Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Kennedy Curse

As I'm sure you've heard by now, Senator Edward Kennedy from Massachusetts passed away this morning at the age of 77 after losing his battle with brain cancer.

I don't normally blog politics (especially American politics), but I do blog faulty reasoning, and so I will take the occasion to address an issue that surrounds the Kennedys, especially when it comes to Orthodox Jews.

The issue at hand is the famous "Kennedy Curse." In the threads on YWN and VIN, commentators once again brought up "the curse."

There are various stories of how the curse started. All the stories (or at least the stories that originate from the Jewish world) involve a famous rabbi who was either insulted or rebuffed by Joseph (or Rose) Kennedy. They were then cursed by that Rabbi that their family should suffer for it.

Rose Kennedy managed to live a long life and as three of her sons and one of her daughters predeceased her, the going rumor was that she was cursed that all of her children should die before her. Her death in 1995 ended that aspect of the legend.

Truth to tell, the story has all the earmarks of an urban legend. The name of the rabbi who cursed the Kennedys changes from one telling to the next (it's most often mentioned as the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe -- but not always), as does why the curse was originally pronounced. In addition, there is no (or at least not to my knowledge) firm documented source describing the origin of the curse. In short, it sounds all too much like an urban legend.

But putting that aside, let's ask the question -- is the curse real? The Kennedys, as we all know, have lost quite a few family members in high-profile deaths. The fact is that the average age of death of the eight deceased Kennedy children (Jean is still alive) is just under 60 years -- a rather low figure in today's day and age. Of course, even that number is misleading because the average life expectancy was much lower when some of the Kennedy children died long ago.

While it's true that some Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children have died young, let's consider for the moment that all of them survived to adulthood. The Kennedy children are of the same generation as my grandparents. All four of my grandparents were born in the United States. Of the four of them, three lost siblings as children. I think that if most people who had grandparents growing up in the United States at that time do a little research, they will find that many (if not most) of them lost siblings during childhood. Infant and child mortality in those days was quite high and, unfortunately, losing a child was not as uncommon as it is today -- especially in families with a lot of children such as the Kennedys. So, right off the bat, I'd have to say that the fact that all of Joseph and Rose's children made it to adulthood shows that they were doing far better than many other families of the time.

That being said, let's look at the children. The Kennedys had nine children:

  • Joseph Jr. -- died in World War II, aged 29
  • John -- shot in Dallas in 1963, aged 46
  • Rosemary -- lobotomized and institutionalized, died at age 86
  • Kathleen -- died in a plane crash at age 28
  • Euncie -- died about two weeks ago at age 88
  • Patricia -- died in 2006 at age 82
  • Robert -- shot in San Francisco in 1968, aged 42
  • Jean -- still living today, aged 81
  • Edward -- died yesterday, aged 77

Of the nine children, four failed to see their fiftieth birthday (although, of the five that did, all reached at least 77 years of age). One more, Rosemary, spent almost all of her life in an institution.

But let's look at the four who died young and examine the circumstances of their deaths:

Joesph Jr. was a student at Harvard Law when World War II began. He left Harvard a year early and took officer and pilot training in the Navy. He piloted 25 combat missions during World War II and was eligible to return home.

Instead, he volunteered for a highly dangerous mission which entailed flying an explosive-laden plane with a skeleton crew which would then parachute out of the plane before detonation. It was on this mission that he was killed.

Three Kennedy sons served in World War II (Edward was only twelve when the war ended) and two survived. Many families lost sons in the war and some lost more than one child (the Sullivans famously lost five on a single ship). In that respect, I would not say that the Kennedys were cursed any more than any other family that lost a son in combat during World War II.

John Kennedy went on to become the 35th President of the United States -- the youngest man ever to be elected to the office. He served from January 1961 until his assassination in 1963.

During the course of our nation's history, 43 different men have served as President of the United States. Of those eight did not leave the office alive -- four of them were killed by assassin's bullets and the other four became ill and died. Another two recent presidents (Ford and Reagan) survived assassination attempts. In other words, about 19% of the people who took the office did not survive. Clearly, being President of the United States is a dangerous job. Aside from the enormous pressures of the job, there are always people who will want to kill the president -- from foreign terrorists to partisan nutcases (on both sides) to people who are just plain kooks. The upshot of all this is that the job of President is a high-risk occupation and as with all high-risk occupations, the fact that someone dies in that job is not the sign of a curse.

