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Jacqueline Kennedy believed in the Kennedy curse.
When first her husband, President John F. Kennedy, and then five years later his brother Robert F. Kennedy, were assassinated, she thought no one in the family was safe, least of all her own two children, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Kennedy.
Yet when she was dying in 1994, the iconic former first lady took comfort in her belief that her son and daughter had crossed some invisible threshold, that they were out of the woods. JFK Jr. thought the same.
But while one crushing blow after another has kept talk of the most blatant of curses—not just periodic misfortune, but the specter of death—alive, different members of the family have processed the ongoing conversation in their own ways.
“I’ve come to believe that it’s not what has happened to our family that has been cursed as much as it’s the fact that we’ve never been able to deal with it privately,” Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the fifth of Joseph Sr. and Rose Kennedy‘s nine children, once said, according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 2019 book The Kennedy Heirs: John, Caroline and the New Generation.
“There’s little dignity found in living your life in so public a fashion, and that’s especially true of our children. However, this burden is one we Kennedys have carried for generations. If there’s a curse, surely it’s that.”
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While tragedy indeed ran rampant in Eunice’s generation and proceeded to not let up a bit in the next, it has sadly found its way to the younger generations.
Saoirse Kennedy Hill, the 22-year-old only child of Bobby Kennedy’s daughter Courtney Kennedy Hill, died Aug. 1 of a drug overdose. Not the first in the family to battle substance abuse or mental health troubles, she was found unresponsive at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., the dynasty’s longtime roost on Cape Cod.
According to the Barnstable Town Clerk’s Office, Saoirse had methadone (a narcotic pain reliever), fluoxetine (the antidepressant Prozac), norfluoxetine, diazepam (the anti-anxiety drug Valium), nordiazepam and alcohol in her system when she died.
“Our hearts are shattered by the loss of our beloved Saoirse,” the family said in a statement confirming her death. “Her life was filled with hope, promise and love. She cared deeply about friends and family, especially her mother Courtney, her father Paul, her stepmother Stephanie, and her grandmother Ethel, who said, ‘The world is a little less beautiful today.'”
When second cousin Maria Shriver (daughter of Eunice Kennedy and Sargent Shriver) alerted her Today colleague Al Roker via text that she wouldn’t be in on Aug. 2, she wrote (as Roker shared), “We need to appreciate every moment we have together. Hug and talk to those you love.”
That goes for everyone, but it’s hard to shake the feeling it means even more to some than most.
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This week, Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean, daughter of Robert Kennedy’s eldest child, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, was reported missing and presumed dead along with her 8-year-old son Gideon after an apparent canoeing accident on Chesapeake Bay.
Maeve’s husband, David McKean, told the Washington Post that his wife and son had ventured out in the canoe to retrieve a ball that the kids had accidentally kicked into the water outside Kathleen’s home in Shady Side, Md. “They just got farther out than they could handle and couldn’t get back in,” he said.
An overturned canoe has since been found, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources police.
“At this time, our family asks for privacy and that everyone keep Maeve and Gideon in their prayers,” a family spokesperson said in a statement obtained by E! News.
Jackie Kennedy lost her husband in the most shattering way imaginable and in the most glaring of public spotlights. The circumstances of JFK’s death, while officially settled, continued to be debated for the rest of her life—and probably still will be for the rest of ours. But she died five years before her 38-year-old son and his 33-year-old wife were killed.
Ethel Kennedy, the 91-year-old widow of Bobby Kennedy, lost her parents and a brother in plane crashes; was pregnant with her 11th child when her husband was murdered; lost two sons, one to a drug overdose and another in a skiing accident; said goodbye to a granddaughter last summer and now may have lost another granddaughter as well as a great-grandson.
The fact that she persisted in living her life thinking that the world still had good things to offer is actually quite remarkable.
“She kept on Daddy’s work and kept him alive in all of us,” Courtney said on The Ryan Turbidy Show on Ireland’s RTÉ Radio 1 in May, crediting her mother’s strength with keeping them afloat in the wake of her father’s death in 1968. She was 11, the fifth-oldest of the bunch.
“It’s difficult when your most private moments are also your most public moments, but it’s interesting, too, because we have never really felt alone in any of it,” Kerry Kennedy, Ethel and Bobby’s seventh child, told Taraborrelli. “We have always felt at one with the American public, and I think they have felt the same dynamic with us.”
