Caroline Kennedy: Daughter of Camelot

She was the little girl whose father's assassination shook the world. Now, 45 years later, can she restore the fortunes of a great political dynasty?
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The Independent Online

There is nothing phoney about Caroline Kennedy and her penchant for privacy. Her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, said that as a girl she would instinctively duck if anyone tried to take her picture. For years, she would flee Broadway theatres just before the play's end for fear of being spotted. And while more recently she could have sought recognition for her achievements in education and the arts, she has not.

It is reasonable, therefore, to feel mild shock on learning that a woman who would rather drink acid than give a press interview is now professing herself ready to assume the US Senate seat to be vacated by Hillary Clinton when – as is widely expected – she is confirmed as the next American secretary of state. But then suspicions creep in. Is it possible that Ms Kennedy, the last surviving child of John F Kennedy, the slain former president, has been plotting taking centre stage for much longer than we imagine?

Presumably a political career was not in her head when in her early twenties she made regular pilgrimages from Radcliffe College, then a part of Harvard University, to New York to party with boisterous friends, including Andy Warhol, at the notorious Studio 54. Or when, even younger, she danced until dawn at champagne-soaked society parties in London – most notably, with Mark Shand, the brother of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall – during a nine-month gap-year stint in the city interning for Sotheby's.

But for us to have thought that she would really live all her life without at some point attempting to join the family business was probably naive. For sure, there has been no shortage of those decrying her decision to put herself forward – the decision rests with New York Governor David Patterson – on the grounds that she is barely qualified. But the US Senate has never been unfriendly to political neophytes. And that is to ignore the reality of who she is and where she came from. She is the daughter of JFK, the little girl in those black-and-white pictures pulling at her mother's pearls and riding the pony on the White House lawn. She is Sweet Caroline. (Thank you, Neil Diamond.) To many she really is royalty.

Her dynastic brand, though, is a complicated one. For those of us of a certain age, her ascending to Capitol Hill will bring back memories of a golden era in American politics when her parents became symbols of a new sense of hope and glamour. Camelot will have a new standard-bearer. But her family also brings with it memories of a repeating cycle of tragedy that some call the Kennedy curse. One common side effect of suffering, however, is the development of deep personal strength and resilience.

It was the White House nanny, Maud Shaw, who was left to tell Caroline, then just five years old, that her father would not be coming home to Washington after his assassination in Dallas on 22 November 1963. In his recently published book, American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy, biographer C David Heymann, cites Ms Shaw recalling the little girl crying so copiously she was afraid she would choke. But still she knew not mention her father in front of her little brother, John John, or to cry.

Within a year, the First Family had left Washington and settled in New York City, which has remained Caroline's principal home ever since. Among those who filled the void was Robert F Kennedy, Caroline's uncle (and, as it happens, a serving US Senator from New York). Then in June 1968, he too was killed. Just weeks later Caroline and John Jnr found themselves on a Greek island to witness their mother marrying Aristotle Onassis.

Though her school years in Manhattan were marked by frequent clashes with Jackie, Caroline consistently scored the top marks that propelled her to Radcliffe College for undergraduate studies. First, however, came her sojourn in London. When speculation began to bubble through earlier this year that Ms Kennedy might be seeking an appointment from Barack Obama in return for her support for him, some of it pointed towards her becoming ambassador to the Court of St James's.

Yet her memories of London are likely to be mixed, not least because of the purported affair – and split – with Shand. "Mark Shand was Caroline's first love," Andy Warhol later reported. "He swept her off her feet, then dropped her without a second thought."

And then there was the horrifying events that might have killed her in October 1973. The former first daughter was lodging with Sir Hugh Fraser, the late Conservative MP. One morning, he was about to drive in his Jaguar to the House of Commons, dropping Caroline off at Sotheby's on his way. A telephone call caused him to duck back into the house. At that instant, a powerful IRA bomb exploded under the car, killing a friend and neighbour who was passing with his dogs and sending his dismembered body into the front garden. Caroline, up in her bedroom at the moment, was thrown on to her bed.

Nine months later, Ms Kennedy was back home, studying in Massachusetts and staying out of trouble with various internships, including one as a copy girl at the Daily News. Entirely appropriately for an Upper East Side girl of such social privilege, her first full-time job following graduation was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was there that she met her future husband, Edwin Schlossberg, whose company designs interactive museum exhibitions. They were married at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Cape Cod, in July 1986. It was, of course, a private event, but thousands gathered beyond the perimeter and cheered when they heard applause from inside the chapel.

