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Kennedy Plane Crash

Day for Celebration Turns Solemn

July 18, 1999|ELIZABETH MEHREN and GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HYANNIS PORT, Mass. — They came for a wedding, but soon, on Saturday, the atmosphere at the Kennedy compound here was much more like a wake.

"How much more can a family take?" wondered Joan Greim, who for years has worked at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum.

As family and friends converged on Cape Cod for what was to be by Kennedy standards a small wedding--about 275 people--they were greeted with the somber news that the private plane carrying 38-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr.; his wife, 33-year-old Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and her 34-year-old sister, Lauren Bessette, was missing in the ocean near Martha's Vineyard.

Rather than a celebration for Rory Kennedy--youngest daughter of Ethel Kennedy and the late Robert F. Kennedy--as she prepared to marry fellow filmmaker Mark Bailey, the gathering became a tense wait for word on the fate of the dashing son of the late President John F. Kennedy and the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, symbol of the glamour and sophistication that once was Camelot.

Once the plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. was confirmed missing, the bridal couple postponed their scheduled 6 p.m. nuptials. Instead, with the tent still set up for the wedding festivities, about 40 family members held an outdoor Mass at the compound, where not far away, planes, boats and divers searched the sea for some sign of hope that the Kennedy family's preternatural curse of tragedy had not found its way to this wedding.

Lacking sufficient communion wafers for the crowd, the ever-resourceful Kennedys resorted to slices of pita bread. Their faith at this moment seemed, after all, far more important than their form.

In so many ways, the specter of still more horrific Kennedy family deaths seemed too surreal to be believed. All day on Saturday, trucks continued to arrive with preparations for the wedding that would not happen. Florists carried vibrant arrangements especially for the outdoor reception under billowing white tents overlooking the harbor where Kennedy children have sunned and sailed for half a century.

The caterer rolled in, a wedding banquet in the back of the truck. A hairdresser summoned from Boston to style the tresses of fashionable guests was inveigled to stay. A van carrying tuxedos for the groomsmen arrived.

So did well-known guests, among them, producer Stephen Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw. At least one guest who was unaware that the wedding was postponed arrived to find police and an army of media blocking the street that leads to the cluster of big white clapboard houses owned by the Kennedys.

Even as night fell, meanwhile, the flags at the compound remained at full staff. No family members emerged, and no statement was offered.

The 31-year-old would-be bride was not yet born when her father was shot dead in Los Angeles in 1968 on the night he won California's Democratic presidential primary. Six months later, when the 11th child of the former senator and onetime attorney general was born, her mother chose the name Rory, an affectionate adaptation of Robert.

It was Rory who on New Year's Eve in 1997 rushed to the side of her 39-year-old brother, Michael, after he collided with a tree while skiing in Aspen, Colo. She pressed her lips to his, trying to breathe life into his body, and then she pressed his heart. "Michael," she implored, "now's the time to fight."

That blend of pluck and family devotion characterized the near-mythic spirit of a clan that has captured this country's imagination for decades--the closest thing this democracy has to a royal family.

President Kennedy's exhortation to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" emblazoned itself upon an entire generation. Even those born after World War II know the heroic tales of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.--shot down over the English Channel in 1944 while fighting against Hitler--and John F. Kennedy in his PT boat.

Even in those earlier days, sadness seemed to hover over a family that publicly laughed, frolicked and joined in singing Irish tunes. Of the original nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, two died in plane crashes before age 30. In addition to Joe Kennedy Jr., Kathleen--known as "Kick" for her penchant for good times--died in a plane crash at 28 in 1948. Another sister, Rosemary, has been institutionalized since 1941 because of mental retardation and a failed lobotomy.

And two brothers were felled by assassins' bullets. John F. Kennedy was 46 when he was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Robert F. Kennedy was shot at age 42 by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

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