It was the last run of the afternoon, on the last day of the year, when Michael Kennedy crashed into a tree and died. His life was a blend of good works and reckless behavior--and his early death on the slopes raises an old question: why does tragedy stalk the Kennedys so?
ACROSS BETWEEN ULTIMATE FRISBEE AND TOUCH FOOTBALL--played while flying down a mountain--"ski football" is an old Kennedy pastime. The game is risky. The ski patrol had warned against it, but tolerated the family's high jinks. Defying danger, and calling it fun, is part of growing up Kennedy.
According to family ritual, the clan gathers at a mountaintop bar and waits for the last run of the day before sallying forth. In wilder days, the Kennedys drank heavily and had a reputation for mayhem. Local landlords in Aspen, Colo., sometimes refused to rent rooms to certain family members because of the unpaid bills and damage left behind. But last week the bartender at The Sundeck on top of Aspen Mountain reported that the Kennedys had ordered nothing stronger than hot chocolate for the past several days. "They didn't drink a thing," said the bartender, Jeff Williams. "Not from this bar. This year was the most subdued I've seen them." Shooed out of the bar by the ski patrol, a score of Kennedys and their friends divided into two teams and set off at about 3:45 p.m. on New Year's Eve, flinging a football through the thin mountain air.
The Kennedys are all good skiers, and none was better than Michael, the fourth son of the late Robert F. Kennedy. But the slopes in the late afternoon were slick, the icy patches hard to see in the shadows and flat light. Ski-football players have to react quickly. Under the rules of the game, a player must pass the ball to a teammate within 10 seconds or turn over the ball to the other team as the two squads race together down the slopes toward the "goal"--usually a signpost marking the trail. About halfway down the mountain, Michael caught the ball, turned his head and exclaimed, "This is great." Distracted, he hit a fir tree head-on. His sister Rory skidded over and knelt down beside him. "Oh, my God," she cried, "he doesn't have a pulse." She leaned over to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She was unable to breathe life into her brother, whose skull was cracked and whose spinal cord was severed. When she straightened up, Rory's face was streaming with tears and her brother's blood. Michael's three young children--Michael Jr., 14, Kyle, 13, and Rory, 10--watched in horror. They dropped to their knees and began praying. "Not my daddy!" cried one. "Please!"
When John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, his brother Robert spent a sleepless night in the Lincoln Bedroom. A friend walking past his door heard RFK cry out, "Why, God?" Trying to make sense of Dallas, Bobby began reading the ancient Greeks, especially Aeschylus and Sophocles. He read and re-read the sagas of Greek gods and mortals whose pride led them to tempt fate. He identified particularly with Agamemnon, the great warrior who was hotblooded, bold and doomed. When Kennedy read aloud from a dogeared copy of Aeschylus' "Agamemnon," it seemed as if he could feel, personally, the curse on the House of Atreus.
Most Americans, hearing the news that Bobby's star-crossed son Michael had died in a skiing accident on New Year's Eve, may have felt that there is a curse on the House of Kennedy. The TV images eerily evoked so many earlier Kennedy family tragedies: the body on the plane, grieving Kennedys walking along the beach at Hyannis Port, the promise of a young life cut short. Yet there was a sense of sad diminishment. The young man did not die daring greatly--fighting in battle or running for president--but rather because he skied too close to the trees. For the Kennedys, family football was supposed to be an emblem of vigor, not a cause of senseless death. The funeral was moving, the eulogies eloquent. Still, it was as if the Kennedy legacy had become somewhat trivialized, reduced from mythology to mere celebrity.
THE TRAGEDY, HOWEVER, WAS NO less real for the Kennedy family. Michael was the second of Ethel's 11 children to die; her third son, David, was killed by a drug overdose in 1984. There have been some scary near-misses: the eldest son, Joe II, flipped a Jeep in 1973, paralyzing a female passenger, and Robert Jr., the second son, was arrested for heroin possession when he was 29. But while the crises grab the headlines, most members of the younger generation have in fact tried to lead quiet lives of service. The 27 Kennedy cousins of the third generation include more social activists than recovering addicts (and a few, like RFK Jr., who are both). But the inherited trait that shows more prominently is a kind of heedlessness, a stubborn belief that the Kennedys can live above the rules. In an earlier time, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., the patriarch of the clan, could cover up for his sons. In today's harsher glare, his grandchildren are tabloid prey. Michael, who was 39 when he died, wanted to be remembered for his good works--providing heat in shelters for the homeless, lobbying to restrict handguns. Unfairly, perhaps, he will almost certainly be remembered better for an affair with his family's teenage babysitter.
THE PRESSURE TO Excel--and to be seen excelling--has always been relentless for a Kennedy. The curse was cast the moment Old Joe began plotting the political careers of his infant children. No wonder the win-at-all-costs atmosphere made the Kennedys take risks, both to get ahead and to rebel. When young Jack Kennedy came back from the Pacific a hero in World War II because his PT boat had been cut in half by a Japanese destroyer, Joe Jr. was determined to outdo his younger brother. He volunteered to fly a plane loaded with dynamite at a Nazi missile site. The plane exploded in midair over the English Channel before Joe could bail out. Kathleen, the most glamorous Kennedy daughter, died in a plane crash in France in 1948 when she and her lover urged the reluctant pilot to fly through a storm.
