Most people know about the assassinations of President John F. Kenndy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s. But the Kennedy family endured many more tragedies before and after their deaths, leading to the notion of the so-called “Kennedy curse.”
Following the car crash that killed Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy himself questioned, “whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys.” When you consider what the family has been through, it’s hard not to see his point.
The United States doesn’t have a monarchy, but the Kennedys come close — as political royalty, at least. Washington D.C. had at least one Kennedy in public office for 64 years, and John F. Kennedy, the most prominent member of the family, remains one of the most celebrated U.S. presidents of all time. But with the popularity came accidents, illnesses and assassinations. Is it a curse, or just bad luck?
John F. Kennedy, nicknamed “Jack” and widely known as JFK, was from a large family. Born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, he was the second-oldest of nine siblings, including Eunice Kennedy, the founder of the Special Olympics; U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; and Senator Ted Kennedy.
In 1952, at a dinner party in Washington, Kennedy met Jacqueline Bouvier and, in his own words, “leaned across the asparagus and asked her for a date.” They married on Sept. 12, 1953, and had three children: Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Patrick Kennedy.
JFK Is Assassinated
The most famous Kennedy tragedy is the assassination of JFK. A member of both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate before becoming the country’s 35th president in 1961, his life was cut short on Nov. 22, 1963, during a campaign appearance in Dallas, Texas. JFK was traveling through crowds in a Lincoln Continental convertible with his wife Jackie Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally when he was killed by a former Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald.
Lee Harvey Oswald
JFK was hit twice. The shots were fired from an upstairs window of the nearby Texas School Book Depository building by 24-year-old warehouse worker Oswald. A short time later, the President died at Parkland Memorial Hospital, at age 46. Oswald was never tried for the crime; days after the tragedy, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby killed him during Oswald’s transfer between jails. Although numerous conspiracy theories have circled since the day of Kennedy’s assassination, the most plausible version is that Oswald acted alone.
No Politics For ‘John-John’
JFK’s second child, John F. Kennedy Jr., was only a few days away from his third birthday when his father was killed. Despite his young age, “John-John” was part of the funeral procession and was pictured bravely saluting his father’s casket. Kennedy Jr. stayed away from politics, focusing on public service and publishing, eventually launching the successful political magazine George in 1995.
Adored By The Public
Like his father before him, Kennedy Jr. was a hugely popular figure. Named “sexiest man alive” by People magazine in 1988, he was linked to various Hollywood celebrities, including Madonna, Daryl Hannah, Julia Roberts and Sarah Jessica Parker. In September 1996, he married Carolyn Bessette. Unfortunately, the couple wasn’t safe from the Kennedy “curse.”
Tragedy In The Air
On July 16, 1999, Kennedy Jr., Bessette-Kennedy and her sister Lauren Bessette were flying to Martha’s Vineyard in a small private plane piloted by Kennedy Jr. himself. When the plane didn’t arrive as scheduled, a search was carried out. Initially, the aircraft couldn’t be located but, after several days, debris and luggage were found washed ashore. The three passengers were presumed dead and, on July 21, their bodies were finally recovered from the Atlantic.
Burial At Sea
The Kennedy and Bessette families planned a burial at sea for their loved ones, and a private mass for Kennedy Jr. and Bessette-Kennedy took place at the Church of St. Thomas More in Manhattan, where the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis worshipped. Across the U.S. and the rest of the world, people mourned the loss of the much-admired son of the political dynasty.
JFK wasn’t the only Kennedy to be assassinated. His brother Robert F. Kennedy, who managed JFK’s presidential campaign and was appointed Attorney General in 1960, was killed during his run for the presidency. Born Nov. 20, 1925, Robert was a notable Attorney General, fighting organized crime and supporting the Civil Rights Movement. After JFK’s assassination, Robert was elected to the U.S. Senate, representing the state of New York.
In 1968, Kennedy triumphed over Eugene McCarthy in the California Democratic presidential primary. On June 5, following his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot several times by gunman Sirhan Sirhan. He died the following day at age 42, at the peak of his political career. On June 7, a line of mourners extending 25 blocks paid their respects at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, hours before Kennedy’s body was taken via funeral train from the cathedral to Washington, D.C.
