Space race

Film­maker Rory Kennedy was born six months af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of her father Robert Kennedy. Here, she talks about liv­ing with her fam­ily’s tragic legacy and her new film about the space race

The Observer Magazine - - The Observer Magazine - Words MICHAEL SEGALOV Pho­to­graph DY­LAN COUL­TER

Rory Kennedy on Nasa, liv­ing with loss and the Kennedy clan

Chil­dren in the Kennedy house­hold had to fol­low the rules. The horses, seals and coa­t­imundis in the grounds of Hick­ory Hill – the im­pos­ing fam­ily home John F Kennedy sold to his brother Robert – might have made it feel a long way from Capi­tol Hill, but for a fam­ily in­ex­tri­ca­bly con­nected to the for­mal­i­ties of high of­fice there were cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions. Din­ner was served at 7pm sharp ev­ery evening, no ex­cep­tions; each of the sib­lings would have their nails scrubbed and hair brushed when they took their seats at the table. Sun­day morn­ings were spent in church, Sun­day nights were for po­etry recita­tion. That said, Rory, now 49, and the youngest of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s kids, un­der­stands it to have been a house­hold of wel­come con­tra­dic­tions: “There was a healthy en­cour­age­ment of re­bel­lion, too.”

On a De­cem­ber evening in 1984, Rory, then 13, and her brother Dou­glas were watch­ing the news. Anti-apartheid ac­tivists were be­ing hand­cuffed at protests out­side the South African em­bassy in DC, just 10 miles from where they lived with their nine sib­lings. It was de­cided: if other peo­ple were putting their bod­ies on the line, these two would as well. At break­fast the next morn­ing, they made their case for get­ting ar­rested to their mother. “With­out miss­ing a beat, mummy looked at us and said, ‘Fan­tas­tic, get in the car, I’ll get you down there’,” says Rory, smil­ing as she re­mem­bers. “They ar­rested me and I was thrown in a po­lice car and hand­cuffed. I looked up at my mother and I tell you, I don’t think she has ever been prouder.”

Mo­ments like this were just one of the ways in which Robert Kennedy’s pres­ence con­tin­ued to be felt by his widow and chil­dren af­ter his 1968 as­sas­si­na­tion. Ethel was three months preg­nant with Rory when her hus­band was fa­tally shot, hav­ing just ad­dressed his sup­port­ers in a Los An­ge­les ho­tel ball­room while on the cam­paign trail in his bid to se­cure the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. He died in hos­pi­tal 26 hours later.

“I grew up with­out a father, and with a sad­ness for sure, not hav­ing him or know­ing him,” she says. “I also grew up with fam­ily who had a real sense of grat­i­tude for the life we have, and for all the ex­tra­or­di­nary gifts. There wasn’t a lot of tol­er­ance for feel­ing like a vic­tim, or feel­ing sorry for your­self.”

While con­ver­sa­tions about Bobby’s life and work were com­mon­place, when it came to his death, talk was more muted. In 2012 Rory di­rected Ethel – an HBO doc­u­men­tary about the life of her mother. “Can we talk about some­thing else?” Ethel says, hold­ing back tears, when her daugh­ter brings up her father’s mur­der on cam­era. “We grew up in a fam­ily where we were en­cour­aged to look out­wards at what was go­ing on in the world,” Rory ex­plains. “There was less fo­cus on what was go­ing on in­wardly.”

To­day she lives on the out­skirts of Los An­ge­les with her hus­band and film-mak­ing part­ner of 20 years Mark Bai­ley and their three chil­dren. There’s no doubt the Kennedy name has been of use to her – her fam­ily is un­doubt­edly of more in­ter­est to the pub­lic than her films - but no­body could ac­cuse Rory of tak­ing the easy path into the in­dus­try. A di­rec­tor and pro­ducer, she has turned her lens on gun vi­o­lence, HIV and Aids, the Viet­nam war and her own fam­ily – hardly straight­for­ward or glam­orous sub­jects. And she’s clearly ta­lented too: she’s won an Emmy and been nom­i­nated for an Academy Award. Her new film, Above and Beyond: Nasa’s Jour­ney to To­mor­row looks to the space agency’s past suc­cesses and fu­ture chal­lenges as it marks its 60th an­niver­sary.

