HYANNIS, MASS. - On an hour-long tour of Hyannis Harbor aboard the 1911 coastal steamer Prudence, a guide enthusiastically points out the ancient dunes where Indians shucked clams, the spit of land that once stretched clear across to nearby Great Island, and the Prudence's romantic history as a submarine-watcher during World War I.
The passengers don't pay much attention. At least not until he utters the words everyone has been waiting for: "Kennedy compound." Suddenly the tourists strain against the starboard railing, counting chimneys, as instructed, to discern one house from another.
Deck hand Chris Kapp has been giving the tours for four years. He's used to this. "This is the climax," he says. "No one listens until you say `Kennedy.'"
A passenger asks Kapp the name of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's sailboat. "The Maya," says Kapp. "He's out right now. You can't miss him, really. The back part of the boat is always sunk a little."
In Hyannis, a town on Cape Cod's south shore whose year-round population of 11,000 triples in summer, it's not outlandish for a tourist to think he might brush up against Teddy on the ferry, or stumble into a supermarket chat with Arnold.
That's what the town banks on. Hyannis has a love-need relationship with the Kennedys. It relies on tourists for its economic survival, and, besides the sea, the Kennedy family is its most obvious commodity.
"For one brief shining moment, there was Camelot," read the words on the wall of the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum. "John F. Kennedy's election brought great honor and worldwide attention to Hyannisport and Cape Cod. It was undoubtedly the most significant historic event ever to occur here."
Hyannis proper is short on swank. The town was flush in the early 1980s when a housing boom began. But since the market bottomed out a decade later, the town has never quite recovered financially. Main Street is home to a motel that invites guests to "Cuddle and Bubble in a Jacuzzi built for 2." There's a Dunkin' Donuts, a joke shop and a store that sells balls of hemp twine. Signs stapled to telephone polls advertise an "Xtreme Jesus" religious concert on the town green.
It's the Kennedys who lend a dash of aristocracy to an otherwise ordinary town.
"Cape Cod really is a brand throughout the world," said Rebecca Pierce, who runs a local advertising agency and helped establish the JFK museum. "I think people know Cape Cod because the president lived here. I think it really put us on the map."
Nearly 40 years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Hyannis is trying to make sure it stays on the map. At the same time, it must market the family courteously, without succumbing to one of the cape's most damning attributes - tackiness.
The boat tours will take you only so close to the compound, and they turn off their microphones when they reach the breakwater. Discreet street signs direct buses away from Irving Avenue, the compound address. The Kennedy postcards and magnets and little wooden cutouts of Kennedy houses in local stores are mixed with pictures of sailboats and lobsters.
Indeed, the official Kennedy tourist sites are dignified. You can look at the St. Francis Xavier church where the family has worshipped for decades (and where a framed poster of Jack and Jackie sells for $25). There's the armory where JFK gave his acceptance speech, and the seaside memorial to the slain president featuring a fountain designed by Jackie to look like an eternal flame.
At the Kennedy museum on Main Street, a five-room photo collection that opened 10 years ago, there's no hint of family scandal and only a melancholic echo of tragedy. Instead, a visitor learns from a museum video narrated by Walter Cronkite that "President Kennedy loved golf but rarely had time to play. Some say he was a natural, often scoring in the low 80s at the Hyannis Port Country Club."
The museum's founders, including Pierce, say their aim was to be supremely respectful of the family's wishes. It took two years for Ted Kennedy to approve the project, which now has his hearty support. That the 10-year-old museum is steeped in nostalgia is exactly the point.
"When I'm in there by myself, I get choked up. ... It speaks to another time when we were just a little more innocent," she said.
The Kennedys arrived in Hyannis Port - a lovely, exclusive residential neighborhood of Hyannis - in 1926. It was home to a monied summer community but more open to Boston Irish than places such as Newport, R.I. So Joseph Kennedy and his wife, Rose, rented a large clapboard house with green shutters and a private beach.
In 1929, he bought the house and remodeled it to include 14 bedrooms and the first private motion picture theater in New England (the house now belongs to Ted Kennedy). In 1956, John F. Kennedy bought an adjacent house, followed by Robert F. Kennedy's purchase of another neighboring property, which his widow, Ethel, still owns. The Shrivers also live nearby, as does Teddy's ex-wife, Joan.