NEW YORK — To the accompaniment of gospel and reggae music, and to the words of Shakespeare and Irish bards, family and friends bade a final farewell Friday to John F. Kennedy Jr., remembered by his uncle as a young man of wit and grace who, like his father, "had every gift but length of years."
Continuing a sad tradition that has seen him take charge through decades of family tragedy, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) delivered a eulogy at a private memorial Mass for his 38-year-old nephew and for 33-year-old Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s bride of three years. President Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton were among 315 mourners at St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, where John's sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, is a parishioner and where their mother, the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, often worshiped.
From the first day of his life, Sen. Kennedy told the mourners, the son of President Kennedy was a public figure.
"He had a legacy, and he learned to treasure it. He was part of a legend, and he learned to live with it," the senator said in remarks made public by his office.
The sense that John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife were almost personal acquaintances brought hundreds of people to the streets near the church.
The affair was intensely private yet was covered in minute detail by television cameras lurking a block away, satisfying the decades-old public fascination with the Kennedy clan.
"I'm here to pay my respects to a young man I have known since he was born," said Patti Avallone, who acknowledged she had never met Kennedy. Avallone, a middle school principal from West Haven, Conn., took a funeral day off from work and rode the train 90 miles to stand on a scorching Park Avenue sidewalk. "I felt I would be closer to the families if I was here."
John and Carolyn Kennedy and her 34-year-old sister Lauren Bessette were killed one week ago when the small plane Kennedy was piloting crashed into the sea near Martha's Vineyard. Their ashes were scattered at sea Thursday. A service will be held today for Lauren Bessette in the family's hometown of Greenwich, Conn.
Mourners Among Elite of Politics, Journalism
Friday's service drew political leaders as well as leaders from John Kennedy's own line of endeavor, journalism. Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) were present, as were newswomen Diane Sawyer (with her husband, writer-director Mike Nichols) and Christiane Amanpour (with her husband, State Department spokesman James Rubin). Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner also was among the mourners.
Dr. Richard Freeman and his wife, Ann, stepfather and mother of Carolyn and Lauren Bessette, walked in with Lauren's twin, Lisa, their only surviving child. William Bessette, the girls' father, also attended.
All in black, and virtually all wearing sunglasses to shield them from the fierce sun as they made their way to the church, there were Kennedys as young as John Kennedy's 6-year-old nephew, John Schlossberg, and as old as his septuagenarian aunts, Jean Kennedy Smith, Patricia Kennedy Lawford, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Ethel Skakel Kennedy.
There were cousins, dozens of them. Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend flew up with President Clinton. Maria Shriver was joined by her husband, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ted Kennedy Jr. and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) were accompanied by their mother, Joan Bennett Kennedy.
It was Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg who insisted on limiting the ceremony to those closest to her brother and sister-in-law. One by one, limousines and vans carrying the guests, who were issued invitation numbers, made their way past police barricades on Park Avenue toward the stately Gothic church on East 88th Street.
The number on a vehicle carrying Muhammad Ali was initially obscured, and the boxing titan was momentarily detained before a police officer recognized him. Maurice Tempelsman, the companion of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in her later years, walked. Lee Radziwill, Onassis' sister, was also there.
The Rev. Charles O'Byrne, a family friend, officiated at the Mass. O'Byrne also presided over the September 1996 wedding of John and Carolyn Kennedy at a simple country church on Cumberland Island, off the Georgia coast. O'Byrne was also there Thursday as the couple's ashes were scattered at sea.
The son of the slain president was one of this country's most famous bachelors until his marriage to the elegant fashion publicist. He was trained as a lawyer but practiced only briefly before launching a magazine that attempted to bridge politics and entertainment. Though celebrated as a sportsman and an icon of glamour, he was known as a young man who took public transit and wrote thank-you notes for the smallest favors.