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On Saturday night, three days before he died, David Kennedy asked Robert Driscoll to paint a flower for him. A longtime friend of the Kennedy family, Driscoll, 75, exhibits his paintings at the Brazilian Court, the elegant Palm Beach hotel where David was spending Easter. Accompanied by a date, chestnut-haired Leslie Griffin, 24, of Greenwich, Conn., Kennedy spotted the artist wandering among the palms and orange trees on the grounds and asked him to paint a red anemone. "David asked for it because it is a very sexy flower," says Driscoll. "The girl showed an interest in having the painting, but I told David he must keep it for himself. He thanked me and agreed. It became his farewell, his last request."

For Driscoll, that is a fond memory, one that illuminates the softer side of a sensitive young man whom he loved as "a kindred spirit." It was not, however, a scene typical of this tormented young Kennedy's final days.

David had arrived in Palm Beach two days earlier, on April 19, fresh from a stay in a drug program at St. Mary's Rehabilitation Center in St. Paul, Minn. There was no room for him and some other family members at the mansion of his ailing grandmother, Rose, 93, but along with the rest of the Kennedy clan, he made dutiful daily visits there. The rest of his days and nights were spent in a relentless pursuit of oblivion. He started drinking in the morning, double vodkas (often three at a time) smuggled into the perpetual dusk of his curtained room even before the hotel bar opened at 11. In the afternoons he lounged around the hotel pool. At night he hit the local bars, sometimes with relatives and friends, sometimes alone. "He could really slam 'em back, double vodkas on the rocks," recalls Shaun Donnelly, the bartender at Doherty's, a preppy piano bar. "He'd drink that much and it didn't show."

Donnelly saw Kennedy during the afternoon; at night the drink sometimes did show. "He looked a mess," says Kim Waldron, a cocktail waitress in the same bar. She didn't recognize the haggard, unshaven young man until he paid for his drinks with an American Express card bearing the name Mrs. Robert Kennedy. David threw Waldron a lame line—he said he was new in town and asked her to show him around—but she declined. "I didn't want to be seen with anybody who looked like that," she says. A member of the Brazilian Court staff says David appeared sickly: "He had an old body for such a young man." On Sunday, the day after painting the flower, Driscoll saw David at a splash party co-hosted by Leslie around a pear-shape pool on a nearby estate. "By that time David had begun to look pretty bad," he says. "He was out of it, taking Demerol and drinking a lot of vodka. He had been on methadone. He was the wrong person to be drinking."

He certainly was. David Anthony Kennedy, in his short 28 years of life, already had caused himself more than enough trouble with drink and drugs. Once he'd been mugged in a sleazy Harlem hotel known as a drug supermarket and "shooting gallery." Twice he'd been arrested for drunk driving. At least five times he had been in and out of drug treatment programs. Although he wasn't the only Kennedy boy to use drugs, David had long been identified as the problem child, the one in constant crisis. "David died of despair," says a Kennedy friend in Boston. "He really did believe that everyone in the family regarded him as merely a skeleton to be kept closeted."

Even before tragedy blasted his family, David was a dreamy introvert in a crowd of outgoing, boisterous competitors. His father, Robert Kennedy—like David, the scrawny, shy third son in a large family—understood him best. He took pains to nurture the boy, to bring him to his Senate office on Saturdays, to make sure that the frail tow-head saw his share of action in the family's trademark touch-football games. On June 4, 1968, while California Democrats cast their votes in their presidential primary, Bobby took David for a swim at Malibu. The ocean, not particularly pacific that day, snatched the scared 12-year-old from the surf and dragged him out into the deep water. Bobby Kennedy swam after the boy, clutching him to his chest and carrying him back to shore. It was the last service Bobby performed for David. That night, alone for hours in a hotel room and overlooked in the commotion, David stared at the live television coverage of his father's assassination. He didn't speak for days afterward. The magnitude of his loss is hinted at in the touching tribute he wrote six months later as a Christmas surprise for his mother: "Daddy was very funny in church because he would embarrass all of us by singing very loud. Daddy did not have a very good voice. There will be no more football with Daddy, no more sailing with him, no more riding and no more camping with him. But he was the best father their [sic] ever was and I would rather have had him for a father for the length of time I did than any other father for a million years."

