The curse of the Kennedys

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us