The Kennedy curse?

Posted: Jul 27, 2003 12:00 AM
Edward Klein, author and editor, wrote for the current issue of Vanity Fair a story that challenged the faith in the matter of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his storybook wife, dead somewhere off Martha's Vineyard after crashing into the water on his private airplane four years ago. The event arrested the attention of the entire world. How could such a thing happen, given the sophisticated technology of the age in which young John was flying?

I was in the company of a lifelong pilot when the news came in. He explained that John need only have done one thing to avoid the blindness of the fog that night: turn on the autopilot, and do whatever he was told to do by the air-traffic controller, who would have directed him, that particular night, either to Boston or to Halifax, and a safe landing.

But Klein has a thesis that overwhelms such niceties of precaution. Yes, JFK senior might have authorized the bubble top on his limo in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and thus deflected the bullets of sharpshooter Lee Harvey Oswald. And Teddy could have stopped in at the house next door and reported that there was a girl in a car underwater and please do something about it. And young Joe Kennedy might have complied with the recommendation that the electric circuitry in his heavy bomber should be checked out, to avoid exploding in midair a few minutes later.

Klein runs the whole thing under the rubric of "The Kennedy Curse," as he titles his forthcoming book. And he takes the reader back to Joseph Kennedy, the founding father, who chiseled his way to the Court of St. James as ambassador in 1937. On a trip back to the United States, aboard an ocean liner that was also carrying Israel Jacobson, a poor Lubavitcher rabbi, and six of his yeshiva students, who were fleeing the Nazis, Kennedy complained to the ship's captain about the distracting noises caused by the Jewish passengers praying on the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah. He demanded that they be forbidden to continue exercises so distracting to fellow passengers. "Rabbi Jacobson put a curse on Kennedy, damning him and all his male offspring to tragic fates."

Now it isn't entirely said in just that language, that Klein believes that curse to have taken effect. But he encourages something of the sort as he recounts the macabre fate of the Kennedys. He doesn't stop at the especially accursed children of Joe Kennedy. Here of course were the two most conspicuous casualties of the curse, a president of the United States shot dead, and an aspirant president shot dead five years later. Then there is Teddy's behavior at Chappaquiddick, where he left the girl, and in Palm Beach, where he roused his own son and a libidinous nephew late on Good Friday to go with him to forage for sexual bait, resulting in a widely covered rape trial.

The curse is visited in many ways as it diffuses through cousins and grandchildren. Robert Kennedy's nephew is found guilty of killing a girl in Greenwich, Conn., 25 years after the deed. One's patience wears thin when, included in the chronicle of the curse, we see listed, "In 1955 Ethel Kennedy's parents are killed in a small plane crash in Oklahoma while on vacation." That would be some curse. A truly fissiparous incubus.

Well, count us out on that. The incidence of tragedy for the Kennedy clan is interestingly chronicled by Klein without any necessary reliance on Freud or on Cain. He is convincing in relating a daredevil streak in the Kennedys, and perhaps it was an outgrowth of ethnic resentment over discouragements visited on the Irish community when first they arrived in large numbers in the 19th century and were treated as a servile class by the dominant Protestants.

The conflict was nicely joined when JFK's sister Kathleen became engaged to William Cavendish, eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire. Mother Cavendish was keeper of the queen's wardrobe, or some such thing, and there was strong resistance to any notion of high British Protestant aristocracy marrying a Catholic girl. So Kick, as they called JFK's dashing, endearing sister, compromised on a civil marriage. The curse was very attentive to these proceedings and killed off the heir in battle a short time later, and soon Kick too would die in an airplane crash.

What to make of it all? The book is engrossing to read, because it tells above all of Joseph Patrick Kennedy, a truly abominable man who made his way in business, politics and, finally, clanship, fostering an incandescent string of Kennedys, strikingly engaged in myriad activity. Klein suggests that the story is hard to get out, because the protective barriers surrounding the Kennedys are militantly there. And it is true that Teddy survived mishap after mishap, but true also that naysayers get to write their protests.

Richard Reeves and Thomas Reeves have written very good books challenging the immunities of the Kennedy myth, and here is another one. It is unreasonable to suppose that the doctrine of lese-majeste will keep it from springing forward to wide public attention, even if its readers reject the imposture of one great curse having it out on Kennedy blood.