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  •   Rory: The Quiet Kennedy

    Rory Kennedy walks out of her mother Ethel Kennedy's house in Hyannisport, Massachusetts. (Reuters)
    By Jennifer Frey
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, July 21, 1999; Page C1

    Rory Kennedy had the dress, the flowers, the stylist coming to arrange her hair. She would have posed for wedding pictures, too, to mark a major milestone in a previously low-key Kennedy life. So unlike her cousin John F. Kennedy Jr., who once remarked that his family photo album also belonged to the world.

    When Rory Kennedy has drawn attention to herself, it has been for a cause. There was the time when, still a teenager, she was arrested here during a protest in front of the South African Embassy. When she was a sophomore at Brown University, she organized a rally in front of a Providence, R.I., supermarket, urging shoppers to boycott grapes in solidarity with migrant farm workers. She didn't seem to mind that she was identified as "the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy."

    More recently, Rory Kennedy's name has made the news mainly in reference to her work as a documentary filmmaker. Her subjects reveal her social conscience: Women jailed for using drugs while pregnant. Disabled mothers fighting to raise their children. Her newest subject is likely to be Hillary Rodham Clinton. Kennedy and her partner, Liz Garbus, have been discussing with Clinton's advisers a behind-the scenes film of the first lady's Senate campaign. "She came to us and it's looking very positive," said Marsha Berry, Clinton's spokeswoman. "Her honesty and her commitment--both those things really struck me as being outstanding."

    When it came to her wedding, though, Rory Kennedy did not want to make a public splash. She planned to hold it in the family compound at Hyannis Port, as had Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. The date was set for July 17, 1999; 275 guests were invited. The wedding party numbered 30. The plans, nine months in the making, were kept quiet, private.

    Instead of a wedding photo, though, Kennedy has been left with this snapshot of July 17: She is on the beach with her fiance, Mark Bailey, walking along the beach outside the Kennedy compound. Bailey's right arm is wrapped around her shoulders, her left hand clutching his fingers to her chest. They are wearing shorts; she is wearing sunglasses. The picture was taken by a photographer for the Boston Globe and ran in newspapers around the world.

    John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, were on their way to Hyannis Port--with a stop in Martha's Vineyard to drop off Lauren Bessette, Carolyn's sister--when their plane went down off the Vineyard, presumably killing all three.

    In the aftermath of the tragedy, Rory Kennedy's friends have, by one's description, "built a wall of silence" around her, refusing to discuss her or her now indefinitely postponed wedding. Callers to her New York film company, Moxie Firecracker, are informed that employees there--many of them Rory Kennedy's friends--have chosen not to comment as well.

    "Look," one friend said, "she's a very private person and I just don't feel right talking about any of it. It's so sad."

    At 30, she has already lived through more calamities than most people do in a lifetime. Rory Elizabeth Kennedy, her parents' 11th child, was born six months after her father, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated in June 1968. Ethel Kennedy, looking to protect her daughter, assigned her son Michael, 11 years older than Rory, to watch out for her. Instead, Rory was the one watching over Michael--pounding his chest, cradling his head, comforting his children--when her brother died in a freak skiing accident in Aspen, Colo., in 1997. It was the second time she had lost a brother; David Kennedy died of a drug overdose in 1984.

    The stories from that afternoon in Aspen tell a lot about Rory Kennedy, a woman who has been relatively unknown, despite growing up a Kennedy on the grounds of the family's fabled McLean estate, Hickory Hill. She may be the baby of the family, but she seems to have a strength about her.

    On that afternoon, after Michael collapsed, after hitting a tree, it was Rory who knelt by her brother, gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She pleaded with him. "Michael, now is the time to fight," she said. "Don't leave us." His blood stained her mouth.

    Once the paramedics came, she turned her attention to her nieces and nephews. They talked. They prayed. There was nothing else they could do.

    On Saturday afternoon, the Kennedy family again gathered to pray, this time under the tent that had been erected for Rory Kennedy's wedding party. Rory once told the New York Times that she did not attend Mass, but did do yoga and meditate. She was a free spirit and, at heart, an activist deeply committed to her causes.

    After graduating from Madeira, a private school for girls in McLean, she went on to major in women's studies at Brown. Her first film, "Women of Substance," won awards. She made another film with fellow Brown alumna Vanessa Vadim--daughter of Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim--that promoted needle exchange programs.

    Like her cousin John F. Kennedy Jr., who created the magazine George, Rory Kennedy is fascinated by the media, according to a person who knows her but did not want to be named. But she is not interested in the media as a tool to promote celebrity, either hers or anyone else's. After her father died, a scholarship fund for journalists was established in his name, and dedicated to Rory. Every year she helped her mother, Ethel, award the scholarships to international, domestic and college journalists who had used their craft to expose injustice or to further public causes. All those ceremonies left an impression. She decided she wanted to do the same.

    "I am now using media as a tool to bring attention to marginalized people," Rory Kennedy once told her college newspaper.

    Her fiance shares her passion. She collaborated with Bailey on her most recent film, "American Hollow," which was inspired in part by what she had learned about her father's tour of Appalachia. The film, which debuted this year at the Sundance Film Festival and has received strong reviews, documents a year in the life of the Bowling family, whose matriarch is 69-year-old Iree Bowling. When Kennedy and Bowling first met, it was under a clothesline. Kennedy started taking the clothes down, helping to fold them. Shortly after, the Bowlings gave her permission to document the most intimate details of their lives, according to stories published earlier this year.

    Bailey, who has been a writer and editor on several projects, served as the story editor on the film. The two met four years ago. Their romance was quiet. They announced their engagement nine months ago, and started planning the wedding. A week before the date, Rory Kennedy issued a simple release through her brother Joseph's public-service company, Citizens Energy Corp. It said that both the bride and groom were 30 years old. That she grew up in McLean, and that he grew up in Summit, N.J.

    The release did not include the location of the ceremony. On this day, of all days, Rory Kennedy wanted to celebrate privately with her family. But even on this day, of all days, that was not to be.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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