It’s true, no matter how old you are, you have never been without a Kennedy in your life. Not necessarily personally (although there are so many of them, whether they still have the last name or not, that it’s certainly possible you’ve crossed paths with one), but they’ve been part of the collective American consciousness for almost a century.
Since 1947, when JFK was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, there have been fewer than two years in which a Kennedy hasn’t held elected office—a brief span between Sen. Edward Kennedy‘s son Patrick J. Kennedy leaving Congress in 2011 and Joseph Kennedy III, another one of Bobby Kennedy’s 34 grandchildren, being sworn in as a congressman in 2013. And countless other members of the family have served this country in some way, be it as ambassadors, cabinet members, environmental activists, journalists, educators, organizers, artists or philanthropists.
Or, on the other end of the civic spectrum, as punchlines, scandalmongers and objects of morbid fascination. And sometimes all of the above.
“When you’ve been handed incredible privilege, access and power, it’s hard not to take advantage of that,” documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, RFK’s youngest child, told the New York Times in 1997. “You have to constantly police yourself. Human beings are fallible. Some of us have made bad decisions. Others of us have learned from them, painfully.”
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They’re America’s royals only with more offspring, more controversy, way more tragedy and, at times, far more influence on how their country is governed. But very much like the royals, and similarly depending on which rung of the ladder they occupy, all of the Kennedys were born into the public sphere to one degree or another.
And as with the royals, reading any Kennedy history, you’ll come across the same first names and nicknames over and over again, as subsequent generations honor the ones that came before, starting with the Machiavellian patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.—Wall Street tycoon, Hollywood studio head, epic philanderer and political visionary. As in, he envisioned his family reigning over all.
Which it did for a few short years, a fleeting era known, thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy, as Camelot.
Maybe it’s normal odds when there are so many people, but it feels as if the most prolifically reproductive prominent family this country has ever known has experienced more than its fair share of loss.
They’ve certainly made more headlines than most, and it’s easy to forget that Joe Kennedy’s family tree could have grown much bigger. The roots remain strong, but some branches were brutally hacked off in their prime.
Two of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s nine children didn’t make it to 30—Joseph Jr., upon whose shoulders their father’s grand designs first rested, and Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy both died in plane crashes in the 1940s—and eldest daughter Rose Marie was lobotomized at 23 and remained institutionalized until she died in 2005.
John F. Kennedy, Joe’s second-eldest son, was elected president at 43 and assassinated at 46, plunging a nation into grief and birthing a cynicism that it may never have quite recovered from. Then his brother, senator, former attorney general and Democratic presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, was assassinated at 42 in June 1968, six months before his 11th child, Rory, was born. His oldest son, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., was 14 when it happened.
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Brother Edward (or Teddy, or Ted) Kennedy, the youngest of Rose and Joe’s children, perhaps could have been president. But after being involved in a fatal car accident on Chappaquiddick Island in July 1969 in which 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, who used to work for Bobby, was killed (or left behind to drown in a pond when Teddy got out of the vehicle and didn’t immediately call for help), he settled for remaining a senator until his death from brain cancer in 2009.
But while the 1960s were, literally and figuratively, a different time, the ensuing decades continued to be fraught with tragedy and scandal big—untimely deaths, arrests, substance-fueled accidents, mental illness, criminal trials—and small. All of it, however, somehow proved manageable, and the current crop of young Kennedys, from Rep. Joe Kennedy III to Conor Kennedy, who was arrested along with dad RFK Jr. protesting the Keystone XL pipeline a few years back and was spotted this summer hobnobbing in Montauk with the glitterati, are staking their own claim to relevance in the 21st century.
“Yes, we have had some hard knocks,” Teddy once said. “But we have survived because we have heart. And heart matters.”
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Hearts were broken, but as evidenced by what the Kennedys who lived long lives managed to do, they can also be awfully resilient. Teddy lived till 77 and came to be known as the “liberal lion” of the U.S. Senate, an advocate for civil rights, immigration reform and, above all, universal health care, which he called “the cause of [his] life.” His widow, second wife Victoria, was there to witness President Barack Obamasign the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010. During his almost 47-year Senate career, more than 300 of the roughly 2,500 bills that came out of his office became law.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver—Maria Shriver’s mother, grandmother of Patrick and Katherine Schwarzenegger and founder of the Special Olympics—predeceased Teddy by only two weeks in August 2009; she was 88. Rose Marie was 86 when she died in 2005 and Patricia Kennedy Lawford was 82 when she died in 2006. (An aspiring film producer herself, Pat divorced actor and Rat Packer Peter Lawford, who threw the party at which JFK met Marilyn Monroe, in 1966.)
