lived with a woman in a two-story Georgetown carriage house with faded plastic pink flamingos by the door.
Mark Mirkin, a Palm Beach attorney and Mr. Smith's roommate at Duke University, says his friend, with whom he has kept up through the years, "led a rather unspectacular life -- at least at school.
"He was, pure and simple, Willy Smith. He never used his middle name or touted the fact that he was part of the royal family. And you'd never know it from his lifestyle or material possessions. He brought a nice stereo into the room and that was it."
Like many of the students at Duke, William Smith socialized in groups, dating infrequently, "if at all," recalls Mr. Mirkin.
Jonathan Day Slevin, co-editor of "Kennedys, The Next Generation," says the young Smith, the second of four children, "never aspired to lead a public life. He doesn't live a life as a Kennedy at all."
In fact, notes Mr. Slevin, the tall, blue-eyed Kennedy cousin, a neurosurgery resident, is the only one of the large Kennedy clan to have chosen medicine as a profession. It was a career he settled upon fairly late, after graduating from college, working as an investment banker and then traveling through Europe, the Soviet Union and China.
"He knew he didn't want to be a politician or public figure," says Mr. Slevin. "But there's such competition within the Kennedy clan to be excellent -- in some way. To be somebody, some way, somehow."
Mr. Mirkin, too, says his former college roommate "never talked about going into politics. In fact, he talked about not going into politics. It's not his character."
But if he had little use for the family calling, or even the Kennedy interest in sports, Mr. Smith grew up in the Kennedy world of privilege and advantage. Raised in New York, he often spent weekends with his extended family at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, and attended the private Salisbury School in Connecticut before Duke.
His father Stephen Smith, who died of cancer last August at age 62, had managed the Kennedy family's fortune as well as its political campaigns including John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential race. The senior Smith was also credited with managing the family's disasters, most notably the 1969 Chappaquiddick tragedy in which Edward Kennedy drove a car off a bridge resulting in the death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne.
"He was the family fixer," says David Horowitz, co-author of the 1984 best seller, "The Kennedys: An American Drama. "He was like the superego among all these ids."
Mr. Slevin, in fact, sees an "ironic twist" in the young Smith's current troubles. "His dad did all the damage control for the family. Now that Willy gets into trouble, his father's not there to help out."
Those familiar with the family say William Smith, who gave the eulogy at his father's funeral last summer, was close to his father, as well as his Uncle Ted whom he's said to admire and for whom he worked during the senator's unsuccessful 1980 presidential bid.
On the night that preceded the alleged sexual assault in Palm Beach, Mr. Smith had been at a bar, where he met the woman who claims he raped her, having drinks with Sen. Kennedy and his son Patrick, a Rhode Island state legislator.
NTC "Willy had been spending a lot of time with Ted," says Mr. Horowitz, who's continued to observe the famous family through the years.
The author believes it is "no accident" that the Kennedys -- including the younger generation of this legendary family -- find themselves in the middle of scandal and disaster.