It was Edward Kennedy who took Caroline down the aisle. At the reception, he said: "My brother Jack is here tonight. He would be so proud of his daughter. He loved her so much." Over time, Caroline has forged a tight bond with Ted, who watched as she thereafter attended Columbia Law School, embarked on the writing of several books on subjects ranging from poetry to constitutional law (one focusing on the right to privacy), became active in Kennedy-related foundations, and raised three children with her husband in circumstances of relative normality considering where they had come from. He also watched as she was forced to navigate new episodes of pain. In 1994, Jacqueline passed away from lymphatic cancer. Caroline later agreed to replace her mother as the honorary chairperson of the American Ballet Theatre.

Then in 1999 came possibly the harshest strike of all, the plane crash in the waters off Martha's Vineyard of the small plane that was being piloted by John Jnr and that bore his new wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren Bessette. All three were lost. This time, it was in front of her own children that Caroline struggled not to cry. The loss of John Jnr was also a turning point. The JFK flame was now hers alone.

Indeed, her detachment from politics began to erode soon afterwards. In 2000, she agreed to support Al Gore for the presidency by agreeing to be a main speaker at that year's Democratic convention. In 2002, she was recruited by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his school's chancellor, Joel Klein, to be chief executive for the Office of Strategic Partnerships for the school system. Drawing little attention to herself but working her society and corporate contacts, she raised more than $65m in private financial support for the schools. "She was a workhorse, not a show horse," Mr Klein said last week.

Should we assume that for all her discretion and self-deprecation, Ms Kennedy had begun consciously laying the groundwork for her announcement last week way back in 2002 or even earlier? "No, no," insists Joannie Danielides, a PR executive and friend of Caroline for more than 30 years. "I don't think so. She was too busy with her children and her writing. But the timing is right. Ted has deemed that it is her time now. And I just think it gelled at the beginning of the campaign. It just all came together."

In fact, it was in January that Ms Kennedy signalled she was stepping in from the sidelines, emphatically endorsing Obama saying he could be a president like her father. Her ties with the president-elect quickly deepened as she agreed to co-chair the panel vetting potential vice-presidential candidates and made a star turn at the convention in Denver to pay tribute to Ted, by then ailing with a brain tumour.

Already Ms Kennedy is deflecting critics questioning her presumptuousness. "I've worked in New York City public schools. I've written books on the constitution. I've raised my family, and now it's time, I think, with the problems we have, for me to be able to step forward and do more," Ms Kennedy said. And she is already working the state's top figures, visiting the mayors of Syracuse and Rochester upstate and taking lunch with the Reverend Al Sharpton at Sylvia's, a soul-food Mecca, in Harlem.

Ms Kennedy has rivals for the Senate, among them Andrew Cuomo, the state Attorney General. But it will be hard for Governor Patterson to pass her over. In which case it may be too late for her to consider a few things. She would have to uproot herself from Manhattan which has been home to her for so long and, most importantly, the privacy and near-anonymity that she so cherishes – Caroline, her friends say, frequently rides the Madison Avenue bus without being noticed – will be gone for good.

A life in brief

Born: Caroline Bouvier Kennedy, 27 November 1957, in New York City.

Family: Daughter of US President John F Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, and sister to John Junior, who was killed in a plane crash in 1999. An elder sister was stillborn in 1956, and another brother, Patrick, died two days after his birth in 1963. She married to Edwin Schlossberg, an interactive media designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1986; they have two daughters and a son.

Early life: The family moved into the White House in January 1961. After her father's assassination they moved to Georgetown and then, fleeing from public view, back to New York. She studied at Harvard, graduating in 1979, and later at Columbia Law School, qualifying in 1988.

Career: Shortly after qualifying as a lawyer, "CBK" established the Profile in Courage Awards, and published her first book two years later in 1991. She continued to write and do volunteer work but held few full-time positions, with her most major role being as a fundraiser for New York City schools from 2002-4. She came out in support of Obama in January 2008. This week she announced her interest in the US Senate seat that is about to be vacated by Hillary Clinton, and which was held by her uncle Robert F Kennedy before his assassination in 1968.

She says: "I feel like I'm a Kennedy Democrat, a Clinton Democrat. Chuck Schumer, Barack Obama, these are all leaders whose values I share, the kinds of values I'd bring to the job."

They say: "Caroline Kennedy can do anything." Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York