However, Teddy’s eldest child, daughter Kara, died in 2011 at the age of 51 of a heart attack. A decade prior she had beaten lung cancer, undergoing a partial lung removal that allowed her to resume her active life. At first she had been devastated by the diagnosis, at a loss because she had always been so physically healthy and unsure she had it in herself to recover.
She thought of something she recalled one of her cousins saying: “We don’t have to worry about s–t. We’re the f–kin’ Kennedys.” But try telling cancer that.
Her brother Patrick reminded her that their childhood was no picnic, that they were already survivors. “You are a fighter, Kara. We all are,” he said.
So Kara said, as she began the fight for survival, per Taraborrelli: “I refuse to allow myself to end up just another casualty of the so-called Kennedy curse. The Kennedy curse ends here, with me.”
A noble thought, but ultimately too much of a burden for one human being to bear.
Meanwhile, Ted’s sister Jean Kennedy Smith, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ireland during the Clinton administration, survives all of her siblings at 91. She too has seen it all, but she chose to remember the best of it in her 2016 memoir, The Nine of Us: Growing Up Kennedy.
“Joe taught me how to ride a bike. He was my protector and hero,” Jean told Town & Country. “Jack showed me the importance of books; Rosemary was my tennis partner; Kick and I shared a birthday and a bedroom; Eunice helped me learn to swim; Pat took me on special shopping trips and to the movies; Bobby tipped me off about what to wear when his friends came over; and Teddy, though he was the youngest, always made his presence known because he had such a big heart and was so much fun.”
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Jean was married to husband Stephen E. Smith for 34 years, until his death in 1990, a year after which their son William Kennedy Smith was acquitted after standing trial on a charge of sexual battery. He was accused of raping a woman at the Kennedy family’s Palm Beach estate after a night of drinking with Uncle Teddy and Ted’s son Patrick.
In a statement read by her attorney, Smith’s accuser said, “Despite the enormous personal price, I do not for one moment regret the course of action I have pursued. I pray that my decision to proceed was not in vain, and that in some small way I have contributed to a reasoned consideration of the critical issues this case has raised.”
Smith told reporters after the verdict, per the New York Times, “I have an enormous debt to the system and to God and I have a terrific faith in both of them. And I’m just really, really happy. So we’ll see you guys later.”
He wasn’t the first Kennedy scion to owe a great debt to the system.
After Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to one count of leaving the scene of an accident without negligence involved and received a suspended two-month jail sentence. In a televised address in 1969 he told his constituents he would step down if they wanted him to.
“I am satisfied with the Senator’s statement—and do hope he decides to stay on as senator,” Gwen Kopechne, Mary Jo’s mother, said in a statement.
He was re-elected seven more times.
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The Smith trial, meanwhile, ended up leading authorities—in a roundabout way that went through journalist Dominick Dunne—to look again at the unsolved 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley in Greenwich, Conn., because the suggestion was floated (and proved unfounded) that Smith may have been at the home of his cousins Thomas and Michael Skakel—nephews of Ethel Kennedy (née Skakel)—the night Moxley was killed.
Moxley was beaten to death with a golf club outside her family’s home, which was near the Moxleys’ estate, and Michael and Tommy were questioned at the time.
According to Connecticut’s Hartford Courant, in a proposal for a never-published book about his own family, Michael Skakel described them as being plagued by “chronic illness, alcoholism and a repressive Catholic moral and sexual outlook,” resulting in “systemic dysfunction, at times surfacing as extreme pathology…I have come to see this dysfunction as a price of wealth and power in a society that worships romantic myth at the expense of truth.”
Their relationship with the Kennedys, cemented when their father’s sister married Bobby Kennedy, was “love-hate,” he wrote. And after Martha was killed, “an even more intense level of chaos came to rule our household.”
