Kennedys at odds over compound

Plan to give main Hyannis Port house to Senate institute is cause of tension

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / July 14, 2011

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The Kennedy clan will gather tomorrow for a wedding at its Cape Cod compound amid tensions about the future of the property and following a public airing of dissension within the storied political family.

Negotiations are underway to transfer ownership of the main Kennedy home in coming months to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, a proposal that has raised concerns among family members who live on adjacent property, according to two associates close to the family who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The senator, who died in August 2009, had stated in his will that he ultimately wanted the property to be turned over to the institute, which is now being built next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library at Columbia Point. He gave the rights to the house to his widow, Vicki, and his three children, and they are expected to relinquish them very soon, according to the family associates.

Vicki Kennedy, while carrying out her husband’s wishes, has unsettled other family members in and around the compound, particularly Ethel Kennedy, whose compound home is next to the main house. Delicate negotiations are attempting to placate those concerns, the associates said.

Institute interim president Jack Wilson declined to comment on the issue. Messages left for Vicki Kennedy were not returned.

The family will gather in Hyannis Port tomorrow for the marriage of the senator’s youngest child, Patrick, just days after a public fissure within the family was published in the New York Times.

The newspaper reported Tuesday that the Robert F. Kennedy family is threatening to withhold 63 boxes of his soon-to-be-released papers from the presidential library because they feel the former attorney general is not getting the respect there that he deserves. The Globe had reported in January that the RFK family was in a dispute with the presidential library over making the contents of the boxes fully available to researchers.

“There is a very large building, and there is a remembrance of President Kennedy and there’s one for Senator Edward Kennedy,’’ Joseph P. Kennedy II, Robert’s son and a former congressman, told the newspaper. “But there is nothing out there for Robert Kennedy.’’

He declined to comment to the Globe.

Thomas J. Putnam, director of the presidential library, said yesterday that the library is “still hopeful’’ that an agreement will be reached with the Robert Kennedy family.

“We can only say we do our best to honor him,’’ Putnam said. “We hope Congressman Kennedy and the rest of the family feel we are doing the best we can within the presidential library system.’’

Such a breach in family cohesion would have been unheard of in the decades when Edward Kennedy was the clan’s patriarch. After the death of his brothers, he used a strong hand to present a united family front through scandals, tragedy, and numerous political campaigns.

The 21-room home and 2.4-acre waterfront lot at the heart of the Kennedy compound, purchased by Joe and Rose in 1926, has been largely unused since the senator’s death two years ago. Family associates said Vicki Kennedy has little interest in keeping the house for herself. Her friends say it evokes sad memories of her husband and their times together at the home he loved most. A younger family member who frequents the compound has referred to it as “the haunted house.’’

John and Robert ultimately bought homes nearby, which would not be part of this transaction.

When it is taken over by the institute, the main home will be turned into a study center where scholars and public figures gather to ponder policy issues.

The main property is a political landmark, where the family planned political campaigns, celebrated a presidential election, and mourned assassinations.

“Politics is the family’s business, and the compound was the place for that business,’’ said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who chronicled the rise of the Kennedy clan in her 1987 book “The Fitzgeralds and The Kennedys.’’

Goodwin said Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. chose the seaside estate in Hyannis Port so it could serve as a place where the family would be able to gather, grow, and bond - and eventually, through its cohesion, become a major force in Massachusetts and national politics.

His vision became reality. John F. Kennedy began laying the groundwork for his presidential administration there. His brothers, Robert and Edward, planned their senatorial races. Joseph P. Kennedy II, a third-generation family member, met with advisers to put together his successful 1986 congressional race.

The compound - where Kennedys, their hair tousled by the sea breezes, played on the lawn, walked on the beach, and sailed on Nantucket Sound - was part of the clan’s identity.

“It became the country’s image of the Kennedy family,’’ Goodwin said.

Photographs of Kennedy touch football games, sailing races, and whirling presidential helicopters are seared in the nation’s memory. John F. Kennedy and his fiancée, Jacqueline Bouvier, posed for photos on their sailing boats. John F. Kennedy Jr.’s funeral service was held on the lawn after his plane crashed off Martha’s Vineyard.

It has also been the scene of the family’s most serious political crises. The clan and their coterie of legal and political advisers gathered there in the hours after Edward Kennedy returned from Martha Vineyard’s in 1969 following his car accident on Chappaquiddick; he had left the scene of the accident in which a young woman was killed. The family’s legacy was on the line, and Kennedy was facing disgrace, with his political career on the brink.

Much of the problem with converting the property to a study center lies with the complicated transition issues, according to associates. If the nonprofit, tax-exempt institute takes title to the property, the town of Barnstable will lose the $56,000 annual property tax, an issue that the institute’s board seems to feel is important.

In addition, neighbors in the exclusive summer resort, are concerned about any changes to the property’s use. Other family members who live near the main house are looking for assurance about the potential intrusion on their privacy and their access to the beach.

Still, Goodwin said that using a property that is so steeped in political history as a study center could be a great inspiration for those who gather to consider the great issues of the day.

“Having scholars working in that house makes a lot a sense,’’ said Goodwin.

Frank Phillips can be reached at