The Kennedy Legacy

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It’s not easy being a child of Camelot. To have your every move grist for publicity. Harder yet, to be bequeathed a legacy of great expectations

David Kennedy

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Remembering David Kennedy: “I’m Pretty Much of a Regular Guy”


This article was written on 27th August 1982, by Bob Silva from the Sacramento Bee.

David Kennedy is talking about his dad. His voice is soft, tentative, distant, a muffled plea clambering for a foothold from the bottom of an emotional pit. Words tumble out of his mouth like loose stones.

Even now, 14 years after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, David is clearly uneasy on the subject of his father. And perhaps it’s understandable. In one of life’s more heartless ironies, the day Robert Kennedy’s life was lost, David’s was saved. 

Swimming in the surf at Malibu that June 4 morning, David, then 12, was caught in a severe undertow. Only the prompt efforts of his father saved him from drowning. That night, sitting alone in a darkened Los Angeles hotel room, David silently watched his father’s death take place on TV like some all-too-real, late-night horror show. 

When asked today to discuss his dad, David falters. He seemingly finds it difficult to get the memory clear in his head. To express it just right. So he relies on notes.

Hunched over the kitchen table in his small, one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento, Kennedy grips a crumpled sheet of binder paper where he’s scrawled some thoughts and ideas. It’s a prepared text of sorts. 
In response to questions (“What do you miss most about your father?” or “How would RFK assess the state of the country today?”), young Kennedy, his head lowered, his hands trembling noticeably, skims the page before him and attempts, haltingly, to reply.

“…No one characteristic…his presence…Outraged and angry by the lack of opportunity…as he said once in South Africa, ‘Every man can make a difference.’ He was compassionate, a man with a lot of feelings…I was just watching TV. I really didn’t know what was going on – or what to do. My brothers and sisters were asleep…” 


Fatefully, after struggling over a few more phrases, David Kennedy stirs in his seat, rears up with a futile look in his face, and declares, “I don’t know how to describe what I was thinking.” And with more urgency, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this!”

The subject shifts. Another tack is taken. Kennedy is again importuned to open up, to reveal details about himself, his father, his famous family. He resists. He’s gently pressed. And then not so gently. He reluctantly complies, and his gaze returns to the page. His eyes scan both sides, as he searches for answers. 

In a moment of candor, his vulnerability palpable, Kennedy speaks about himself, his problems of the past, his hopes for the future, and hints at the pressure. Left unsaid, but explicit still, is his vital need to be understood. Then his unmistakable Kennedy face, with its sturdy jaw, gentle mouth, sunny splash of freckles, and soft blue eyes that often dance circles to circumvent contact, pulls back and turns sour.
“I don’t want to sound like an ass,” he pleads. “I don’t want to embarrass my family any more.”

It’s not easy being a child of Camelot. To have your every move (wrong ones especially) grist for publicity. Harder yet, to be bequeathed a legacy of great expectations. 

Some of the Kennedy kids handled it well – like Joe and Bobby jr, who climbed mountains, rafted exotic rivers, had their pictures taken with friendly natives, wrote books, went to law school, wore striped ties, managed political campaigns, married society debs, and started their own Kennedy clans. They conformed, if not contributed, to the family mystique.

Not David, however, Robert and Ethel’s fourth child and third son. He was different. He shied away from the spotlight, and when it occasionally caught him in its glare, he was like the proverbial deer frozen in the roadway. 

Published photographs of him as a young boy – especially those taken on the anniversary of his father’s death, when the Kennedy kids were dutifully marched out to pray at Arlington National Cemetery – suggest facets of his emerging personality.

Often found hanging in back or on the edge of the photograph, David, unlike his well pressed siblings and cousins, is typically disheveled – his hair tousled, his tie askew, and his attention plainly focused elsewhere. His whole bearing seems to evince discomfort. And what the photos implied, subsequent news stories confirmed. David was a Kennedy apart. 


The press reports were rarely favorable. At first, there were episodes involving speeding in a car, driving without a license, running a stop sign, and charges of reckless driving. Kid’s stuff.

Not that David was the only Kennedy ever to err. In 1970, Robert Kennedy jr., 16, was arrested for possession of marijuana, in a much ballyhooed case, and put on 13 months probation. In 1973, older brother Joseph, 21, was charged with negligent driving, resulting from a jeep spill, that left a female passenger paralyzed from the waist down. 

But David Kennedy’s minor scrapes with the law paled against later rumors of chronic drug abuse – a serious situation which culminated in a bizarre incident in a grubby Harlem hotel lobby in New York City.

On September 5, 1979, Kennedy 24, reported he was lured into the Shelton Plaza hotel in Harlem, beaten and robbed of $30. He explained that he was just driving through the area, when two pedestrians beckoned him to pull over for help. 

