Kennedy Tragedy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Kennedy Tragedy

It was another Kennedy family reunion at the storied Hyannisport, Mass., island compound where they have shared so much joy and sorrow.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 26, 1999

Kennedy Tragedy

It was another Kennedy family reunion at the storied Hyannisport, Mass., island compound where they have shared so much joy and sorrow. On this occasion last weekend, there was great reason to celebrate: Rory Kennedy, the daughter of Ethel Kennedy and her late husband, Robert, was to be married Saturday to fiancé Mark Bailey under a white tent by the sea on the family property. By late evening Friday, most of the expected 275 guests had arrived - with a couple of very notable exceptions.

John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, still appeared to be en route (as was her sister, Lauren Bessette, who was hitching a ride and had plans elsewhere). As had become common since he got his pilot's licence last year, John Kennedy was making the trip in his private aircraft - a red and white, single-engine Piper Saratoga. Stencilled on the plane's tail were registration numbers and letters that stood for his late father's birth date and their shared initials. John Jr.'s takeoff into clear but hazy skies, at 8:38 p.m. from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., was uneventful.

It all seemed so routine, in keeping with other rituals in the 38-year-old Kennedy's life. The night before, Kennedy, an avid sportsman, went to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in his home town of New York City with friends. Recently, he had been putting in particularly long hours as editor of George magazine, the political publication he founded in 1995. Its future has been put in doubt by declining ad revenues and circulation. For Kennedy, whose enthusiasm for flying was obvious to friends - although not shared by 33-year-old Carolyn - the short flight to see family was a welcome chance to relax.

But with the Kennedys, nothing ever seems to end as uneventfully, or peacefully, as it should. At 9:39 p.m., the Federal Aviation Administration received a last signal from the aircraft in the air, about 10 to 12 nautical miles west of the island of Martha's Vineyard, as it should have been beginning its final approach to land. From there, after dropping Lauren Bessette on the island, the two Kennedys were to continue to Hyannisport. About midnight, a waiting limousine driver informed the Kennedy clan at the compound that the plane had not arrived, and they contacted federal authorities. By early afternoon the next day, after a massive search involving officials from the federal government, five states, and many private citizens, a piece of luggage was discovered, washed up at Philbin Beach on Martha's Vineyard, with the name tag "Lauren Bessette." Shortly after, searchers also discovered a wheel, headrest and strut from a plane. At that point, the rhetoric of searchers immediately shifted from "rescue" to "salvage" - an unofficial but sure sign they had given up hope.

It may take weeks, or even months, to determine the cause of the apparent crash. At week's end, speculation centred on several potential reasons, including mechanical failure, and whether Kennedy's flying was impeded by an injury to his right foot he recently sustained while para-gliding. That, experts said, could have impeded his ability to respond in several potential emergency situations. And at the airport before taking off, Kennedy "looked to me like he was limping," said pilot Kyle Bailey, 25, who was about 100 m from Kennedy when he arrived.

It was hard to fathom: a Kennedy aircraft gone down. Nothing can ease the shock to the family, in particular, and Americans, in general, at the latest misfortune to overtake a clan that has lived with seemingly endless tragedy. Across the United States, people were riveted to coverage of search efforts, carried live Saturday on all major U.S. television networks. In Hyannisport, local residents milled outside the Kennedy compound in a show of moral support. As the gravity of the situation sunk in, family members behind its walls huddled together for a mass - in lieu of the immediately postponed wedding. Baseball fans at Yankee Stadium were asked to rise for a moment of prayer, and The Chicago Sun-Times printed an extra edition of its Sunday paper. President Bill Clinton, who met Kennedy's father, President John F. Kennedy, as a youth and has often described him as a "personal hero," followed search efforts on a "minute-to-minute" basis, according to a spokesman.

If the Kennedys are, as the media so often say, "America's royalty," John F. Kennedy Jr. was the family's crown prince - a glib, movie-star handsome, and by all accounts, thoroughly decent man who bore his celebrity with reluctance, but grace. His marriage to the stunning Carolyn Bessette, after a prolific string of dates and relationships that included Madonna and actresses Daryl Hannah and Sarah Jessica Parker, only enhanced that lustre. He will be remembered as much for his family roots and resultant celebrity as for his achievements, although - given his involvement in a variety of social causes over the years - that is unfair. Commenting on the crash, presidential historian Michael Beschloss described John Jr. as "the most promising member of the third generation of Kennedys."

