After Camelot

A Personal History of the Kennedy Family--1968 to the Present


By J. Randy Taraborrelli

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In this ambitious and sweeping account, Taraborelli continues the family chronicle begun with his bestselling Jackie, Ethel, Joan and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the years "after Camelot."

For more than half a century, Americans have been captivated by the Kennedys – their joy and heartbreak, tragedy and triumph, the dark side and the remarkable achievements. He describes the challenges Bobby's children faced as they grew into adulthood; Eunice and Sargent Shriver's remarkable philanthropic work; the emotional turmoil Jackie faced after JFK's murder and the complexities of her eventual marriage to Aristotle Onassis; the the sudden death of JFK JR; and the stoicism and grace of his sister Caroline.

He also brings into clear focus the complex and intriguing story of Edward "Teddy" and shows how he influenced the sensibilities of the next generation and challenged them to uphold the Kennedy name. Based on extensive research, including hundreds of exclusive interviews, After Camelot captures the wealth, glamour, and fortitude for which the Kennedys are so well known. With this book, J. Randy Taraborrelli takes readers on an epic journey as he unfolds the ongoing saga of the nation's most famous-and controversial-family.


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When I sit at a family gathering, with literally dozens of children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews surrounding me, tears come to my eyes. I marvel at their talents, their articulateness, their devotion to justice and their grace. I am reminded once again that family shapes us all, and that to be held in the arms of a loving family redeems even the most numbing pain.

—Ted Kennedy, Senate prayer, October 6, 1999

To whom much has been given, much is required.

Luke 12:48


If it could ever be said that America had a "royal family," it would be the Kennedys of Massachusetts. For more than half a century, we as a nation have been captivated by their compelling story, a saga that encompasses as much tragedy as triumph, as much heartbreak as joy. In a sense, we are their loyal subjects, consumed with their mystique, mesmerized by their charisma. That the Kennedys always seemed to have an almost pathological aversion to the media only made the reports of their comings and goings all the more interesting. With the passing of the years, we've wanted to know all there was to know about this powerful family, and monitoring their behavior as reported on television or in newspapers and magazines was almost like being there. Of course, there are any number of reasons for our enduring fascination with their lives—not the least of which has been the curse of tragedy that has seemingly haunted them for decades. Still, the singular, most compelling aspect of their story has been its sheer and utter… humanity.

I am reminded of the first time I met Jackie Kennedy Onassis. It was in 1985 in New York City, when she was an editor at Doubleday and I was about to write my first book, a biography of Diana Ross, for that publishing company. A chance meeting in an elevator later led to a spirited conversation in her office about pop culture, which of course I will never forget. As she spoke, I looked into her dark, inquisitive eyes and couldn't help but wonder: Who is she, really? And what does she make of her place in history as a woman whose private tragedies became the public spectacle of an entire generation? After everything she endured—with a life at once so opulent and blessed, and at the same time shattered and cursed—what was the source from which she drew her fortitude, her confidence and self-determination? As we talked, I couldn't help but think about her place in American lore and how trauma and loss had come to define it.I thought about President Kennedy. Dallas, 1963. Bobby Kennedy. Los Angeles, 1968. Ted Kennedy. Chappaquiddick, 1969. All of these events were entwined with my childhood, all of it my story just as it is every American's. And there she was, standing in front of me, a woman who had actually been there, who knew it all. Who had lived it. Go ahead, I thought, my ever-curious mind kicking in for an instant. Ask her something about it. Ask her anything. But there was something about her, and about that time with her, that made the idea of asking even a single probing question about her life seem inappropriate. She was so charming, so warm and friendly. So accessible. She was so everyday in her humanity that only the most callous person would ever dream of asking her a personal question that might revive any trauma, any pain.

I think it was on that day as I spoke to Jackie that I began to understand a true secret to the Kennedys' enduring celebrity: There is no wall. True, on the national stage, these people are and would always be ferociously private. But out in the real world, many of them are just as approachable as anyone else you might meet in an elevator. For her part, Jackie—an editor whose office didn't even have windows—certainly wasn't living as though she were larger than life, like most celebrities do: in an ivory tower, detached from the everyday. She was, to put it simply, a very nice lady, and in many ways just like the rest of us. She'd had her ups and downs in life. She'd made the best of the cards she'd been dealt, and now, widowed twice, she was in New York City, starting over at a job that paid her just $200 a week, writing a new chapter of her own story. Not for the sake of the public, or for the history books, or for a young writer she might happen to meet in an elevator on the way to work. She was doing it for herself, living her life despite her worldwide fame. That was her secret and, I have come to believe, one of the secrets of the entire Kennedy family: Though celebrated, they are not really "celebrities." At the risk of seeming reductive of such iconic figures who have often appeared larger than life, in many ways they are simply people who have been through tough times and have somehow learned, as a family, to get on with the business of living, all the while maintaining a determined optimism.

