In April 2020, the bodies of Maeve Kennedy McKean and her 8-year-old son, Gideon, were recovered from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The story made headlines not just because of the heart-breaking circumstances of a mother and son drowning, but also because of the family they belonged to. Maeve was granddaughter of Robert F Kennedy and the grandniece of John F Kennedy. Her death was just the latest addition to a long line of tragic deaths that her family has suffered, deaths which have led to the widespread sense that the family is cursed.
The Kennedys are America’s most fabled family, often referred to as the closest thing the United States has ever had to royalty. Boasting nearly a whole army of good looking and charismatic members, the family has thrown itself into the worlds of politics and celebrity and has scaled heights that would have been unimaginable for their forebears who emigrated from Ireland. Yet reaching those heights has come at a tremendous cost. The family has endured accidental deaths, assassinations and drug overdoses, all in the gaze of a fascinated global public. They are so public that many people over the last century have almost felt that they know them, yet there still remains a mystery to the family that seemed to have everything, including a cruel curse.
The Kennedys can trace their heritage back to Ireland, predominately Limerick and Wexford, and first arrived on American shores in the mid-19th century. Establishing a base in Boston, Massachusetts, each generation of the family improved their circumstances compared to the last, gradually making their way in a city where there was no shortage of racism and bigotry from the WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) population toward socially mobile Irish Catholics. On 6th September 1888, Joseph Patrick Kennedy was born in Boston. He would grow into the man who did more than anyone else to cultivate the family that is known today.
Ferociously ambitious, Joe Kennedy graduated from Harvard and overcame a significant amount of WASP prejudice to establish himself as President of a bank at the age of 25. In 1914, he married Rose Fitzgerald, a fellow Irish American whose father was mayor of Boston. They had nine children together: Joe Jr, John, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Robert, Jean, and Edward. The children were brought up in a loving but sometimes dysfunctional household – Joe was notorious for his extra-marital affairs – and were left in no doubt as to the importance of their education, with politics and current affairs being the only conversation permitted around the dinner table. The Kennedy clan as we know it was born.
The Kennedy family - Joe Sr, Rose, and their nine children - in the 1930s
Joe Kennedy amassed a fortune during the 1920s with astute dealings on wall street (it is also thought he was involved in the lucrative but illegal bootlegging trade during the prohibition on alcohol). By the 1930s, he turned his attention to politics and had dreams of becoming the first ever Catholic President, but was forced to abandon those dreams after his advocation of appeasing the Nazis during his time as Ambassador to Britain left him politically isolated. Instead, he turned his attention to getting his eldest son, Joe Jr, to the presidency.
The start of the Kennedy tragedies
Despite Joe Sr’s faltering political career, the Kennedys lived a charmed life. While the United States struggled during the depression in the 1930s, Joe’s wealth – he was a multi-millionaire in his 30's – shielded the clan from the hardship that their fellow Americans faced. By the dawn of the 1940s, three of the oldest Kennedy children had matured into fine adults: Joe Jr, the dashing and charismatic eldest son; John, the charming and mischievous second son; and Kathleen, the adventurous and funny second daughter known affectionately as ‘Kick.’ However, the daughter in between John and Kick, Rosemary, suffered from some slight mental deficiencies resulting from her traumatic birth. Though she looked like the other Kennedy children, with her bright eyes and toothy grin, Joe Sr and Rose had observed her struggling to keep pace with her siblings and knew she was different. In 1941, Joe decided to send his daughter for a controversial new medical procedure known as a lobotomy. Despite some examples of the procedure being successful, it was still highly risky and Joe was warned by friends not to go ahead with it. He persisted, by most accounts without his wife’s knowledge, but quickly came to regret it because Rosemary was left unable to speak or walk and was condemned to an obscure existence in care homes until her death in 2005. Years later, the Kennedy siblings came to terms with what had happened and tried to make some amends, with Eunice Kennedy founding the special Olympics in 1962 and John, Robert and Edward becoming advocates for disability care in their political careers.
