Death in Aspen

updated 01/19/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1998 01:00AM

MICHAEL KENNEDY COULDN'T WAIT for 1998. After all, for this scion of America's most famous political dynasty, the waning year had been, even by Kennedy standards, one to forget. Following explosive public allegations last spring of a long-term affair with his family's teenage babysitter, the 39-year-old son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy suffered through the breakup of his marriage, a lengthy investigation by Massachusetts prosecutors into possible statutory rape charges, and the beaching, partly in consequence, of his brother Joe's gubernatorial bid. And yet, with that tireless resolve that is also part of the Kennedy legacy, he was determined to bounce back. Although the recovering alcoholic's divorce papers were scheduled to become final Feb. 28, Michael told longtime friend Larry Spagnola that he hadn't given up on his dearest goal: reuniting the family.

"Probably the central thing in Michael's life was his wife and his children," says Spagnola, 43, a documentary filmmaker who kept his former Harvard roommate company at Kennedy's seaside mansion in Cohasset, Mass., during the months after the split. "It was his intention to reconcile."

But for Michael LeMoyne Kennedy, as with so many members of his family, life did not proceed according to plan. Late on the afternoon of Dec. 31, as his son Michael Jr., 15, and daughters Kyle, 13, and Rory, 10, looked on helplessly, Kennedy slammed headfirst into a tree while leading two dozen family members and friends down an icy Aspen slope in a daredevil game of ski football. During the few minutes it took paramedics to arrive, his pulse faded. Ninety minutes later he was officially pronounced dead, from massive head injuries and a severed spine. (An autopsy found no trace of drugs or alcohol.)

Three days afterward, the scene that unfolded at the simple, shingled Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville, Mass., near the Kennedys' Hyannis Port compound, was grimly familiar. Michael, who was 10 when his father was gunned down in 1968 at age 42—five years after the assassination of Michael's uncle President John F. Kennedy—was mourned as yet another committed idealist taken before his time. As friend and author George Plimpton sympathetically put it, "When I heard about it, I thought, 'How could a family have so many things go wrong?' "

More distanced observers, though, raised other questions about Michael's death. More than once, Kennedy family members, who had been visiting Aspen for three decades, had been asked not to play their risky brand of football on the slopes. Only the night before the tragedy, Michael's mother, Ethel Kennedy, reportedly received a request to that effect from an official of the Aspen Skiing Company. Why were the warnings ignored? "The Kennedys play too hard and live too hard," says TIME magazine columnist Hugh Sidey, a White House correspondent during and after the JFK years. "They push the envelope, and sometimes it blows up."

Tragedy was surely not on Michael Kennedy's agenda when he arrived in Aspen Dec. 23 to join his mother, 69, and the families of four of his siblings for their annual ski holiday. Vicki and the couple's three children were already vacationing with her father, sportscaster Frank Gifford, and his wife, Kathie Lee, at their house in nearby Vail. The proximity of the two ski resorts made shuttling the children between parents relatively easy, and on at least one occasion the family reunited for dinner. "It was very festive," says Mel Monsher, a Los Angeles internist who spotted Michael, Vicki and the youngsters as they left the trendy restaurant Syzygy on Dec. 30. "The kids were like cubs, falling over each other trying to put on their coats."

The next day, New Year's Eve, dawned crisp and clear—ideal for skiing the 24 inches of packed powder blanketing Aspen Mountain's runs. By late afternoon, the Kennedy party, including Michael and his children, was at the mountaintop Sundeck restaurant preparing to play ski football—actually a kind of relay in which a toy football or some other object is thrown back and forth from one player to another. The game began shortly after 3:45 when Ethel Kennedy, nursing a shoulder injury, took the last gondola back to town. To avoid collisions with other skiers, "they would wait around till everybody else had left," says a family friend who had played earlier in the week.

