I WAS DRIVING to the funeral of my cousin George Floyd Jr. when I heard the news on a radio broadcast that John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane was missing and that he hadn't been heard from for hours.
My heart sank. I feared the worst, and it was confirmed later this week. John F. Kennedy Jr. is dead at the age of 38, killed in a plane crash along with his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette. Kennedy Jr.'s father -- President John F. Kennedy -- was only 46 when he was assassinated in 1963. His uncles -- Robert F. Kennedy and Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. -- were 42 and 29, respectively, when they died.
I hoped JFK Jr. was still alive, but I figured with the luck of the Kennedys, he probably wasn't. I wondered if some families are just struck with hard luck. My cousin George Floyd Jr. died just 20 days from his 57th birthday. He was the last of his father's three children. His younger brother Louis Floyd died at the age of 44. His older sister Helen Floyd also died in her 40s.
Their father -- my mother's younger brother George Floyd Sr. -- was just 28 when he died in 1952. His wife also was 28 when she died four years earlier.
In Wednesday's column, I told the story of Cleo Washington, who lost two sons to street violence and a third to a drug overdose. It is tempting to look at what's happened to the Kennedys, the Floyds and the Washington families and conclude that they may be cursed. The so-called "Kennedy curse" has been bandied about all week in the discussion of JFK Jr.'s death.
The "Kennedy curse" came about, proponents of the theory claim, as punishment for the sins (which included anti-Semitism, Nazi sympathizing, buying elections, hobnobbing with gangsters and bootleggers and lobotomizing his daughter Rosemary) of family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., grandfather of JFK Jr. and daddy to Joe Jr., President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Sen. Ted Kennedy and five daughters. (He was also the grandfather of Maryland's Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. So there's reason for all Marylanders to hope there's nothing to this Kennedy curse business.)
Years ago a magazine -- I don't remember the name, but it was one of the smart alecky ones -- ran pictures of Joe Kennedy Sr., Joe Jr., Jack, Bobby and Ted side by side.
"Are the sins of the father visited on the sons?" the caption above the pictures read. Underneath Joe Sr.'s picture another caption read "Fascist (expletive)." Underneath each picture of Joe Jr., Jack and Bobby the caption read "Dead." Underneath Ted's picture the caption read "A bum."
But let's look at this "curse" business more closely. Joe Kennedy Jr. died on a flying mission during World War II. His death can't be viewed as a curse. It was a consequence of war. That's what war is: folks killing each other en masse.
Jack and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Assassination can be regarded as an occupational hazard of being a politician. Conspiracy theorists have claimed both assassinations were masterminded by mobsters who felt they were double-crossed after helping John Kennedy get elected president in 1960. (See Ralph G. Martin's book "Seeds of Destruction: Joe Kennedy and His Sons" for more details.) The more mystically inclined believe President Kennedy's assassination was not due to a family curse, but the result of a national curse that saw the presidents elected every 20 years since 1840 die in office of either natural causes or assassination. Ronald Reagan broke the trend.
One of Bobby Kennedy's sons died of a drug overdose, another in a skiing accident. JFK Jr. died in a plane crash. Their deaths take the tragedies that beset the Kennedy clan out of the realm of a family curse into the mundane area of bad choices. JFK Jr. could have -- and I wish to hell he had -- taken a three- to four-hour drive to get from New York City to catch a ferry to Martha's Vineyard.
In the less famous -- and much less affluent -- Floyd family mentioned above, bad choices contributed to at least two of the deaths. My cousin George, a diabetic, died because he drank too much alcohol. My cousin Louis, who had sneered in death's face for years, finally succumbed to AIDS after years of being addicted to heroin.
Sheila Brady, who lost her brother Darryl Washington to a drug overdose and her brothers Johnnie and Ricky Washington to street violence, had the same take on the demise of her siblings.
"They just made bad choices," said Brady, who has two sisters and a brother still alive. "The girls turned out all right. We've been around drugs all our life but we chose not to go that route."
Whether we are talking about the rich and famous Kennedys or the poor and working class families of America's urban centers, the standards are the same: Good choices tend to cancel out family curses.
Pub Date: 7/24/99