His father's death seemed to end any sense of order or direction in David's life. That summer his mother sent him to Austria, where he had his first sexual encounter; it was with a 17-year-old girl who in the process mumbled something about feeling sorry about his father. Later that year his older brother Bobby gave him a tab of mescaline. At 15, David hitchhiked with his cousin Chris Lawford to New York, where they panhandled in Grand Central Station and with the money bought heroin in Central Park for the first time. By then David was a dedicated doper, starting his days at Middlesex Academy in Concord, Mass. with a morning joint and tripping on acid frequently. The drug use increased after David severely injured his back, and his girlfriend Pam Kelley was paralyzed, in his brother Joe's jeep accident on Cape Cod. In the hospital David received morphine to relieve the pain in his back; upon his release he began experimenting with heroin to ease his psychic anguish.

Ethel Kennedy tried various strategies to set her son straight. During one summer vacation she sent him to work with labor organizer Cesar Chavez in the lettuce fields in California. During another, she dispatched him to do manual labor on a ranch in Colorado.

But his problems were not so easily remedied by being thrust out on his own. Unlike his brothers, David confronted his mother with his pain. Over Christmas at Aspen, one friend recalls, David, an expert skier, would lie on the couch in his mother's house all day and have his food brought to him by a maid. Whenever he tried to bring up his father's death, Ethel would cut him off. "No one ever talked to me about what I was feeling," David told Peter Collier and David Horowitz, authors of the forthcoming book The Kennedys: An American Drama, to be published in June by Summit Books. "Nobody ever talked to me about my father's death. To this day, in fact, my mother has never talked to me about it."

In the fall of 1974 David arrived at Harvard. "He was incredibly emaciated and white faced," a classmate remembers. "He was walking death." He lasted two years, then dropped out and headed for New York, where he frequently made the gossip columns squiring attractive women (including actress Rachel Ward) to trendy discos. "It was tons of fun," says a pal who went along for the ride. "David was a real gentleman. He really cared about his friends and treated them well." But his close friends were worried. "He'd come home so completely out of it, you'd have to watch him really carefully," says one intimate. "You never knew if he would do something like drop a lighted cigarette and set the place on fire. Everyone around him was completely scared. They were all keeping tabs on him, calling him, calling other people, to check where he was and who he was with." This friend remembers crashing one night in David's apartment and waking to the sound of sobbing. "I asked him if he wanted to talk," he says. "He didn't."

In September 1979 David was beaten and robbed in a Harlem hotel that catered to the dope trade. A week later he was hospitalized with bacterial endocarditis, a disease frequently associated with drug abuse. Friends say he nearly died. The Kennedy family dispatched him to a series of drug-treatment programs. Finally in February 1980 the family hired Sacramento, Calif. detoxer Donald Juhl, 41, whose clients have included the late Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, actor Jan-Michael Vincent and, reportedly, David's brother Bobby Jr., after his South Dakota arrest for heroin possession last year. Juhl is said to have treated the wayward David in Hyannis Port and then taken him to Sacramento in February 1980. David told a friend that Juhl's treatment cost $100,000, which he said came out of his trust fund. Five months later he was arrested for drunken driving, an offense he repeated in Sacramento within two years. Patrick Powers, a Sacramento advertising consultant and Kennedy acquaintance, watched David hit the bars and drift into more dangerous pursuits. "I saw him party and I saw him get stoned," he says. "He never really got off it."