Still, Robert F. Kennedy wanted his own children to be daring. They had to be, to follow his lead. Bobby quoted from Aeschylus: "Men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life." Games were trials, tests of character. Sportscaster Frank Gifford--Michael's father-in-law--once said that RFK liked football best because of the "element of danger." The Kennedys "played touch football," said Gifford, a former all-pro halfback for the New York Giants, "but it boiled down to breaking your neck." As a skier, Bobby "liked to keep just on the edge of control," said mountain climber Jim Whittaker. "Some skiers ski within their ability and pride themselves on how few times they fall in a week. If Bobby got by half a day without falling, and that a pretty spectacular one, it would be very unusual."
Michael was actually a much better skier than his father, but he, too, liked to push the edge. An expert white-water kayaker, Michael once nearly killed himself by leaping from a 75-foot cliff into the Snake River in Wyoming. Growing up, Michael played daredevil games with his brothers and cousins. "We would see who could go higher and higher, who could be the person to dive off the highest cliff," said Stephen Smith Jr., son of Jean Kennedy Smith. The winner was usually Michael. Ski football was actually one of his tamer athletic pursuits. Indeed, Michael was indoctrinating his own children at the time he crashed into the fir tree at Aspen Mountain: the game was being videotaped by one of his children. Some witnesses said the child was Michael's youngest, 10-year-old Rory.
Michael LeMoyne Kennedy was himself 10 years old when his own father died, shot by an assassin in 1968. Like all the Kennedys, Michael grew up surrounded by legend and myth. Hickory Hill, the RFK home, is a shrine filled with portraits of the Kennedys at work and play. All the Kennedy children learned to honor their father, but none studied him quite as closely as Michael, who, as an undergraduate at Harvard in the mid-'70s, virtually majored in his father's life and times. What Michael admired most was RFK's courage. One newspaper reporter recalled Michael's showing him a photo album of his father on a white-water rafting trip. There, said Michael, "is the bravest guy who ever lived." As a young man, Michael became a kind of custodian of his father's history. Authors and researchers who wanted family permission to look at still-closed archives at the Kennedy Library in Boston had to go through Michael. He took on the role of spokesman when a reporter asked for the Kennedy family reaction to the bidding war that broke out at the 1996 auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's possessions. "I'm as astonished and astounded as everyone else," said Kennedy, who himself bid for his uncle Jack's cigar humidor. "I was about $500,000 short," he said with a laugh (Marvin Shanken, publisher of Cigar Aficionado, paid $574,500).
The son played all his father's sports, only better and, if possible, harder. Ben Bradlee Jr., an editor at The Boston Globe, recalls Michael's challenging him and his newspaper team to a touch-football game. Michael loaded up his squad with tough ringers from South Boston; Michael himself, said Bradlee, was "ruthless--and very good." Like his father, Michael also liked to read poetry aloud; like his father, he mildly annoyed employees by bringing his dogs to the office, where they roamed freely. Michael believed he was continuing his father's work for the dispossessed by running a nonprofit company that provides heating oil for the poor. He also wanted to be a shrewd political operator, just as RFK had been. When he managed his uncle Ted's Senate re-election campaign in 1994, Michael was often photographed underneath a framed cover of a Time magazine reporting how his father had masterminded JFK's 1960 presidential bid.
But along with an almost slavish desire to emulate his father was a fear that he would not measure up. That insecurity collided with an even deeper one, that he would always be seen as his father's son. "I know that Michael struggled with the fact that no matter what he did, he could never have the satisfaction of knowing that he did it on his own," says John Rosenthal, a close friend. "He always had to deal with the Kennedy name."
The pressure was apparently too much. Michael began to exhibit other, less admirable Kennedy traits, like lust for forbidden sex and addiction to alcohol. He began sleeping with his children's babysitter. His behavior was so brazen that his friends wondered if he wanted to get caught. The affair was well known in Kennedy's circle in the Boston suburb of Cohasset; Kennedy did not try very hard to hide the relationship when he took the girl on a camping trip with his children and some friends.
ULTIMATELY, THE COUPLE WAS found out--reportedly in bed--by his wife, Victoria. Michael blamed booze and checked into an alcohol rehab center in February 1995. (Blood tests after his accident last week showed no alcohol or drugs.) In December 1996, he began therapy for sex addiction as well. His willingness to seek help sets him apart from the earlier generation, which disdained psychiatry. And in an earlier era, he probably would have been left alone by the press. But last April, The Boston Globe broke the story of Michael's affair, alleging that he had begun sleeping with the girl--the daughter of some friends and neighbors--when she was 14. The local D.A. began investigating Michael for statutory rape. The probe was dropped when the girl refused to testify, but the damage was done. Victoria, Michael's wife of 16 years, moved out, taking the three kids. That summer, Michael's older brother Joe II, whose ex-wife had written a book excoriating him for seeking an annulment so he could remarry in the Roman Catholic Church, felt compelled to abandon his race for governor of Massachusetts. "The voters are very angry at us," Joe explained. So was their cousin John F. Kennedy Jr., who wrote an editorial in September in George magazine arguing that Joe and Michael had become "poster boys for bad behavior."
