The Kennedy Curse

Were the premature deaths, accidents, and tragedies caused by their patriarch's sins?

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Faith

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Colonel Pyncheon, a Puritan, covets a piece of land that a poor farmer owns. He has him hanged as a wizard so he can seize the old man’s property and build his seven-gabled mansion. At the gallows, Matthew Maule casts a generational curse that preys upon the Colonel and his progeny.

Many feel as if a curse stalks the Kennedy clan that caused over a half-century of premature deaths, accidents, and tragedies. The more salient of these are John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, followed by his brother Robert’s assassination in 1968, then by JFK’s only son’s death in a Piper plane crash in 1999.

I believe it all started in 1941 with Rosemary Kennedy, the second child of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. (JPK). She was mentally disabled at birth, and in her early twenties she struggled to read and write, had frequent seizures, violent outbursts, and mood swings. Her father was rapidly rising in the banking and political world, and worried that she would tarnish the Kennedy reputation. The stigma of her mental illness was a threat to the Kennedy image and JPK’s political ambitions. So he ordered a risky lobotomy, turning a smiling, beautiful 24-year-old into a mental 2-year-old.

That barbaric surgery would haunt the Kennedy clan. It would be another two decades before any of Rosemary’s eight siblings would learn the truth about their sister’s disappearance. In 1961, JPK was severely incapacitated by a stroke. His wife Rose then revealed their dear sister was in a Catholic facility for the mentally disabled, hidden away and cared for by nuns.

Did the secret surgery alone draw the wrath of God? Or was it JPK’s insatiable sexual appetite and infidelity to his devoted wife, or his cold, greedy, dishonest business dealings? He had a brilliant mind for finance and real estate deals, and he amassed a fortune (today worth $3.8 billion). Much of it was the result of shady insider trading and front-running “pump and dump” market manipulations. JPK was later appointed head of the new SEC, presumably because he knew all the dirty market secrets, mastered all the insider tricks, and knew where all the skeletons lay. His task was to restore damaged public confidence after the 1929 crash.

In 1933, JPK diversified his holdings with a Scottish whiskey distillery just before Prohibition ended, likely another insider trade from his political connections. By 1940, he had his eye on the Presidency, but was sorely disappointed. His anti-Semitism and pro-Hitler sentiments expressed while US Ambassador to the UK, rejecting Winston Churchill’s anti-appeasement-war mobilization policy, politically backfired and generated public mistrust.

Thereafter, he withdrew to become the back-room kingmaker for his sons, John, Robert, and Teddy. Using his wealth, JPK became a merger mogul in Hollywood circles, buying up studios and theatres. His adulterous affairs with movie stars influenced his sons to do the same. (His wife Rose, however, was a strict Catholic who insisted on keeping sacred her marriage vows.) JPK bowed to the proud vanities of Mammon.

Scripture has an appropriate verse for the so-called Kennedy Curse: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (Deut.5:9).

After researching JPK’s career, I was surprised by some eerie overlaps and similarities with my own family. The Kennedys lived on Meridian St, a few blocks away from my grandfather’s 3-story tenement on Decatur St., East Boston. But socially and financially, they were worlds apart. The Irish Kennedys owned barrooms and won state elections. Michael, my grandfather, was a poor farmer who immigrated from Italy in 1905. He made his own red wine in legal collaboration with friends during Prohibition. A family story has it that JPK asked to buy several kegs of wine. Though Grandpa was tempted, he refused, suspecting a scheme for bribing the Italian vote. Besides, it was illegal to traffic intoxicants, and Italian immigrants had to be careful.

Fortunately for me and my siblings, my grandfather was an honest and just man—a deeply religious soul. He suffered much to provide for his eleven children in those impoverished circumstances before and during the Great Depression, but refused to sell his wine. If not for Michael’s sterling character, the Kennedy Curse may have been visited upon us, too.

Besides that overlap, curious similarities between JPK and my father alarmed me. Both were born and raised Catholic in East Boston, both were eager to rub elbows with Boston’s elite Protestants, both married ladies named Rose, and both worked ten hour days at Bethlehem Steel in WWII. They later thrived at their business and banking enterprises.

They each had a mentally ill child that threatened their precious social image. JPK’s daughter and I were 23 years of age when deemed out of bounds and needing help. He had his daughter confined and lobotomized. After I had given away all my possessions to follow Christ, my father was distressed, worried, and angry. Severe conflict and division arose between us. He took me to a psychiatrist, but the doctor disappointed him. Soon after, without notice, I left Boston on a penniless pilgrimage in search of God. I can’t help but think how close my family had come to its own version of the Kennedy curse.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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