The curse of the Kennedys

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The death of Mary Richardson Kennedy has once again thrown the spotlight on the goldfish bowl that is life in America's most famous family

But for the family name she acquired at marriage, it might have been just a tale for the society pages: a handsome middle aged woman who had given up a successful career to raise children, only for the man she loved to chase other women and seek a divorce. Lonely and depressed, she turns to alcohol. Finally, she commits suicide, hanging herself in a barn behind her house in one of the wealthiest areas in suburban New York, leaving behind four children, all of them under the age of 18. A tragedy to be sure, but life can sometimes be like that.

The woman born Mary Richardson however was no ordinary housewife. Her estranged husband is a lawyer and environmental activist but most relevant, he is a Kennedy. Until the day he dies, and whatever he does, Robert Francis Kennedy Jr will be marked as the son of the Senator and presidential candidate who was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968.

Such is the smaller misfortune of Mary Richardson Kennedy. Her death not only devastated a family and a community. It also made her the latest embodiment of the "Curse of the Kennedys," America's enduring popular fixation with the supposed malediction that haunts a family otherwise blessed with every requisite of happiness: wealth, good looks, power, and a name that opens every door.

If so, it should be said, the Kennedys would not be the first prominent family said to be afflicted by displeasure from on high. Indeed, history's most epic curse was delivered in Paris almost seven hundred years ago. Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar was being burnt at the stake on 18 March 1314, on the orders of King Philip IV of France, Philippe Le Bel, and the King's ally Pope Clement V. De Molay's final words, uttered as legend has it while the flames enveloped him, echo through the ages: "Cursed you will be, Cursed until the 13th generation." Within weeks the Pope was dead. Six months later Philip followed him the grave, and his Capetian dynasty was stricken by centuries of disasters.

In comparison, the Kennedy "curse" is still young, only into a third generation. But its first manifestations were on a scarcely less epic scale. President John F Kennedy was murdered, as was his brother RFK who might well have become president. In 1969, the Chappaquiddick scandal, admittedly self-inflicted, ended the presidential ambitions of the third brother Teddy. And decades earlier, starting the whole thing off, their oldest bother Joe Jr, was killed in action as a US bomber pilot in 1944.

And not only the male children of Joe Kennedy Sr and his wife Rose Fitzgerald were affected. Kathleen Kennedy died in a plane crash in France in 1948, while old Joe's eldest daughter, the mentally impaired Rosemary, was lobotomised in 1941 and spent the rest of her life in an institution.

So much then for the first generation. The second was blighted too, even if the Kennedys were no longer staking claims to the White House. In 1984, David Kennedy, the fourth of RFK's children, died in a Florida hotel room after overdosing on cocaine and other drugs. In 1997, Michael Kennedy, the third child of RFK and the brother-in-law of Mary Richardson, died in a skiing accident in Aspen, Colorado.

Two years after that John F Kennedy Jr, bearer of the Kennedy clan's most famous name, was killed when the small plane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic off the Massachusetts coast. Lesser misfortunes have included the loss of part of a leg to cancer suffered by Ted Kennedy's son Ted Jr, and the 1991 rape charges against William Kennedy Smith, the son of JFK's sister Jean Kennedy Smith (of which, it must be said, he was acquitted.) And now the suicide of Mary Richardson Kennedy. But does all the above, terrible as much of it was, amount to a curse?

In the first place, unlike in 1314 France, there is no suggestion of a curse ever being uttered (although some have seen the many misfortunes as retribution for the sins of Joe Kennedy Sr, the founder of the dynasty – bootlegger, philanderer, stock-speculator and notoriously defeatist US Ambassador to Britain during the early stages of the Second World War).

Second, every family has its problems and tragedies. That the Kennedys seem to have had more of them than most may reflect merely the fact they are a very large family. Joe Sr had nine children, while Bobby had 11. The sins are visited unto the third generation too: nine years ago Michael Skakel, the nephew of RFK's wife Ethel (nee Skakel) was convicted of the murder of a girl in 1975, when he was 15, and is serving a prison sentence of 20 years to life.

Thirdly, a certain recklessness seems to inhabit the Kennedy genes – at least those of the males. JFK and RFK were unlucky to live in violent times, but Michael Kennedy's fatal accident occurred when he was playing a version of touch football on dangerous slopes without a helmet. JFK Jr, it is widely believed, also took a needless chance, flying in poor conditions. The cause of the crash was almost certainly pilot error.

Finally and most important, the Kennedys live in a goldfish bowl. A wealthy and attractive middle-aged woman is charged with drunk driving – so what? But if that person is Mary Richardson Kennedy, a media frenzy ensues. The pressures of fame, especially of inherited fame, are well documented in politics, in Hollywood, and many other walks of life. From these pressures can spring sad events, avidly chronicled in print. And thus the "curse" perpetuates itself. Who knows, around 2200, when the 13th generation of Kennedys appears, the media will probably still be going on about it.

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