Rosemary Kennedy (right), pictured here with her mother and sister Kathleen, was slower than her siblings
Joe Kennedy Jr was killed in action in August 1944
Within three years, another tragedy would shake the family. When the US joined the Second World War, Joe Jr enlisted in the American air force while John enlisted in the navy. John became a hero in 1943 after saving most of his crew when their small boat was sunk in the Pacific, and not to be outdone Joe Jr signed up for a near suicidal bombing mission in 1944. The eldest brother had flown more than enough missions in Europe to be allowed to go home, and Joe Sr had written to his son numerous times encouraging him not to push his luck and to take that offer. But a sense of duty and the fierce competition between the siblings kept Joe Jr at his station. On 12th August 1944, he took off from England in a plane laced with explosives and headed towards Germany. He never made it. His plane exploded over the English Channel, and his body was never recovered.
The family were heartbroken, with Joe Sr locking himself away for an extended period of time, and before the 1940s were out the family would be hit by yet more tragedy.
Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy was a free spirit and very close to her brothers Joe and John, but had enraged her mother when she married a Protestant British officer in 1944; Joe Jr was the only Kennedy to attend the wedding service. After her husband was killed by a sniper's bullet in the war, she stayed in Europe and began dating a married Frenchman, testing her mother's patience even further. The couple were killed in a plane crash in France on 13th May 1948 and Kathleen was buried in England, with Joe Sr the only family member in attendance at her funeral. In the space of seven years, the family who had everything had lost three children.
Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy worked for the Red Cross in London during the Second World War
With Joe Jr gone, Joe Sr centred the family’s political ambitions on John. Never as studious as his elder brother, John had hoped to become a journalist but upon his return from the war he submitted to his father’s wishes and ran a successful campaign to become a Congressman for Massachusetts. Close by his side was his younger brother Robert, known as ‘Bobby’. With his brother’s campaign over, Bobby focused on his own career and studied law while becoming acquainted with Ethel Skakel. The two were married in 1950, and would go on to have 11 children, but the union with a Kennedy seemed to bring tragedy on the Skakels – Ethel’s parents were killed in a plane crash in 1955.
John became a Senator for Massachusetts in 1952 and in 1960 launched an ambitious and ultimately successful campaign to become President. Taking office in 1961, he appointed Bobby as his Attorney General and in 1962 the youngest brother Edward, known as ‘Ted’ or ‘Teddy’, was elected to John’s former senate seat. By the start of 1963, the three surviving Kennedy brothers were some of the most powerful men in the country and Joe’s dream of securing a family dynasty was realised. Yet he could not enjoy any of it – he suffered a catastrophic stroke in 1961 leaving him, like his lobotomised daughter, unable to walk or talk. He would die in 1969, but not before yet more tragedy hit the family.
By 1962, John was President, Bobby was Attorney General and Ted was a Senator.
On Friday 22nd November 1963, President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, or ‘Jackie’, were in Texas trying to smooth relations with southern politicians who were angry with Kennedy for his support of civil rights. At 11:30 in the morning they landed in Dallas and were escorted through the city in an open top car, waving to the thousands of people who had lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the most glamorous couple in the world. At around 12:30, the convoy turned onto Dealey Plaza and three bullets were fired. One hit the road, the second hit Kennedy in the neck, and the third hit him in the head. He was rushed to hospital but nothing could be done to save him. The President was pronounced dead an hour after he had been shot, and within three days his alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had himself been killed. The killing of Oswald and alleged irregularities with the official version of what happened that day have spawned conspiracy theories that remain popular in the modern era.