And nobody played the game better than Michael, once described by former U.S. Olympic ski coach Bob Beattie as the best natural skier he'd ever seen. As the descending pack picked up speed that fatal afternoon, Michael positioned himself to receive a pass from a friend higher up the mountain. "He was looking toward the football," says another player. Suddenly, "his ski hit [the tree], and he just smashed his head into it. He was bleeding real bad, and people were screaming." Rory, Michael's youngest sister, rushed to his side and desperately tried to administer CPR. As help was summoned, Michael's children were taken to a spot about 50 feet away. "When I came upon him, it didn't look like he was aware of anything," says Davis Factor, an L.A. photographer who was skiing that day and stopped to help. "I don't think this guy knew what hit him."

In the hours and days that followed, the other Kennedys summoned all their survival skills. "It was astonishing that Michael's children coped as well as they did," says Beth Dozoretz, a Washington Democratic Party activist who served pizza to 15 Kennedy mourners at her Aspen home that evening. "The Kennedys all take care of each other."

Sadly they've had plenty of practice. After Robert F. Kennedy's murder left his widow with 11 children, Ethel assigned each of her older kids a younger one to guide as a "godchild." Michael, sixth of the brood, was matched with his sister Rory (now 29 and a New York City documentary filmmaker) but eventually became a role model for the entire family. Bright, confident and insatiably athletic, he was also given to sometimes reckless feats of physical daring, like his 75-foot leap off Maine's Moxie Falls in 1979. "Michael really had a tremendous drive for living on the edge. Whether it was kayaking or skiing, he just did it," says James Hilliard, 54, a longtime friend and business associate. "It wasn't arrogance in his personality, it was just his strength."

Later in life, Michael seemed to be steering clear of the pitfalls that claimed some of his siblings. While older brothers Robert Jr. and David experimented with drugs—David dying of a cocaine overdose in 1984 at age 28—Michael stayed on course. After earning a law degree at the University of Virginia—where one of his professors, Stanley Henderson, remembers him as "a quiet person...with serious intellectual interests"—he settled in Boston. There he took over Citizens Energy Corp., founded by his brother Joe, and used it to provide cheap fuel for the needy in Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, low-cost AIDS drugs in Ohio, and medical and humanitarian aid in Africa.

Politics, of course, is the Kennedy avocation when not its vocation. In 1994, Michael managed his uncle Ted's fiercely fought U.S. Senate race, and he was expected to handle Joe's anticipated 1998 bid to become governor of Massachusetts. But then came the bombshell reports last spring of Michael's alleged affair with the teenager who had sat for his children. "Something snapped about four years ago. Michael started drinking heavily and got depressed," says a campaign worker who was close to him at the time. "He wasn't a mean drunk, just reckless."

For 10 weeks, Massachusetts authorities investigated whether the sitter was underage when the affair began—a charge Kennedy strongly denied. They abandoned the case in July because the woman, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Boston University, refused to cooperate. (In a bizarre outburst after Michael's funeral, Kathie Lee Gifford, on her syndicated TV talk show, blasted the media for "erroneously and irresponsibly" reporting that the affair had started when the girl was 14. According to Gifford, last June, Michael passed three lie detector tests about the girl's age "with flying colors.")

Whatever the truth of the matter, Michael's reputation was seriously damaged. After 16 years of marriage, Vicki moved out with the kids, and brother Joe—himself embarrassed by his ex-wife's revelations about his attempt to have their marriage annulled—abandoned his gubernatorial campaign. "Michael felt horrible about what he had done," says close friend John Rosenthal, a real estate developer. "His biggest concern was the impact it had on his children."

Concern about the kids helped maintain the lines of communication between Michael and Vicki during the months following their separation last April, a period in which he "really got very religious," according to his friend Spagnola. The estranged couple spoke on the phone almost every day. "Many other spouses would have acted differently," says Rosenthal. "She stuck by Michael."

Last week, at his funeral, Vicki stood by Michael one final time. Her simple gold wedding band was clearly visible as she clasped the hands of their children, who now share the saddest Kennedy legacy, the loss of a parent. "The great tragedy is that Michael was left fatherless at 10, and now his own children are left fatherless," says family friend Phil Johnston, 53. "I don't think there are any words anyone can say to make that better."

PATRICK ROGERS

MARE DAGOSTINO and TOM DUFFY in Boston, VICKIE BANE in Aspen and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

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