John F. Kennedy Jr., the dashing celebrity icon who represents the best-known link to his father's Camelot era, is missing at sea after apparently crashing his plane Friday night near Martha's Vineyard, another startling blow for the star-crossed family that has become America's version of political royalty.
Kennedy's wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, also were aboard the single-engine plane, and officials were not optimistic last night about finding survivors. U.S. Coast Guard officials confirmed that debris from the aircraft was recovered in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 yards off the Vineyard, along with a black suitcase that belonged to Lauren Bessette. The Coast Guard pulled in its helicopters at nightfall, but officials said a search-and-rescue effort was continuing.
"There is always hope," Coast Guard Lt. Gary Jones said yesterday. "But unfortunately, when you find certain pieces of evidence, you have to be prepared for anything."
Kennedy, a fairly inexperienced pilot, was flying a Piper Saratoga, a relatively complex plane that he bought in April. He took off without incident just after 8:30 p.m. from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., but Friday was a hazy night with poor visibility, so the crash is likely to reopen discussions about Kennedy family recklessness, just 17 months after John's cousin Michael died in a skiing accident in Aspen, Colo.
Kennedy, 38, an international sex symbol and marquee magazine editor who is the late president's only surviving son, was planning to drop off his sister-in-law on the Vineyard, then fly his wife to the family compound in Hyannis Port. There they planned to attend the wedding of his cousin Rory, the youngest of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's 11 children.
But the wedding has been postponed, now that tragedy has apparently struck the Kennedy family once again. Oddly enough, it was 30 years ago today that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, an island adjacent to the Vineyard, killing one of his campaign aides.
Yesterday, there was live coverage of the massive search-and-rescue operation on every television network, as Americans came together around the electronic hearth for another Kennedy-related national experience. At Hyannis Port, the Kennedy clan's historic gathering point in good times and bad, a friend said the family spent much of the day watching the same depressing footage, after a morning Mass that had been scheduled in honor of Rory's wedding was converted into a prayer vigil for the safety of the missing.
The friend said several of the Kennedys also found time to swim later in the day and to play with the children.
"You know, this family continues very strong," the friend said yesterday afternoon. "I admire their strength. I haven't seen a tear yet, and that's beautiful."
President Clinton spoke yesterday with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, John's sister, who was returning to the compound from a trip out west. He also called Sen. Kennedy, John's uncle, and spoke with Housing Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, who is married to John's cousin Kerry. "He wanted to let them know he was thinking about them, that we'll do everything we can, and that our prayers are with them," said Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart.
The Federal Aviation Administration cleared Kennedy for takeoff at 8:38 p.m. Friday, and his plane encountered no problems in northern New Jersey airspace. But official sources said it disappeared from radar at about 9:30 p.m., shortly before the family expected him to arrive on the Vineyard. Kennedy did not file a flight plan, but he was not required to do so.
Kyle Bailey, a pilot who flies a Cessna 172, may have been the last person to see Kennedy and his wife alive. He said Kennedy arrived at the airport at about 8 p.m. in a white Hyundai convertible, and his wife arrived a short time later by car service. Bailey said he had intended to fly to the Vineyard as well, but decided not to because of the weather.
"The weather was very marginal -- four to five miles visibility, extremely hazy," he said.
Kennedy was what aviators call a "low-time" pilot; he had his license, but he had only logged about 100 to 200 hours in the air. He had broken his ankle last month playing sports. And he was at the controls of a high-performance Piper Saratoga PA32 II HP after spending most of his two years of flying in a smaller Cessna 182.
Periodically, the New York tabloids have suggested that Bessette wanted Kennedy to stop flying, but in an interview last year with USA Today, he said the opposite was true.
"The only person I've been able to get to go up with me, who looks forward to it as much as I do, is my wife," Kennedy said. "Whenever we want to get away, we can just get in a plane and fly off."
Yesterday, a Kennedy family member reported the plane missing to the Coast Guard at about 2:15 a.m., officials said. After standard checks to see whether Kennedy had landed at another airport, the Air Force and the Coast Guard launched an intensive search at 7:30 a.m., fanning out 16 planes, four helicopters and several cutters along Kennedy's entire flight path.
Initially, there were reports that an underwater beacon was beeping off the coast of Long Island, and search teams began trying to sweep about 1,000 square miles of ocean. But the agencies focused their search to the north after a preliminary FAA analysis found that the plane disappeared from radar 17 miles southwest of the Vineyard. In the afternoon, debris from the plane -- including carpet, a headrest, a pedal cover, a wheel and a strut, and a bottle of prescription drugs bearing Carolyn Kennedy's name -- began to wash up near the town of Gay Head on the Vineyard, and the search focused on an area 10 to 15 miles south of the resort island.
From the sands of Philbin Beach on Gay Head, Boston lawyer Damon Seligson spotted a black canvas suitcase floating on the water. In a flap of the suitcase, he found a business card for Lauren Bessette, a vice president at a Manhattan investment firm who is 18 months older than her sister, Carolyn, and has a twin, Lisa Ann. Inside the bag, there were women's clothing and a hair dryer. Soon helicopters were hovering offshore, boats were searching the waters, and swimmers and sunbathers were told to get off the beach.
"I had a sinking feeling that this was something associated with this flight," Seligson said.