Eight months later, on 19th June 1964, Ted Kennedy made his maiden speech on the floor of the senate in support of the Civil Rights Bill, which had been introduced by his slain brother and was about to finally pass into law. He then left Washington to head back up to Massachusetts for the state Democrat convention that night. Conditions were poor and his travelling party was warned not to attempt the flight, but attempt it they did and by the end of the night the pilot and an aide were dead, and Ted was barely clinging to life. Sustaining a fractured spine and a collapsed lung, among other injuries, in the crash, Ted was forced to spend months in the hospital recovering. A shaken Bobby remarked that it was lucky there were more Kennedy siblings than there was trouble, but it would not be long before he was proven awfully wrong.
In the spring of 1968 Bobby Kennedy, now a senator for New York, announced that he would run for the presidency. The previously hard-nosed Attorney General had been badly shaken by John’s death and developed a new sense of empathy and compassion that made him a hero of the American left-wing. Running as an unabashedly progressive candidate who championed racial justice, economic justice and an end to American involvement in the Vietnam war, he won the California primary on 4th June, making him the favourite to clinch the Democratic nomination for that November’s general election. After triumphantly addressing supporters in the early morning hours of 5th June, he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles and was shot in the head by a young Palestinian activist named Sirhan Sirhan. Rushed to a nearby hospital, hopes were briefly raised that Bobby could recover, but he passed away the following day. Of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s nine children, one was incapacitated and four were dead.
Bobby Kennedy’s funeral in June 1968 was an incredibly moving affair, with thousands of people from all backgrounds lining the railway to pay their respects as the funeral entourage moved from New York, where the service was held, to Bobby’s final resting place in Washington. Ted Kennedy delivered a poignant eulogy in which his voice was noticeably cracking, as if he were about to burst into tears at any minute. The youngest of the Kennedy children, he had now been propelled into the role of family patriarch at the age of 36, trying to keep the family name alive while also trying to provide a father figure for John and Bobby’s children as well as his own. Bobby Kennedy’s press aide, Frank Mankiewicz, remarked that he had never seen a man so emotionally wrecked as Ted was after Bobby’s death, and his desire to run away from his responsibility was to have fatal consequences – but not for him.
On 18th July 1969, Kennedy attended a party with old family friends, most of whom had worked on Bobby’s campaign the year before, on Chappaquiddick island just off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Late that night, Kennedy left the party with a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne but drove his car off a small bridge, sending it plunging into the water below. Kennedy managed to get out of the car, but his passenger did not.
It was not the accident itself so much as his actions afterward that would forever tarnish Kennedy’s reputation. Running back to the party, he told the other guests what had happened before swimming across the water and retiring to his hotel in Martha’s Vineyard. Only in the morning did he finally decide to report the incident. In a televised statement soon after, Ted swore that he had made every attempt to save Kopechne’s life and that his bizarre actions after the crash had been a lapse in judgement rather than anything more sinister.
The reaction was hostile, and any presidential ambitions Ted harboured were effectively ended. He did try for the presidency in 1980, but lost the Democrat primary to incumbent President Jimmy Carter, who in turn lost to Ronald Reagan that November. Kennedy did manage to hold on to his senate seat all the way until his death in 2009, developing a reputation as a voice for the poor and a champion of universal healthcare who largely resisted his party’s rightward swing from the 1980s onwards.
More Kennedy tragedies
The family would never again reach the heights they had in the 1960s, but their curse carried on remorselessly. In 1973, Bobby and Ethel’s eldest son Joe crashed a jeep and paralysed his brother David’s girlfriend. David also suffered bad injuries in the crash, and the morphine he was given during his recovery fuelled a drug habit that would cost him his life.
David was the child who was most troubled by his father’s violent death. On the day of the California primary in 1968 Bobby had saved him from a dangerous riptide in Malibu, and the then 12-year-old was the only one of his children who watched the victory speech on television that night followed quickly by the sounds of gunfire and reports of Bobby being shot. Deeply traumatised by the incident and heavily reliant on drugs after the jeep accident, he was found dead from an overdose in Palm Beach, Florida, on 25th April 1984.