Certainly when I first met Senator Ted Kennedy (and his wife, Victoria Reggie) in October 1996 at a symposium on the legacy of the Kennedy women at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, I was struck by his congenial, "everyman" attitude. "Yes, we have had some hard knocks," he told me in what was obviously a great understatement, "but we as a family have survived because we have heart. And heart matters." That evening, I also met and had the opportunity to ask questions of three of Ethel's daughters, Rory, Kerry, and Kathleen. What most stands out in my mind about them all these years later is their obvious closeness. It was almost like talking to one woman, the way they began and finished each other's sentences. "It's difficult when your most private moments are also your most public moments," Kerry told me when speaking of the tragedies the family has faced. "But it's interesting, too, because we have never really felt alone in any of it. We have always felt at one with the American public, and I think they have felt the same dynamic with us." With the passing of the years, I would also meet John Kennedy Jr. several times, and without fail be impressed not only by his accessible nature but also his hopeful outlook on life. "While we Kennedys as a family have certainly known death," he told me at the press conference to announce the publication of his own magazine, George, "we choose to focus on life. And, I guess, that's how we deal with death."

Doubtless, the Kennedy mystique really took hold of this country when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was brutally assassinated in November 1963. It was such a shock that this young president would meet a grisly death that there seemed no way to reconcile it then, and even now. The country wept not only for its slain president but also for its First Lady, Jackie, so youthful and beautiful in her black mourning dress and mantilla, walking head held high behind JFK's horse-drawn catafalque down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral, giving Americans strength just by her example on the day of the funeral. Little did the country know that she was falling apart inside, that—by her own later admission—she would never really recover from the horror of sitting next to her husband as his head was shattered by gunfire.

When Lyndon Baines Johnson assumed the presidency, he was determined to put into place JFK's legislative agenda, prioritizing his predecessor's promises to reduce taxes and guarantee civil rights. The Civil Rights Act, introduced by JFK and shepherded through Congress and into law by LBJ, was the most important piece of legislation of its kind enacted since Reconstruction. However, with the force of the Johnson juggernaut and his concept of the Great Society, Jackie Kennedy was fearful that her husband's New Frontier—articulated in his 1960 presidential nomination acceptance speech as "not a set of promises, but a set of challenges… not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them"—would be all but lost when the history of this period was written. Determined that this not happen, she set about mythologizing the JFK administration by likening it to the idealized version of the King Arthur legend as recalled in the Broadway musical Camelot. The memorable lyric of the title song reads, "Don't let it be forgot that for one brief shining moment there was Camelot." Indeed, Jackie was fascinated with the notion that not only should her husband not be forgotten, but that he should also be remembered in a heroic light. As it happened, in the days after the assassination, Jackie became aware of an article that Theodore White was writing about the national tragedy for Life magazine. Since White was an author JFK had admired, Jackie let it be known that it was with him that she wanted to share her feelings about her husband. Thus it would be in the pages of Life, read by millions, that the myth of a Kennedy Camelot was first created. "History is what made Jack," she said. "He was a simple man; he was so complex, too. He had that idealistic side, but then he had that other side, the pragmatic side. There will be great presidents again—and the Johnsons are wonderful, they've been wonderful to me—but there'll never be another Camelot," Jackie told Theodore White.

Lost in Jackie's romantic view of her husband's presidency is how badly the actual Camelot story played out—with infidelities, betrayals, murders, and even the death of King Arthur himself. Was it possible that she was unwittingly casting a dark, ominous cloud over the decades following Camelot's "one brief shining moment"? Was there to be a Camelot curse? A Kennedy curse?

Curse or not, the Kennedy family had already been stricken with bad luck for years, all the way back to the 1940s with the institutionalization of sister Rosemary Kennedy and the deaths of Joe Jr. in a World War II airplane explosion and Kathleen (nicknamed "Kick") in a plane crash in 1948. But after JFK's death in 1963, another Kennedy scion would meet his fate in the exact same way—by an assassin's bullet. This time it would be Bobby, murdered in 1968. It had been thought that the former attorney general would carry on the tradition of Camelot, so young and charismatic in personality, with a wife, Ethel, very different from Jackie and in many ways much more accessible. Ethel was full of spit-and-vinegar, and she had ten children—and an eleventh on the way—an American family of hope and promise that mirrored those of so many at the time. In a strange but maybe not so surprising way, Bobby's death just added more allure to the Kennedy image. The mix of youth and vitality with tragedy and despair was a sort of soap opera much of the country could not resist. Then, as Jackie Kennedy went on to marry the billionaire shipping mogul Aristotle Onassis and seemingly scandalize the entire country in the process, the sense of misadventure that now characterized the Kennedy mystique exerted an even greater hold.

