Curse of the Kennedys claims its latest victim

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Yet again, tragedy has struck at America's version of royalty, with the death in a skiing accident in Colorado of Michael Kennedy, son of the assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy. Rupert Cornwell looks at a family beset by fame and disaster in equal measure

If his surname had been Jones or Brown, his passing would have been unremarked - just another skier who lost control, crashing into a tree on Wednesday as he hurtled down a slope at Aspen Mountain, injuring himself fatally. Not though if that surname belongs to a family called Kennedy. As in John F Kennedy. Then you are victim of The Curse, paying the ultimate price for hubris past.

The story goes back almost 60 years , when Joseph Kennedy Senior, grandson of Irish immigrants, philanderer, tycoon, bootlegger and backer of Franklin Roosevelt, realised his own political ambitions had been wrecked by his readiness to appease Hitler while ambassador to London. Instead he dedicated all his might and means, fair and foul, to make one of his children president. Joe would succeed, but at a price he could not imagine.

Already in 1941 his daughter Rosemary had been placed in a mental home after a failed lobotomy. But worse would follow in 1944 when Joseph Jr, the apple of his father's eye and repository of his vicarious ambition, was killed in a plane crash while serving in Britain with the US Air Force. Another daughter, Kathleen, would die in France in another air crash in 1948. But the mantle of expectation had passed to his second son, John, who would use his own charm and ruthlessness - and his father's money and strings - to make it to the White House in 1961. But on 22 November 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald struck in Dallas.

Less than five years later, half paralysed by an earlier stroke, Joe would watch a third son die, when Robert was shot dead in a Los Angeles hotel on 4 June 1968, just as he won the California Democratic primary to place the presidency firmly in his sights. That August, his remaining son Edward, 35-year-old Massachusetts senator, sat in Chicago with his advisers on the eve of the Democratic convention, pondering whether to use the outpouring of sympathy to make a bid for the nomination himself.

No, they decided; wait for 1972, or better still 1976. But The Curse would not be denied. The very next year Teddy drove a car off a bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, and ran from the scene as his staffworker Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned. His hopes of the White House were gone, and the first big dent was made in America's hitherto unquestioning romance with the Kennedys. Thereafter the misfortunes would continue. But increasingly they would be self-inflicted. For many younger Kennedys, unearned celebrity and comparisons with political titans past were burdens too heavy to bear.

In 1973, Teddy's son Edward lost a leg because of cancer. That same year, Robert's son Joe was involved in a car accident which left a female passenger paralysed for life. Another son, Robert Jr, was caught with drugs while a teenager, while yet another, David, died of a drug overdose in 1984.

The episodes merely added credibility to the less flattering portrait of the earlier Kennedys emerging in a string of books and personal memoirs. These dwelt not on the glitz of Camelot, but the consuming Kennedy lusts for power and sex, and their congenital disregard for women. By 1986, Edward's son Patrick was undergoing treatment for cocaine addiction. In 1991 his nephew William Kennedy Smith went on trial for rape. William was acquitted, but not before revelations of drinking sessions with his uncle that cemented Teddy's image as an alcohol-drenched lecher.

And thus to Michael Kennedy, who until last year was regarded as a rising political star in his own right. Then came allegations of an affair with the family's 14-year-old babysitter and his own admission of alcoholism. Now Michael is dead - and the family's power and prestige is at its lowest ebb in three-quarters of a century.

Edward Kennedy surely will not seek a seventh full Senate term in 2000, when he will be 68. Robert's son Joseph, self-appointed standard-bearer of the younger Kennedys, but in truth a pompous Congressional lightweight, has been forced to withdraw from the state's 1998 Governors race after woman trouble of his own. JFK's son John Jr, noted for his looks rather than his intellect, is one younger Kennedy who has kept his head. Conceivably he might use his politico-celebrity magazine George as a springboard for a political career. But the pick of the bunch could be Patrick, who has overcome his cocaine problems to be a second-term Congressman for Rhode Island. But if he goes any higher, it will be thanks to merit, not myth.

America's tragic dynasty

JOSEPH P. KENNEDY JR.: Died in plane crash during the Second World War, aged 29.

KATHLEEN KENNEDY: Married William John Robert Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington. She later died in a plane crash, aged 28.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY, JR.: Assassinated in Dallas on 22 Nov 1963, aged 46.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Assassinated in June 1968, aged 43.

DAVID KENNEDY: Son of Robert, died in 1984 of a drug overdose in a hotel after being thrown out of the family holiday home at Palm Beach.

MICHAEL KENNEDY: Gained notoriety for an alleged 1996 affair with his family's babysitter, was killed in a skiing accident on New Years's Eve. He was 39.