On his business cards, Kennedy never used the "F," or the "Jr.," and often introduced himself with an informal, "Hi, I'm John." He refused to emphasize the link between himself and his father, the 35th president of the United States. In fact, as Kennedy once confessed to interviewer Larry King, his memories of his father were "glorious - but not vivid": he was three days shy of his third birthday when Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated his father on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. The young Kennedy remembered his "Uncle Bobby" better. Presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy, who was something of a surrogate father to little John, was killed by assassin Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles in 1968 when the boy was 7.

For a generation of people worldwide over the age of 40, several images indelibly linked him with his father. One was a photograph of him playing under his father's desk in the Oval Office at the White House while the president worked: another, achingly poignant, was of the toddler sending his late father off with a salute at the funeral in Washington. For years, he was known as "John-John" - the result of a White House journalist overhearing a conversation between father and son, and mistakenly thinking he heard the president say his name twice.

Kennedy successfully dropped from public sight through much of the 1970s and '80s - the result of mother Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's determined efforts to have him and sister Caroline grow up out of the public eye. In an article written in 1983 for Maclean's, Pierre Salinger, the press secretary to President Kennedy, recalled that Jacqueline Kennedy, while in the White House, used to send "scores of handwritten notes protesting that I was not always doing enough to protect the children and the privacy of their lives." After President Kennedy's death, the trio moved into a 14-room Manhattan apartment in 1974, and young Kennedy went to private school in New York City and Massachusetts, and blossomed as an actor. He continued acting while attending Brown University and showed signs of an emerging social conscience. In 1980, Kennedy went to Zimbabwe and South Africa, and, upon his return, helped create a fund to educate young Africans. He also interned at the Center for Democratic Policy in Washington. In an interview in 1988 with Maclean's, Kennedy's then-supervisor, Albert Eisele, recalled that Kennedy spent his time "just running errands, copying, that sort of thing. He was a very down-to-earth guy. There wasn't a sense he was a special person." Kennedy, Eisele added, "was a very bright, impressive young man."

He also had no shortage of interests: after graduating in 1983, he continued acting, travelled to India, dabbled in political fund-raising, and worked with a team of divers that was looking for a pirate ship sunk off the Cape Cod coast. In July of 1990, he went to work as assistant district attorney to Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau. But for a new generation of Americans, Kennedy's public emergence - or re-emergence - came with his first major political speech at a Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988. It wasn't only what he said: it was how he said it - and how he looked. Introducing his uncle Senator Edward Kennedy, he said: "Over a quarter of a century ago, my father stood before you to accept the nomination for the presidency of the United States. So many of you came into public service because of him, and in a very real sense, it is because of you he is with us today." He earned a two-minute standing ovation - and a place, like it or not, back in the spotlight. That same year, People magazine gave the six-foot, one-inch, 190 lb. Kennedy a title that became part of his lore: "The sexiest man alive."

That, in fact, was a quality Kennedy shared unquestionably with his father, who was revealed after his death to have been a notorious womanizer. John Jr., who went on to study law at New York University, was linked with a variety of women - though not nearly as many as would have liked to make that claim. There were frequent references to him on Seinfeld including an episode in which the character Elaine, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, becomes weak-kneed and gushy after finding herself placed near him in exercise class. He became a familiar figure on television - seen, but seldom heard, because most of the time, he was photographed by paparazzi without his consent as he entered or emerged from restaurants or social events.

Still, Kennedy Jr., again like his father, was skilled at both rebuffing the media, but meeting its needs when it suited him. But there was one key difference: unlike his father, whose dalliances continued after his marriage, Kennedy Jr. appeared thoroughly devoted to his wife. In Sept., 1996, he and Bessette caught everyone off guard when, after a two-year courtship, they escaped the media long enough for a secret wedding on a small island on the south Georgia coast. He had proposed to her on the beach at Hyannisport. At the wedding, he toasted Carolyn for making him "the happiest man alive." Both of them made great efforts to keep their life together private. But on other matters, Kennedy was more forthcoming. His efforts in founding George reflected his interest in both politics and the media. He often joked about how he would like to become "president" - and then, after a careful pause, added "of the magazine." He never ruled out a future in politics but, mindful of the tragedies and difficulties that befell others in his family, spoke very cautiously about that option. "Once you run for office, you're in it - sort of like going into the military," he once said. "You'd better be damned sure it is what you want to do. It takes a certain toll on your personality and on your family life. I've seen it personally."