“I am a member of a family sick unto death with generations of secrets,” he added. Skakel also proposed that his legal troubles were more connected to him having exposed his cousin Michael Kennedy‘s affair with an underage babysitter, two years before Michael—Bobby Kennedy’s sixth child—was killed in a skiing accident in December 1997. (Taraborrelli writes in The Kennedy Heirs that Michael initially told his wife, Victoria Gifford, that he had accidentally gotten into bed with the girl because he was drunk; he did go to rehab in the wake of the scandal.)
According to People, their father Rushton Skakel hired a team of private investigators to clear the cloud of suspicion over his family, but instead Tommy and Michael changed their story so much from what they first told police that they injected new life into the case.
Michael Skakel, who as a young man had been in and out of rehab for drinking but by then was long since sober and married with a son, was charged with murder in 2000.
“Michael is one of the most honest and open people I know,” his cousin Douglas Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy’s 10th child, told People at the time. “He cares about people more than anybody I’ve ever met, and there is no possible way he’s involved in this.”
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Skakel was found guilty in 2002 and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Appealing on the grounds of inadequate legal counsel, he was granted a new trial in 2013 and freed on a $1.2 million bond. The Connecticut Supreme Court voted 4-3 to reinstate his conviction in 2016, but last year the same court again vacated the conviction, paving the way for a new trial to move forward. Prosecutors, however, seem loath to go through it all again.
“Martha was killed when I was 43, and in just a few weeks, a couple of weeks, I’m going to be 86,” Dorthy Moxley, Martha’s mother, told NBC News in 2018. “That means half of my life I have lived with this. So I think I can live the rest of my life with it also.”
As Michael Skakel himself pointed out years beforehand, the Skakels had enough of their own demons to go around, no Kennedys required, but his murder case was shadowed by the Kennedy connection.
RFK Jr., who credited Skakel for helping him to get sober as well in 1983, went to bat for his cousin in an especially big way.
“Like nearly everyone else who knows him well, I love Michael,” he wrote in a 2003 article for The Atlantic in the wake of Skakel’s conviction. “If he were guilty, I would have testified against him. He is not.”
RFK Jr. shared that they had been estranged for several years, Skakel having taken the stress of the trial out on the Kennedy side of the family, because that connection had obviously enhanced the media frenzy. True crime characters such as Dunne, who reported on the trial for Vanity Fair and authored a fictional account called A Season in Purgatory, and former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman, of O.J. Simpson trial infamy and author of Murder in Greenwich, fell on the side of Skakel being guilty.
“Dominick Dunne calls us all a bunch of rich snobs,” Michael’s brother Stephen Skakel told CBS News’ 48 Hours in 2003. “But he was the only one that I saw coming to court every day in a limousine.”
“Many people asked me why I would publicly defend him—a cause unlikely to enhance my own credibility,” RFK Jr. wrote. “I support him not out of misguided family loyalty but because I am certain he is innocent.”
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The prominent environmental attorney and activist also laid out the case for his cousin’s innocence in his 2016 book Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent a Decade in Prison for a Murder He Didn’t Commit.
RFK Jr. isn’t one to shy away from his convictions, especially the controversial ones, such as his long-held belief in the refuted theory that mercury in vaccines is directly linked to autism in children, which prompted his older sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kathleen’s daughter Maeve, and his older brother Joseph P. Kennedy II to write an open letter in 2019 condemning his ongoing anti-vaccination campaign.
“We love Bobby,” they wrote on Politico. “He is one of the great champions of the environment. His work to clean up the Hudson River and his tireless advocacy against multinational organizations who have polluted our waterways and endangered families has positively affected the lives of countless Americans. We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment. However, on vaccines he is wrong.”
More palatable to some of his progressive family, albeit still a polarizing take, was his call last year, as the 50th anniversary of his father’s assassination approached, for a new investigation into Bobby Kennedy’s death. Robert Jr. had come to believe that Sirhan Sirhan, who confessed to killing RFK and was convicted of murder at trial, didn’t pull the trigger. “I got to a place where I had to see Sirhan,” Robert Jr. told the Washington Post in May 2018. “I went there because I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence.”
After looking at the autopsy report, he said, “I didn’t feel it was something I could dismiss. I was disturbed that the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father.”
“I think Bobby makes a compelling case,” sister Kathleen, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, wrote to the Boston Globe in an email.
