Day for Celebration Turns Solemn


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, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33; 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 all 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.

The 31-year-old bride, after all, 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, as 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 several decades. No other political dynasty so held the nation in the grip of its trials and triumphs, its quips and its quests.

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 the age of 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 in 1968.

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 an indigent population.

Still, the lure of danger runs strong. The skiing accident that killed Michael Kennedy apparently involved a beloved if perilous family game--one where participants skied backward and tossed a frozen football. The recklessness, a heightened sense of adventure, also was a strong Kennedy trait.

Michael Kennedy himself was said to have been treated for sex addiction and 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 his brother David's girlfriend, Pamela Kelley, paralyzed below the chest. His first wife, Sheila, bitterly fought his attempt to annul their marriage and wrote an angry book depicting the then-Massachusetts congressman as an impetuous hothead. After Michael Kennedy's death, "young Joe," as the tousle-haired congressman is known throughout his home state, chose not to run for reelection.

In 1983, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was arrested for heroin possession. Their cousin Patrick J. Kennedy, now a Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, sought treatment for cocaine addiction in 1986. At one point, at least nine young members of the Kennedy clan were reported to have been to 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. Both Patrick and his father, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), were staying at the Florida mansion when the incident was alleged to have occurred.

As the family's de facto patriarch--the sole surviving son of his generation--Sen. Kennedy also figured in one of the most shocking Kennedy stories. Following a party on Chappaquiddick Island, which is part of Martha's Vineyard, on July 18, 1968, 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.

The image of a 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. wearing a short wool coat and saluting his father's casket 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., as she struggled to process the possibility that John F. Kennedy Jr. had met his death.

But 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 Piper Saratoga aircraft at the Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J. Kennedy, it seems, had injured his leg recently in a hang-gliding accident--another example of the family's apparently genetic attraction to a daredevil lifestyle. Kennedy had attended flight school in Florida not long ago to obtain his pilot's license.

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 as well. 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 John F. Kennedy Jr. would fall to Caroline, who was said to have 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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