Famous American writerlooks at an epic family dynasty of tragedy and scandal.
The Kennedy family curse strikes again
Ted Kennedy, the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s nine children, earned his licence to pilot single-engine planes while in law school.
His roommate, the future US congressman and senator John Tunney, was in the air with him when the controller at Washington National Airport ordered, “Cessna, Cessna, get out of there, get out of there! Hard left!”
Tunney looked back to see “a United plane on our tail”. Kennedy took that hard left, avoided disaster, and Tunney “studiously avoided” flying with him ever again.
Not flying with a Kennedy would turn out to be a sound policy.
On April 9, 1964, less than five months after his brother President John F Kennedy had been assassinated, Ted Kennedy gave his maiden US senate speech in support of the Civil Rights Act.
Although a powerful contingent of southern senators fought and filibustered the measure for more than two months, the historic legislation passed the US senate on June 19 by a vote of 73-27.
That night Ted Kennedy, his travel coordinator Ed Moss, Indiana senator Birch Bayh and Bayh’s wife, Marvella, set out for the Massachusetts State Democratic Convention in West Springfield, so the delegates could endorse Ted for election to his first full Senate term.
“The fog is really rolling in,” warned the pilot, Howard Baird. So Moss hired another pilot, Ed Zimmy, to fly a chartered Aero Commander 680 twin-engine aircraft to Barnes Airport in Westfield.
Minutes before 11pm, Zimmy radioed the Barnes control tower to say that he would attempt an instrument landing through the zero-visibility conditions. The plane crashed into a tree.
Bayh awoke to his wife’s screams and saw that Zimmy and Moss were dead and Ted was trapped in the wreckage. An adrenaline-charged Bayh pulled out Kennedy “like a sack of corn under my arm”, he later said.
Kennedy suffered three crushed and fractured vertebrae, a punctured lung and broken ribs, and was hospitalised for months.
His wife, Joan, despite having recently suffered a second miscarriage with two young kids at home, campaigned for him and that November he won 75% of the vote.
“He’s getting awful fresh since he’s been in bed and his wife won the campaign for him,” said his brother Bobby Kennedy, who won his New York senate seat by a narrower margin.
Here met the Kennedy blessing and curse. The Kennedys championed a landmark achievement of the civil rights movement that banned public segregation and outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion or national origin.
And on the night it became law, Ted Kennedy went down in a plane crash — and lived while two others died.
Glory and misfortune, always hand-in-hand, from back then to today. At the beginning of last month, divers found the body of Bobby Kennedy’s granddaughter Maeve Kennedy McKean in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland.
She had drowned after a canoeing accident, and was with her eight-year-old son, Gideon, whose body was recovered two days after his mother’s.
Maeve’s cousin, Joe Kennedy III, took time out from his campaign to become the next senator of Massachusetts to mourn yet another Kennedy tragedy.
Has any American family ever encompassed people’s aspirations and fears quite so completely as the Kennedys?
They projected themselves as Camelot, as close to royalty as Americans got. They slept with movie stars, sometimes the same one (allegedly), and John F Kennedy used to get Judy Garland to sing ‘Over the Rainbow’ to him over the phone.
Even as they accumulated political adversaries, the Kennedys also stood for something: public service.
In contrast the current US president, Donald Trump, who has also involved family members in his administration, has made business acumen his calling card.
Nowadays, people in the UK and US display conflicting impulses regarding royalty and the notion of inherited power, glory and wealth. Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to leave the royal family has been both applauded as courageous and derided as cowardly.
At the same time, audiences eagerly await the next series of The Crown, Peter Morgan’s award-winning Netflix drama about Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Starring first Claire Foy and then Olivia Colman as the Queen (with Imelda Staunton confirmed for the final series), the show has offered an invitation into Buckingham Palace that even the most egalitarian-minded viewers have been unable to refuse.
Mr Trump arrived in the White House via the entertainment world — specifically his reality-TV show, The Apprentice — at a time when it may be impossible to attain the kind of mystique that enveloped the Kennedys back before secrets were subject to social media and 24/7 news channels.