He most certainly had. Ironically, last weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the infamous Chappaquiddick incident, in which Senator Edward Kennedy was involved in an accident that caused the death of his secretary and travel partner, Mary Jo Kopechne. Ted Kennedy left the scene of the accident and did not report it for several hours. Although he was never charged, the scandal from the incident lingered long after, and is considered by analysts to be the reason that Ted Kennedy's 1979 challenge to President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination failed miserably.

Kennedy Jr., for his part, was loyal to troubled family members - to a point. He was always close to his Uncle Ted, and when a cousin, William Kennedy Smith, was charged with rape in 1991, Kennedy took time off work and flew to West Palm Beach, where the trial was taking place, to offer support. He did so, he said at the time, because "William is my cousin and we grew up together. I thought I could at least come down and be with him during some difficult times." But more recently, he was not as patient with transgressions by other family members. In 1997, cousin Michael Kennedy was revealed to be sleeping with his underage babysitter, while another cousin, Joe, wangled an annulment of his 12-year marriage. In a personal essay on the perils of temptation in George, Kennedy described his cousins as "poster boys for bad behavior" who "chased an idealized alternative to their life." In the same edition of the magazine, there was a photograph of Kennedy, apparently nude, posing as Adam. Both those gestures led pundits to speculate that he was preparing for a political career - although little transpired to suggest he would.

In fact, had he so chosen, Kennedy did not ever have to work for a living. His personal wealth was estimated at various times as totalling anywhere from $15 million to as much as $74 million - the result of inheritances of both Kennedy and Onassis wealth. But the man whom biographer Wendy Leigh once described as the one member of his family who was scandal-free shared another, more commendable trait of the Kennedys: a commitment to public service. And he discouraged talk of a Kennedy aura. "It's hard for me to talk about a legacy or a mystique - it's my father," he said in 1993. "The fact that there have been difficulties or hardship, or obstacles, makes us closer." He clung to those roots: his cottage at the Hyannisport compound had belonged to President Kennedy, and he kept it much as it was at the time of his father's death. He went there, friends said, at almost every opportunity.

But there is no denying either the intense pain or emotional power that comes from being a Kennedy. Shortly after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his widow, Jacqueline - who died of cancer in 1994 - mused to a friend that "if I had any idea Jack would be killed, we would never have named our son John F. Kennedy Jr." The effect, she forecast correctly, would be to cast a spotlight on him he could never duck. In the end, John F. Kennedy Jr. disappeared en route to the place his father loved the most - and where the family felt sheltered from a world that, despite all their advantages, has too often been harsh and unforgiving. Now, again, the Kennedys seek solace from each other - from a family curse it seems they will never escape.

A Stylish Mate With a Will of Steel

It was probably inevitable that as a person who married into the Kennedy clan, Carolyn Bessette would always rank several rungs below her husband in attracting public attention. But among friends there was never any doubt the strong-willed Bessette Kennedy could give as good as she could take. After their marriage, a friend of both, Richard Wiese, observed: "I don't think she has any problem hanging with him. If anything, he has more trouble hanging with her."

A striking blond and former model with a fondness for cutting-edge fashion, she captivated Kennedy from the moment they met in 1992 while jogging in Central Park. Born in White Plains, N.Y., the 33-year-old Bessette Kennedy came from a broken home: her estranged father, a doctor, was not at her 1996 wedding. But she, her mother and two older twin sisters - including Lauren, 35, a vice-president at the Morgan Stanley investment firm - were close. She earned a bachelor of science degree from Boston University in 1988 and moved to New York City, where she worked for fashion designer Calvin Klein. She left that job shortly before marrying Kennedy.

Recently, observers compared Bessette Kennedy favourably to John's mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. "She is very good at making people feel they are special," said one friend. "It was the same with Jackie." In last weekend's tragedy, she again earned second billing - to everyone but those who knew her.

Maclean's July 26, 1999