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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Kennedy grandchildren: Bearing the privilege and burden of a family name

A sprawling group with many in their 20s and 30s, the younger generation of Kennedys took a tragic turn in the national spotlight this week. One of its members, 22-year-old Saoirse Kennedy Hill, suffered an apparent drug overdose Thursday at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and died.

By: New York Times | Published: August 3, 2019 9:22:27 am
Kennedy family death, Saoirse Kennedy Hill death, John F Kennedy, Saoirse Kennedy drug overdose death FILE – In this June 6, 2000 file photo, Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughter Saoirse Kennedy Hill places a white rose at the Eternal Flame, President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Hill, has died at the age of 22. (AP Photo)

(Written by Julie Bosman, Kate Taylor and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs)

They inherited the names and nicknames of Kennedys before them: Rose, Joe, Teddy and Kick.

Some have felt the lure of politics and social activism, running for Congress or advocating for the environment, while others have gravitated to the stage or Hollywood.

A sprawling group with many in their 20s and 30s, the younger generation of Kennedys took a tragic turn in the national spotlight this week. One of its members, 22-year-old Saoirse Kennedy Hill, suffered an apparent drug overdose Thursday at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and died.

Kennedy Hill, a student at Boston College, was a granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy and the daughter of Courtney Kennedy Hill.

In some ways, Kennedy Hill typified her Kennedy generation, bearing a famous name, elite education and access to the storied compound on Cape Cod where her grandmother, Ethel Kennedy, still lives. But like so many of her cousins, she was little known to the wider public, a relatively anonymous young woman who had scarcely begun to choose her life’s path.

Kennedy family death, Saoirse Kennedy Hill death, John F Kennedy, Saoirse Kennedy drug overdose death This Aug. 27, 2009 file photo shows the main home in the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughter, Saoirse Kennedy Hill, has died at the age of 22. (AP)

Kennedy Hill’s grieving family posted pictures and tributes online after her death became public.

“Yesterday the world lost a light that enchanted everyone and everything around her,” Michaela Kennedy Cuomo, a granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy, wrote of her cousin on Instagram on Friday. “Let us honor her life by carrying forth her loving compassion, merriment and her passionate fight for women’s empowerment.”

An autopsy performed Friday showed no trauma beyond the lifesaving measures taken by emergency medical workers, and the cause and manner of her death will not be released before a toxicology report is completed, said Michael O’Keefe, the Cape and Islands district attorney. Police in Barnstable, Massachusetts, are investigating the death with state police detectives.

Like Kennedy Hill, many of the Kennedy grandchildren have kept low profiles as they attended prestigious colleges like Harvard, Wesleyan and Brown, and college preparatory schools like Deerfield Academy. But even as they kept their heads down, the political dynasty was never far away.

For example, when Kennedy Hill introduced Boston College’s local congressman to a group of students, he had a familiar name: Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts, her cousin.

Joseph Kennedy, a grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, won the seat in Congress in 2012 that Barney Frank had held since 1981. He took a well-worn path to elected office, attending Stanford, serving in the Peace Corps and graduating from Harvard Law School, then taking a job as a county prosecutor in eastern Massachusetts.

The Kennedy name was an inevitable element of his campaign, and his Republican opponent, Sean Bielat, suggested that Kennedy was trying to coast to Congress on his family.

“I’m extremely proud of my family’s service to the country,” Kennedy said in a 2012 interview. “It creates a curiosity about my candidacy. But then I’ve got to earn it.”

Other Kennedy grandchildren have not shied away from politics, including Jack Schlossberg, the 26-year-old son of Caroline Kennedy and Edwin Schlossberg, who bears a dark-haired resemblance to his late uncle, John F. Kennedy Jr. When he was 24, he interviewed President Barack Obama onstage at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, asking Obama about the most difficult decisions of his presidency and how young people could find political courage in their own lives.

In 2016, he wrote an essay for Politico about the legacy of his grandfather, the former president. “Today, my grandfather would be 98 years old,” he wrote. “He’d have no idea how to use a cellphone, and he’d be shocked by just how far the Republican Party has lost its way.”

