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Assassinations, suicide, overdose: a Kennedy curse?

President John F. Kennedy (right) and his brothers Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (left) and Senator Edward Moore Kennedy outside the Oval Office at the White House on August 28, 1963
President John F. Kennedy (right) and his brothers Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (left) and Senator Edward Moore Kennedy outside the Oval Office at the White House on August 28, 1963

"The Kennedy Curse Strikes Again," British newspaper the Independent declared when a daughter-in-law of Bobby Kennedy committed suicide last year.

It was a nod to the idea that the most closely-watched American family -- sometimes likened to American royalty -- have been struck by enough calamities that they could star in a Greek tragedy.

"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," said Edward Klein, in his book "The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America's First Family for 150 Years."

"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," he wrote.

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy descend the stairs from Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963
President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy descend the stairs from Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963

Indeed, the litany of tragedies to strike the Kennedy clan is on par with the grandeur of the family itself.

Since President John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago, the family has endured the assassination of his brother Bobby in 1968, the 1984 death by overdose of David, a son of Bobby, and the death of Michael, another son of Bobby, in 1997.

But it was the death of president Kennedy's son, John Jr. in the crash of a small plane he was piloting on July 16, 1999, which gave the most weight to the notion the Kennedys are in fact cursed.

Still, the C word had already been mouthed 30 years earlier by Ted Kennedy, another JFK sibling and then senator from Massachusetts.

In a televised act of contrition, the young Democratic star was trying to reconstruct events in an accident in which a car he was driving went off a bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick, claiming the life of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne.

A man on Elm Street in Dallas, Texas, on February 5, 2011 highlights the spot where US President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot by Lee Harvey Oswald
A man on Elm Street in Dallas, Texas, on February 5, 2011 highlights the spot where US President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot by Lee Harvey Oswald

He mused over "whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys." That came in a speech on July 25, 1969, a bit more than a year after the assassination of Bobby.

The sky is the limit

Some backers of the theory of a plot look to the horoscope of family patriarch Joe Kennedy, the father of JFK, Bobby and Ted, to explain the clan's misfortunes.

Others think a rabbi jinxed Joe Kennedy after an altercation.

But these arguments are irritating nonsense to Thomas Maier, a journalist who wrote "The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings."

"Curse, I think it's false and simple-minded language for either reckless behavior by particular individuals within the family or kind of this pseudo-secular religiosity that somehow uses words like curse as if some mystical god would be avenging something that the Kennedys did. It's preposterous and deeply offensive to their religious background," Maier told AFP.

Undated file picture of Mary Jo Kopechne, 29, who was killed in an auto accident from which Senator Edward Kennedy escaped in Hyannis, Massachusetts on July 19, 1969
Undated file picture of Mary Jo Kopechne, 29, who was killed in an auto accident from which Senator Edward Kennedy escaped in Hyannis, Massachusetts on July 19, 1969

He notes that with Joe Kennedy, a member of the House of Representatives, the country is in its fourth generation of public service.

"Not every family has three senators, one president, two candidates" for president, adds Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, also to AFP.

"The reason people still believe in a curse is because we have focused so heavily on this family. We know each single member of the Kennedy family and we have connected the dots for them," he added.

The 1999 airplane accident that claimed the life of the known as a boy as John John, his wife Carolyn and his sister in law Lauren Bessette, put not just the Kennedy family but the entire nation "united in grief," as The Guardian put in on July 23, 1999.

If the history of America's favorite family still fascinates and intrigues people it is because this is a case of "Hollywood meets Washington," said Sabato.

The funeral of Senator Robert F. Kennedy at Saint Patrick cathedral in New York on June 8, 1968
The funeral of Senator Robert F. Kennedy at Saint Patrick cathedral in New York on June 8, 1968

Ultimately, says Laurence Leamer, a journalist who knows the dynasty well, "the Kennedy Story is kind of an American immigrant story. It's something we all aspire to. We all tell our children 'you can become President of the United States', even if somehow we don't really believe that."

But for the Kennedys, it was different.

"They were brought up thinking they could be president of the US, knowing that they could be president of the US," Leamer said.

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