RFK Jr.’s comments came 55 years after the assassination of President Kennedy launched a new conspiracy theory industry, as investigators of all stripes—from the armchair variety to the top echelons of government—probed the case. The Warren Commission’s findings, which were that killer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, were released to the public in September 1964, but reexamining the events of Nov. 22, 1963, has never gone out of fashion.
As if the murder of JFK, and then his brother five years later, wouldn’t have been enough tragedy for the country, let alone one family, on July 16 it will be 20 years since John F. Kennedy Jr.—lawyer, publisher, 1988’s Sexiest Man Alive, onetime little boy who saluted his father’s flag-draped casket in 1963—died in a small plane crash with his wife of less than three years, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren Bessette.
JFK Jr., who had obtained his pilot’s certificate in 1998 but did not have an instrument rating, was flying them that night from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard when, as the FAA’s investigation determined, he may have suffered spatial disorientation that caused him to aim the plane’s nose downward as they lost altitude.
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Making a horrible thing all the worse: Carolyn hadn’t wanted to go. She was on the verge of letting John attend his cousin Rory’s wedding alone. There had been tension between them and, despite the photogenic perfection that was the surface of their all-too-brief life together, Carolyn is said to have never felt particularly comfortable around her insular in-laws.
“In a family full of loud voices, one thing Carolyn had learned about being around the Kennedys was that she had to speak up if she ever wanted to be heard,” a friend of Bessette’s told Taraborrelli.
In an effort to help counsel her sister through the latest bump in her young marriage, Lauren offered to go with them. The plan was to drop Lauren off on Martha’s Vineyard to visit friends and then continue to Hyannis Port, where the wedding was taking place at the Kennedy compound. (The nuptials were postponed; Rory married Mark Bailey the following month in Greece.)
Ted Kennedy and Robert Kennedy Jr. were among the mourners who scattered John and Carolyn’s ashes at sea on July 22. Ted also gave the eulogy for his nephew at the funeral the next day at St. Thomas More Church on New York City’s Upper East Side.
“We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side,” the senator said. “But like his father, he had every gift but length of years.”
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At the time of his death, JFK Jr. may have been feuding with his older sister Caroline because of her husband, Ed Schlossberg, who according to RFK Jr. (in diary entries obtained by the New York Post in 2013) never cared for Carolyn Bessette one bit and told her surviving sister Lisa that “Kennedys don’t eulogize non-Kennedys” after putting the kibosh on RFK Jr.’s plan to speak about John and Carolyn at the funeral.
Future Real Housewives of New York star Carole Radziwill, who at the time was married to JFK Jr.’s cousin and best friend Anthony Radziwill (son of Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee), “says she wants to start an ‘I hate Ed Club,'” RFK Jr. reportedly wrote. “There would be many, many members. John & Carolyn would have certainly applied.”
But Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg was also grieving an unconscionable loss. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had died of cancer in 1994, and now her 38-year-old brother was gone. The whole family was supposed to be at a wedding, and instead they had to plan a funeral.
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“I think about [my mother] and John all the time,” Carolyn told Parade in 2011. “I constantly think about what she would have done or how she would have handled something, and the same with John. And so certainly when on the Cape or the Vineyard, which they both loved, they’re with me all the time. Sometimes something specific will make me think of them. When I’m waterskiing with my son, it’s exactly what I used to do with John. So it’s a fun thing for me to remember and also to be in the present. I always ask myself what they’d do. I wish they were here so I could tell them what’s happening, because I know it would make them laugh or they’d see it the way I do.”
JFK Jr.’s death, though one of the defining cultural tragedies of the 1990s, came just a year and a half after his cousin, Bobby Kennedy’s son Michael LeMoyne Kennedy—a 39-year-old father of three—was killed in a skiing accident during a family vacation in Aspen, Colo.
The cousins had been close, with John going visit Michael in rehab, to get to the bottom of why he seemed to be throwing his life away to salvage a relationship with this girl.
According to The Kennedy Heirs, Michael told John that, in addition to the lingering pain of his own father’s death, he still resented his mother, Ethel—wondering that if she hadn’t been among those clamoring for Bobby to run for president in 1968, perhaps he’d still be alive. And Michael was ashamed for feeling that way.
