Hundreds of Kennedys and close friends memorialized John F. Kennedy Jr. here today in an intimate, tearful but song-filled Mass as his uncle eulogized him as a man who "had every gift but length of years."
President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton were among the 315 invited guests who gathered at 11 a.m. in the shadowy sanctuary and red velvet pews of the 129-year-old Church of St. Thomas More on Manhattan's Upper East Side to mourn Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, 34, who died a week ago in a plane crash. The Kennedy family's surviving patriarch, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), delivered a moving eulogy.
"From the first day of his life, John seemed to belong not only to our family, but to the American family," Kennedy said, choking at times with emotion, of his 38-year-old nephew. "He had a legacy, and he learned to treasure it. He was part of a legend, and he learned to live with it."
Throngs of journalists staked out the area around the church, where streets were cordoned off to traffic. Pedestrian movement was locked down tightly by New York City police and U.S. Secret Service agents. Hundreds of onlookers, some of them moved to tears, gathered on the surrounding streets for several hours, their flowers of condolence wilting in the blazing heat.
In his eulogy, Kennedy -- the family patriarch since the assassinations of his brothers, President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 -- evoked both humor about times gone by and mournful regrets at a future that is no more.
"We thank the millions who have rained blossoms down on John's memory," Kennedy said, standing near an altar surrounded by white roses and lilies of the valley. "He and his bride have gone to be with his mother and father, where there will never be an end to love. He was lost on that troubled night, but we will always wake for him, so that his time, which was not doubled, but cut in half, will live forever in our memory and in our beguiled and broken hearts."
Quoting a bit of William Butler Yeats' "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory," he said, "We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years."
The last surviving member of President Kennedy's nuclear family, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, hugged her uncle affectionately after the eulogy. For her part, Schlossberg read from Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Ann Freeman, mother of the Bessette sisters, read from "Facts of Faith" by Henry Scott Holland. Hamilton South, a friend of the Bessette-Freeman family, also delivered brief remarks. A separate memorial will be held for the Bessette-Freeman family in Greenwich, Conn., their home town, tomorrow.
Today's service came a day after a smaller and perhaps more painful one. On Thursday, the ashes of the deceased were scattered at sea, according to Kennedy Jr.'s wishes, from a U.S. Navy destroyer. The USS Briscoe took 17 family members out near the same waters off Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where Kennedy's small plane smashed into the Atlantic Ocean in the black of a hazy July 16th night and sank to its sandy depths. An army of rescue and recovery personnel searched for their bodies for five days, before their grim discovery Wednesday of the bodies still strapped in their seats in a section of the twisted fuselage that had been shorn of wings before coming to rest upside down on the ocean floor.
Clinton, who in addition to his wife was accompanied by their daughter, Chelsea, did not speak at the memorial, but brought along three photo albums of Kennedy Jr.'s visits to the White House and presented them as gifts to the families.
"We were moved by the remembrances by Hamilton South and Senator Kennedy and grateful to have had the chance to be there," Clinton said in a statement from the White House.
Clinton arrived this morning with several Kennedys aboard Air Force One, including Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, wife of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Both women are daughters of Robert F. Kennedy and sisters of Rory Kennedy, whose wedding to Mark Bailey was to have been held last Saturday. John F. Kennedy Jr. was flying to join the family for the wedding at the Hyannis Port compound in Massachusetts when his plane went down. The wedding was postponed, and a week of mourning unfolded.
On Thursday, the Kennedy family had simple white memorial invitations delivered to the guests invited to today's event. Each guest, for security reasons, was required to present it at the door.
In a reflection of the broad range of interests and influences that populated Kennedy's life, invited guests ranged from John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist, to Jan Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, to Wyclef Jean, a vocalist with the Fugees hip-hop group, who performed as today's soloist the old reggae anthem, "Many Rivers to Cross." Maurice Tempelsman, the diamond magnate who was the long-time companion of Kennedy's mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, also attended, as did boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
Among other guests were Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), and former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), who has been teaching at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
The Mass was celebrated by the same Jesuit priest, the Rev. Charles J. O'Byrne, who married the young Kennedys three years ago in a private ceremony on Cumberland Island, Ga. On Thursday, he officiated at their burial at sea. The retired pastor of St. Thomas More, Monsignor George S. Bardes, who was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's pastor and gave her the last sacraments before her death in 1994, assisted O'Byrne today.
The service began with song. The O Freedom Gospel Choir sang "Our God and King" at the start, with other renditions during the 90-minute event, including an "Amazing Grace" that particularly moved the congregation, a guest said.
O'Byrne read from the biblical book of Ruth, as well as from Revelation, Luke and the 23rd Psalm, said Margaret Peet, the church secretary. She said the Kennedys likely had a hand in choosing the readings.
After the service ended at 12:30 p.m., congregants walked in a quiet procession two blocks up Madison Avenue to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, while immediate family was ferried in limousines. As she headed for the school she attended as a child, Schlossberg departed from her stoic, shielded demeanor of the last week and rolled down her window to wave at the crowds, where people waved and applauded in return.
Among those onlookers was 5-year-old Grace Simidian, who with her mother, Linda, waited with three small and, by now, wilted white daisies to lay near the church. Grace kissed each flower, one for each of the dead, and placed them in a nearby flower bed, parroting in a tiny voice the adult sentiments of her mother: "We're paying our respects to the lives we have lost."