Day for Celebration Turns Solemn

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They came for a wedding, but soon, on Saturday, the atmosphere at the Kennedy compound here was much more like a wake.

"How much more can a family take?" wondered Joan Greim, who for years has worked at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum.

As family and friends converged on Cape Cod for what was to be by Kennedy standards a small wedding--about 275 people--they were greeted with the somber news that the private plane carrying 38-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr.; his wife, 33-year-old Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and her 34-year-old sister, Lauren Bessette, was missing in the ocean near Martha's Vineyard.

Rather than a celebration for Rory Kennedy--youngest daughter of Ethel Kennedy and the late Robert F. Kennedy--as she prepared to marry fellow filmmaker Mark Bailey, the gathering became a tense wait for word on the fate of the dashing son of the late President John F. Kennedy and the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, symbol of the glamour and sophistication that once was Camelot.

Once the plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. was confirmed missing, the bridal couple postponed their scheduled 6 p.m. nuptials. Instead, with the tent still set up for the wedding festivities, about 40 family members held an outdoor Mass at the compound, where not far away, planes, boats and divers searched the sea for some sign of hope that the Kennedy family's preternatural curse of tragedy had not found its way to this wedding.

Lacking sufficient communion wafers for the crowd, the ever-resourceful Kennedys resorted to slices of pita bread. Their faith at this moment seemed, after all, far more important than their form.

In so many ways, the specter of still more horrific Kennedy family deaths seemed too surreal to be believed. All day on Saturday, trucks continued to arrive with preparations for the wedding that would not happen. Florists carried vibrant arrangements especially for the outdoor reception under billowing white tents overlooking the harbor where Kennedy children have sunned and sailed for half a century.

The caterer rolled in, a wedding banquet in the back of the truck. A hairdresser summoned from Boston to style the tresses of fashionable guests was inveigled to stay. A van carrying tuxedos for the groomsmen arrived.

So did well-known guests, among them, producer Stephen Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw. At least one guest who was unaware that the wedding was postponed arrived to find police and an army of media blocking the street that leads to the cluster of big white clapboard houses owned by the Kennedys.

Even as night fell, meanwhile, the flags at the compound remained at full staff. No family members emerged, and no statement was offered.

The 31-year-old would-be bride was not yet born when her father was shot dead in Los Angeles in 1968 on the night he won California's Democratic presidential primary. Six months later, when the 11th child of the former senator and onetime attorney general was born, her mother chose the name Rory, an affectionate adaptation of Robert.

It was Rory who on New Year's Eve in 1997 rushed to the side of her 39-year-old brother, Michael, after he collided with a tree while skiing in Aspen, Colo. She pressed her lips to his, trying to breathe life into his body, and then she pressed his heart. "Michael," she implored, "now's the time to fight."

That blend of pluck and family devotion characterized the near-mythic spirit of a clan that has captured this country's imagination for decades--the closest thing this democracy has to a royal family.

President Kennedy's exhortation to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" emblazoned itself upon an entire generation. Even those born after World War II know the heroic tales of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.--shot down over the English Channel in 1944 while fighting against Hitler--and John F. Kennedy in his PT boat.

Even in those earlier days, sadness seemed to hover over a family that publicly laughed, frolicked and joined in singing Irish tunes. Of the original nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, two died in plane crashes before age 30. In addition to Joe Kennedy Jr., Kathleen--known as "Kick" for her penchant for good times--died in a plane crash at 28 in 1948. Another sister, Rosemary, has been institutionalized since 1941 because of mental retardation and a failed lobotomy.

And two brothers were felled by assassins' bullets. John F. Kennedy was 46 when he was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Robert F. Kennedy was shot at age 42 by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The generation of Rory Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. also has seen its share of success. Several cousins have gone to Congress; others hold statewide or local office. One cousin, Maria Shriver, is a prominent television newscaster and the wife of film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Joseph P. Kennedy III and his brother, Michael, started an oil company that serves the indigent.

The skiing accident that killed Michael Kennedy apparently involved a favorite family game where participants skied backward and tossed a frozen football. The recklessness, a heightened sense of adventure, was a strong Kennedy trait.

Shortly before his death, Michael Kennedy himself conducted a highly publicized affair with his children's teenage baby-sitter. His brother, David, the fourth of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's children, died at 28 of a drug overdose in a hotel near the family's vacation home in Palm Beach, Fla.