Trouble again found the family in May 1991 when William Kennedy Smith, son of Jean Kennedy, was charged with rape. He was acquitted at trial.
The mid-1990s saw the deaths of two prominent Kennedy women, although not in as unnatural circumstances as other family members. Jackie Kennedy died from cancer in 1994, while Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the long-suffering wife of Joe who had endured the loss of four children and the disablement of a fifth, died at the age of 104 in 1995.
On New Year’s Eve 1997, Bobby and Ethel’s sixth child Michael crashed into a tree at a ski resort in Aspen, Colorado, dying instantly.
It seemed as if the curse would not strike John Kennedy’s two children, Caroline and John Jr. Caroline was a successful author and attorney, while John Jr – who had captured hearts worldwide with his salute at his father’s funeral, which happened to take place on his 3rd birthday – also became an attorney and founded a political magazine. JFK Jr had a troubled marriage with Carolyn Bessette, a marriage which was not helped by widespread tabloid interest in the love life of the handsome son of America’s most glamorous President, but as the new millennium approached it looked as if he was starting to put his trouble behind him and rumours abounded that he was about to embark on his own political career. On 16th July 1999, he piloted a private plane from New York to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, for the wedding of Rory Kennedy, Bobby and Ethel’s youngest child. The plane never reached its destination. Three days later it was found in the ocean, along with the bodies of John, Carolyn, and her sister Lauren.
JFK Jr with his wife, Carolyn Bessette. Both died in a plane crash in July 1999
On 12th September 2011, Ted Kennedy’s daughter Kara died aged 51 from a heart attack, and on 1st August 2019 Saoirse Kennedy Hill, Bobby and Ethel’s granddaughter, died from a drug overdose at the age of 22. Then, in April 2020, the tragedy that this article started with – the drowning of Maeve Kennedy McKean, and her young son.
In his eulogy for John F Kennedy Jr in 1999, Ted Kennedy remarked that the young man, like his father, ‘had every gift but length of years.’ This is an assessment that could be extended to the Kennedy family as a whole. Glamorous, powerful, and immensely wealthy, the Kennedy family has learnt the hard way that no earthly possessions can deny fate.
Kennedy Tragedies Timeline
November 1941 – Rosemary Kennedy, the third child of Joe and Rose Kennedy, is lobotomised at the age of 23. She lives the rest of her life in a care home, dying in 2005.
12th August 1944 – Joe Kennedy Jr, the eldest Kennedy child, is killed in action over the English Channel in WWII. He was 29.
13th May 1948 – Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy, the fourth Kennedy child, is killed in a plane crash in France aged 28.
22nd November 1963 – President John F Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas, aged 46.
6th June 1968 – Robert F Kennedy dies after being shot by an assassin in Los Angeles, California. He was 42.
18th July 1969 – A car driven by Edward Kennedy flies off a dike bridge, killing his 28-year-old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne.
25th April 1984 – David Kennedy, Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s fourth child, is found dead from a drug overdose. He was 28.
31st December 1997 – Michael Kennedy, Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s sixth child, dies in a skiing accident aged 39.
16th July 1999 – John F Kennedy Jr, son of President Kennedy, dies after crashing his plane off the coast of Massachusetts. He was 38.
12th September 2011 – Kara Kennedy, eldest child of Edward and Joan Kennedy, dies after a heart attack at the age of 51.
1st August 2019 – Saoirse Kennedy Hill, granddaughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, dies from a drug overdose. She was 22.
2nd April 2020 – Maeve Kennedy McKean, granddaughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, dies from drowning in Maryland, with her 8-year-old son Gideon. She was 40.
Image one - cnn.com
Image two - irishcentral.com
Image three - historyextra.com
Image four- pintrest.co.uk
Image five - newyorkpost.com
Image six - wikipedia.com
Image seven - latimes.com
Image eight - townandcountrymag.com