“We didn’t say a word to each other on the almost four-hour drive back to New York,” John’s friend Stephen Styles-Cooper, who was with him that day, told Taraborrelli. “John was preoccupied and didn’t want to talk…When he finally dropped me off, we shook hands and he looked at me and said three words I never thought I’d hear coming from him: ‘F–kin’ Kennedy curse.'”
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Michael was on skis, and without poles or a helmet, and tossing a football around when he hit a tree on Dec. 31, 1997. His 10-year-old daughter Rory had been filming the family as they played around.
Michael’s sister Rory, then 29, rushed over and tried to give her big brother CPR, but he never regained consciousness—another loss in a life that started out defined by who was missing.
In addition to losing her dad before she was born, Rory had been 15 when her brother David Kennedy died of a drug overdose in a Florida hotel room in 1984. David was 28. He had been 13 when he was watching TV alone in a Los Angeles hotel room and saw the live coverage of his father’s murder.
David “was alone and supposed to be asleep, but the excitement of the day had kept him awake,” wrote sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, RFK’s eldest child, about that night. “In the aftermath of the tragedy, it was some time before someone came to check on him. It was Presidential biographer Theodore White who found the boy ‘devastated at the sight he had just seen.’ Without stopping to rationalize why, White ordered a soothing hot chocolate from room service and cradled and comforted the shaken youngster.”
David was still a teenager when he started to struggle with substance abuse. According to the New York Times, he had been in Palm Beach to visit his “ailing grandmother,” family matriarch Rose Kennedy, who was 93 at the time. In addition to cocaine and Mellaril, an antipsychotic, the painkiller Demerol was found in David’s system, which authorities concluded he stole from Rose’s home. (Rose, incidentally, lived until she was 104.)
“A lot of the addiction is trauma,” Taraborrelli told People in May. “You don’t survive the death of your father, in the case of JFK or Bobby’s kids or the death of an uncle without trauma and some turned to drugs as a way of escaping. Drugs were also part of the culture, especially among some of the young men in the family. And there’s also entitlement. Each of these things is a piece of the puzzle.”
Though, of course, “There were Kennedys that did not use drugs and did not become addicts.”
Indeed, most of them powered through, scarred but not sunk by loss. Small comfort, however, when Saoirse was laid to rest on Aug. 5 at Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville, Mass. When she was in high school, the student newspaper published an essay she wrote about battling depression off and on since middle school, in which she acknowledged it would be a battle she’d fight for the rest of her life.
“Although I was mostly a happy child, I suffered bouts of deep sadness that felt like a heavy boulder on my chest. These bouts would come and go, but they did not outwardly affect me until I was a new sophomore at Deerfield.” But what she really wanted to communicate was that it was important to speak out, and to create an environment more conducive to speaking out.
“Many people are suffering, but because many people feel uncomfortable talking about it, no one is aware of the sufferers,” Saoirse wrote. “This leaves people feeling even more alone. We are all either struggling or know someone who is battling an illness; let’s come together to make our community more inclusive and comfortable.”
At a gun control rally in Hyannis she attended with her mother in 2018, Courtney, invoking her father Bobby Kennedy, told the crowd, “He and I are the product of gun violence, and we are damaged goods.” Quoting her uncle JFK, she added, “‘When one person is killed by gun violence, the whole nation is degraded.'”
Though further removed than some of her older, more well-known cousins from the devastation that befell the Kennedys in the 1960s (plus, she was only 2 when JFK Jr. died and she never knew her uncles David or Michael), Saoirse couldn’t help but be imprinted with her family’s experience of the world—part of which is to use your platform to help, whenever and wherever possible.
After serving 16 years in Congress, during which he made headlines when he crashed his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill, Patrick Kennedy chronicled his battle with substance abuse and depression in his 2015 book A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction. When cousin Christopher Lawford (Peter and Pat’s son) died suddenly of a heart attack in September 2018, Patrick told USA Today that Chris “was the absolute cornerstone to my sobriety, along with my wife. He was the one who walked me through all the difficult days of that early period.”
Another perk of there being so many family members, there was usually an ally at the ready, someone who understood certain challenges better than any outsider. But at the same time, the importance of stoicism was also ingrained in the Kennedys at an early age, particularly those born in the 1950s and ’60s.
