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In London, news of crash provokes disbelief, sympathy

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 07/18/99

LONDON -- The Southwood beauty salon in North London was full today, as it is on most Saturday afternoons. But today was different, because at the top of each hour, the stylists paused, holding their scissors aloft, the assistants at the sinks turned off the water, and those getting their hair done craned their necks to hear the radio.

"A light aircraft carrying the son of the assassinated president John F. Kennedy has been reported missing,'' a BBC announcer intoned.

In one of the chairs, Maggie Smith let her mouth fall open and she covered it with a cupped hand.

"My God,'' she said, almost in a whisper, "that family is cursed.''

Smith's reaction, delivered as dye soaked into her hair, captured international reaction to the news that John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane was missing.

How, people all over the world asked, could so many bad things happen to one family? It is a question that will be asked over and over again because, in Europe especially, this is the only story that will matter in the coming days and weeks.

On Saturdays, the Southwood salon is usually a cacophony of conversation, as the stylists and their customers trade gossip. Today, it was somber and subdued and people spoke about the missing plane in hushed tones.

For Jean Draper, a hairstylist at Southwood, the news was crushing. A native of Ireland, Draper said the Kennedys occupy a special place in the land of their forebears.

"When I first heard the news I was shocked,'' said Draper. "But the more I thought about it, it's gotten to the point where nothing surprises me about the Kennedys. They have tragedy after tragedy, and it never seems to end. I don't know how they handle it.''

Gordon Alderson, a native of Scotland, shook his head as he contemplated the news. The British royal family has had its share of failed marriages, and this country came to a standstill after Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash in Paris two years ago. But compared with the Kennedys, the Windsors have been remarkably free of lethal tragedy.

"What is it about that family?'' Alderson asked. "Every time this happens, I ask myself the same question. What is it about that family?''

The story topped French TV news, and Italian state TV also led with the story, using the 1963 photo of "John-John'' saluting his father's coffin. Israel and Russia also played the story prominently.

For the tabloid press, especially in Britain, the story is manna. This is what Europeans call the silly season, when the absence of real news, most of it politically driven, leads newspapers to drum up stories to fill a void that runs from mid-July until September.

Most of the British tabloids are right-wing and relish rubbishing the Kennedys. The word "curse'' was being fit last night into many tabloid headlines.

Rupert Murdoch's Sky News network devoted most of its coverage to the search for the Kennedy plane. A strip across the bottom of the screen reminded viewers of the "Kennedy Curse'' and of how US Senator Edward M. Kennedy was charged with drunken driving after Mary Jo Kopechne died three decades ago in a car he was driving on Martha's Vineyard, the destination of the missing Kennedy plane.

Since the late 1980s, when Ted Kennedy forced Murdoch to comply with a Federal Communications Commission edict forbidding the ownership of newspapers and television stations in the same area, Murdoch papers have taken aim at the Kennedy family.

But while the tabloids have begun a feeding frenzy, the story leads the BBC news bulletins, and it will dominate serious news coverage for days if not weeks to come.

As Draper sees it, that will be unsurprising.

"They're the American royal family, aren't they?'' she asked.


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