In June 1980 David met hairstylist Nancie Alexander, 35, through associates of his drug counselor. Although they shared few interests—she is a fundamentalist Christian and a conservative Republican—their platonic friendship thrived, and David found he could confide in the motherly Nancie. "I said to him, 'Do you think people expect more of you because of who you are?' He said people should expect more. 'I have everything they want and they don't understand why I don't use it to the fullest,' " she recalls. "He wanted his mother's respect. He wanted to grow up and he wanted to be well." At one point, Nancie says, David became an Amway distributor and enthusiastically "believed he could become a millionaire." Another time he worked as a laborer for a cement firm. "If you were around David for any time, it would make you cry," Nancie says. "He was so lost. He was bent on going down a one-way street the wrong way."

In 1981 he went home for Christmas and brought back to Sacramento a new girlfriend—free-lance photographer Paula Sculley. They moved in together and remained close until his death. "When Paula came into his life, they were inseparable," says Alexander. "She accepted him 100 percent and she took care of him. Paula wasn't into drugs."

David left Sacramento in the fall of 1982, telling friends there that he planned to return to Harvard, then go to law school or into journalism. He occasionally hung out his Kennedy-bred ambitions like tattered banners. "We used to drive by the Justice Department and David would say, 'I'm gonna be up there one day, I'm gonna be Attorney General,' " says a Washington friend, remembering David's desire to emulate his father. To be readmitted to Harvard, David took a six-month job at the Atlantic Monthly. He worked as a glorified clerk and gofer, but even that menial job sometimes seemed too much for him, and co-workers found him unable to concentrate or even to remain awake. But he held on and then entered Harvard, completing a summer and a fall semester before he dropped out again. On March 19 he checked into St. Mary's Rehabilitation Center under the name of David Kilroy. He seemed merely to be going through the motions. "It was pretty obvious that he was resisting," said one staff member. "He was in his own world. He was brought up to hide his feelings. And he was scared to death."

On Thursday, April 19, after 28 days at a daily fee of $149, David left St. Mary's and flew to Palm Beach. He checked into a $292-a-night two-room suite at the Brazilian Court, near his younger brother Douglas, 17, who was with a friend from Georgetown Prep. When Douglas was around, David drank soda or Perrier, the hotel staff noticed. But when Douglas left him alone, David guzzled vodka. That ruse did not fool his family. By Tuesday morning concerned family members were calling his room, only to find the phone busy for hours. They requested that someone check up on him. At 1 p.m. bell captain Doug Moschiano went to his room, ignored the "Do Not Disturb" sign and knocked. There was no answer. He unlocked the door and peeked in. David was in bed, asleep, with the phone off the hook. That afternoon David took a cab to visit his grandmother and returned to the hotel around 9. The next morning his mother, worried that he was not back in Boston, phoned the front desk. Again Moschiano checked the room, this time accompanied by hotel secretary Betty Barnett. "Douglas and I were standing outside David's door when I had the most ominous feeling," she says. "Call it a mother's gut instinct or whatever, but I knew what we would find."

They knocked, heard no answer, then entered. David was lying on the floor, between twin beds that hadn't been slept in, wearing beige shorts, a preppy pink shirt, brown socks and off-white Top-Siders. A packed green duffle bag was on one bed, a dollar bill on the other. "I touched his face," says Barnett, "and there was no doubt about it. He was dead." Paramedics, on a training mission nearby, arrived only a minute later. There was nothing they could do. Police found a prescription pill bottle and 1.3 grams of high-quality cocaine in the room. The autopsy results revealed cocaine and Demerol in his bloodstream.

A few days later David's friend Robert Driscoll, the artist, speculated about David's last hours. "He had driven his brother Doug and his friend to the airport on Monday," he said. "He was left alone. He was depressed and letdown after a party-filled five days. He went to his room alone to go to bed early. Then he pumped himself up..." Driscoll paused, then spoke slowly. "I'll miss David. All the others are tough. They are different soil than David. They handled their father's death. But it hit David harder. He suffered too much." It was a suffering no one could help him with. He succumbed to it alone.

  • Contributors:
  • Linda Marx,
  • Civia Tamarkin,
  • Maria Wilhelm.