In the years after the deaths of Jack and Bobby—the years after Camelot, which are the primary ones examined in this book—the Kennedys as a family tried to hold on to the sense of hope, promise, and national service that had been so integral to the public personas of their fallen heroes. But it was difficult. During many of those intervening years there seemed no way for the Kennedys to live up to the impossibly high standards in part set by Jack and Bobby but maybe in greater part foisted upon them by an America longing for heroic characters. In death, the deceased president and his late brother would take on a kind of saintly aura that would sometimes be impossible to match and would provide years of frustration for any who tried to emulate it. In some respects, the Kennedys knew as much and even privately discussed it among themselves. However, they also knew that the public would accept nothing less of them but to carry on the ideal of Camelot—somehow.

In 2000, more than fifteen years after I first met Jackie Kennedy Onassis, I wrote Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot—a book that focused on the lives of the three women who had married into the family as wives to brothers Jack, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy. That work followed its principal characters, including their husbands, primarily from 1960 to 1969, with some references to the years that followed. Consider this book—After Camelot—the rest of the story. It is a more than forty-year journey through the family's epic history, spanning from 1968 to the present—the years following Jackie's idealized Camelot. In these pages you will read about and, it is my hope, come to a deeper understanding of certain touchstone moments in our history, such as Ted Kennedy's disastrous weekend in Chappaquiddick, which, it could be argued, forever ruined his chances for the presidency. You will also read about the many challenges Bobby's children faced as they grew into young adulthood—the next generation of Kennedys, two of whom would meet early and untimely deaths. Obviously, there has been no shortage of catastrophic misfortune in the Kennedys' history, and the sudden death of JFK's only son, John Kennedy Jr., is also told in these pages—a loss keenly felt even to this day. But you will also read stories of triumph and achievement, as in the telling of Eunice Kennedy Shriver's world-changing devotion to furthering the understanding of mental retardation in this country with Camp Shriver and the Special Olympics, and her husband Sargent's cofounding of the Peace Corps. You will, I believe, also find inspiration in the way Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg has lived her life with such firm resolve and quiet dignity in the face of so much heartbreak—very much like her mother, Jackie. Through it all, you will find that those who survived Jack and Bobby always managed to pull together as a family just when they needed to, and that, united, they would somehow find the strength to persevere during times most might find insurmountable.

When I first met Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 2002, it was to interview her for a story I was writing about her role in the Special Olympics. I must admit that she, more than any other Kennedy I had ever encountered, at first seemed quite redoubtable. The authoritative manner in which she carried herself and the way her eyes sized me up as she spoke in the distinct, New England–clipped accent that is so Kennedy-like was more than a little daunting. As we talked, though, I soon felt as if I were speaking with an old, familiar friend, especially when she pulled dog-eared photos of her five children—including her daughter, Maria Shriver—from her wallet and began to brag about their many achievements. I also sensed the dedication she had to the organization she had founded so many years earlier, the Special Olympics. Eagerly, she told me about its humble origins, which happened to be in the home she shared with Sargent in Maryland, the same one in which she had raised her family.

"I was just a woman who couldn't believe there were no summer camps for the mentally retarded anywhere in this entire country," Eunice told me. "So what did I do? Why, I started my own. In my own backyard! We called it Camp Shriver. And I found high school teachers and students and friends and anyone else who was willing to be of service, and I made them all camp counselors. It grew and grew and grew over the years and, by God, it was the right thing to do, wasn't it?" she observed, laughing. Here was a remarkable woman, I thought, who not only recognized a need in this country but wanted more than anything to fill it, not so that she might bask in the refracted glory of achievement but because she knew she could use her tenacious nature and her family's considerable power to get the job done—and because she knew it was the right thing to do. And therein lies another Kennedy secret: They have always believed that there is no limit to the amount of service they could do for their fellow man—indeed, their country. "We as a family are so blessed," Eunice told me. "How dare we not be of service? How dare we not at least try? That's how I raised my children. You can ask any one of them and they will tell you that not a day went by in their lives that they didn't have Mummy pestering them to be of service to someone else—big or small—just do something!"