Joseph P. Kennedy III, oldest son of Robert and Ethel, turned a Jeep over when he was 20, leaving a young woman paralyzed. His first wife, Sheila, bitterly fought his attempt to annul their marriage and wrote an angry book depicting the then-Massachusetts congressman as impetuous.

After Michael Kennedy's death, Joe Kennedy pulled out of politics.

In 1983, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was convicted of heroin possession and given two years' probation. Their cousin Patrick J. Kennedy, now a Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, was treated for cocaine addiction in 1986. He is the son of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). At least nine young members of the Kennedy clan have attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another cousin, William Kennedy Smith, was acquitted of charges that he raped a 30-year-old woman at the family's home in Palm Beach.

As the family's de facto patriarch--the sole surviving son of his generation--Edward Kennedy also figured in one of the most shocking Kennedy stories. Following a party on Chappaquiddick Island, which is part of Martha's Vineyard, off Cape Cod, on July 18, 1969, the young senator drove a car off a bridge. He swam to safety, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, was found dead in the submerged vehicle.

But valor also personified the clan. The image of a 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's coffin came to be synonymous with the sadness and the superhuman stature of the Kennedy family.

"Who will our legends be now?" asked Natasha Rice of Marshfield Hills, Mass.

Jean Ludtke, a Hyannis Port neighbor, was more pragmatic. "When you live such a high-flying lifestyle, you kind of court disaster."

Indeed, John F. Kennedy Jr. was limping visibly Friday evening as he and his passengers boarded his single-engine red-and-white Piper Saratoga aircraft at a New Jersey airport. Kennedy had injured his leg recently in a hang-gliding accident.

In recent years, certainly, John F. Kennedy Jr. had emerged as a flashy and frequent presence in the New York social scene. His position as an assistant district attorney for the city of New York was short-lived, and Kennedy went on to launch a slick monthly political magazine, George. Inevitably, his own name often surfaced as a possible candidate for any office he might set his mind on.

But for the veil of tragedy that once again fell across the family late Friday night, Rory Kennedy's wedding might have missed the media glare. Rory Kennedy, whose New York film production company is called Moxi Firecracker, and Mark Bailey had dated for four years before announcing their engagement nine months ago.

Recently they collaborated on a feature-length documentary, "American Hollow," about a dirt-poor woman and her 13 children in rural Kentucky. The film won praise from critics.

About 30 friends and family members were scheduled to be among the wedding party, but one well-known cousin, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, was off on a river trip in the West.

Five years ago, as their mother battled cancer, Caroline and her brother, John, banded together to honor Jacqueline Onassis' wish to die at home. They prayed side-by-side at her funeral, and together they buried her alongside their father at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

As hope dimmed for her brother's safe recovery, friends and acquaintances here speculated that plans to memorialize him would fall to Caroline, who cut short her Western vacation and headed directly to Hyannis Port late Saturday.

"You have to wonder what's in her heart today," said Pearl Guba, manager of the small Kennedy museum in Hyannis. "These should be happy times for this family, and they're not."

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A Family Beset by Tragedy

A look at the troubles faced by one of America's most prominent political families:

1941: Rosemary Kennedy

Daughter of Joseph and Rose, Institutionalized since 1941 because of retardation and failed lobotomy.

1944: Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.

Son of Joseph and Rose. Killed in plane crash in 1944 during World War II at age 29.

1948: Kathleen Kennedy

Daughter of Joseph and Rose. Died in plane crash in 1948. She was 28.

1963: JFK's son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy

Born prematurely to president and wife Jacqueline in 1963, died three months before father's assassination.

John F. Kennedy

Son of Joseph and Rose, 35th president. Assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. He was 46.

1968: Robert F. Kennedy

President's brother, assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. He was 42.

1984: David Kennedy

RFK's fourth oldest son died in 1984 of a drug overdose in a hotel near family home in Palm Beach, Fla.

1969: Edward M. Kennedy

Brother of John and Robert, drove a car off a bridge on Massachusetts' Chappaquiddick Island on July 18, 1969, after a party. Aide Mary Jo Kopechne was later found dead in submerged car.

1973: Joseph P. Kennedy III

Involved in 1973 car accident that left female passenger paralyzed for life.

1973: Edward Kennedy Jr.

Right leg amputated in 1973 because of cancer.

1991: William Kennedy Smith

Nephew of Edward M. Kennedy is aqcuitted of rape in 1991 at the family's Palm Beach estate.

1997: Michael Kennedy

Accused of having affair with his family's teen-age baby-sitter. Killed Dec. 31, 1997, in a skiing accident at Aspen, Colo. He was 39.

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