JFK Jr. called part of `American family'

Simple ceremony honors Kennedy and wife, Carolyn

July 24, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- They gathered in an oasis of quiet in the midst of the world's most know-it-all city, where streets were blocked and intruders were banned yesterday so that family and friends -- no matter how famous or familiar -- could commemorate in private the very public life, and death, of John F. Kennedy Jr.

"He had a legacy, and he learned to treasure it. He was part of a legend, and he learned to live with it," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said in a eulogy before about 315 mourners ranging from President Clinton to Muhammad Ali. "He had amazing grace."

John Kennedy; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and her sister Lauren Bessette, killed in a plane crash one week ago, were memorialized yesterday morning at St. Thomas More Church on the Upper East Side. The simple and solemn ceremony drew members of both families, including Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and a number of celebrities and politicians.

The memorial Mass concluded a week that witnessed a remarkable outpouring of public grief for the sadly shortened lives. It was a recurring theme in Senator Kennedy's lyrical eulogy, in which he traced his nephew's journey from child of the Camelot White House to, most recently, Manhattan media mogul, who with his glamorous wife drew paparazzi like magnets whenever they stepped from their lower Manhattan apartment.

"From the first day of his life, John seemed to belong not only to our family, but to the American family," Sen. Kennedy said. "The whole world knew his name before he did."

Shortly after John was born, Kennedy recalled, the Irish ambassador recited a poem to his parents that went in part, "In the night that he is troubled, may a friend wake for him so that his time be doubled.

"He was lost on that troubled night," Kennedy continued, referring to last Friday's disappearance of the plane, "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.

"We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side," Kennedy said. "But like his father, he had every gift but the length of years."

As the family patriarch, Kennedy was once again charged with both leading the mourning and also the healing. He included several humorous anecdotes about his witty nephew, and even entertained guests at a post-service luncheon by breaking into song.

Senator Kennedy recalled how John Kennedy, then a bachelor, toyed with his uncle's staff by telling them he would bring a companion to a 1994 campaign event but would need only one hotel room for the night. The mystery companion turned out to a huge German shepherd named Sam that he had rescued from the pound.

A private life

While he lauded the young Kennedy's professional accomplishments and charitable projects, much of the senator's eulogy dealt with the private life that he managed to live despite the endless public fascination with the boy who grew up to be the tabloid-dubbed Hunk.

He described a son who protected his mother, a brother who cherished his sister, a cousin who could always be counted on for a game of touch football.

In a church where elderly New Frontiersmen such as JFK speech writer Theodore Sorenson and former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara mourned next to younger friends of John and Carolyn Kennedy, the senator's eulogy spanned the generations.

"For a thousand days, he was a husband who adored the wife who became his perfect soul mate," Kennedy went on to say, using the same abbreviated time span that defined President Kennedy's administration.

"John's father taught us all to reach for the moon and the stars," Kennedy said. "John did that in all he did -- and he found his shining star when he married Carolyn Bessette."

"It was a very moving service," said John Adams, a singer with the New York City Church of Christ choir, which performed at the memorial. "They conducted it as more of a celebration of his life, not his death. That's a very strong family, and it shows. It was good to see them together."

The Mass was led by a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Charles O'Byrne, who also performed the marriage of John and Carolyn in September 1996.

Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, John Kennedy's sister, read from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," and Ann Freeman, mother of the Bessette sisters, read from Thomas Holland's "Facts of Faith." A Bessette family friend, Hamilton South, offered a eulogy for Carolyn.

Hip-hop star Wyclef Jean of the Fugees performed a solo of the reggae song, "Many Rivers to Cross," and the choir sang "Amazing Grace."

A lighter aftermath

After the 90-minute service, guests walked or rode two blocks up to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, the school Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg attended as a child, for a luncheon. The Clintons, however, left immediately after the service and did not attend the lunch.

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