Yet the appetite for exploring the Kennedys’ lore remains unabated, as evidenced by the millions of people who listened to Bob Dylan’s 17-minute, almost-spoken-word John F Kennedy assassination epic ‘Murder Most Foul’ within days of its release last month.
On the less high-minded side came the flurry of reports around the same time about the impending auction of JFK notes that detailed his love of extramarital affairs with blonde women.
The man who stared down the Soviet Union and successfully pledged to put a man on the moon also said that if he won the 1960 presidential election, “my poon [slang for sex] days are over”. (By most accounts they weren’t.)
The lofty and tawdry live side by side, and the fascination never ends for a family that could aim so high and crash so hard, over and over. The Kennedys were larger than life and associated with death.
“Is it ever going to end for you people?” the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin asked Bobby Kennedy after Ted Kennedy’s plane crash.
Bobby took the question seriously and considered the fates of his four oldest siblings, three of whom were dead and one, Rose Marie Kennedy, who was permanently impaired from a botched lobotomy ordered by her father.
“If my mother hadn’t had any more children after her first four, she would have nothing now,” he replied. “I guess the only reason we’ve survived is that … there are more of us than there is trouble.”
But trouble had a way of catching up with the Kennedys. Bobby would be next.
The patriarch Joseph Patrick Kennedy, who once carried on a long-term affair with the movie star Gloria Swanson (his phone calls to her reportedly racked up the nation’s largest private telephone bill of 1929), became President Roosevelt’s ambassador to the UK.
Before giving him the job, Roosevelt ordered him to drop his pants and declared him “the most bow-legged man I’ve ever seen”.
Joseph’s political career essentially ended after he tried, without consulting with the State Department, to arrange a meeting with Adolf Hitler in the early days of the Second World War.
But the senior Kennedy still had high political hopes for his sons. Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr (pictured right) was, in his father’s eyes, the “star of our family”. But Joseph Jr refused his father’s offer of a wartime desk job and instead, establishing the family’s propensity for flight, became a skilled pilot with the Navy Air Corps.
By the summer of 1944 he had successfully accomplished more than the 25 bombing missions required to complete his tour, but he continued to accept perilous assignments.
“Joe, don’t tempt fate,” his father wrote to him. “Just come home.”
On August 12, 1944, Joseph Jr died when his plane exploded during a secret bombing mission. Within a month Billy Cavendish, the husband of Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy (Joseph and Rose’s fourth-born), fell victim to a sniper’s bullet while fighting in Belgium.
On May 13, 1948, a storm hit while Kick and her new love, the still-married Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, awaited take-off in their chartered plane outside Paris. The pilot and navigator warned against returning to the air, but the couple refused to wait. Their remains were found the next morning scattered over the mountainous Rhône-Alpes region.
Jack Kennedy was more dishevelled, funnier and less studious than his older brother Joseph, and he suffered from chronic back pain and other ailments that required medication for most of his life.
His father had lower expectations for him than he had for Joseph Jr, but Jack became a hero after a Japanese destroyer smashed into and sank the warship he was commanding and he led the surviving crew members to safety.
In the war’s early years, Jack also carried on a relationship with a blonde beauty, Inga Arvad, whom the FBI director J Edgar Hoover investigated as a possible Nazi spy.
Soon Jack was following his father’s pattern: rising in the political ranks and conducting affairs, even after marrying Jacqueline Bouvier, 12 years his junior.
Upon defeating Richard Nixon to win the presidency in 1960, he appointed his younger brother Bobby (Joseph and Rose’s seventh child) as his attorney-general.
When Marilyn Monroe, wearing a skintight dress that made her appear almost nude, sang a sultry Happy Birthday to You to the president at New York’s Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962, a jealous Jackie Kennedy was angry with Bobby because he “orchestrated the whole goddamn thing”.
Rumours had romantically linked the actress to the president, and Monroe reportedly called Jackie Kennedy to declare that she would become the second Mrs Kennedy.
She was also suspected of a dalliance with Bobby Kennedy, whom she would phone while “very often distraught”. Within three months of the birthday tribute, Monroe was dead from a drug overdose.
The following November, the president’s motorcade would head into downtown Dallas and soon after, he would be dead too.