Kathleen married the Marquess of Hartington (and the heir to the dukedom of Devonshire) in 1944. She married against the will of her family and aside from Joseph Jr., no one in the family attended her wedding. Sadly, the Marquess was killed in World War II after only four months of marriage. She ended up becoming involved with a married gentleman of the British peerage who was in the process of divorcing his wife with the intent to marry him once his divorce was final. That marriage never happened because Kathleen died in a plane crash in France in 1948.

The fourth of the Kennedy children to die before their seventy fifth birthday was Robert. Robert was the junior senator from New York in 1968 and was running for the Democratic nomination for President. He had just won the California primary when he was assassinated by a young Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan. Robert Kennedy was a high profile individual (former Attorney General, Senator from New York and candidate for President) and, as such, was, like John, a high profile target.

The other five Kennedy children all survived until at least 77 years of age. Of the nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, seven married and six had children -- John had two surviving children, Eunice had five, Patricia had four, Robert had eleven, Jean had four and Edward had three. In total Rose and Joseph Kennedy had twenty nine grandchildren, most of whom have since married and had kids of their own.

In addition, the Kennedys became one of the premiere political families in the United States. Three of the Kennedy children became Senators and one became the President. Their grandchildren include a former Lt. Governor, at least two members of the House of Representatives and other political positions. For a family that has been cursed, they have been tremendously successful.

There are people who will point to other misfortunes that the extended Kennedy family has borne: the skiing death in 1997 of Michael Kennedy, the rape accusation against William Kennedy Smith, the car accident in 1969 that ended Edward's chances of becoming President and the airplane crash that ended the life of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999.

I'm not at all certain that these events are out of the ordinary for a family as large as the Kennedys and that engage in the activities that the Kennedys engage in. Many families have unfortunately lost people in skiing accidents and many families tragically lose people in airplane accidents. However, in most cases, unless the person is famous (or belongs to a famous family) these events are usually unreported or forgotten shortly thereafter. I firmly believe that if you sample other families as numerous as the Kennedys that engage in similar activities, you will probably find similar results.

In short, the Kennedys have suffered tragedy over the years -- but I'm not convinced that it's so different from the tragedies that another family might have faced with the same numbers and similar circumstances.

The Wolf

32 comments:

G*3 said...

> in most cases, unless the person is famous (or belongs to a famous family) these events are usually unreported or forgotten shortly thereafter. I firmly believe that if you sample other families as numerous as the Kennedys that engage in similar activities, you will probably find similar results.

This is the important bit. Only famous people end up "cursed" - because if the exact same thing happened to an ordinary extended family, we wouldn't know about it. But since we do know about it, and people naturally seek patterns, the curse serves as a convenient explanation among those who don’t understand how probability works refuse to attribute anything to chance.

Gil Student said...

So what you're saying is that the curse would have been more effective if Rav Soloveitchik had made it.

Anonymous said...

The curse story amuses me for all the reasons you point out. But it also bothers me additional ones, including (i) the arrogance to believe that g-d listens to and complies with your curse; (ii) the lovely notion that its fine and dandy to curse someone's children because of the acts of a parent; and (iii) the superstitious and magical thinking of people who promote the curse theory.

yitz said...

For such a rationalist as you purport to be, you supply no statistical data to back your contentions, rather phrases like, "I don't know if..., I'm not so convinced...", etc. Doesn't sound too convincing to me -- perhaps you're doing some of your own "magical thinking"?

But look at some of the FACTS, as you've presented them. Instead of taking a look at all the children, look at the male members of the Kennedy family. With the exception of Teddy, they all died at 46 years of age or younger! And as you mention, Ted has Chappaquidik which finished him off at the age of...37! Add to that the other "misfortunes" to another 3 male grandchildren that you mention, & the picture starts to look a bit different.

Perhaps RA Kotler, or whoever pronounced the curse on the family, only cursed the males, for in the version I heard, it was Joe Kennedy Sr.'s support of the Nazis in WWII, when he was US Ambassador to the UK, that brought on the curse.

And even of the females, one a 28 year old in a plane crash, another lobotomized, doesn't sound like they were impervious to the curse.

I await your statistical analysis to prove I'm wrong!

yitz said...

PS - You rationalists start to sound like those who explain away Kriyas Yam Suf and most of Midrash Agada!

yitz said...