In succeeding stories, New York police offered a different account, saying that Kennedy – a recent drop out from Harvard living in mid-Manhattan – had been seen in the neighborhood a number of times, that the hotel was a known narcotics hangout, that the numerous packets containing heroin were found on the hotel landing, and that Kennedy may have been carrying as much as $200 at the time of the robbery.

Whatever the truth (no charges were filed; no arrests ever made), the problem was apparent. Once again, the Kennedy family faced a grave personal crisis. 

For the next two years, Kennedy has continued to live in Sacramento, a town he has grown to relish for its comfortable, low-key atmosphere. Being a Kennedy here apparently creates little fuss (except with some reporters).

He has occupied his time by occasionally working, occasionally going to school, and making regular use of the area’s wealth of recreational opportunities. 

It would be provocative to report that Kennedy spilled his guts, recalled woeful tales of childhood deprivation in the face of phenomenal wealth, and provided harrowing accounts of liberal drug usage, complete with cost figures and exhaustive examination of conscience.

But that’s hardly the case. For the most part, Kennedy quietly sits there – nervous, apprehensive, with a perplexed look on his face and patiently explains over and over again, “I’m pretty much of a regular guy. My life is pretty much like anyone else’s – except that I have a famous last name.” He then takes a deep drag off a cigarette, and anxiously awaits a response. 

Circumstances seem to bear out his contention. His modest apartment in a gurgling North Area (Sacramento) singles’ complex has all the charm of a college dorm.

As to be expected, he enjoys his family, likes being around his many brothers, sisters and cousins, loves touch football, recalls the keen pleasure of riding horseback with his father on weekends, and admits that the Kennedy name “opens up a lot of doors” – but just as quickly qualifies that statement, saying, “Sometimes doors that I don’t want opened.” 

He reiterates what’s become his personal lament: “I don’t enjoy being in the public eye.”

Asked what he would like to do with his life, Kennedy readily offers that he’d like to be a writer, perhaps a journalist, specializing in issues of public policy. “I’m the best, the most humorous writer in the whole family,” he uncharacteristically boasts, only to immediately retract the statement, and chastise himself for mouthing off. 


Asked what his mother would like him to be, an amused smile slowly grows on his face, as he blithely replies, “President.” Seriously?

“Yes,” he states, shrugging his shoulders, as though the possibility (to Ethel Kennedy at least) sounds perfectly sensible. 

When asked to offer evidence to people who might think that he’s nothing more than a rich, punk kid, a screw up, Kennedy bristles. “Listen, I’ve been working my ass off for 2 months this summer (in a construction job). I’m going back to Harvard this winter, and then probably go on to law school…”

About the only other time Kennedy exhibits similar ire is on the subject of Sirhan Sirhan. He stares you straight in the eye and snaps: “I hope he rots in jail for the rest of his life!” The room suddenly quiets. The only sound is the vibrations echoing from Kennedy’s ringing words. He leans back in his chair and silently fumes. 

The topic of his father turns him tender. The regard he feels is visibly apparent – as well as the pride, the respect, and perhaps a keen sense of loss. Kennedy harbors no doubt that his father was a great man.

When asked if the responsibility of representing his father’s image, of being privy to the legacy, ever proves overwhelming at times, David Kennedy lowers his eyes, pauses for a moment, and in a soft affecting voice, plainly whispers “yes.”

On April 25th 1984 David Kennedy died on the floor of his suite in the Brazilian Court Hotel from an overdose of cocaine, Demerol and Mellaril. He was 28 years old. Kennedy was interred in the family plot at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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The tragic story of David Kennedy (1955-1984)

Today, April 25th 2011, marks the 27th anniversary of David Kennedy’s death. David Anthony Kennedy was the fourth of eleven children of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.
On June 4, 1968, eleven days before his 13th birthday, David almost drowned while he and his siblings were swimming in the Pacific Ocean near the Malibu, California beach house of a Kennedy family friend.  David had been knocked over by a wave and was trapped on the bottom by the undertow. Senator Robert F. Kennedy dove under the water and rescued his son, scraping and bruising his own forehead in the process. David promised his father he return the favor someday.

At just after Midnight on June 5, David watched on TV as his father claimed victory in the California presidential primary election, then the 12-year-old listened in horror as the same broadcast reported the Senator’s assassination moments later. The event left an emotional scar on David. He began recreational drug use shortly thereafter.

David tried to combat his addictions many times. He completed a month-long stint at St. Mary’s Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis just before Easter 1984.  He flew down to Palm Beach, Florida on April 19, 1984 for Easter, where several members of the Kennedy family had gathered. David checked into room 107 of the Brazilian Court hotel and spent the next few days partying. At the insistence of concerned family members, staff went to check on his welfare and found David dead on the floor of his suite from an overdose of cocaine, Demerol and Mellaril on April 25, 1984.

David Kennedy was interred in the family plot at Holyhood Cemetery, in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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