In the Rainbow Room's candlelit softness, 64 stories above muggy, misty Manhattan, Bobby Kennedy Jr. speaks with emotion. The Robert F. Kennedy Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament, he tells the 400 invited guests, is a microcosm of the things his father believed in: competition and fun, yet support through its charity for the poor, for the underprivileged, for blacks and Chicanos, for the things "closest to my father's heart."
The next morning at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the tournament also seems a microcosm of the other parts of the Kennedy mystigue; pageantry, privilege and the glow of stardom.
Assembled for the Rainbow Room dinner on Friday and the day-long tournament on Saturday, are show business stars: Chevy Chase, Merv Griffin, Phil Donahue, Phyllis George Brown, Alan King, Marlo Thomas and Margaux Hemingway; sports world Duminanes Julis Erving, Bruce Jenner, Rafer Johnson and Pete Rozell; media stars Art Buchwald and Roger Mudd; and political stars, both present and eclipsed: Joseph Califano, Andy Young and William Webster. While they have come to the tournament for the fun of it and to aid a good cause, they also see in it an opportunity for free publicity. Nikons and minicams, their owners enticed by the prospect of maybe two dozen Kennedys in one spot for sic hours, whir and click all day. For the lesser stars, the chances of being recorded on celluloid with a Kennedy are excellent.
"Oh, I don't believe it," cries a woman in a voice that borders on shriek. "I don't know how to use a camera. Get in front of him, and take a picture, quick."
The star of all stars, the familiar presidential noncandidate, the senator from Massachusetts has just arrived at the tennis center. Looking beet red, slightly overweight and generally unpolitical in tennis whites that expose a lot of gray chest hair, he immediately attracts frenzied crowds. The inner circle is composed of aides and security guards in dark suits; the outer circle is a crush of fans who shove programs, pads, even napkins into his hands to sign. Beyond them are the voracious media people who know that any Kennedy, but especially Ted, is terrific copy.
"The photographers are amazing," says Tom Southwick, Kennedy's press secretary. And is the Democratic senator going to announce for the presidency? "Yeah, in about 10 minutes," says Southwick, who appears as sick of the question as his boss is.
Kennedy is whacking the ball opposite columnist Art Buchwald in this preliminary morning match and his wife, Joan, who lives in Boston, has come to watch. She wears mirror sunglasses and shoos away some reporters. "Could we have some privacy?" she asks testily.
Singer Andy Williams is also on the sidelines, providing one-liners about the Kennedy-Buchwald competition. "You've got to side with a Kennedy, or you don't come back next year," he advises.
Outside the fence are more Kennedy fans, most of them young, attractive and well-dressed women. Like the other 10,000 spectators, they have paid between $10 and $125 to watch the celebrities, who are paired with tennis pros, play in a day-long round-robin elimination. The proceeds go to several youth and minority organizations, and the contestants -- aside from being famous -- must know how to handle a racquet.
Vicky Vosylius, a senior from Edison High School in Edison, N.J., has come to see one particular celebrity contestant, and she's a little annoyed with the Kennedy fans who are preventing her from moving to the next court, where Parker Stevenson, the teen-age heartthrob of the "Hardy Boys" television series, is playing. "I don't care about Ted Kennedy," she says. "he's over the hill. Too old."
After Kennedy, the next biggest star is Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, who isn't at the tournament at all, but 300 miles away in Washington. That doesn't matter, because allegations that he snorted cocaine while at Studio 54 last year have hit the morning papers and this is hot stuff, particularly to stars who frequent the New York disco.
Chevy Chase uses the allegation as fodder for a joke saying that it was really Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League, who was at Studio 54 that evening. "Vernon was passing it all around," says Chase. The response from Jordan, also playing in the tournament: "Hey, I do my snorting at home."
When someone asks facetiously whether Ham Jordan is playing in the tournament, actress Margaux Hemingway responds brightly. "You mean Ham 'Coke' Jordan?"
FBI director William Webster deals with the issue unsmiling. "We're not singling anybody out," he says. "All we're doing is conducting an inquiry at the request of the attorney general."
Some of the celebrities are actually former celebrities. These include former Health, Education and Welfare secretary Joseph Califano, who says he owes his status to the fact that he was "the first person fired in the Carter Cabinet," and Andrew Young, the U.N. ambassador, who says he feels good that he has helped to postpone the Security Council vote on PLO self-determination. "It was a good day," he says of his address at the Security Council on Friday. "It happened very easily, very naturally. Everything just fell into place."
Both Young and Califano are in good spirits, and manage to win a game against Merv Griffin and Williams in the "Pol Biz vs. Show Biz" event. "That's the only thing they've won all month," quips Buchwald. Earlier, Califano had his day with Buchwald: "Buchwald is so bad," Califano said, "That they have to bring somebody else from Washington who can do more than just lob the ball."
Other popular celebrities are Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, who walk hand in hand from court to court. Thomas says she isn't good enough to play in the tournament, and keeps an eye on Donahue, who is. Donahue is popular among the women, and signs autograph after autograph.
"Love your show," says one fan. "I make my beds by you," says another.
Security at the tournament is tight, and access to the stars limited; and where you can go is determined by your badge color.
A white badge with blue lettering is the best; this means you are a tennis player or a star and so are allowed to go anywhere. A blue badge with white lettering means you are a high-class VIP, allowed in the box seats and in the private "RFK Club" with its buffet luncheon and disco music. And orange means you are a lower-class VIP, allowed in the RFK Club, but not the box seats. Green on white is for working staff, yellow is for hostesses allowed on the side courts, and white on green is for volunteers allowed on the peripheries. For the fans, the people who paid up to $125 to see the stars, there are no badges, only tickets that allow them access to their seats and little else besides snack bars that charge $2.25 for knockwurst.
But that doesn't bother the Shore family from Fairlawn, N.J. "Most of all," says Michelle Shore, 17, "I love, love to see all these cute guys." Her mother, Florence, thinks Ted Kennedy is wonderful ("I think he lost a lot of weight compared to last year") and marvels at how much better the parking facilities are this time. "That really is important you know," she says.
American Film Institute Director George Stevens, on the other hand, thinks the National Tennis Center is a little "public." This is the first year in its eight-year history that the tournament has left the ivy graciousness of Forest Hills for the concrete of the 1-year-old tennis center near Flushing. "It just lacks some charm," says ABC News president Roone Arledge. "I like Forest Hills better. It has more character, more history, more tradition. It's not as antiseptic as this."
Oh, and the tennis, Bandleader Peter Duchin and pro Tom Leonard defeated Andy Williams and Kevin Curren to win the tournament, which was estimated to net about $500,000 for charity. "Ive never been so happy to win anything in my life." Duchin said and immediately sprinted from the court to catch a plane for a band engagement that night in Mobile, Ala.
"I think it's very nice of them to come at all," said Bobby Kennedy, Jr. when questioned about the publicity benefits for the stars. "I think it's an honor that people think that much of my father or my family."