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  • Caroline's Life on Camelot's Quiet Side

    Caroline Kennedy, AP
    John F Kennedy Jr. and his sister, Caroline Kennedy, pose for photographers at the Minskoff Theatre in New York in 1998. (AP)
    By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, July 19, 1999; Page C1

    John F. Kennedy's daughter never sought the spotlight. But tragedy keeps dragging her there. Every time death claims a member of her famous American family, she is photographed in mourning, mentioned in news stories, commented on by commentators but usually just in passing.

    She lost her father to sniper fire before she was 6, her mother to cancer three decades later. And now her brother may have been killed in a plane crash. If that turns out to be true, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg will be all alone, the last member of the 35th president's immediate family, the burden of custodianship all hers. Meaning custodianship of the JFK legacy.

    No one ever brags about being alone. Tragic solitude can be crushing. The Kennedys' first child, a daughter, was stillborn 15 months before Caroline was born. What if she had lived? Caroline's little brother Patrick, born premature, died when she was 5, three months before their father was assassinated. What would he have become if he had lived?

    Families everywhere know what it feels like to lose parents and siblings, to have death chip away chunks of your soul until what's left seems hardly worth having. But few know the experience of public families. And while Caroline knows the experience, she has never enjoyed being a public person. While other family members gathered at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, where hordes of TV crews have camped for their stand-ups, Caroline reportedly was staying at a family property in Long Island.

    She has tried to steer clear of that political dynasty stuff, carving out as best one can something that passes for normal life. She and her brother were always close. They would sometimes talk about their desire to find fulfillment amid the microscopic scrutiny that's a hand-me-down from Camelot. But only Caroline has been able to succeed, to answer her own phone and drop off her children at New York schools and generally carry on without being mobbed, which was not her brother's fate.

    His fate was to be dubbed "The Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine, to be stalked by the paparazzi, to launch a glitzy political magazine, in essence to always attract the most attention, even when they were kids, dating back to that memorable footage they keep showing on TV of him saluting his father's casket. Caroline romped in the White House, too, rode a pony on the grounds, but it is John-John's romps everyone talks about. American princes get talked about endlessly, even if they'd rather be left alone to toss Frisbees in the park. Caroline, on the other hand, is not an American princess in that Lady Di way.

    Just five years ago, at the invitation of the Clintons, she made her first appearance at a Kennedy Center Honors gala. At a White House reception beforehand, many of Washington's elite didn't seem to even recognize her. She is not a political creature, though she has been willing to lend her name to causes she believes in like the unsuccessful effort to defeat an anti-affirmative action initiative in Washington state last year.

    She is more her mother's daughter, it seems, minus the worldly adoration. Like the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Caroline has gravitated toward high culture rather than politics. She onced worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She turned down an offer to be chairwoman of the 1992 Democratic National Convention. And how many people ever do that? After her mother died in 1994, she assumed her role as honorary chairwoman of the American Ballet Theater.

    Her husband, who is 13 years her senior, is Edwin Schlossberg, designer of museum interiors and theme park exhibits. He, too, is a private man. For a while, even after marrying into the famous family in 1986, he gave no interviews at all. He was described in House and Garden in 1988 as "elusive." Private and elusive, however, do not mean opposed to a good time. The couple joined Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson in celebrating President Clinton's 51st birthday at a Martha's Vineyard clambake. They even hosted the Clintons themselves for dinner on the Vineyard. And after John Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette were married, guess who threw a glamorous, star-studded, Park Avenue party for the newlyweds?

    Given the social role she has played as a Kennedy, the functions she gets invited to, the dinners she is asked to chair, it is interesting how seriously she has pursued the right of privacy.

    An attorney who graduated from the Columbia University School of Law, she has co-written two books on the subject with her friend and law school mate Ellen Alderman. The first was titled "In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action." The second, "The Right to Privacy," focused on the legal definition of privacy, exploring such practices as strip searches, release of medical data and employer snooping on workers' phone conversations.

    Caroline was willing to discuss the issues raised in her books with reporters, but not her personal issues with privacy. What did she think of her mother's relationship with Aristotle Onassis? The drugs and scandals of Kennedy clan members? Questions like that are not her kind of questions.

    If Caroline, now 41, is to be the guardian of the JFK name, she has already demonstrated she is up to the task. She spent several difficult months in the public eye trying to settle her mother's $200 million estate. And last year, she and her brother went public in an auction dispute and let the world know they did not appreciate the fact that Evelyn Lincoln, President Kennedy's secretary, had taken for herself "intensely personal" pieces of memorabilia that belonged to their father.

    "It is now clear that Mrs. Lincoln took advantage of her position as our father's secretary," wrote the Kennedy children, who added that the items "now belong to our family, to history and to the American people."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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