Kennedy Profiles in Tragedy

For Rory Elizabeth Katherine Kennedy, Saturday, July 17, was going to be a glorious day. In Hyannisport, Mass.

Kennedy Profiles in Tragedy

For Rory Elizabeth Katherine Kennedy, Saturday, July 17, was going to be a glorious day. In Hyannisport, Mass., 275 friends and relatives had been invited to the fabled Kennedy family compound to celebrate the wedding of the 30-year-old documentary film-maker to editor and writer Mark Bailey, also 30. But word that the plane carrying her first cousin, John Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Carolyn's sister Lauren was missing cast a tragic pall over Rory's day, a feeling that must have been very familiar. Not only was she forced to postpone her nuptials, the Kennedys had once again fallen under an indelible curse reaching across at least three generations. Instead of rejoicing in a marriage last weekend, the star-crossed family gathered once more to attend a special mass at the compound for some of their own.

Rory herself has been touched by the terrible history - the assassinations, the tragic car accidents, the brushes with ignominy. One event had dramatic consequences on her life even before her birth: her mother, Ethel, was three months pregnant with Rory when her father, 42-year-old Democratic presidential candidate and New York Senator Robert Kennedy, was felled by assassin Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. Rory grew up without a father and, like all of her family, lived with the traumatic knowledge that her uncle, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the popular 35th president of the United States, also had been gunned down on Nov. 22, 1963. Even that watershed event was part of a season of tragedy. Three months before their fateful trip to Dallas, Jack and wife Jacqueline had grieved over the death of their two-day-old son, Patrick Bouvier.

Several of Rory's 10 siblings confronted major troubles as they grew up. In 1973, when she was 5, her eldest brother, Joseph Kennedy II, then 21, was convicted of negligent driving after his Jeep flipped over, leaving a female passenger paralyzed. Later, while a three-term Massachusetts congressman, Joseph caused further scandal by securing from the Roman Catholic Church an annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Sheila Rauch, and marrying one of his office staffers, Beth Kelly. He now runs a nonprofit clean-energy company. Brother Robert Jr., who later became a lawyer and environmental activist involved in British Columbia's 1993 Clayoquot Sound anti-logging protests, was addicted to heroin in the 1980s. And another of Rory's brothers, David, died of a drug overdose near the family vacation home in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1984.

Her family's miseries were compounded with the death of brother Michael in January, 1998, a tragedy that Rory witnessed. She was on the slopes in Aspen, Colo., with her 39-year-old sibling and his three children, playing ski-football, when Michael rammed headfirst into a tree. Rory swooshed over to assist and, cradling Michael's head to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, she noticed he was not breathing. "Oh my God," she cried. "He doesn't have a pulse." Michael had died instantly, cracking his skull and severing his spinal cord. A year earlier, he had entered addiction therapy for sex and alcohol after The Boston Globe revealed he had had an affair with his children's teenage babysitter.

Rory's wedding was scheduled just as media outlets revived scandalous memories of her uncle Edward's car accident at Chappaquiddick Island, which resulted in the death of the Massachusetts senator's 28-year-old aide Mary Jo Kopechne. The accident happened almost exactly 30 years earlier, late at night on July 18, following a party attended by the senator's political assistants on the island off Martha's Vineyard. His car carrying Kopechne tumbled off a narrow wooden bridge into the water and became immediately submerged. Kopechne was found drowned inside the vehicle, but somehow Kennedy managed to escape unharmed. To this day, questions about his delay in reporting the accident and what efforts he made to save Kopechne remain unresolved. The accident, however, helped to dash Ted Kennedy's hopes of becoming a presidential candidate.

The Kennedy vicissitudes struck Rory's cousins as well. Ted's son, Edward Jr., had his right leg amputated in 1973 because of cancer. His younger son, Patrick, now a U.S. congressman, became addicted to cocaine as a teenager and had to seek treatment. William Kennedy Smith, a doctor and son of Ted's sister Jean Kennedy and Stephen Smith, was accused in 1991 of raping a woman in Palm Beach. He was acquitted in 1992.

The family's misfortunes date back at least to Rory's grandfather, patriarch Joseph Kennedy and his wife, Rose. The couple's eldest son, Joseph Jr. - whom Joseph Sr. had originally seen as the family's political hope - died in an air crash during the Second World War. Daughter Kathleen also perished in a plane crash at 28 while en route to France. Another child, Rosemary, now 81, was born mentally deficient.

Yet along with the family's woes have come many blessings. There is a pattern of achievement among Joseph and Rose Kennedy's 25 surviving grandchildren. Kathleen Kennedy, Ethel and Robert's eldest child, is lieutenant governor of Maryland; Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, John Jr.'s sister, is a successful lawyer; Maria Shriver, daughter of Eunice Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, is an NBC correspondent, married to movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. But for Rory Kennedy and the entire clan, last week's accident was only the latest entry in the family's eerie legacy of heartbreak.

Maclean's July 26, 1999