“I grew up without a father, and with a sadness for sure, not having him or knowing him,” Rory Kennedy, who has three children with Bailey, told The Guardian in 2018. “I also grew up with family who had a real sense of gratitude for the life we have, and for all the extraordinary gifts. There wasn’t a lot of tolerance for feeling like a victim, or feeling sorry for yourself.”
Still, “it’s an ongoing process. I’ve worked on it. I’ve…” she paused. “I feel pain, sorrow and sadness. That’s part of the process, over these many years. I think that I’ve also, over the years, gotten tools to help me work through it in a positive way, turning those experiences into a deeper understanding of others. You see somebody else suffer and you feel that suffering.”
She has directed 18 films, including the Emmy-winning Ghosts of Abu Ghraib; Ethel, examining the life of her tough-as-nails mother, who will turn 92 on April 11; and, most recently, 2018’s Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow.
Ethel’s latest great-grandchild, Jack DiCamillo, was born in the fall of 2018 to her late son Michael’s daughter Rory Gifford Kennedy, who married Citibank executive David DiCamillo in 2016. (Rory’s maternal grandfather was football player and sportscaster Frank Gifford.)
On Feb. 27, 2019, this Rory shared on Instagram a copy of a disciplinary letter sent to her father and some of his roommates at Harvard in 1977, basically warning them to turn their music down (and quit playing “drums or other harsh instruments”), or else.
“On what would have been my dad’s 61st birthday I wanted to share a letter he received when he was 19,” she wrote. “My dad was the most fun, amazing guy and I miss him every day. I wish he’d had a chance to know his newest grandson Jack – he would have loved him and been so proud.”
Harvard has of course seen a slew of Kennedys come through over the years, starting with Joe Sr., who graduated in 1912 with a bachelor’s degree in economics.
The latest to matriculate is Radcliffe-Harvard grad Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg’s son Jack (born John Bouvier Kennedy Schlossberg), who did his undergraduate at Yale before starting Harvard Law School in the fall of 2017.
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The 26-year-old joined his mother last May in presenting Rep. Nancy Pelosi with their family’s annual Profile in Courage Award, named after JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, which they give to individuals who made tough, morally astute decisions that didn’t necessarily win them any popularity contests.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Jack said on Today in 2018 when asked what role in public life he saw himself playing one day. “What I do know is, that as a young person in this country, it’s an exciting moment. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, a lot of work to do, and I’m excited to be a part of solving the problems.”
He insisted he’s not planning on an acting career despite showing up to play a cop—Office Jack Hammer—on Blue Bloods. Rather, that’s his favorite show and they hooked him up with a cameo.
Jack isn’t averse to being entertainment-adjacent, however, just like so many other members of his family through the years. A rumor took off like wildfire after a crew member at Kim Kardashian Vogue shoot mentioned that Jack had a crush on her sister Kendall Jenner, leaving dreams of a dynastic merger dancing in people’s heads.
“I bought Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s watch at auction,” Kim then revealed. “I wore it when I went to the White House. It gave me some power: Let’s get in there and get this done!”
It’s a small celebrity world.
Jack would hardly be the first Kennedy, male or female, to be attracted to a glamorous celebrity, the family having been inextricably linked to Hollywood for as long as they’ve been in public life. Great-grandfather Joe, who merged two studios to create RKO in 1928 and romanced Gloria Swanson for three years. His grandfather and namesake, JFK, infamously had a fling with Marilyn Monroe. Great-aunt Patricia spent 12 rocky years married to Peter Lawford, and his mom’s first cousin Maria Shriver was married to Arnold Schwarzeneggerfor 25 years before they separated.
RFK Jr.’s third wife, meanwhile, is Curb Your Enthusiasm star Cheryl Hines and his son Conor made his first headlines at 17 when he briefly dated Taylor Swift, who was quick to purchase some property on Cape Cod that was a stone’s throw from Ethel Kennedy’s home in Hyannis Port. (The Grammy winner made a tidy profit when she flipped it.)
When Conor dated Swift, he had just lost his mother in May 2012. Mary Richardson Kennedy, RFK Jr’s second wife and mother of four of his six children, committed suicide a day after she had been charged with drunken driving—which had occurred three days after Robert filed for divorce.
Mary had also supposedly weighed in on the family lore when she and Bobby Jr. were having trouble. Her friend Alyssa Chapman shared with Taraborelli that Mary told her, “You’ve heard about this Kennedy curse? I finally figured out what it is: The men are dogs. The women, fools.”
