A WEEKEND OF GRIEF; ANOTHER KENNEDY LOST

By Published on .

Saturday morning was hot even in East Hampton and Hank Cateura and I were fishing the cut off Three Mile Harbor, where the boats go out into Peconic Bay. But it was low tide and we were shut out even though two young women were bringing in the stripers with embarrassing ease. So I didn't know anything until I was back in the car and on WLNG they said something like, "We'll have more on the JFK Jr. story." And I thought to myself, "I wonder if Jack Kliger is shutting down George magazine."

Then I heard what it was and, like all of us, shook my head and thought, no, not again. Once more in America, the music stopped.

I called my daughters and we talked for awhile. Mostly about John but also about his sister Caroline, and how good it was that she had her husband Ed and their kids. And how fortunate we were to have each other. The awkward, loving phrases that mean so much.

Dan Rather was on CBS by then, wall-to-wall, precise and careful with his choice of words, and talking with Kennedy biographer Dick Reeves, who was very good. When John Jr. spoke at the Dukakis convention, Reeves said, "he had a beautiful face but it wasn't an interesting face. It is still beautiful but it has become an interesting face."

Reeves and Rather were still speaking in the present tense. But with each passing hour, you sensed that was going to change.

A moron from the Howard Stern show was making hoax calls pretending to be the Coast Guard. And there was bureaucratic rubbish out of Washington, insisting that the search was routine, just as for any missing plane. Oh, sure-with Pentagon briefings and Cabinet officers and hourly reports to Camp David.

We all knew this wasn't just "any" plane; this was special. This was the kid under the desk in the Oval Office, the little boy saluting at the funeral. This was John-John, and his wife and her sister, and their plane was down.

At the compound, a spokesman said the mood was "upbeat." Maybe we were all kidding ourselves. But there's always hope, isn't there? Hadn't Teddy walked away from a plane crash? Hadn't Jack Kennedy himself been missing at sea in the war?

Trying to write about the cruel reality of that weekend, I dipped into memory, to the mid-'50s, when Jack and Jackie Kennedy lived in Georgetown west of Wisconsin Avenue, and you would see her in a Brooks Bros. men's raincoat over tennis whites and sneakers.

She and Jack had swapped houses with Bobby and Ethel, who had all those children and needed space and took the place in McLean, while Sen. Kennedy and his new wife, the inquiring photographer for a Washington paper, took the Georgetown house, near where I had a $65 a month groundfloor on P Street.

I covered the Senate then for Fairchild Publications and had to see Sen. Kennedy regularly because of textile imports and labor legislation and minimum wage, matters of importance to our readers. He was lean and wore English-cut suits with no vent, and he had a very straight posture, which was because of a bad back.

He was easy to talk to except for answering a question with a question. "Well, now, what do you think will happen with that bill?" I fell for it every time.

When he was president, we were living on the rue de Boulainvilliers in Paris and had gone to the Friday night movies. When my wife and I got back to the old Passy apartment, the babysitter said I should call Press Wireless. That frequently happened, so I called. And the operator, in heavily-accented English, said, "Your president has been shot." And I was very angry. Why would someone shoot Louis Fairchild, who was my boss?

And then I got it, and my wife and I talked and held each other and I went over to the American Embassy. Just to be among other Yanks, I think, more than actually doing anything. When I left around dawn it was raining, and my cabbie, dramatic as only the French can be without being phony, said to me, "Monsieur, tonight the little people of France are with you."

I'd known Bobby and Ethel better and got invited to McLean to swim and play football; and Ethel sat with us beat reporters at the press table during the Jimmy Hoffa rackets committee hearings. Ethel chewed gum and called everyone "kiddo."

Bobby was committee counsel and had a high, nasal voice and was skinny, but with powerful forearms, and always suntanned. He briefed us twice a day and sent a bottle of Haig & Haig Pinch at Christmas.

I was publisher of Women's Wear Daily in 1968 when Bobby ran for the Democratic nomination, and was awakened the night of the California primary by a call from Kandy Stroud, our White House reporter: "The senator's been shot."

Jackie and the kids had a big apartment on Fifth Avenue and Caroline and our daughters, a little younger, went to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and you'd see Jackie walking Caroline to school with John-John, as he still was, sometimes tagging along.

A few years before she died, I wrote about all that for Parade, an appreciation of Jackie, not as superstar but as a good mom. For all the chi-chi, the best dressed lists and fox hunting, her kids didn't get into trouble, they didn't drop out, they graduated, they got jobs. I got a call from Jackie's secretary, Nancy Tuckerman. "Your article was much appreciated in certain circles," she said.

I thought of John, grown now, at "21" the night of a big prize fight, or playing touch in Central Park, or riding that bike of his around town. More recently, running the magazine.

The rest of the weekend was a sort of haze. Sunday was prayers at church and in the afternoon I had to do a book-reading at the Guild Hall and maybe 75 people showed up. I admitted not knowing why any of us were there, not when those three gorgeous kids were down in the ocean somewhere off the Vineyard. But I read and shook hands after and no one talked about my book but only about John Kennedy and the Bessette sisters.

Fox TV News called. Could I go on a panel Monday night? I didn't have the heart for it. About 10 Sunday night a reporter from People called. She used to work for me and wondered, don't Caroline and Ed Schlossberg have a place in the Hamptons? Sorry, but I didn't have a number; I couldn't help. Being a reporter, which is the work we do, sometimes it's a lousy business.

Monday morning the line had changed. Now it was "missing, presumed dead." On radio, Imus got Mike Barnicle up at Hyannis and Mike was saying what held the Kennedys together was faith. What faith was, just how it worked, he couldn't say. Nor could I.

And Mike spoke, and well, of Ted Kennedy. How good a surrogate father he'd been to so many; this on the anniversary of Mary Jo Kopechne's death. President Clinton said all the right things, too. But he did it with that trademark biting of the lip we know so well.

And then people began coming out of the woodwork. Self-promoting pols and "the last people to see him" and experts on everything-John's flight training, his broken ankle. And I tuned out.

Teddy went to Bridgehampton and played hoops with Caroline's children. Which seemed to me a good and decent thing to do. The memorial service would be at the small church of St. Thomas More, where in such joy we saw our daughter married a month ago today. The Bessette family issued a graceful and dignified statement

Most Popular