Yesterday, that feeling was shared around the nation, as the networks shifted to round-the-clock coverage.
Kennedy has spent the last four years running George magazine, a struggling glossy dedicated to the Kennedyesque topics of politics and celebrity, but his powerful cultural resonance stems from his family history and his chiseled movie-star looks. People magazine once dubbed him "The Sexiest Man Alive," and he was widely considered America's most eligible bachelor before his 1996 marriage to the willowy Carolyn Bessette, 33, a former publicist for fashion designer Calvin Klein.
But Americans have always been fascinated by the Kennedy clan, in part because of the uncanny way it has been stalked by tragedy. John's baby brother, Patrick, died in 1963 when he was just two days old. President Kennedy was assassinated three months later. His younger brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was killed while campaigning for the presidency in 1968. The next year brought Chappaquiddick, with the unseemly death of Mary Jo Kopechne.
The younger Kennedys have been haunted as well, including the 1984 death of David Kennedy from a drug overdose and Michael Kennedy's 1997 skiing accident.
Yesterday was supposed to be a joyous day for the Kennedys, especially for Rory, whose father was shot to death before she was born and who cradled her brother Michael in her arms while he was dying in Aspen. But near the white peaks of wedding tents that loomed over the lawn in Hyannis Port, satellite trucks and reporters from around the world were chronicling the next sad chapter of the Kennedy saga.
"There can't be that much bad luck in the world for one family. There just can't," said Michael Goldman, a longtime political consultant for Joseph Kennedy II. "It's unbelievable and horrible enough, but for this to happen before Rory's wedding, that's just surreal."
As the news spread yesterday, dozens of Camelot true believers flocked to Hyannis Port, offering sympathy to a regal family that has suffered so much, so publicly.
"I feel the need to be here, to watch, to see a part of history," said Francine Wiener, 51, whose eyes were rimmed with red. "It's the end. It's not the end I was hoping for."
John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. was born on Nov. 25, 1960, less than two months before his parents moved into the White House, and he has been a celebrity ever since. He was the first baby ever born to a president-elect, and he quickly became America's baby, the mischievous tyke crawling under his father's desk, a symbol of that Washington era of youth and exuberance known as Camelot. He took his first steps in public when he was a year old, and threw his first public tantrum in front of the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg when he was 2. ("They didn't give me my cookie!" he cried.) And when Camelot came to its abrupt end in Dallas, the famous photograph of little John-John saluting his father's casket became an indelible image of the nation's grief.
The rest of Kennedy's childhood was somewhat more private, but it could never be a normal childhood, not with that impossibly famous name, not with the Secret Service detail and the omnipresent paparazzi and the sporadic media uproars -- when his mother stunned the nation by marrying Aristotle Onassis, when he was mugged in Central Park, when he got some bad grades at the prestigious Phillips Academy boarding school in Andover, Mass. But while several of his cousins were getting into trouble, John remained scandal-free. He considered an acting career after graduating from Brown University, and appeared in an off-Broadway production called "Winners," but settled on law school at New York University.
As an adult, Kennedy has sometimes paid a price for his celebrity. The tabloids had a field day when he failed his bar exam twice, dubbing him the "Hunk Who Flunks." Gossip columnists reported on his real or alleged romantic ties to such starlets as Madonna, Sharon Stone and Darryl Hannah; the National Enquirer bought a videotape of him scuffling with Bessette in Central Park.
After spending four years as a prosecutor in Manhattan, he seemed unsure about his future in the early '90s but eventually decided he wanted to run a magazine. So he got Hachette Filipacchi Magazines to invest $20 million in a new glossy about politics and pop culture, a kind of cross between Rolling Stone and the New Republic. The debut edition of George broke a record for ad pages.
"I can't pretend that my last name didn't help sell this magazine," Kennedy said. "Or that it didn't help bring it to people's attention, or help bring it to advertisers' attention."
As editor-in-chief of George, Kennedy tried to establish himself as a serious journalist, interviewing political leaders and writing a monthly column. But he got the most attention for posing nude (though strategically shadowed) in the September 1997 issue, alongside his controversial column describing his cousins Joseph (who was embroiled in a nasty public battle with his ex-wife) and Michael (whose affair with a teenage babysitter had been exposed) as "poster boys for bad behavior."
ABOUT THE COVERAGE
Contributing to the coverage of the crash of a plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. were staff writers Lynne Duke and Liz Leyden in New York, Dale Russakoff in New Jersey, Paula Span in Hyannis Port, Mass., Sewell Chan, Lloyd Grove, Tomoko Hosaka, Tamara Jones, Phuong Ly, Richard Pearson, Roxanne Roberts and Alan Sipress in Washington; research editor Margot Williams; database editor Sarah Cohen; and staff researchers Alice Crites and Madonna Lebling.
CAPTION: John F. Kennedy Jr. kisses wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy at Vanity Fair's party at the Washington Hilton after the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner on May 1.
CAPTION: A Massachusetts state trooper recovers a piece of luggage believed to be from the Kennedy plane on a Martha's Vineyard beach yesterday.
CAPTION: President John F. Kennedy claps as Caroline and John Jr. dance around the Oval Office in this November 1962 file photo. The American public was enamored of the Kennedy children, who were often photographed playing in the White House during their father's administration.