Buried Near His Brother
Kennedy was buried at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, his gravesite adjoining that of his brother John. In 1971, the Kennedy family arranged for a more detailed gravesite for Robert to be designed by architect I.M. Pei, who also designed the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. The new gravesite included two inscriptions from the Senator’s most notable addresses, including the George Bernard Shaw quote he used in his address at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968: “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?'”
Another Plane Crash
In 1964, another of JFK’s brothers, Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, narrowly escaped death. During a campaign flight from Washington to Westfield, Massachusetts, with a fellow senator, the senator’s wife and a legislative aide named Edward Moss, low clouds and fog caused the plane to lose altitude. It crashed in an orchard a short distance from the runway, killing Moss and the pilot.
‘Like A Toboggan Slide’
Kennedy survived the crash but spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a back injury and internal bleeding. He told the New York Times from his hospital bed that the final seconds before the crash were “like a toboggan slide.” Kennedy’s injuries resulted in chronic pain, from which he suffered until his death in 2009 from brain cancer. Despite his health issues, Kennedy served as a senator for 47 years, sponsoring legislation on a huge range of issues to benefit all classes, such as immigration reform, criminal code reform, fair housing, public education and AIDS research.
World War II Explosion
Two decades earlier, another air disaster didn’t end well for JFK’s oldest brother, Joe Kennedy, Jr. In 1944, Joe was piloting a top-secret World War II bombing mission in Nazi-occupied France when two in-flight explosions rocked his aircraft. Joe and his co-pilot died, and the cause of the explosions was never determined. Joe was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and the Air Medal, and in 1946 a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., destroyer No. 850, was named after him.
The ‘Secret Sister’
However, Joe wasn’t the first of JFK’s siblings to suffer tragedy. In 1941, Joseph P. Kennedy ordered the secret lobotomy of his 23-year-old developmentally delayed daughter (JFK’s younger sister), Rosemary. The operation failed, leaving Rosemary, whose brain had been deprived of oxygen during her birth, with the mental capacity of a toddler. She was put into an institution and it would be another 20 years, after Joseph became incapacitated by a severe stroke in 1961, before any of Rosemary’s eight siblings would find out the truth. Rosemary lived at a Catholic facility for the mentally disabled in Jefferson, Wisconsin, where she remained until her death in 2005 at age 86.
Yet another air disaster struck the Kennedy dynasty in 1948. JFK’s younger sister, Kathleen, affectionately known as “Kick,” died at age 28 when a storm caused her plane to crash north of the Ardèche mountains, during a flight to Cannes, France. Kick had planned to meet her father in Paris on the return journey to introduce him to her married lover, the Earl of Fitzwilliam — a relationship that had caused a rift between Kick and her mother Rose.
The Chappaquiddick Tragedy
Known simply as Chappaquiddick, one particular tragedy followed Ted Kennedy throughout his political career. After a late-night party on the night of July 18, 1969, Kennedy lost control of his car and accidentally drove it off an unmarked bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He managed to break free from the car and swim ashore, but his passenger, 28-year-old campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, died inside the submerged car.
The car with Kopechne’s body inside was recovered by a diver the next day, only minutes before Kennedy reported the accident to the police — and 10 hours after it happened. Eventually, Kennedy pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident causing personal injury and received a two-month suspended jail sentence. The media attention surrounding the incident was probably a factor in his decision not to campaign for President in 1972 and 1976, thus ending his chances of ever becoming President.
‘Some Awful Curse’
It was following Chappaquiddick that Kennedy publicly wondered about the existence of a Kennedy curse. When giving a lengthy prepared statement about the incident that was broadcast live by national television networks, he said, “All kinds of scrambled thoughts… went through my mind… including such questions as … whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys.” In 2017, a film titled “Chappaquiddick,” starring Jason Clarke as Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne, was released.