Bobby and his wife, Ethel, ended up having 11 children, a brood even larger than Joseph and Rose’s. This extended family was not immune to the Kennedy curse.
Ethel’s parents, George Skakel and Ann Brannack, were killed in a 1955 plane crash in an Oklahoma field, and her brother George Skakel Jr met a similar fate on September 25, 1966, when a light plane carrying him and four other passengers crashed near Riggins, Idaho, during a failed landing.
“You had better pretend you don’t know me,” Bobby told the adviser Ted Sorensen. “Everyone connected to me seems to be jinxed.”
After President Lyndon Johnson opted not to run for re-election in 1968, Bobby entered the race with longer hair and a new outspokenness against the Vietnam War and for the civil rights movement.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr on April 4, 1968, Reverend Hosea Williams viewed Bobby Kennedy as the movement’s greatest remaining hope and warned the candidate: “You have a chance to be a prophet. But prophets get shot.”
On June 4, exactly two months after Dr King was killed, Bobby and Ethel Kennedy and six of their children were relaxing on a beach in Malibu, California, on the day of that state’s presidential primary.
David, the couple’s 12-year-old son, was swept up by a wave and pulled out by its dangerous undertow. Bobby scrambled to rescue his son, and both emerged with just bruises and scrapes, though David was traumatised by the event as well as by what followed. He was the only one of Bobby’s children watching his father on live TV that night.
With victory in California in hand, Bobby Kennedy gave a televised speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in LA.
“We are a great country, an unselfish country, a compassionate country,” he told the audience.
As he exited through the hotel kitchen afterwards, with news cameras still rolling, a 24-year-old Christian Palestinian named Sirhan Bishara Sirhan pulled a .22-calibre pistol from a rolled-up Kennedy poster and shot the candidate in the head, back and shoulder. Surgeries were performed and hopes were raised, but 26 hours after the shooting yet another Kennedy was pronounced dead.
“They’re killing all the Kennedys,” a distraught Pierre Salinger, Bobby’s campaign manager, told his wife.
Ted Kennedy feared this was exactly what was happening. He became, in the words of his close friend Tunney, “fatalistic … I think that he thought his days were numbered too, that he probably was going to be assassinated, that somebody was going to go for the third one and knock them all off.”
But the greatest damage to Ted Kennedy would prove to be self-inflicted. On July 18, 1969, as the Apollo 11 spacecraft orbited the moon in anticipation of the first lunar landing, the 37-year-old senator was among 12 people (none of them his wife) enjoying a party in a cottage on the small island of Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts.
At some point Ted took off in an Oldsmobile with 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, who had worked for Bobby Kennedy. The car went off Dike Bridge into water in Poucha Pond that was about 8ft deep. He escaped. She did not.
Rather than seek help from police, Ted returned on foot to his friends more than a mile away. After telling the group about the accident, he swam across the 500ft channel to Edgartown and made calls from an inn.
Ted would admit to this terrible lapse of judgment while insisting that the young woman’s death was “an accident” so “I don’t feel guilty”.
The fallout was intense. Newspapers on July 20, 1969, split their coverage between that day’s historic moonwalk and the shocking incident at Chappaquiddick. In the aftermath of the judicial inquest six months later, Kennedy was stripped of his position as senate majority whip, and his political future was in peril.
“This is the fall of the House of Kennedy,” predicted a former staffer of President Johnson.
Yet although he never made it to the White House, failing in a 1980 primary challenge to Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president (who then lost to Ronald Reagan), Ted maintained a distinguished Senate career that lasted from 1962 to his death from a malignant brain tumour in 2009.
He had become known as a champion for healthcare and other progressive causes, and Barack Obama awarded him the presidential medal of freedom towards the end of his life. He was the rare Kennedy who rose to great heights after hitting his own personal depths.
The Kennedy curse nonetheless extended its reach. When Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, Bobby and Ethel’s eldest son, was 20, he crashed a Jeep in Nantucket in 1973, injuring his brother David and paralysing David’s girlfriend. He was charged with reckless driving. He went on to represent Massachusetts from 1987 to 1999 in the House of Representatives.
David had already been living a troubled life after his father had rescued him from the waves on the day of his assassination. A drug habit escalated after David received morphine for his Jeep-accident injuries.
