News People The Kennedy grandchildren: Bearing the privilege and burden of a family name

The Kennedy grandchildren: Bearing the privilege and burden of a family name

Saoirse Kennedy Hill was found dead at age 22 at her family's Massachusetts compound on August 1. Photo: Twitter
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They inherited the names and nicknames of Kennedys before them: Rose, Joe, Teddy and Kick.

Some have felt the lure of politics and social activism, running for Congress or advocating for the environment, while others have gravitated to the stage or Hollywood.

A sprawling group with many in their 20s and 30s, the younger generation of Kennedys took a tragic turn in the national spotlight this week. One of its members, 22-year-old Saoirse Kennedy Hill, suffered an apparent drug overdose Thursday at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and died.

Kennedy Hill, a student at Boston College, was a granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy and the daughter of Courtney Kennedy Hill.

In some ways, Kennedy Hill typified her Kennedy generation, bearing a famous name, elite education and access to the storied compound on Cape Cod where her grandmother, Ethel Kennedy, still lives. But like so many of her cousins, she was little known to the wider public, a relatively anonymous young woman who had scarcely begun to choose her life’s path.

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Anyone who’s path crossed Saoirse’s would instantly feel her infectious charisma and fervor for finding joy in every moment. Her beauty, inside and out, lit up every room that she entered. No matter where you were, as long as you were with Saoirse you were going to have a joyful, hilarious adventure. Saoirse’s fun loving soul attracted everyone to get to know her, and immediately upon deeper conversation you would recognize that not only is Saoirse the cheerleader that the universe needs, but that she is deeply passionate, authentically caring, and intelligent and insightful beyond her, or anyone’s, years. Yesterday the world lost a light that enchanted everyone and everything around her. Let us honor her life by carrying forth her loving compassion, merriment and her passionate fight for women’s empowerment. The world will be a better place for as long as we can embody Saoirse’s soul. Her legacy lives on through love.

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Kennedy Hill’s grieving family posted pictures and tributes online after her death became public.

“Yesterday the world lost a light that enchanted everyone and everything around her,” Michaela Kennedy Cuomo, a granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy, wrote of her cousin on Instagram on Friday.

“Let us honour her life by carrying forth her loving compassion, merriment and her passionate fight for women’s empowerment.”

An autopsy performed Friday showed no trauma beyond the lifesaving measures taken by emergency medical workers, and the cause and manner of her death will not be released before a toxicology report is completed, said Michael O’Keefe, the Cape and Islands district attorney.

Police in Barnstable, Massachusetts, are investigating the death with state police detectives.

Ethel Kennedy, left, returns to the family compound after boating on Hyannis Harbor near the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, MA on August 2. Courtney Kennedy Hill is in the centre of the front seat. Photo: Getty

Like Kennedy Hill, many of the Kennedy grandchildren have kept low profiles as they attended prestigious colleges like Harvard, Wesleyan and Brown, and college preparatory schools like Deerfield Academy. But even as they kept their heads down, the political dynasty was never far away.

For example, when Kennedy Hill introduced Boston College’s local congressman to a group of students, he had a familiar name: Joseph P Kennedy III of Massachusetts, her cousin.

Joseph Kennedy, a grandson of Robert F Kennedy, won the seat in Congress in 2012 that Barney Frank had held since 1981. He took a well-worn path to elected office, attending Stanford, serving in the Peace Corps and graduating from Harvard Law School, then taking a job as a county prosecutor in eastern Massachusetts.

The Kennedy name was an inevitable element of his campaign, and his Republican opponent, Sean Bielat, suggested that Mr Kennedy was trying to coast to Congress on his family.

“I’m extremely proud of my family’s service to the country,” Mr Kennedy said in a 2012 interview. “It creates a curiosity about my candidacy. But then I’ve got to earn it.”

Other Kennedy grandchildren have not shied away from politics, including Jack Schlossberg, the 26-year-old son of Caroline Kennedy and Edwin Schlossberg, who bears a dark-haired resemblance to his late uncle, John F Kennedy Jr.

Several of the Kennedy grandchildren have eschewed politics to pursue careers in film or theatre. Bobby Kennedy III, the oldest son of Robert F Kennedy Jr, recently wrote and directed a film about Hunter S Thompson’s unsuccessful run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado.

Bobby’s younger sister, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, whose namesake great-aunt died in a plane crash in 1948, has had assorted television and stage roles. In 2014, when she made her professional theatrical debut in the title role of Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone,” she told The Associated Press that she did not see herself as going off in a radically different direction from the rest of her family.

She also said she did not think her famous name would help her as an actress – “It’s all about the performance at the end of the day” – and expressed a yearning to forge her own success.

“Hopefully one day people will come see me for something that doesn’t have to do with my last name,” she said.

Among scores of grandchildren, some have occasionally made the tabloids.

Conor Kennedy dated Taylor Swift during a summer romance in 2012. Photo: Twitter

Robert F Kennedy Jr defended his son, Conor Kennedy, in 2016 after he was arrested for disorderly conduct after a fight outside a nightclub. The elder Kennedy said his son, who attended Harvard, had been protecting a friend who had been called a homophobic slur.

“Conor has always reacted against bullying,” Robert Kennedy Jr. told The Aspen Times when his son’s mug shot ran in the paper just after Christmas.

In 2016, Harper’s Bazaar called Kyra Kennedy “the latest Kennedy making headlines” after she and her crew of young friends, named the “Snap Pack” for their frequent social media posts, were profiled in The New York Times.

Larry Tye, author of “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” attended the Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, with David Anthony Kennedy, who was Robert F Kennedy’s fourth child and Kennedy Hill’s uncle.

David Kennedy in 1984. Photo: Getty

David Kennedy died at 28 of a drug overdose in a Palm Beach, Florida, hotel room, after years of struggling with drug and alcohol.

The burdens carried by the Kennedys were, first, he said, the lasting trauma of John F Kennedy and Robert F Kennedy’s assassinations, which scarred their children deeply: David Kennedy was 12 and watching television alone in a Los Angeles hotel room when he saw his father murdered as he celebrated his victory in the California Democratic primary.

But in addition, Tye said, being a Kennedy meant living to a certain extent in the public eye, and the attention was often a double-edged sword.

While many Americans admire the family, Tye said, others resent them as the embodiment of whatever they dislike about the Democratic Party or progressive politics.

An American flag flew at half-mast outside the Kennedy compound on Saturday. Photo: Getty

Kennedy Hill was a communication major at Boston College, where she took a course in spring 2018 on social media and social justice. Her project for the semester was about the #MeToo movement, and she shared facts and analysis about the movement on Twitter.

“In classes she was often the first student to offer an opinion on readings that demanded clear critique about the challenges of contemporary society,” Marcus Breen, the professor who taught the class, said in an email.

In happier times, RFK grandchildren Saoirse Kennedy Hill, Mariah Kennedy Cuomo and Cara Kennedy Cuomo at the Speak Truth To Power Memorial Benefit Gala at Pier Sixty in 2006 in New York City. Photo: Getty

Even before college, Kennedy Hill had been vocal about supporting survivors of sexual assault. She founded Deerfield Students Against Sexual Assault with several other friends in high school, according to the school newspaper. Kennedy Hill also served as vice president for the College Democrats.

Robert Dallek, the presidential historian, whose biography of John F Kennedy is called “An Unfinished Life,” described the Kennedys as “America’s royal family” and said the tragedies that had befallen them were a part of their mystique and hold on the American imagination.

“It’s a case of triumph and tragedy, great success and terrible suffering, and in many ways it’s the American story,” he said.

-New York Times