Michael became deeply depressed--so depressed that his friends and estranged wife worried that he might never recover. He felt alone and isolated from his family, whom he believed he had disgraced. Some of his siblings did not hide their anger at his indiscretions. His mother, Ethel, however, remained steadfast. Michael, some Kennedy watchers believe, had always been her favorite, the son who most closely resembled the father. Ethel Kennedy has been both criticized for spoiling her children and pitied for the burden of raising her sprawling family after her husband's murder. But she has never lost faith, and stuck by Michael last summer and fall as he tried to overcome his despondency. She spoke to him several times a day and took him golfing. "They were very tough to beat," said Rosenthal, who competed with the mother-son team on the links. "It was determination over skill, with a total sense of humor."
When RFK was in the depths of despair over his brother's death in 1964, he was revived by traveling abroad. He was greeted as a hero and the hope of the future by the poor of South America and the oppressed of Eastern Europe. Michael, too, took to the road to find true believers in the Kennedy myth. He went to Ecuador last December to arrange loans for women-run businesses and had earlier journeyed to Angola to help start a new university. "Over in Angola, they don't seem to think I'm a bad guy," he told a reporter, "and they haven't heard of the thing." ("The thing" was Michael's expression for his affair with the babysitter.)
Back home, however, Michael was constantly reminded of his sins. Motorists heckled him as he went to his office, and the tabloids never let up. The Boston Herald gleefully (and absurdly) reported that Michael had been observed making lewd noises at a young woman at a video store. For Michael, who had always been popular, the derision was excruciating. Desperate to rebuild his image, he turned to his company's PR firm. "He wanted to know that if he drove through a tollbooth he wasn't going to get sneered at," says his friend Patrick Lyons. The PR firm was negotiating with The Boston Globe for an interview when Michael died.
The entire Kennedy family has made a concerted effort over the past year to show that most of the clan are doing good--and staying out of trouble. In interviews with publications like The New York Times, Vanity Fair and NEWSWEEK, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, 46, the oldest child, earnestly described her devotion to community service in her job as lieutenant governor of Maryland. Rory Kennedy, the youngest child, was interviewed in her East Village apartment talking about her video documentaries on female drug addicts. Bobby Jr., 43, the most intense of the all the progeny, has written a book about his work as an environmental activist, "The Riverkeepers." Max, 33, a former prosecutor, is editing a book of his father's quotations before going to business school. Christopher, 34, is managing the family-owned Chicago Merchandise Mart. Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, 38, the wife of HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, recently left her job as head of the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation to raise twins. Douglas, 30, is--somewhat ironically, given the family's problems with the press an anchor for Fox News.
Yet it is tragedy that brings them together in the public eye. Last week, as they gathered for a traditional Irish wake in Hyannis Port, someone hung bedsheets over the porch to keep the cameras from prying inside. The stakeout crews were left to fill air time by recounting past disasters.
The tabloids were rewarded on the morning of the funeral, when Ethel was escorted to the limousine by Kathie Lee Gifford, the Woman Wronged (by her husband, Frank, also in attendance) of Daytime TV. But the tittering stopped when the old echoes were heard again. The mass card for Michael quoted from an Irish ballad that had haunted his father when JFK died: "Oh why must you leave us, Owen? Why must you go?" Inside the gray shingle church where Joe and Rose and all the Kennedys have worshiped for decades, letters of condolence were read from President Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King. Bobby Jr. recalled how, when they were kids, Michael and he dared each other to jump off the roof of the shed at Hickory Hill. Joe II's voice cracked as he remembered "the desolation" he had felt when his father died. In despair, he had asked his sister Kathleen what to do. She answered that she talked to her father--"and he's there." To Michael's young children, Joe said gently, "You can still talk to your father, and I will, too."
AFTER JFK DIED, BOBBY'S SOUL- searching led him to believe that even though man could not escape his destiny, he still had to try to do good. "Each time a man stands up for an ideal . . . he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope," RFK said in his most famous address, encouraging South Africans to stand up against apartheid in 1966. Before quoting from his father's speech, Joe II said of Michael: "A whole nation knows his name, but few know the best of what he did."
After the funeral, as the family embraced and wept outside the church, a mostly black choir came out to sing. They sang to Michael's coffin as it lay in the hearse. The words of the spiritual were full of hope and redemption, but few people could hear; there was a photographer's helicopter flying overhead. Michael's body was then driven to the family plot in Brookline, where he was laid to rest next to his grandparents and his brother David. His family buried him with his favorite football and a medallion that marked three years of sobriety.