Excerpt: 'American Legacy'

Editor's note on Sept. 22, 2014: As we wrote last week, serious questions have been raised about author C. David Heymann's work. In 2007, when his book "American Legacy" was put on a list of "late-summer reads," NPR was not aware of those questions.

The problems include material in the excerpt on this page, which is largely based on a purported conversation between Sen. Edward Kennedy and his neice, Caroline Kennedy.

Heymann wrote that the Kennedys spoke during a flight from Paris to New York City on Nov. 20, 2002. But, it appears Sen. Kennedy could not have been on such a flight. He was on the Senate floor to vote the evening of Nov. 19, 2002. On Nov. 20, 2002, Sen. Kennedy was still in Washington, D.C., where he participated in the presentation of the 2002 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

It also isn't certain that the person who supposedly overheard the Kennedys' conversation — Thurston Gauleiter — existed. Research by attorney Donna Morel and by NPR turn up no evidence of him.

Editor's note on Sept. 19, 2014: C. David Heymann died in May 2012. On Aug. 27, 2014, Newsweek took a long look at his career. It concluded that his books were "riddled with errors and fabrications." Spokesmen for Heymann's publisher, Simon and Schuster, declined to discuss the matter with Newsweek. According to Newsweek, it was prompted to look at the questions regarding Heymann's books by San Diego lawyer Donna Morel, who had long been skeptical about the author's work and had conducted her own investigation of his reporting.

Chapter 1: The Fall of Icarus

On November 17, 2002, Caroline Kennedy, accompanied by her uncle Senator Edward M. Kennedy, flew from New York to Paris, France, to celebrate the opening at the Louvre of "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years," an exhibition of Jackie's Camelot-period fashions, featuring formal attire, travel outfits, sportswear, riding clothes, and personal favorites. On loan from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, the exhibit had been shown the year before at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, opposite the Fifth Avenue apartment building where Jackie had resided the last thirty years of her life, until her death in May 1994 at age sixty-four.

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In flawless French, Caroline addressed an overflowing audience, including French government officials and members of the European press, at the Louvre's Musée de la Mode et du Textile, telling them that Jacqueline Kennedy's élan and trendsett'ng flair were born of the French capital. "While a student at Vassar," said Caroline, "my mother spent her junior year abroad, studying at the Sorbonne. She took courses in French art and literature. Her passion for French history guided and informed her work in the White House. Paris is the city my mother loved best and that inspired her the most. And so it is fitting that this exhibit should come to the Louvre."

Caroline continued in the same vein for another five minutes. As she concluded her speech, the audience rose and gave her a resounding ovation. The next speaker was Ted Kennedy. Standing at the podium, the Massachusetts senator, hale and hearty looking if a bit overweight, observed that the exhibit represented a milestone for the Kennedy clan. "The Kennedys have come full circle," he remarked. "Jackie has returned to Paris, and this visit will be remembered and cherished in both our countries."

On November 20 Ted and Caroline boarded a commercial airliner and flew back to the United States. Thurston Gauleiter, an investment banker from Los Angeles, sat behind them in first class. "I couldn't help but overhear snippets of conversation," he said. "For the most part, they discussed Caroline's late brother, John F. Kennedy Jr. Caroline admitted that since the day of John's death in 1999, when his plane plunged into the dark waters of the Atlantic, she'd been afraid to fly. 'Not an hour passes when I don't think of him,' she said. 'For many months after his death, I kept expecting the phone to ring and for John to be at the other end. I kept thinking the door to my apartment would open, and he'd come bounding into the room.' Teddy responded by comparing John Jr. to his brothers Jack and Bobby Kennedy. 'I remember,' he said, 'how as teenagers in Florida, your father and Bobby, on even the roughest of days, would swim miles out into the ocean. They had an insatiable appetite for adventure. The storm-warning flags would be flapping furiously in the wind and rain, and they'd be frolicking in the surf like a couple of polar bears. Your brother was cut from the same cloth. He loved a challenge. He'd kayak in the most turbulent of seas and fly under conditions that grounded even the most experienced of pilots. Like Bobby and your father, he had the desire to live life to the fullest.'

"Later in the flight," continued Gauleiter, "Ted Kennedy again brought up his nephew. 'John could've gone all the way,' he told Caroline. 'He was still becoming the person he would be. He had just begun. There was in him a great promise of things to come.'"

