Tuesday, January 26, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: The Kennedys Of Massachusetts – And Beyond

"When the bus or the plane rolled or flew through the night, they sang songs of their own composition about Mr Nixon and the Republicans in chorus."

--Theodore H. White, in The Making of the President, 1960

Any discussion of celebrity catastrophe invariably leads to the Kennedy family.  The first family of Massachusetts politics is large, its members are physically-active and often risk-seeking, and the family seems to encounter more than its share of tragedy. Indeed, an entire cottage industry exists that surrounds the study of the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families and the alleged “Kennedy Curse.”  Rather than feed the myth of curse, we choose to accept a more plausible explanation that is consistent with our general thesis about celebrity air tragedy – (1) that in a large group, the probability of multiple bad things happening is greater; (2) the media pays more attention to tragedies of high-profile people; and (3) active, risk-seeking people are more likely to have accidents. The Kennedy family meets these conditions, so it is not surprising that four fatal air crashes involve members of the Kennedy family. 

            The first and most notable tragedy is the August 12 1944 death of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., eldest son of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and his wife Rose Fitzgerald.  In a clan of charismatic siblings, Joe was the leader.  He had been groomed for greatness by his parents, the eldest offspring of a family formed from the union of two great Boston Irish political families from the marriage of Joe Sr. (son of Massachusetts legislator P. J. Kennedy) to Rose (daughter of Boston mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald).   Joe was born in 1925, attended the Choate School and then Harvard, graduating in 1938.  After a year at the London School of Economics and two years at Harvard Law, Kennedy joined the Navy after America’s entry into World War II. Kennedy trained to fly the naval variant of the Liberator, the PBY4-1, on anti-submarine duty over the North Atlantic. While based in England, he and his sister Kathleen (“Kick”) fell into a circle of dashing, expatriate Americans who ran in a tight social circle with notable English gentry, and which only further added to the luster of his reputation and the growth of his confidence. 

            Soon after D-Day, in July 1944, Lt. (j.g.)  Kennedy volunteered to train for a special mission to disable the third-generation German “vengeance weapon,” the V-3 “London Gun.”  The plan developed for the destruction of the superweapon called for the pilot and copilot of a specially-equipped Liberator loaded with about 20 tonnes of Torpex (a very powerful explosive)  would ferry the plane onto a course to collide with the weapon.  When this manned, flying bomb was on target, the flight crew would bail out, and the plane would then continue by radio control, operated by an accompanying fighter aircraft.  En route to the V-3 facility near Mimoyecques, France, the aircraft craft exploded near Blytheburgh, England, killing both Joe and his copilot, Lt. Willford Willey.  Kennedy’s name appears on the role of the missing at Cambridge -- his remains were never recovered.

The tragedy seemed to fall especially hard on his sister, Kathleen, who was a member of his social set before and during the war. These ties, which defined Kathleen and propelled her to celebrity in prewar London, would embark her on her own road to tragedy.  The Kennedys were a significant presence in the prewar London social scene.  Ambassador Kennedy, the first Irishman to serve as US ambassador to the Court of Saint James, had brought his large and charming family in tow.  None had been more charming than Kathleen, who had been named London’s “most exciting debutante” of 1938.  Kick had become enamored of London, and had returned to England in 1943 to help coordinate Red Cross activities for servicemen.  Falling in love with William Cavendish, a dashing young British officer and heir to the seat of the Duke of Devonshire, Kick had married in May 1944.  She was widowed that September when a sniper felled her husband in France. 

            Kathleen remained in England after the war, and fell into an affair with another member of the British nobility, Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, Earl of Fitzwilliam.  They planned to wed after his divorce, and on May 13 1948, they traveled via airplane to gain the blessing for their marriage from Ambassador Kennedy, who was vacationing on the Riviera.  Poor weather set in, and the pilot initially refused to take off. Persuaded to fly, the pilot took off and the young, beautiful party set off across France. The deHavilland Dove 1 they were aboard crashed into Mount Coron, France, killing all ten passengers and flight crew aboard.   

            The airplane crash that commanded the greatest attention from the tabloid set was the July 16, 1999 crash of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s Piper Saratoga II in the ocean off of Martha’s Vineyard.  Kennedy (at the controls) and his wife Carolyn Bessette and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette were traveling from the Essex County (New Jersey) airport to a wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy.  John and Carolyn were to drop off her Lauren at Martha’s Vineyard, where the family kept a home.  Flying under hazy conditions near evening twilight, Kennedy lost reference to the ground, lost control of the aircraft and crashed into the Atlantic southwest of Martha’s Vineyard.  President Bill Clinton dispatched US Navy warships to assist in the search for Kennedy. 

The accident is a classic example of the sort of accident that claims celebrity lives when the celebrity is at the controls.  JFK, Jr was qualified to fly the Piper Saratoga, which is a single-engine six-seater costing a half-million dollars, it is a popular plane for fair skies’ flyers.  However, JFK’s qualification was a “fair skies” qualification – Kennedy was only visual flying rules (VFR) qualified on the Piper Saratoga.  He did not have the more rigorous instrument flying rules (IFR) qualification.  Other pilots flying from Essex County had canceled flights to Martha’s Vinyard due to the prevailing weather conditions, and the accident report officially credited “pilot error” as the cause of the crash.  A wrongful death suit against the Kennedy estate by the Bessette family was subsequently settled out of court.

One Kennedy enjoys some dubious luck when it comes to plane mishaps.  Senator Edward M. Kennedy was twice involved in aircraft mishaps.  On June 19 1964, while campaigning for reelection to a full term in the US Senate, the plane that the young incumbent and three other passengers were flying in crashed in heavy fog near Springfield, Massachusetts.  Kennedy was in a tight reelection fight, and was accompanied on the campaign trip by his legislative aide Edward Moss, Democratic Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, and Bayh’s wife Marvella.  Pilot Edwin Zimney and Moss were killed in the crash and Kennedy suffered a severe back injury and also a punctured lung.  Senator Bayh pulled Kennedy from the wreckage and likely saved his life in the process.  Senator Kennedy was confined to the hospital for three weeks and spent much of the campaign recuperating.  Kennedy’s slow recovery from back injury is sometimes credited as contributing to a subsequent dependency on alcohol and pain killers.

            Over forty years later, Kennedy would have better fortune. On May 13, 2006, while returning from delivering a commencement address at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts, the senator’s Cessna Citation 550 was struck by lightning.  The craft was diverted from its planned heading to Cape Cod, and instead landed at New Haven, Connecticut, without further incident. 

Although not a Kennedy, Alexander Onassis, the son of Ari Onassis and stepson of Jackie Kennedy, died in a January 22 1973 plane crash at the Athens airport.  This crash has been the subject of a fair share of conspiracy theories, in part because of the Kennedy tie. On September 23, 1966, George Skakel, brother of Ethel Skakel Kennedy (Bobby Kennedy’s wife) and therefore also not a Kennedy, died along with four others in the crash of a Cessna 185E, near Grangeville, Idaho.