In 1962, her un­cle John F Kennedy launched Nasa’s pro­gramme to take man to the moon. “The film jumps around through time, and it’s or­gan­ised some­what the­mat­i­cally rather than a chrono­log­i­cal telling. Part of that was be­cause of my per­sonal con­nec­tion.”

As a stu­dent at Brown Univer­sity, Rory found her­self drawn to doc­u­men­tary. “Ca­ble was ex­plod­ing dur­ing my col­lege years,” she re­calls, “and we grew up in an Ir­ish fam­ily, where sto­ry­telling was a big part of my ex­pe­ri­ence.”

‘I grew up with­out a father and with a sad­ness, for sure’

Look­ing back, she says, film felt like a nat­u­ral fit – but in its own way it was also an­other act of re­bel­lion. “I’ve con­sid­ered go­ing into pol­i­tics or be­com­ing a lawyer, but I wanted to beat my own path.”

There were a lot of men in the Kennedy fam­ily, and that’s one rea­son she gives for en­rolling on a women’s stud­ies ma­jor. “There were seven brothers and the in­flu­ence of the older gen­er­a­tion was dom­i­nated by men in my fam­ily.” But there were lesser known fig­ures who, to Rory’s mind, also did great things. “My aunt Eu­nice started the Spe­cial Olympics. That was one of the most amaz­ing con­tri­bu­tions of our fam­ily, and a lot of peo­ple aren’t aware of it.”

For all the priv­i­lege, wealth and power the Kennedy fam­ily pos­sesses, theirs is a story also de­fined by grief and sad­ness. Both Rory’s un­cle and father were killed be­fore she was born; Rory was only 15 when her brother, David, died from an over­dose. While on a ski­ing trip with an­other brother, Michael, he had a fa­tal ac­ci­dent. She knelt by his side while at­tempt­ing to re­sus­ci­tate him.

The tragedies con­tin­ued. En route to Rory’s wed­ding in Con­necti­cut, her cousin John F Kennedy Jr, who was pi­lot­ing a light air­craft, died in a plane crash with his wife, Carolyn Bes­sette, and sis­ter-in-law, Lau­ren Bes­sette. The of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board con­cluded that Kennedy fell vic­tim to spa­tial disori­en­ta­tion while he was de­scend­ing over wa­ter at night and con­se­quently lost con­trol of his plane. ‹

‹ Be­fore he flew his friend John Bar­low, for­mer lyri­cist with the Grate­ful Dead, said: “You know just enough to be dan­ger­ous. You have con­fi­dence in the air, which could harm you.” As the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Ed­ward Klein wrote in his 2001 book The Kennedy Curse, Rory Kennedy “suf­fered more from the Kennedy Curse than any other mem­ber of the fam­ily.” How did she nav­i­gate the dark­ness?

“It’s an on­go­ing process. I’ve worked on it. I’ve…” Rory fal­ters. “I feel pain, sor­row and sad­ness. That’s part of the process, over these many years.” She goes silent again. “I think that I’ve also, over the years, got­ten tools to help me work through it in a pos­i­tive way, turn­ing those ex­pe­ri­ences into a deeper un­der­stand­ing of oth­ers. You see some­body else suf­fer and you feel that suf­fer­ing.”

Not ev­ery Kennedy has dealt quite so well with the pres­sure. Theirs is a dy­nasty de­fined not only by pol­i­tics and power, but scan­dal too. There were the af­fairs: brothers Jack and Bobby are both ru­moured to have had flings with Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe; Rory’s brother Michael with his chil­dren’s teenage babysit­ter. A cousin was charged with rape, an­other of mur­der. Un­cle Ted sur­vived when he drove off a Martha’s Vine­yard bridge. The young woman he was driv­ing was left for dead, sub­merged in the wa­ter. Ted fled the scene, his blood al­co­hol lev­els never tested.

