Life

Sunday 21 September 2014

How Bobby's letters reveal the curse of the Kennedys

Gabrielle Monaghan

Published 05/09/2014 | 02:30

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The Kennedy family at their home in Massachusetts on the night after John F Kennedy won the 1960 US presidential election
From left, John F Kennedy and his brothers Bobby and Ted

Before a trove of Bobby Kennedy's personal letters are auctioned this month, Gabrielle Monaghan looks at the tragedies that have befallen his family over the years.

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At the tender age of 16, Bobby Kennedy displayed a fatalistic attitude towards his elder brother John F Kennedy's imminent role in World War II. A letter written when he was a teenager - part of a trove going on the auction block later this month - showed that Kennedy feared the future president would die in action.

In September 1942, he wrote about plans to go home to see his brother "because he might be killed any minute". Kennedy's concerns for 'Jack', as he called the brother he so admired, would not immediately come to pass. Indeed, JFK emerged from the war as a hero, having rescued his patrol torpedo crew in the South Pacific after the boat was struck by a Japanese destroyer.

But two of his siblings, Joseph and Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy, weren't so lucky. In subsequent war-time letters, Bobby Kennedy refers to the pair, writing in 1943 that "my other brother is still flying and Kick, sister, is going to Africa or England the beginning of April". In a letter postmarked July 1944, he says: "Joe is flying still in England but is due home as he has been over there a month more than was necessary now anyway but you know us Kennedys, rough, tough, and always volunteering for the hard jobs."

The following month, Joe, the son originally earmarked for the White House by his wealthy father, died in a plane crash during an accidental in-flight explosion in a bombing mission across the English Channel. Four years later, Kathleen was killed in a plane accident in France.

RR Auction, the Boston auction house selling the letters on September 18, described Joe and Kathleen as "two of the earliest victims of the 'Kennedy Curse'."

The so-called curse on the political dynasty, the closest thing to royalty that America ever had, divides Kennedy biographers and experts alike.

However, there's little doubt twhat the powerful family has been marred by a litany of tragedies. These include the assassination in 1963 of JFK in Dallas and the killing of Bobby Kennedy, the late president's advisor and attorney general, during the 1968 presidential campaign.

The misfortunes that beset that generation of Kennedys started in the early 1940s. Rosemary Kennedy was confined to an institution at the age of 23 when Joseph Kennedy Sr, the family patriarch, gave his approval for a lobotomy, then a rarely used procedure, to be performed on his daughter. The 1941 operation, aimed at curbing Rosemary's mood swings, went disastrously wrong and left her with the mental capacity of a two-year old.

The late Ted Kennedy, who went on to become a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process, endured his own share of bad luck. In 1964, he was in a plane crash that killed Kennedy aide Edward Moss. Five years later, after his brothers' assassinations, he drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Masachusetts,claiming the life of his 28-year-old female passenger. He didn't report the accident for almost nine hours, a decision he later called "indefensible".

A week later, the senator addressed the nation from his parents' home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, in a televised act of contrition. During that speech, he wondered "whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys".

Tragedy did not bypass the next generation of Kennedys either. In 1984, David, the fourth of Bobby Kennedy's 11 children, died in a drug overdose in a hotel in Florida, while his sibling Michael died in 1997 while tossing a football on a ski slope in Colorado.

But it was the death of JFK's son, John Jr that lent the most weight to the theory that the Kennedys were cursed. In 1999, the small plane the handsome publisher was piloting to his cousin's wedding crashed en route, killing him, his wife Carolyn and his sister-in-law Lauren Bessette. Thirteen years later, Mary Richardson Kennedy, the estranged wife of Bobby Kennedy's son Robert, died of an apparent suicide.

In his controversial book The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America's First Family for 150 Years, Edward Klein wrote: "It seems that virtually every time a Kennedy was on the verge of achieving a goal or ambition, he was doomed to pay a tragic price. "One must go back to the ancient Greeks and the House of Atreus - to such legendary figures as Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra - to find a family that has been subjected to such a mind-boggling chain of calamities."

For their part, the Kennedys have pointed out that every family suffers from problems and deaths, but that they had to live out theirs in the public eye. Indeed, its misfortunes may loom even larger because the Kennedy family itself was so sizable - Joe Sr had nine children, while Bobby had 11.

When asked about the 'Kennedy curse' in June during a visit to the University of Limerick, Rory Kennedy, Bobby's youngest daughter, said: "Every family struggles and every family has had loss and sadness. I think ours is more public and there has certainly been a number of tragic events but if you look at other families around the world and I feel just extraordinary lucky."

Irish Independent

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