For Kennedy generations, a tradition of risk-taking Game on ski slope brings new tragedy

January 02, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

It's an image that blends the daring and the danger, the rambunctiousness and the risk-taking, so elemental to the Kennedys.

The assembled clan streaks down an empty Aspen trail in the flat light of late afternoon, ignoring warnings to stop, laughing, joking, tossing a makeshift football as they go.

Until the game intersects with calamity, another family tradition.

Adventure and tragedy. Conjure up images of the Kennedys over the years, and those two words spring immediately to mind.

There's the World War II heroism, the mountain-climbing expeditions, the whitewater rafting, the high-wind sailing.

And then there are the plane crashes, the car accidents, the injuries, the deaths, the solemn vigils, all of which have become nearly as synonymous with the Kennedy name as political success.

The quality that seems to connect the two is the predilection, even craving, for risk-taking and recklessness.

This pattern of fate-baiting, observers say, is the dark side of the cult of vigor and fearlessness in which the Kennedys have always reveled.

"There is a long history of recklessness in the Kennedy family, and that means that you routinely see these senseless accidents," said Ronald Kessler, author of "The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded."

"There is a lack of concern about one's personal welfare, and poor judgment."

The death of Michael L. Kennedy seems to fit that pattern. Michael was apparently both videotaping and playing in the downhill game of catch with a snow-packed water bottle as the ball. His death came when he sped down the slopes for a pass and crashed into a trailside tree.

Kennedy was pronounced dead about 90 minutes after the accident. An autopsy revealed massive head and neck injuries.

"There was blood all over the snow," Couri Hay, a New York City publicist on a ski vacation, told the Daily News of New York. "Several of the Kennedys were on their knees saying the Lord's Prayer."

According to the Associated Press, the ski patrol had warned the Kennedys, to no avail, that their game was too dangerous.

Others say the Kennedys regularly ignored the rules.

"The Kennedys are very well-known around here," one 30-year Aspen resident told the Daily News. "They were always getting into trouble for skiing out of bounds."

That sort of behavior has to be considered part of the family ethic, said Peter Collier, co-author of "The Kennedys: An American Drama."

"As I see it, this is a family whose only rule has been that there are no rules," Collier said.

Kessler thinks the ethic of recklessness was set by the family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who brazenly broke the rules on his way to wealth and prestige, and who defined a Kennedy as too brave to know fear, too tough to let emotion show.

The first tragedy came decades ago, when his eldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., in what some historians describe as a desperate bid to match John F. Kennedy's PT-109 heroism, died when the TNT-filled plane he had volunteered to fly in a risky bombing mission exploded over the English Channel during World War II.

Tragedy would strike again in 1948, when Kathleen Kennedy and her companion, flying into bad weather against the advice of their pilot, died in a plane crash in France.

It would claim the lives of two and badly injure Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1964 when, against the advice of the family pilot, the senator chartered a plane to fly to Springfield in poor weather.

It would be seen again in August 1973, when Joseph P. Kennedy II, driving recklessly on and off the road, flipped a jeep, paralyzing family friend Pam Kelley.

In his book, Kessler quotes a Hyannis Port neighbor of the Kennedys who reported seeing one of the Kennedy men trying to sail a Sunfish loaded with children out into high winds.

"Luckily, he couldn't make it out," the neighbor said. "Nobody had life preservers."

David Horowitz, Collier's co-author, said he saw the same tendency toward recklessness when spending time with the third generation of Kennedys while researching the book.

Horowitz tells stories of Robert Kennedy Jr. and his driver careening over an Alabama hill in the wrong lane of a two-lane road and driving 85 mph down the freeway at night, with the

headlights out.

"The aura around them is so dangerous," said Horowitz. "The idea is proving to yourself that you are a Kennedy."

Michael Kennedy's body was flown yesterday in a chartered plane to Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis, Mass., where the family has an extensive compound.

Kennedy headed Citizens Energy Corp., a nonprofit organization that supplies heating fuel to the poor, and managed his uncle Edward's Senate re-election campaign in 1994.

President Clinton interrupted a New Year's celebration to telephone the Kennedy family and express his condolences, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said in Hilton Head, S.C.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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