Later, when she introduced me to her husband, Sargent Shriver, he repeated what sounded to me like the family's mantra. "The world is full of people in need," he declared. "Be present for them. That's what Jack, Bobby, Eunice, I, and so many of us have tried to do over the years." (On an unrelated note, I can't leave the memory of this day with the Shrivers without first adding that I'd never met a politician more affable than Sargent. "My dad always believed you would have made a great president," I told him. "Him and me both," he said with a hearty laugh.)

During my time with her, Eunice Kennedy Shriver mentioned not only that she had read my first book about her family, Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot, but that she had seen some of the television miniseries upon which it was based. Did she approve? Speaking with caution, she said she couldn't vouch for its accuracy, "because I certainly didn't live Jackie's life, nor did I live Ethel's, nor did I live Joan's." But then, after a beat, she added thoughtfully, "I have to say, though, that even I was struck by the universality of some of the themes. So, in a sense, I guess you could say it's not just their story, is it? It's a story we all share. And not just we Kennedys, either. All of us."

I couldn't have agreed more.

J. Randy Taraborrelli

Winter 2011


An Unthinkable Tragedy

It was a gray, dreary, and unremarkable Saturday afternoon in Hyannis Port. Out on a stretch of pebble-covered sand and facing a dark, restless ocean stood an elderly woman wearing a black baseball cap. As she took in the endless vista, she bent down to pick up a seashell. She rolled it in the palm of her hand and then flung it into the sea. Appearing lost in thought, she pulled her white down jacket close in order to keep the chill of the Nantucket Sound at bay. To see her walk just a few steps, it was clear that she had a slight limp. Meanwhile, a young lady in a starched white maid's uniform approached and stood directly behind her. After a few moments of hesitation, she tapped her on the shoulder. "Mrs. Kennedy," she said, "the priest will be here at five o'clock to say Mass. He's asked if you had any particular scripture in mind for the reading?" Ethel Kennedy turned to face the woman. With eyes reddened and face drawn, she seemed even older than her seventy-one years. Her frame was slight, shoulders slim and slightly hunched forward.

"How well I remember my own wedding," Ethel said wistfully, not responding to the woman's question. "We Kennedys are known for our great weddings, as you know," she added. "Mine and Bobby's was so beautiful." According to the maid's later recollection, Ethel then spoke of the formal white satin gown she wore on that special day so many years earlier when she and Robert Kennedy were wed. She also spoke of the long, diaphanous veil trimmed with delicate orange blossoms. And the elegant, dainty gloves. "But we called them mitts in those days," she remembered. "They were satin and had pearls on them," she added. "People don't wear gloves so much anymore," she mused as she reached into her pocket and pulled out large black sunglasses. She put them on. "I wonder why that is," she continued, seeming distracted. "Gloves are so nice. Don't you agree?" Her maid nodded.

Over the years, Kennedy weddings have been more than mere events, they've been the subject of national curiosity all the way back to the family patriarch Joseph's, who wed Rose in 1914, through to Bobby and Ethel's in 1950, Eunice's to Sargent Shriver in 1953, and Jack's to Jackie Bouvier, also in 1953. And there were so many more—Kennedy sisters Pat's to actor Peter Lawford in 1954 and Jean's to Stephen Smith two years later. Then there was Ted's to Joan Bennett in 1958… The list goes on and on, especially as the next generation took their own spouses. Who could forget the elegant wedding of Jackie's daughter, Caroline, to Ed Schlossberg in 1986? Wedding guest Robert Rauschenberg once said it felt as if there had been "seventy-five thousand Kennedys present." It probably felt to those in attendance that there were at least that many. But then Caroline's brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr.—only son of the slain President Kennedy—broke the tradition of big family weddings with a more intimate affair when he married the lovely Carolyn Bessette in 1996. It was a surprise not only to the media but also to many of Kennedy's friends and even family members. How he was ever able to pull it off remained a mystery to many, but John wed Carolyn privately on Cumberland Island, Georgia, with just a few close friends and relatives present. Unfortunately, the wedding ceremony planned for this day—Saturday, July 17, 1999—between Ethel's daughter Rory and her beau Mark Bailey now hung in the balance because John Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren were missing.

John and Carolyn had been on their way from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, to Hyannis Airport on Cape Cod in order to attend Rory's wedding at the Kennedy compound. Although the houses that comprised the compound were summer homes for the Kennedys, the Hyannis Port residences seemed to symbolize their unity, serving as headquarters for observances and celebrations, for funerals and wakes, for auspicious announcements, commemorative rites, and family holidays like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. First, though, John and Carolyn were scheduled to stop at Martha's Vineyard to drop off Lauren, a vice president at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. However, something apparently happened to their plane. The small, single-engine, red-and-white Piper Saratoga hadn't been seen on radar since 9:30 p.m. Friday night, half an hour before it should have landed on Martha's Vineyard. There was nothing anyone could do except to pray.