And there were the as­sas­si­na­tions: killings which to this day are sub­ject to count­less con­spir­acy the­o­ries. Through it all, Rory has kept her name from head­lines. “I try to deepen my un­der­stand­ing of those events, that loss, I try to… ul­ti­mately it’s hard, and sad, and dif­fi­cult. But I do feel that it has had a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence on me and my abil­ity to do the work that I do.”

‘Trump is tap­ping into the worst of us, our fears and anx­i­eties’

are strug­gling to stom­ach the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, but for Rory, see­ing the pres­i­den­tial of­fice be­ing den­i­grated on a daily ba­sis comes with its own par­tic­u­lar, per­sonal sting. If it wasn’t for a gun­shot, the White House might have been her child­hood home, as it was for her cousins. “It’s hor­ri­ble. It ac­tu­ally makes me de­pressed,” she says of Trump’s pres­i­dency. “It has a psy­cho­log­i­cally dam­ag­ing im­pact on me, as an in­di­vid­ual. It’s re­ally up­set­ting, and it is per­sonal.

“You feel it walk­ing around and talk­ing to peo­ple – there’s a cloud of sad­ness, dis­ap­point­ment and anx­i­ety,” she says. “He’s do­ing dam­age to the cli­mate, to im­mi­grants, to peo­ple who live in poverty, to work­ers, to women, to race re­la­tions… There’s a sex­ual preda­tor in the White House,” she adds – a la­bel she also ap­plies to Trump’s Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion, Brett Ka­vanaugh.

As with the most ex­pe­ri­enced politi­cians, in al­most two hours of con­ver­sa­tion, Rory gives only what she wants of her­self away. Ques­tions are smoothed over with fluff and plat­i­tudes. One gets the im­pres­sion that Rory doesn’t re­sent still hav­ing to speak about her fam­ily – she says she “love[s] the as­so­ci­a­tion” – but just as with that doc­u­men­tary, Ethel, it’s a rose-tinted vi­sion. As the New York Times put it: “Watch­ing [ Ethel] is a lit­tle like read­ing a clas­si­fied re­port redacted by Dick Cheney – so much ma­te­rial is blacked out that it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to fol­low.”

Democrats across the USA

Rory’s take on her fam­ily is sub­jec­tive. The fact she’s a film­maker doesn’t change that. Yes, the Kennedy’s sala­cious sto­ries are what make Rory in­ter­est­ing, but you can’t blame her for not air­ing the dirty laun­dry in pub­lic again and again. She her­self has man­aged nearly half a cen­tury scan­dal-free (which, all things con­sid­ered, is ar­guably her most im­pres­sive achieve­ment), and as a doc­u­men­tar­ian she’s now some­what re­moved from the Kennedy nar­ra­tive – more com­fort­able be­hind, not in front of, the cam­era. And, if you’re re­ally look­ing for that dirty Kennedy laun­dry, it has been free for all to see for decades any­way.

that lies face-down in front of her. It’s a copy of the widely quoted speech John F Kennedy made when he an­nounced at Rice Univer­sity that Amer­ica would en­deav­our to land a man on the moon. She reads it aloud.

“He was tap­ping into the best of hu­mankind,” she says af­ter­wards, clearly proud of her un­cle. “That’s lead­er­ship – where we ex­pand our knowl­edge and be­come our bet­ter selves. We don’t have that right now in our coun­try. Trump is tap­ping into the worst of us, our fears and anx­i­eties.”

At 13 she put her lib­erty on the line for a cause – would she get ar­rested to protest Trump to­day? Again, the Kennedy smile: “Ab­so­lutely. I would wel­come it.” ■

Rory picks up a piece of pa­per

Above and Beyond: Nasa’s Jour­ney to To­mor­row airs at 8pm on Sun­day 14 Oc­to­ber on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel

Life and death: (left) Robert Kennedy in 1967, the year be­fore he was shot. Be­low: his widow Ethel holds baby Rory, while Ed­ward Kennedy looks on

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