Also according to The Kennedy Heirs, Conor’s relationship with Swift was short but timely, and she played a role in helping him get through that dark time. The singer also duly impressed his family, with the discerning Ethel Kennedy paying the singer the utmost of compliments when Swift reluctantly agreed to get into the water and hang onto a rope while the yacht pulled her along, like waterskiing without skis: “She’s game,” the matriarch said. “She had never sailed before; she sailed. She had never dragged before. She dragged. She played everything else everyone else was doing and she was good at it, no fuss.”
Nowadays, the current great political hope for the family is Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who gained national attention when he delivered the Democrats’ response to President Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018. His father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, RFK’s eldest son, was also a congressman representing Massachusetts (elected to the seat previously occupied by Teddy Kennedy’s dear friend Tip O’Neill) but Joe II stepped away from politics in 1995 after his ex-wife and mother of his twin sons Sheila Rauch wrote a scathing book, Shattered Faith, about Joe getting an annulment without her knowing so he could remarry in the Catholic church. (Incidentally, the annulment was overturned years later.)
Joe III has been married to Lauren Birchfield since 2012 and they have two children, Ellie and James.
“Every time you give a speech, any time you go somewhere, don’t you think you’re being compared to all the Kennedys that came before you?” Joe III told CBS News in 2018. “On the one hand, yes, I am,” he said. “On the other hand, how the heck do you compare yourself to President Kennedy on every speech, right? You’re not gonna be as good! It’s just not gonna happen!”
At least he’s a generation removed from the one that was really feeling the pressure to take up the mantle of the three revered Kennedy brothers and their towering legacy.
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“They had this burden of expectation placed on them at an early age, and that wore them down,” Taraborrelli told People this summer. “They felt there was no way they were ever going to be able to achieve what JFK, RFK, and Ted Kennedy had achieved. Rather than keep trying, some of the men of that generation shucked it and lived dangerous lives.”
But the fire to devote themselves to that political life still burns.
“The person that actually pushed me hardest not to do this was my dad,” Joe III also told CBS News. “He said, ‘Make sure that this is something that, one, you’re ready for, and, two, that you find somewhere inside you that this is a commitment that is coming from you. Because if it is not, people will tell.'”
Explaining how they met, his wife Lauren said, laughing, “I didn’t know he was one of those Kennedys. I grew up in California. So…out there, you get a little less of the sort of, ‘Here’s what each one of them looks like,’ and the ‘Where are they now?’ which was kind of nice. I got the opportunity just to get to know Joe for who he was. And the rest is history.”
They met, naturally, at Harvard Law School.
But the Kennedys are all over these days, including California, where Maria Shriver, Bobby Kennedy Jr. and Rory Kennedy all live in the Los Angeles area.
In normal, non-pandemic times, RFK Jr. and Rory do game nights, sometimes with a group of pals that includes Laura Dern, Chad Lowe and his wife, Kim, and Lucifer actress Rachael Harris and her musician husband Christian Hebel. Bobby and Cheryl were spotted on a double date with Woody Harrelson and his wife, Laura Louie, at the always-trendy vegan restaurant Café Gratitude in Venice.
“There’s this special, symbiotic relationship Americans have with my family, going all the way back to my grandparents, to President Kennedy and my aunt Jackie, to my father, my mom…Uncle Teddy, Aunt Joan…my late brother David… and while I think a lot of it has to do with basic empathy, I also think it has to do with a collective human experience,” Kerry Kennedy, who in 2014 was found not guilty of driving while impaired stemming from a 2012 accident, also told J. Randy Taraborrelli.
“All people have troubles in their lives. If understanding how we have dealt with our own problems can in some way help people cope with their own, well, then I think that’s good. In fact, I think that’s very good, and I know my family members would agree.”
Or, as JFK Jr. told Taraborrelli when he launched his magazine George back in 1995, “Family is family. You can pick the Kennedys apart, and I’m sure you will. But at the end of the day, we’re just people trying to understand each other as we share this incredible life we’ve all been blessed with. It’s nothing more than just that, if you really want to know the truth.”
(Original story published June 6, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT; updated on Aug. 2, 2019, at 12:40 p.m.; Nov. 1, 2019, at 12:55 p.m. PT)