You might be curious to know that Wikipedia has a post on it, and from we can learn:

June 19, 1964 – Massachusetts Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy is involved in a plane crash in which one of his aides and the pilot were killed. He was pulled from the wreckage by fellow senator Birch E. Bayh II (D-Ind.) and spent weeks in a hospital recovering from a broken back, a punctured lung, broken ribs, and internal bleeding.[4][5]

July 18, 1969 – In the Chappaquiddick incident, a car driven by Ted Kennedy goes off a bridge on Martha's Vineyard, eventually drowning his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne.[4][5][6][7] In his July 25, 1969 televised statement, Kennedy stated that on the night of the incident he wondered "whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys."[11][12]

November 17, 1973 – Edward Kennedy, Jr., loses his right leg due to bone cancer at the age of 12.[1][2]


April 25, 1984 – David Kennedy dies from a Demerol and cocaine overdose in a Palm Beach, Florida hotel room.[4][5][6][9]
1991 - William Kennedy Smith is tried for rape. He is acquitted of all charges.[1][2][3][4]
December 31, 1997 – Michael Kennedy dies in a skiing accident in Aspen, Colorado.[1][4][5][6][9]

yitz said...

And not only children & grandchildren were affected:

One of the most famous and beloved Kennedys by marriage, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, also suffered a series of misfortunes after her induction into the family. In 1954, Kennedy Onassis suffered a miscarriage. Two years later, she gave birth to a stillborn daughter, who is buried beside her at Arlington National Cemetery and was reportedly to be named Arabella. In 1963, Kennedy Onassis was again overcome by loss when her son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, died two days after birth. A decade later, after she had re-married to Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, Kennedy Onassis’ new stepson, Alexander Onassis, died in a plane crash. In 1988, Kennedy Onassis lost another stepchild, Christina Onassis, to heart failure related to substance abuse.

But I guess it's just coincidence, and happens to all large families, we just don't hear about it.

Or you can believe this [found on another website]:
"When Joe Kennedy was ambassador to England in the late 30's, he was asked to intercede on behalf of the Jews in Germany, as rumors of the Holocaust began to surface. He refused and was called home by President Roosevelt. The rabbis of New York gathered at the East River and put a curse on the males of his children and his children's children. Evedently [sic] they did one hell of a job!" -- Memphis Jew.

Anonymous said...

Yitz: These curses sound pretty powerful. Why didn't the rabbis you refer to just curse the Nazis and the German war effort to prevent the holocaust or at least stop it a few million sooner? Have they considered cursing Osama bin Laden or hamas or hizbollah?

yitz said...

Anon 7:36 am - Last I checked, I was not Omniscient. You'll have to ask the One Above that question...

BrooklynWolf said...

Yitz,

You are correct that I don't have any statistical proof. I never claimed to have any. That's why I used terms such as you pointed out.

As I've pointed out many times, I don't always need proof for things. I'm often willing to go with my gut instinct on some issues and if I'm wrong, so be it.

That being said, I don't know if proof is even obtainable for such a scenario. There are not too many families that are similar to the Kennedys in which we can create a decent sample.

Nonetheless, I still believe that given a similar family of similar size and engaged in similar high risk activities would probably suffer similar numbers of tragic events.

The Wolf

P.S. -- and while we're at it, please don't put words in my mouth. I have *never* tried to explain away Krias Yam Suf or even most of Midrash Agada. Yes, I have problems interpreting some midrashim literally -- but that's hardly "most of."

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, an Irish Catholic told me the following, sometime in the early '70s: Back in Ireland Joseph Kennedy's grandfather or great-grandfather knocked up a girl, and he and his father, being ruthless Kennedys, neatly solved the problem: they killed her. A priest found out and for the despicable deed he cursed them . . .

Manya Shochet said...

Coincidence? I don't think so. Evidence suggests that a propensity for risk-taking, violation of the law, and heavy substance abuse MAY have had some effect.

Plus, the Kennedy brothers ruined our ozone layer by advancing the popularity of the "dry look" over the more ecologically sound and non-aerosol Vitalis and Brylcream. Coincidence? Enquiring minds want to know!

yitz said...

Wolf, thanks for you very honest response. Except for one thing: if you looked at MY wording, I wasn't putting words into your mouth.

To quote myself, I merely said:
You rationalists start to sound like those who explain away Kriyas Yam Suf and most of Midrash Agada!

Now "sounds like" is not putting words into your mouth. And I also used the plural, that is, ahem, I was referring to more than one person.

Anon 1:23 PM - Who knows? Perhaps there was more than one curse, after all! :))

yitz said...

Manya Shochet - if you examine all the occurences listed [including those I've added], you will find that your "evidence" doesn't add up to all that happened...

BrooklynWolf said...

Yitz,

Fair enough. I must have misread your statement. My apologies.

The Wolf

yitz said...