What Kennedy presumably meant was that John had a brilliant political career ahead of him. He had the appearance, the background, the legacy. He had proven skill as a public speaker. He had panache and charisma. He had integrity. He had a sense of justice. More than anything, he had humility. What other person of his renown made himself so available? His family possessed great wealth and power, but he came off like "one of the guys." He represented the clan's greatest hope for the future. He was the crown prince, rightful heir to the throne. The one thing he didn't have was time.

After the airliner transporting Teddy and Caroline landed in New York, the senator switched planes and flew on to Washington, D.C. The following weekend he visited Caroline, her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, and their three children—Rose, fourteen, Tatiana, twelve, and nine-year-old John—at their three-acre weekend home in Sagaponack, Long Island. It marked his first trip to the area since those unbearable days following the July 16, 1999, disappearance at sea of John Jr.'s high-performance Piper Saratoga II HP airplane as it made its way from Essex County Airport in Caldwell, New Jersey, to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

On that occasion, Ted Kennedy drove past a half-dozen state troopers, several squad cars, yards of yellow police tape, and a caravan of reporters and television cameras posted at the foot of the tree-shrouded Schlossberg driveway. Maria Shriver and William Kennedy Smith, Caroline's cousins, had arrived earlier. Teddy spent an hour playing basketball with the Schlossberg children, and another hour manning the telephones, anxiously awaiting news of a breakthrough from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The family had gathered at the beachfront compound that weekend in anticipation of a wedding between prizewinning documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy's youngest child, and her longtime sweetheart Mark Bailey. A large tent had been erected on the lawn in front of Ethel's house, where the bride and groom planned on hosting their reception. A wedding rehearsal dinner had been scheduled for Friday evening, July 16, the actual ceremony to begin at noon on Saturday. Instead of the much-anticipated weekend festivities, the Kennedy clan found itself immersed in yet another tragedy.

The missing plane, carrying thirty-eight-year-old John Jr., his thirty-three-year-old wife, Carolyn, and thirty-four-year-old sister-in-law Lauren, had seemed to vanish into thin air. John had planned to head first for Martha's Vineyard to drop off Lauren, then loop around and fly the short distance to the airport in Hyannis, where he and Carolyn would be picked up and driven to the Kennedy compound to join the wedding party. Vague hope and optimism remained alive among the members of a clan whose painful history had for decades been chronicled in a plethora of books, magazines, and newspaper headlines. "If anyone can make it, it's John," Robert F. Kennedy Jr. assured a reporter. "My guess is that he's probably marooned with the others on some small, uncharted island off the Massachusetts coast." What RFK Jr. didn't realize—and couldn't know—is that John hadn't bothered to store life vests aboard his plane, claiming that he had no use for them. The chances that he or any of the others had reached land after crashing at sea were slim at best.

For all his nonchalance and joie de vivre, John had taken his aviation lessons seriously. His instructors may have detected in him a certain daredevil streak, but they also acknowledged that when it came to piloting, John had always behaved in a conscientious manner. Several months earlier, flying his previous plane, a 1977 five-seat, single-engine Cessna 182, JFK Jr. had discovered an electrical problem shortly after takeoff from Essex County Airport and had immediately turned back. Harold Anderson, a pilot who had often flown with Kennedy, observed that the student pilot had more than once canceled flights because of inclement weather. Yet after fulfilling the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements for his pilot's license on April 22, 1998, John boldly admitted to the press that the only person willing to fly with him was his wife. "And even she has her doubts," he said. "Let's face it, I'm no Charles Lindbergh—not yet, anyway." his tongue-in-cheek attitude repeated itself when he presented one of his flight instructors with a photograph of himself, inscribed as follows: "To the bravest person in aviation, because people will only care who trained me if I crash. Best wishes, John Kennedy." And on May 27 of the same year, he appended a humorous (but eerily prophetic) postscript to a letter sent to fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, owner of a vacation retreat on Nantucket, an island not far from Martha's Vineyard: "I finally got my pilot's license. Beware the skies over Nantucket, they'll never be safe again."

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American Legacy

The Story of John & Caroline Kennedy

by C. David Heymann

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