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Family overshawdowed by a litany of tragedy

By Brian McGrory, Globe Staff, 07/18/99

It has come to the point when Kennedy tragedy now seems to overshadow Kennedy triumph, when the passage of time is marked not by political conquests, but by soulful gatherings to grieve the loss of another young son.

With each death goes a little more of the glory, and those close to the family said what appears to be the loss of John Kennedy Jr., his young wife and her sister is incomprehensibly sad. "A devastating blow," said William Manchester, a Kennedy friend, historian and author of "Death of a President." "He embodied a lot of the family qualities." Added Kennedy confidante Paul Kirk: "It makes your heart sick just to talk about it."

Some call it a curse, which seems an inadequate cliche at such times. Others say that a family that persists in living on the edge is being forced to suffer the consequences of its risky ways. They fly their own single-engine planes when they could afford a crew of airmen. They ski without poles on the hardest hills of Aspen on the last run of a December afternoon. They coax their way into the military in hopes of facing combat. It is and always has been the Kennedy way.

"John follows the family tradition that the man should live this intrepid life," said Laurence Leamer, author of "The Kennedy Women," who is researching a book on the Kennedy men. "He should have been a coupon clipper, a wealthy guy going to his clubs. But he wouldn't live that kind of life."

As a wedding celebration on the rolling lawn of the Hyannisport compound instead became a tear-choked vigil, the legion of Kennedy friends and followers asked how much misfortune this clan can take.

"Rose Kennedy used to say that the Lord never sends you a burden too heavy to bear," said Frank Mankiewicz, a family adviser for decades. "I wonder now. It's getting close."

All Kennedy tragedies take their inevitable toll, but this one, family followers said, hurts more than most. Aside from his uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, John Kennedy Jr. was the best known of his family, the son of a late president, untarnished by scandal, instilled with good sense by a mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who sought to protect him from the prying press. He was also devastatingly handsome and generally good-natured, voted the sexiest man alive by People Magazine. He was, in short, filled with life; he is unimaginable in death.

And that death haunts in so many eerie ways. He was killed on the same weekend near the same island where, 30 years before, Senator Kennedy drove off a bridge on his way back from a Chappaquiddick party. The elder Kennedy escaped, but his aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, was later found dead in the submerged car. The controversy over Kennedy's role and delayed call to authorities derailed his presidential ambitions.

Two Kennedys have previously died in plane crashes. On August 12, 1944, Navy Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the eldest son of family matriarch and patriarch Rose and Joseph, was killed when the bomber he was piloting exploded during a mission meant to destroy rocket-launching sites in Normandy, France. He was 29 years old. On May 13, 1948, Kathleen Kennedy, daughter of Rose and Joseph, was killed when the chartered plane she was aboard crashed in the Cevennes Mountains in southern France.

Senator Kennedy also narrowly survived a plane crash on June 19, 1964, outside of Springfield, where he was to appear at a Democratic State Committee Convention. He fractured his spine in six places; a Kennedy aide and the plane's pilot were killed.

The scroll of the Kennedy dead has grown mercilessly - victims of bullets, drugs, their own excesses and misfortunes. John Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas, his brother Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968 in Los Angeles.

"Willpower, just willpower, and doing what's necessary is what keeps me going," Rose Kennedy once said.

Before Rose died in January 1995 at 104 years of age, she buried a grandson, David Kennedy, RFK's son, who was found dead of a drug overdose in a Palm Beach hotel in 1984.

In 1973, Joseph P. Kennedy 2d, who has since served and retired from Congress, was involved in a car crash that left a woman paralyzed for life. His brother, Michael, stood accused of having an affair with his children's teenaged babysitter. He died in a skiing accident on New Year's eve, 1997.

Cousin William Kennedy Smith was accused of committing a rape at the family's Palm Beach compound. After a highly celebrated trial, he was acquitted in 1991 and has gone on to become a doctor. The family estate there has since been sold.

Those who know the Kennedys say that in tragedy, they turn to themselves and to prayer, and yesterday seemed no different as they secluded themselves in their Cape Cod getaway with several priests and a steady stream of visitors. A spokesman said they joined in celebrating Mass.

"Life can be unfair," said Kirk, who has advised several Kennedys. "With this family, you have to say that sometimes it asks too much.

``Their mantra was that everyone could make a difference and each of us should try," Kirk added. ``But they fall much too early, much too young. This is another promise dashed."


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