No problem, Wolf, apology accepted! I just wonder about 3 JFK-Jackie childbirth deaths, a plane crash in 1999 [not as pilot!], loss of leg due to bone cancer, & Rosemary's mental retardation-lobotomoy-institutionalization. These don't seem to be a result of "a propensity for risk-taking, violation of the law, or heavy substance abuse," and there are just too many 'incidents' here to be just coincidence...

No, adreraba, the RATIONAL solution appears to be some kind of curse; but I would agree that we'll probably never know that for sure.

Happy said...

@Anonymous 5:11PM
From your spelling of God as G-d, I assume you are a believer and presumably a believer in the Torah. Your comments, though, give me pause.

"it bothers me that (i) the arrogance to believe that g-d listens to and complies with your curse"
Umm...ever heard of Bilaam?
"(ii) the lovely notion that its fine and dandy to curse someone's children because of the acts of a parent"
Read your asseres hadibros. Here's commandment #4: "You shall not bow down to [idols] or worship them for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me."
"(iii) the superstitious and magical thinking of people who promote the curse theory.
Bilaam again.

@Yitz
"You'll have to ask the One Above that question..."

Done. I asked God, "that Kennedy curse story is a bunch of superstitious hogwash, right?" Thus far, He has remained silent. Using the gemara's kellal of shetikah k'hodaha, I would have to say that God thinks the Kennedy curse is nonsense too.

BrooklynWolf said...

Thus far, He has remained silent. Using the gemara's kellal of shetikah k'hodaha, I would have to say that God thinks the Kennedy curse is nonsense too.

Heh. Reminds me of a scene from The Simpsons. Homer prays:

"Dear Lord: The gods have been good to me. For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here's the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won't ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign. OK, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done."

The Wolf

tesyaa said...

Yitz, Jacqueline Kennedy may have suffered obstetrical problems and tragedies, but Ethel Kennedy gave birth to 11 living children! You're not giving both sides of the story.

Joshua said...

The most fascinating thing here is the nature of the curse. I've heard quite a few claims about a Kennedy curse but had never had heard it attributed to a Rabbi before.

Anonymous said...

Happy: You stated in response to "(ii) the lovely notion that its fine and dandy to curse someone's children because of the acts of a parent"
"Read your asseres hadibros. Here's commandment #4: "You shall not bow down to [idols] or worship them for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me."

The two are different. G-d is trying to get people to behave. In the curse story, the Rabbis are simply being mean by trying, after the fact to hurt the children as a matter of revenge. G-d doesn't have to explain his reasons. Rabbis do, and there is no good explanation for wishing a child ill due to a parent's behavior.

Rafi G. said...

This family has definitely had more than its share of bad luck, whether it was a curse or not. I don't think however that Ted Kennedy's death opr career can be counted as part of it. He lived to 77 yrs old - its not 90, but it is also not 45. It is a full life.
He also had an illustrious career in the Senate, albeit with problems (Mary Jo), but overall he had a successful life.

yitz said...

Tesyaa - Check it out, I believe it's you who's not presenting an accurate picture:
Ethel Kennedy lost 2 children, David [drug overdose] at age 29, and Michael [skiing accident] at age 39. These were documented above.
Of the remaining "successful" 9, 4 of them have been divorced once, & one of these was separated in the second marriage.
But of course, the loss of her husband at his age of 43 wasn't enough? To leave behind 11 orphans, the youngest of which was born after his father died?

Rafi - "an overall successful life"? How about a plane crash in 1964, Chappaquidick in 1969, and his 12-yr-old son's loss of a leg in 1973? More coincidence?

Happy said...

Yitz,
The pick-your-favorite-gadol who cursed the Kennedys needs to work on his cursing skills:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090830/ap_on_re_us/us_kennedy_fortune

Manya Shochet said...

Yitz--Ethel has had an unfortunate life, but due to an atmosphere of chaos, priviledge and unlimited money, at least 4 of her kids (including David and Michael) were seriously involved with hard drugs. Robert Jr. used heroin regularly and still went to law school. Teenaged Joe flipped over his car while under the influence and paralyzed his date for life.

Ted Kennedy did not just happen to have an accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne was killed. He walked away from the accident, went back to his hotel, showered and shaved and (presumably) sobered up, and left Miss Kopechne in the car, where experts speculate she probably remained alive for about 2 hours while the car slowly filled with water. Anybody can have an accident, G-d forbid, but most of us mortals would have the responsibility and decency to report it, especially when another human life was in the balance. It's not as though Ted Kennedy exiled himself to a city of refuge after that and lived his life in penance for the life of Miss Kopechne.

