'So like his father'
Sen. Kennedy eulogizes JFK Jr. with poetic mix of humor and sadness
By Fred Kaplan and Doreen Iudica Vigue, Globe Staff, 07/24/99
NEW YORK - A nationwide week of mourning for John F. Kennedy Jr. came to a quiet end yesterday as 350 of his close friends and relatives assembled in a Manhattan church to say their formal farewells, while about 1,000 people stood solemnly outside under a broiling sun to pay their respects.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the uncle who has served as a surrogate father to so many Kennedy children, eulogized John Jr. - the 38-year-old publisher, philanthropist, and man about town viewed by many as the heir to Camelot - in a 10-minute speech full of fond memories, anguish, and humor.
''He had a legacy, and he learned to treasure it,'' the senator said at the memorial Mass, which also paid tribute to John Jr.'s wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. ''He accepted who he was, but he cared more about what he could and should become. ... And he could laugh at the absurdity of too much pomp and circumstance.''
He remembered when John Jr. once was asked what he would do if he went into politics and was elected president, and he replied, ''I guess the first thing is call up Uncle Teddy and gloat.''
''I loved that,'' Kennedy said. ''It was so like his father.''
He ended on a more solemn note, paraphrasing a Yeats poem about a man who died young. ''We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair. ... But like his father, he had every gift but length of years.''
After the eulogy, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, John Jr.'s sister, stood and hugged the senator.
According to a spokesman for the family, Caroline recited a passage from Shakespeare's ''The Tempest.'' And the hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean sang Jimmy Cliff's reggae hit ''Many Rivers to Cross.''
The Mass was an invitation-only affair, with no journalists allowed. Senator Kennedy released copies of his eulogy later in the day; the family spokesman talked to reporters briefly about what took place.
It was held in the Church of St. Thomas More, the same Catholic church where John and Caroline's mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, worshiped and where she was memorialized in a Mass five years ago.
The Reverend Charles O'Byrne, who led yesterday's service, had presided over the wedding of John Jr. and Carolyn, 33, who also died in last Friday's plane crash with her sister, Lauren Bessette, 34. O'Byrne also participated in ceremonies Thursday when ashes of the victims were cast into the sea.
Dr. Richard Freeman and his wife, Ann, the stepfather and mother of the Bessette daughters, were among the first to arrive at the church. Richard Bessette, their father, and Lauren's twin sister Lisa Bessette also attended.
Mrs. Freeman read from Henry Scott Holland's meditation ''Facts of Faith.'' Carolyn was eulogized by Hamilton South, a family friend and public relations official at Ralph Lauren. A private memorial service for Lauren Bessette is scheduled for tonight in Greenwich, Conn.
The mood apparently lightened somewhat after the Mass at a luncheon in the Covenant of the Sacred Heart, a nearby Catholic girls' school that John Jr.'s sister once attended. At one point, according to two people at the luncheon, Senator Kennedy sang ''A Closer Walk with Thee.''
C.J. Hardy, a member of the O Freedom Choir, which sang ''Amazing Grace'' during the Mass and who watched the senator sing at the luncheon, said afterward, ''We left on a high note, a note of joy.''
John Adams, another choir member, said of the ceremony generally, ''The family tended to look at it as more a celebration of life than a mourning of death. ... Obviously, that's a very strong family, and it shows.''
About a third of the invited mourners were Kennedys by blood or marriage. A few were part of President Kennedy's administration in the early 1960s: historian Arthur Schlesinger; John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist and ambassador to India; and Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense.
President Clinton attended with Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea. He presented photographs of John Jr.'s White House visits to Caroline, Senator Kennedy, and the Bessette family.
Among the political figures were the other US senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kerry; Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd; former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, one of the few Republicans to attend, who worked with John Jr. on the board of Harvard's JFK Institute of Politics; and State Department spokesman James Rubin, who attended with his wife, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, a friend of Kennedy's since his college days.
Also attending the Mass were boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who was a friend of John Jr.'s; ABC-TV news anchor Diane Sawyer and her husband, film director Mike Nichols; television producer Lorne Michaels; and Maurice Tempelsman, who was Mrs. Onassis' companion in the latter part of her life.
After the Mass, Ali was the only guest who walked out to the barricades on East 89th Street and Park Avenue. He shook hands with several of the police officers on duty and waved to the crowd before heading off in one of the dozens of limousines hired for the event.
Security was tight, especially with Clinton's presence. Press and public were kept a block from the church. Traffic was cut off for 10 blocks, between 86th and 96th Streets, along Park and Madison avenues.
Despite the distance, more than 1,000 people lined the streets, some arriving as early as 6:30 a.m. and most standing patiently by 9 a.m. - two hours before the Mass was scheduled to start. They all stayed until it ended at 12:30 p.m.
As the procession of mourners walked two blocks up Madison Avenue to the school where the luncheon took place, the spectators remained quiet and respectful. Many bowed their heads. The Clintons did not take part in the procession or the luncheon, and returned to Washington after the Mass.
Throughout the morning, the crowds - as diverse as the city itself, including blue-collar workers, new immigrants, business executives, and teenagers too young to remember President Kennedy - clutched cameras, held each other's hands, or hoisted pictures of ''John-John'' as a child.
It was a scene that has been repeated in spontaneous memorials across the city.
''John was a regular guy, a real New Yorker,'' said Tony Reyes, 37, a maintenance worker from Queens. ''I liked the way he lived his life, like a typical New Yorker - you go when you want to go with no fear. But maybe that's what took him down, too.''
Blossom Henry, 54, a nurse's aid from the Bronx, said: ''They are our extended family. We saw him grow up on TV, we saw all of them, and we love them like they are our own.''
Patti Avelone, 51, a school principal who came from West Haven, Conn., to pay respects, said she felt the same sensation - that a member of her own family had passed away.
''John was special,'' Avelone said, ''because he has chosen the right path. With everything that he was given since he was little, he could have chosen not to work, not to help people, and be undignified. But he led a life of class and style, and was a great role model.''
Crowds continued to gather outside John Jr.'s apartment building in the TriBeCa neighborhood. All week, thousands have lined up to lay flowers, letters, and poems near his doorstep. They came yesterday, if anything, in larger numbers still.
Senator Kennedy, in his eulogy, acknowledged these sentiments. ''From the first day of his life,'' he said, ''John seemed to belong not only to our family, but to the American family. The whole world knew his name before he did.''
One source close to the family said the senator and John's sister had debated up until past 1 a.m. yesterday over how public to make the Mass. The senator wanted to make an audio feed of the ceremony available to TV networks, as the family had done with Mrs. Onassis' Mass in 1994.
However, Caroline insisted on keeping the event as small and private as possible - and she prevailed.
It also was her idea to hold the Mass in a relatively small church. Although her mother's memorial Mass was held in the same church, her funeral took place a few blocks away, in a church with four times the seating capacity.
At one point yesterday, even Caroline seemed taken with the public sympathy. En route from the Mass to the luncheon, she rolled down the window of her limousine and waved, drawing smiles and applause.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/24/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.