Our Kennedy curse

Why do we care about these people so much? Our reporter braved Kennedy chronicler Edward Klein's Manhattan reading to find out.

By Amy Reiter

Published July 11, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

Raise your hand if you feel like you haven't heard most of the juicy gossip in Edward Klein's new book, "The Kennedy Curse." Anyone?

Not surprising.

Klein's book, in which he posits that the political family has been dogged by tragedy for more than a century due to 1) hubris and 2) an excess of dopamine, has been excerpted up the wazoo, primarily in Vanity Fair, for which the author is a contributing editor. Klein himself has been giddily working his way up and down the talk-show circuit, often pressed to answer questions about his assertion that the late JFK Jr.'s late wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, was a hot-tempered cokehead and that their marriage was seriously troubled as a result. Bessette Kennedy's friends say the drug allegations are untrue and unfair, given that she and so many of the people about whom Klein writes are dead and unable to defend themselves. They've been venting to the press, too, countering his claims, as have many of the book's critics. The result: total media saturation.

So who was going to turn up at a Barnes and Noble bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan Wednesday evening to hear Klein answer questions and watch him sign copies of his book? Would it shed any light on America's ongoing fascination with the Kennedys? And are we really still that fascinated anyway?

The reading was scheduled for 7. The first thing I noticed upon arriving just 10 minutes beforehand was the emptiness of the sidewalk out front. No lines around the block for Klein and his much-sifted Kennedy dirt. In fact, there were plenty of empty seats in the block of about 60 folding chairs set up in the store's cookbook section, though it later filled up.

I chose a spot smack in the middle where there were three seats just gaping in the breeze. An alarmingly ancient man perched at the end of the aisle slowly pulled his feet, which were clad in what appeared to be surfer shoes, out of the way to let me get by. I saw mostly women, most of them past 60, lots of gray hair. Also several older men, a few middle-aged types and maybe a dozen younger people leafing through Klein's book or gazing expectantly at the podium.

Two old guys in shorts, one wearing a baseball cap commemorating Iwo Jima, were loudly parsing the Barnes and Noble event calendar. Their chatter was punctuated by a 20-something blond woman in a minidress, occasionally cackling into her cellphone.

A smallish man who looked to be in his late 40s, maybe early 50s, made it past the old gentleman on the aisle and sat beside me.

"Do you come to a lot of these?" he asked.

"Not really," I said. "You?"

"Oh yes," he said. "All the time. I live right across the street. These readings are great because they're free and then you don't have to buy the book."

"Right," I said.

"Are you on the list?" he asked.

"List?" It sounded scary and official, but he only meant the Barnes and Noble mailing list, whereby I might be kept up-to-date on other such opportunities not to buy a book.

"I'll think about getting on that," I told him.

"So do you have a burning question you're dying to ask this guy?" he asked.

"Nope. How 'bout you?"

"Oh no," he said. "I don't really have any questions to ask about the Kennedys."

By the time Klein was introduced (did you know he writes the Walter Scott column in Parade magazine?) just a few minutes later, my neighbor had managed to regale me with tales of a big trip he took to England back in the '80s when he and his niece tracked down the queen of England at a small-town event, offered her flowers and ended up with their pictures in the local paper. Message: You never know what exciting things will happen when there are famous people around.

Klein, at the podium, looked supremely camera-ready, his orangey tan apparently powdered to a tasteful matte finish on his face and bald pate in honor of the cameras in the press section behind the crowd. (Bravo was filming for a future segment of "Arts & Minds.") Wearing a blue pinstriped suit, white shirt and purple tie, a snappy white hanky peeking out from his jacket pocket, he looked more high-powered lawyer than high-voltage writer, but he immediately reminded the audience that he was a former editor in chief of the New York Times Magazine with three books about the Kennedys under his belt.

And he knew Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

As Klein launched into his theory about the family curse -- "The Kennedys have a classic case of hubris and a modern case of genetics" that put them "on a collision course with tragedy," he said -- and his belief that John-John, whom he'd found well-meaning but clumsy, had been destined to run for public office, I began to look around.

The blue-haired lady in the polyester suit directly in front of me was drifting off, listing sharply to one side, her head bobbing and snapping up, bobbing and snapping up.

Somewhere in the store, a dog barked.

On the cookbook shelves behind Klein's right shoulder I registered display copies of "The Ultimate Potato Book," "Pressure Cooker" and "Retro Desserts." To his left stood "Pickled" and "I'm Just Here for the Food."

The dog barked louder.

Soon Klein stopped talking and took questions from the audience; it was hardly a feeding frenzy. An old woman in the front row wanted to know why JFK Jr. would plan to run for public office given what had happened to his father and uncle. "Well, that's the Kennedys for you," responded Klein.

A man sporting a denim outfit and John Waters-esque moustache wanted to know if the Bessette family sued the Kennedy estate. Yes, said Klein, and settled probably to the tune of $20-$25 million.

A blond woman (with gray roots) wearing a USA Today T-shirt quaveringly inquired if the Kerry Kennedy/Andrew Cuomo split proved that A) the Kennedys' naughty gene was not gender-specific and B) the family was losing its clout. Klein said the Kennedys had their own first commandment, "Thou shalt not be a loser," and noted that Kerry dropped Andrew and took up with her lover after Cuomo lost his bid for governor. And yes, he agreed, "The blinding light of the Kennedy star is fading on the horizon."

A dark-haired woman with a mediocre face-lift pressed Klein on his dopamine theory. "Don't we all have dopamine?" she said, flashing a well-lipsticked smile as she twisted the knife. "Yes," Klein allowed. "But some have more, some less." The Kennedys, he explained, probably craved danger to increase the levels of dopamine in their brains.

Finally -- dog barking ever more loudly -- someone asked the question Klein had been waiting for, what about Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's drug thing. He smiled, perhaps a bit uncomfortably, and replied that he would begin by answering his critics. "What I said and why I said it," he began, insisting that he started his research with no preconceived notions about JFK Jr. and his pretty wife. "People started telling me about this tumultuous marriage," he said, adding that part of the tumult was due to "her drug habit." Her coke use was an open secret in the fashion world, he said. One club-hopping friend of hers told him she'd gone to the ladies room "six or seven times" in one night, Klein went on, his voice rising for emphasis, and "showed up afterward with white powder on the end of her nose."

I was still thinking about why Carolyn wouldn't bother to wipe off her nose when Klein finished up and the autograph signing part of the evening began. All at once, the place emptied, leaving just 10 people -- all the young audience members, as it happens -- waiting in line to have their books signed by Klein.

"Enjoy your notes," said the man next to me.

I thanked him and stuck around for a few minutes, watching Bravo scramble to interview the few book buyers who remained. One interviewee claimed on-camera to be "fascinated and intrigued" by the concept of a Kennedy curse, but she didn't sound very convincing.

I took one last look at Klein, having finished signing books, smiling for the remaining press cameras. Then I made my way out, past the now-silent dog -- a fluffy, white, harmless-looking pup -- and toward the door.

Just before I left, I glanced back and saw the "fascinated and intrigued" woman poring over a book. Apparently forgotten for the moment, Klein's book was tucked under her arm. She'd turned her rapt attention to Hillary Clinton's memoir.

Amy Reiter

MORE FROM Amy Reiter

Related Topics ------------------------------------------