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Kennedys: Triumph And Tragedy

The family of John F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late President John F. Kennedy, has become, in effect, America's own royal family, evoking a modern-day Camelot.

But the extended family sired by grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy has been no stranger to tragedy. Aside from the obvious calamity of President John F. Kennedy's dramatic assassination in a Dallas motorcade in 1963, the family has endured perhaps more than its share of accidents and misfortune. Many suffered injuries or died at a young age.

Just 30 years ago and not too far from JFK Jr.'s accident off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, uncle Ted Kennedy's Oldsmobile plunged off a bridge on nearby Chappaquiddick Island. That night, July 18, 1969, Ted swam to safety, leaving in the car Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned. He then waited 10 hours to report the accident.

On the day of his accident, Ted Kennedy, 37, had sailed in a Vineyard yacht race. Afterward a Kennedy cousin had thrown a party at a small house on Chappaquiddick, attended by Kopechne and five other so-called boiler room girls who had worked on Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign.

Kennedy said he and Kopechne had been trying to catch the ferry to the Vineyard, but took a wrong turn onto the dirt road that led to the Dike Bridge sometime between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. Ted Kennedy has expressed sadness over the incident, calling his actions that night "irrational and indefensible and inexcusable and inexplicable."

About a year before Ted Kennedy's accident, on June 5, 1968, his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, former attorney general and presidential candidate, was shot in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The hotel was where Oscars had been bestowed on film folk, where John Barrymore had staged drunken sprees, and where Bing Crosby started his singing career.

On that balmy June night in 1968, Kennedy spoke to adoring followers in the Embassy Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, accepting his election in the California primary as Democratic nominee for U.S. president.

Kennedy and his close supporters exited to the rear of the bandstand and entered the kitchen pantry. Sirhan Sirhan stepped out of the shadows. "Pop! Pop! Pop!" It sounded like balloons exploding. "My God, he's been shot!" someone shouted.

The most recent tragedy to befall the Kennedy clan happened two years ago, Dec. 31, 1997. Robert Kennedy's son, Michael Kennedy died almost instantly after colliding with a tree on an Aspen, Colo., ski slope. He suffered massive damage to his skull and vertebrae. The accident happened while Kennedy and about 20 others were playing football on skis.

For the Kennedys, Aspen Mountain was as good as a football field, until the game turned deadly. CBS News learned from a close member of Michael Kennedy's skiing party that there were 30 people playing the Kennedy brand of ski football--family, friends, adult and children.

During the last run of the day, Michael yelled out, 'I'm going to throw it to Michael,' his teen-age son. Those were his last words. The witness heard a loud clap. Kennedy's ski had caught an edge and he veered off to the left, slamming into this tree.

Family members raced to emergency phones but were unable to get through on the first two. All the while, Kennedy's sister, Rory, was performing CPR. The third phone worked and the ski patrol arrived in four minutes.

A source told CBS, this ski football game had been a tradition for 30 years. Michael learned it first from his father, Robert Kennedy. They'd played it with a ball, a bottle of water, even an orange. A couple years back, Michael's brother, Max Kennedy, badly injured his knee in the same game, and he was there this time, too, along with Michael's three children. All the children saw the accident that killed their father.

The following is a list of tragedies that struck the Kennedy family through the years:

  • Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.: Son of Joseph and wife, Rose. Killed in plane crash in 1944 during World War II at age 29.

  • Rosemary Kennedy: Daughter of Joseph and Rose. Institutionalized since 1941 because of retardation and failed lobotomy.

  • Kathleen Kennedy: Daughter of Joseph and Rose. Died in plane crash in 1948. She was 28.

  • John F. Kennedy: Son of Joseph and Rose, 35th president. Assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. He was 46.

  • JFK's son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy: Born prematurely to president and wife Jacqueline in 1963, died three months before father's assassination.

  • Robert F. Kennedy: President's brother, assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. He was 42.

  • Son David: Died in 1984 of a drug overdose in a hotel near family vacation home in Palm Beach, Fla.

  • Son Joseph: Involved in 1973 car accident that left a female passenger paralyzed for life.

  • Son Michael: Accused of having affair with his family's teen-age baby sitter. Killed Dec. 31, 1997 in a skiing accident at Aspen, Colo. He was 39.

  • Edward M. Kennedy: Brother of John and Robert, drove a car off a bridge on Massachusetts' Chappaquiddick Island on July, 18, 1969, after a party. Aide Mary Jo Kopechne was later found dead in submerged car.

  • Son Edward Jr.: Right leg amputated in 1973 because of cancer.

  • Son Patrick: Now a congressman, sought treatment for cocaine addiction as a teen-ager in 1986.

  • Nephew William Kennedy Smith: Acquitted of rape in 1991 at the family's Palm Beach estate.