Tatiana Schlossberg, Jack’s sister, worked briefly at The New York Times as an environmental reporter and will have a new book called “Inconspicuous Consumption” to be published this month.

Several of the Kennedy grandchildren have eschewed politics to pursue careers in film or theater. Bobby Kennedy III, the oldest son of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., recently wrote and directed a film about Hunter S. Thompson’s unsuccessful run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. Bobby Kennedy, who says on the film’s website that Thompson taught him to shoot a gun when he was 12, told The Denver Post in 2016 that he hoped the film would inspire young people to be engaged in politics.

“I just really want to motivate a bunch of young 20- and 30-year-olds to get back into politics right now,” he said.

Bobby’s younger sister, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, whose namesake great-aunt died in a plane crash in 1948, has had assorted television and stage roles. In 2014, when she made her professional theatrical debut in the title role of Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone,” she told The Associated Press that she did not see herself as going off in a radically different direction from the rest of her family.

“Everyone thinks it’s so crazy and I’m such a tangent from this tree, but I see it all kind of relating, personally,” she said. “I mean, if you break down what a lot of politics is you get stage presence, charisma and, more importantly, a search for truth and the desire to serve a common good, which I believe theater does.”

She also said she did not think her famous name would help her as an actress — “It’s all about the performance at the end of the day” — and expressed a yearning to forge her own success.

“Hopefully one day people will come see me for something that doesn’t have to do with my last name,” she said.

Among scores of grandchildren, some have occasionally made the tabloids.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. defended his son, Conor Kennedy, in 2016 after he was arrested for disorderly conduct after a fight outside a nightclub. The elder Kennedy said his son, who attended Harvard, had been protecting a friend who had been called a homophobic slur.

“Conor has always reacted against bullying,” Robert Kennedy Jr. told The Aspen Times when his son’s mug shot ran in the paper just after Christmas. “I’m happy he stood up for his friend.” The charges against him were dismissed after he pleaded guilty and stayed out of trouble for six months, the newspaper reported, noting that prosecutors were sure to say that they had not treated him differently than any other defendant.

In 2016, Harper’s Bazaar called Kyra Kennedy “the latest Kennedy making headlines” after she and her crew of young friends, named the “Snap Pack” for their frequent social media posts, were profiled in The New York Times.

Larry Tye, author of “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” attended the Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, with David Anthony Kennedy, who was Robert F. Kennedy’s fourth child and Kennedy Hill’s uncle. David Kennedy died at 28 of a drug overdose in a Palm Beach, Florida, hotel room, after years of struggling with drug and alcohol.

Tye said he was struck by the apparent parallels between the two deaths, which to him seemed to reflect the particular burdens and traumas associated with being a Kennedy.

“If there’s any legacy that would have absolutely crushed him,” he said of Bobby Kennedy, “it would be seeing this happen first to his son and now to his granddaughter.”

The burdens carried by the Kennedys were, first, he said, the lasting trauma of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations, which scarred their children deeply: David Kennedy was 12 and watching television alone in a Los Angeles hotel room when he saw his father murdered as he celebrated his victory in the California Democratic primary.

But in addition, Tye said, being a Kennedy meant living to a certain extent in the public eye, and the attention was often a double-edged sword. While many Americans admire the family, Tye said, others resent them as the embodiment of whatever they dislike about the Democratic Party or progressive politics.

Kennedy Hill was a communication major at Boston College, where she took a course in spring 2018 on social media and social justice. Her project for the semester was about the #MeToo movement, and she shared facts and analysis about the movement on Twitter.

“In classes she was often the first student to offer an opinion on readings that demanded clear critique about the challenges of contemporary society,” Marcus Breen, the professor who taught the class, said in an email.

Even before college, Kennedy Hill had been vocal about supporting survivors of sexual assault. She founded Deerfield Students Against Sexual Assault with several other friends in high school, according to the school newspaper. Kennedy Hill also served as vice president for the College Democrats.

Robert Dallek, the presidential historian, whose biography of John F. Kennedy is called “An Unfinished Life,” described the Kennedys as “America’s royal family” and said the tragedies that had befallen them were a part of their mystique and hold on the American imagination.

“It’s a case of triumph and tragedy, great success and terrible suffering, and in many ways it’s the American story,” he said.

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