"Will the Mass be served at my house or at Senator Kennedy's?" Ethel asked. She attended Mass almost every single day, either at her Catholic church or, quite often, in her own home where a priest would come to perform it. Of course, she would also walk out if the sermon hit her the wrong way, or if she didn't like the priest. But everyone knew that about Ethel.

"Whichever you prefer," answered Ethel's maid.

"I think maybe my house would be best," Ethel decided. "Yes, we'll have it on my porch. And will Father O'Byrne say Mass?" she asked.


Ethel shook her head sadly. "He married John and Carolyn just a few years ago," she recalled. "And now here we are today. Oh, my poor Johnny," she added, looking out at the gray sea and merging skyline. She hadn't used the pet name since John was a tot, at least not that anyone could remember. "Oh, dear Lord," she said, as if just hit with a revelation. "If Jackie was alive, I don't know how she would handle this. In fact, I don't think she could bear it. Do you?"

Ethel's maid didn't comment.

"I love all my boys," Ethel continued. "You know I love my girls, too. But my boys, they have given me the most trouble, and for some reason, I just love my boys so much. And Johnny, I always thought of him as one of my own," she concluded sadly.

It had been just before midnight on Friday night—not long after the family and guests retired after the rehearsal dinner—that Senator Ted Kennedy learned of John's missing plane. He wasn't that concerned, at least not at first. After all, John was nothing if not unpredictable. Perhaps he had changed his plans, Ted reasoned, and just hadn't informed anyone. However, after a few calls, Ted began to fear the worst. He spent the rest of the night on the telephone talking to the FAA and the Coast Guard, as well as to any of John's friends he knew to find out if they had any information. Finally, at about 5 a.m., he had no choice but to telephone Ethel to tell her the gut-wrenching news that John's plane had gone missing. He and Ethel—whom he lovingly called "Ethie"—had been through so much over the years that this seemed like just one more awful moment they would have to share. After speaking to Ted, Ethel tearfully gathered those family members present in the house to tell them what was going on. The rest of the day would be a waiting game. Even though it was obvious that the plane had gone down somewhere, no one in the family was willing to give up hope, least of all Ethel Kennedy. "I don't give up easily," she said, "at least not on something I believe in. I have no doubts," she said. "Not a one." It would be just like her nephew, she said, to simply show up a day later than planned and have the most wildly entertaining story to tell about his delay.

The phone hadn't stopped ringing at Ethel's all morning. She would jump every time it rang, hoping it was good news. One of the calls was from Holly Safford, whose company was catering Rory's wedding. She had just heard on television that John was missing. "I am so sorry, Mrs. Kennedy," she said, according to her memory of the conversation. "This is just so devastating. I don't know what to say."

"Holly, my dear, there is no need to be sorry, because they are going to find him," Ethel said, her tone strong and reassuring. "We are going to have a wedding today, I guarantee it."

"Is there anything I can do for you, Mrs. Kennedy?"

"Yes," she answered, "please tell your staff to stand by and wait for further instructions. The wedding is not canceled. They will find John, I know it."

Three long hours passed, and still no word. As Ethel made her way back to her home from the shoreline, two of her grandchildren—Kate and Kerry Kennedy—joined her. She held their hands, and as they passed a flagpole with an American flag flapping in the wind, the three stopped for a second and looked up at it. It was not at half-mast. Not yet, anyway. "Go, go, go!" Ethel was then heard calling out to the children. "Run! Run! Run! It's a beautiful day. Go have fun!" With that, the two children raced across the white sand beach and down to the shore.

Ethel continued walking, still limping and showing signs of the hip replacement surgery she'd undergone earlier in the year. Slowly, she made her way past billowing white tents that had just been erected for the wedding ceremony and subsequent party. The site was bustling with activity as people carried elaborate flower arrangements onto the property—roses, for the most part, of every size, every variety, and, it seemed, most every color under the sun. Meanwhile, caterers with large trays of desserts unloaded their goods from a massive truck in Ethel's driveway. One caterer almost tripped as she tried to navigate over a tangle of power cords while carrying a towering tray of cookies. "Careful," Ethel said, laughing. "Don't hurt yourself!"

Also scurrying about the premises were reporters and photographers from People


On Sale
Apr 24, 2012
Page Count
624 pages

J. Randy Taraborrelli

About the Author

J. Randy Taraborrelli is a respected journalist, a recognizable entertainment personality, and in-demand guest on many television programs including Today, Good Morning America, The Early Show, Entertainment Tonight, and CNN Headline News. He is the bestselling author of thirteen books.

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