The Legacy Of Assassination
Before Robert F. Kennedy was killed, he was a father to 11 children: Kathleen, Joseph, Robert Jr., David, Courtney, Michael, Kerry, Christopher, Max, Douglas, and Rory, who was born in December 1968 after her father’s assassination. In 1984, David Kennedy, who suffered alcohol and heroin addiction, died following a drug overdose in a hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, at age 28. Cocaine, Demerol (a strong painkiller) and Mellaril (a drug used to treat psychotic disorders) were found in his body.
Another of Robert F. Kennedy’s sons, Michael, died in a ski accident in Aspen, Colorado, on New Year’s Eve, 1997. The New York Times reported that the 39-year-old father of three was tossing a football with relatives while skiing down a mountain and hit a tree. At the time of his death, Michael was being investigated in relation to rumors of statutory rape after he admitted to having an affair with his children’s babysitter.
On Trial For Rape
William Kennedy Smith, the son of JFK’s youngest sister Jean Kennedy, is a renowned physician whose work focuses on landmines and the rehabilitation of landmine victims, but he’s most famous for a well-publicized rape trial that took place in 1991. Following a raucous weekend near the Kennedy family’s Palm Beach vacation home, Kennedy Smith was accused of raping a woman he met at a nightclub called Au Bar. Ted Kennedy, who was with Kennedy Smith on the night in question, gave an emotional testimony to the court on behalf of his nephew.
The rape trial was televised live, giving the public constant coverage of the court proceedings. However, most news outlets chose not to identify Kennedy Smith’s accuser, whose face was covered up during her testimony. Three other women were willing to testify that Smith had sexually assaulted them in incidents during the 1980s that were not reported to the police, but their testimony was excluded and Kennedy Smith was eventually acquitted of all charges.
In 2002, Michael Skakel, the nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow Ethel Kennedy, was convicted of murdering his neighbor, Martha Moxley, during a fit of jealousy in 1975. At the time of the killing, both were 15 years old. Skakel was sentenced to 20 years to life but, in 2013, he was granted a new trial and freed on bail. Three years later, prosecutors appealed the decision and the Connecticut Supreme Court reinstated Skakel’s conviction. In 2018, the Court vacated Skakel’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
JFK and Jackie Kennedy’s third child, Patrick, was born nearly six weeks early in 1963, weighing less than 5 pounds. He had a serious lung condition and survived for less than two days. Patrick was buried in the family grave site at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Kennedy family has also been affected by cancer many times throughout the years. In 1973, Ted Kennedy’s 12-year-old son, Edward Jr., lost a leg to bone cancer.
“My father taught me that even our most profound losses are survivable, and it is what we do with that loss, our ability to transform it into a positive event — that is one of my father’s greatest lessons,” Edward Jr., said after his father lost his own battle with cancer in 2009.
Rejecting The ‘Curse’
After surviving bone cancer, Edward Jr., said he didn’t believe in the notion of a family curse. Speaking to CNN in 2009 with his brother Patrick, Edward said, “The Kennedy family has had to endure these things in a very open way. But our family is just like… every other family in America in many ways.”
Patrick added, “Obviously my dad had a sense of spirituality that transcended his ability to face these problems, you know, in a way that would have otherwise paralyzed the normal person.”
Surviving Kennedys: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
The son of Robert F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is an attorney, environmental activist and talk radio host. He is also co-founder and President of Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental protection organization focused on water resources, and serves as senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. In 2014, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., married actress Cheryl Hines.
Joseph P. Kennedy III
Part of a new generation of political Kennedys, Joseph P. Kennedy III, RFK’s grandson, won a seat to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, replacing the retiring Barney Frank and subsequently defeating his Republican opponent Sean Bielat. The Stanford University and Harvard Law School graduate married health care policy lawyer Lauren Anne Birchfield, whom he met at Harvard, in 2012. They have two children, a daughter, Eleanor, born in 2015, and a son, James, born in December 2017.
Caroline Kennedy is the only surviving child of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. A lawyer and diplomat, she has also co-written and edited several books, including “The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” which was published in 2001. From 2013 through 2017, she served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan. Kennedy married Edwin Arthur Schlossberg in 1986 and they have three children: John (“Jack”), Tatiana and Rose.