He was eventually treated for two overdoses and arrested for speeding and driving under the influence. After a month of rehab in Minneapolis in the spring of 1984, he headed to Palm Beach, Florida, where he was later found dead in a hotel suite. He was 28.
“One quarter of the Kennedy cousins have been treated for drug or alcohol abuse, which is well above the national average,” noted an opinion piece for a Washington think tank in 2010.
“For all the glamour associated with the family, it seems that it is not that easy, psychologically or emotionally, being a Kennedy.”
Saoirse Roisin Kennedy Hill, the 22-year-old only child of Paul Hill and Courtney Kennedy (Ethel and Bobby’s fifth child), was spending the night of July 31, 2019, at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, watching the Democratic presidential debates with 91-year-old Ethel.
Later, Saoirse went out for a night of karaoke and dancing, ending with a sunrise swim. Then, as her uncle Bobby put it, “Saoirse woke up with God.”
Toxicology results revealed “methadone and ethanol toxicity” and the presence of other prescription medications, though her death was ruled as accidental.
This tragedy followed other scandals that had plagued the family over the years. In May 1991, Ted Kennedy’s nephew William was charged with rape but later acquitted.
In January 1995, Bobby and Ethel’s sixth child, Michael, was discovered by his wife in bed with their 16-year-old babysitter. The police opened a statutory rape investigation, which was subsequently dropped. When the news became public the family closed ranks, even as no one denied that he had carried on a relationship with a teenage girl.
On New Year’s Eve in 1997, Michael was skiing in Aspen when he crashed headfirst into a tree. His body was flown home to Hyannis Port on Kevin Costner’s jet and he was buried next to his brother David.
“We don’t know what to make of another Kennedy death,” Kevin Sowyrda, a local political analyst, told The Washington Post. “We almost expect it now.”
The Kennedy offspring who most embodied the air of royalty was the dashing John F Kennedy Jr, who on his third birthday had memorably saluted his father’s funeral procession.
The tabloids ridiculed him for failing the bar exam twice on his way to becoming a lawyer (it was third time lucky), but he became a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office for four years. In 1995 he launched the political magazine George with ex-flame Cindy Crawford on the cover dressed as George Washington.
In a 1997 magazine feature about temptation, he called out his cousins as “poster boys for bad behaviour”, a rare break from family solidarity.
The tabloids enjoyed stalking his sometimes turbulent relationship with Carolyn Bessette, Calvin Klein’s public relations chief, and the intense attention mirrored the treatment of Diana Frances Spencer, the Princess of Wales.
When John Jr met Diana in New York in 1995 to discuss a possible appearance in George, tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic predictably speculated they were having an affair.
Diana died on August 31, 1997 while fleeing from the paparazzi in Paris, but what doomed John Jr was another hazard of being a Kennedy: the impulse to fly.
He earned his private pilot’s licence in early 1998, and on July 16, 1999 he was flying Carolyn and her sister, Lauren Bessette, to his cousin Rory Kennedy’s wedding in Hyannis Port.
He was on crutches after breaking his ankle in a paragliding accident, and, according to the New York Post, was taking several medications, including Vicodin for pain relief. Still, he insisted on flying with no assistance.
As a thick haze descended, a fellow pilot suggested that John “wait a while”, but John declared that he was “already late” and took off — narrowly avoiding a collision with an American Airlines jet after erroneously straying into its path.
Later his plane became enveloped by the haze. It was found on the ocean floor three days later, and the remains of John Jr, Carolyn and Lauren were cremated and scattered at sea.
John “made a stupid mistake, like going through a stop sign”, said Andrew Ferguson, president of Air Bound Aviation, from which Kennedy had purchased his plane.
“But when a Kennedy goes through a stop sign, there always seems to be an 18-wheeler truck coming from the other side.”
It’s no wonder that the John F Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek called the Kennedys “a case of triumph and tragedy, great success and terrible suffering … In many ways it’s the American story.”
That story continues, as Bobby’s grandson Joe Kennedy III mourns the family’s latest loss.
He may win the Massachusetts senate seat this autumn and extend the Kennedys’ political dynasty once again — if he can fly above the haze.