Money, fame and beauty can work their own kind of curse when not accompanied by prudence and an abstemious temperament.

I'm not saying that any of them "deserved" their fate, but high-risk behavior and the perception of a lack of consequences does not bode well for anyone. Lie down with dogs, wake up with the "Kennedy Curse".

Der Shygetz said...

LS"D

Rabbi Dovid Schmoigerman, the Admou"r meCreedmoor, whose welfare and section 8 records show that he was born in 1901 so that he can get senior citizen benefits as well, was the one who cursed Joe Kennedy.

In other words, there was no curse. The closest plausible story is that Lubavitcher senior rabbi Yisroel Jacobson AH was on a ship and was prevented by Joe Kennedy YMS from using a common room (or laughed at by said tzoirer) for davening. However, R' Jacobson did NOT curse him, nor were the Rebbe Rayatz, R' Ahron Kotler, or the Satmarer Rov on that ship.

I might be able to contact some of R' Jacobson AH's descendants to find out if he was ever on a ship with Joe Kennedy YMS. I can't remember which of my contacts is related to him but I know I have someone and if I can I'll find out once and for all.

bankman said...

Yitz, you avoid the tough questions.

please address the successes the kennedy family has encoutered including many children (a bracha, no?) tons of money, fame, fortune, power, presidents, senators....my gosh. That sounds impressive.


Manya explains the tough stuff....makes sense to me.

yitz said...

Manya wrote: Money, fame and beauty can work their own kind of curse when not accompanied by prudence and an abstemious temperament.

So maybe the Kennedy Curse, whoever "sent" it, contributed to the imprudence & temperament. Who knows?

Meanwhile, I received this e-mail which you might find interesting:

History Mystery: Have a history teacher explain this --- if they can!

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846.
John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.

Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860.
John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.

Both were particularly concerned with civil rights.
Both wives lost their children while living in the White House.

Both Presidents were shot on a Friday.
Both Presidents were shot in the head.

Now it gets really weird:

Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy.
Kennedy's Secretary was named Lincoln.

Both were assassinated by Southerners.
Both were succeeded by Southerners named Johnson.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808.
Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.

John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, was born in 1839.
Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy, was born in 1939.
Both assassins were known by their three names. Both names are composed of fifteen letters.

Now hang on to your seat:

Lincoln was shot at the theatre named 'Ford'.
Kennedy was shot in a car called 'Lincoln' made by 'Ford'.

Lincoln was shot in a theater and his assassin ran and hid in a warehouse.
Kennedy was shot from a warehouse and his assassin ran and hid in a theater.

Booth and Oswald were assassinated before their trials.

And here's the kicker...
A week before Lincoln was shot, he was in Monroe, Maryland
A week before Kennedy was shot, he was with Marilyn Monroe.

BrooklynWolf said...

Yitz,

I'll address this list of "coincidences" in a future post.

Preview: It's not as remarkable as you might think.

The Wolf

Sammy Finkelman said...

Lincoln was shot in a theater and his assassin ran and hid in a warehouse.
Kennedy was shot from a warehouse and his assassin ran and hid in a theater. etc

Whebn I was in the Yeshiva Zichron Moshe at 1358 Morris Avenue in the Bronx, one day, at lunch, I think maybe in 1968, (after June?) somebody distributed a mimeographed (blue remember) sheet of paper that contained a list of things like that including this one. I don't know who printed it out. I guess it was maybe some students. It could have been in 1967 too.

Thre were more on the list but the one about Monroe was not. Neither was the 100 years apart of first election to the house of representatives (only one in the case of Lincoln) but of course the two Johnsons born 100 years apart was.

Now much later I read - and of course if you know the details you should remember - Lincoln's assassin did not run to a warehouse BUT A BARN, where he was shot.

Now some of the other things are right - like Lincoln having a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy having a secretary named Lincoln. (Lincoln's was male)

Sammy said...

The latest I might have seen this was June 1968, both because I graduated taht year and teh Yeshiva moved for the next year, but maybe this was earlier. I think thiis list circulated as early as 1965. I think it is mentioned in the book "Language on Vacation" by Dmitri A Borgmann - 318 pages published by Scribner in 1965. I have a vague idea it might have coime from a higher class and in 1968 there was none.

Anonymous said...

About 40 years ago, I read somewhere that Joseph Kennedy left this girl behind and went to USA without marrying her. So her mother put a curse on him. Said his sons and grandsons will not live to age 50. I was actually looking for something along those lines. But what I've read so far is just a series of coincidences. That happens in regular people to whom not much attention is paid.