Tragedy follows America's Kennedys

On a day meant for joy, the family once again draws together in pain

July 18, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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