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‘Last Child of Camelot’

New book by author Christopher Andersen offers a portrait of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the young wife and mother left to carry on in her legendary family’s name.
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November marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and in a new book titled “Sweet Caroline: Last Child of Camelot,” author Christopher Andersen chronicles the heartbreaking losses and the dignified resolve of the last surviving member of the Kennedy first family — Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. He discusses the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt below.

SATURDAY, JULY 17, 1999 5:30 A. M.

Nothing. Not a dial tone, not a busy signal, nothing. He called his cousin’s house keeper back to make sure the number she had given him was correct. It was, she assured him. So Tony Radziwill tried again — this time enlisting the help of an operator.

“Yes, I’m trying to get through to Mountain Village Resort in Stanley, Idaho, operator,” he said, “but I can’t get through.”

The operator tried, but no luck. “They must be having some trouble with the line, sir,” she said politely. “I’ll go ahead and report it.”

Tony had also tried Caroline’s cell phone, with no better luck. He checked his watch and did the math. It was still early in Stanley — not yet 4:00 A.M. — and Radziwill wondered for a moment if he should disturb the children. No, this was too important — they had to know. “Operator, this is an emergency,” Radziwill said. She hesitated for a moment, surprised by the sudden urgency in his voice. “I am trying to get in touch with the Schlossbergs — they are staying at the Mountain Village Resort, and I’m afraid there may have been an accident ... ”

“Stay on the line,” she answered. “I’ll see what I can do.”

As he waited, phone in hand, Tony gazed out at the brilliant sunrise over the Atlantic. He was sitting next to the sixteen-burner Vulcan stove in the kitchen at Red Gate Farm, the sprawling estate his Aunt Jackie had built on Martha’s Vineyard. All the rooms at Red Gate Farm, decorated in pastels and lined with books, looked out over the ocean through multipaned windows made the old-fashioned way — with wooden pegs instead of nails. “It was a dream place, a sunlit place,” her friend George Plimpton once said. “It’s hard to explain the effect it all had on you — all the variations in color, water sparkling like diamonds everywhere you looked.”

That is precisely why John had insisted that his cousin Tony spend the summer at Red Gate Farm. Radziwill had been battling cancer for over a decade, but now it was getting the upper hand. The soothing atmosphere that enveloped Red Gate Farm — Aunt Jackie’s own secluded Shangri-la — could only accelerate the healing process, John had told him.

“Tony Radziwill’s cancer was really tearing John up,” his friend John Perry Barlow would later recall. “He did everything he could for Tony, but he knew that he was dying, and they really loved each other.”

But right now it was Tony who was worrying about John — and Radziwill was not alone. John, who often piloted his Piper Saratoga to Cape Cod on weekends, had planned that night to fly his wife, Carolyn, up to Hyannis Port for his cousin Rory’s wedding. They were not missed at the wedding rehearsal dinner that night, since it was understood that first they were making a brief detour to nearby Martha’s Vineyard to drop off Carolyn’s sister, Lauren.

But by 10:00 P.M., Lauren Bessette’s friends had become concerned that she was more than two hours overdue. A thick blanket of haze had settled over the region, forcing many pilots to either delay or cancel their flights. Perhaps John had made the same wise decision. It was possible that they’d never left at all.

When John ‘s plane had not turned up an hour later, a call was made to Ted Kennedy in Washington. He immediately phoned John’s New York apartment. Someone answered, and for a fleeting moment the senator breathed more easily — until he realized that the voice belonged to a friend whose air-conditioning had broken down. John and Carolyn had given him access to their apartment so he could escape the city’s sweltering summer heat.

It was shortly before midnight when Tony was startled awake by the phone — Ted Kennedy wanting to know if perhaps John had checked in with him. For the next few hours, Tony was one of more than a dozen people manning the phones in an increasingly frantic effort to find John. At 2:15, family friend Carol Ratowell called the Coast Guard operations center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. They then contacted the FAA, which scoured airports in the region, hoping to discover that John had decided to put down at the nearest airport and wait for visibility to improve. An hour later, having failed to locate the missing plane, the FAA alerted both the Coast Guard and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Virginia’s Langley Air Force Base.

Back in Stanley, Idaho, Caroline Kennedy slept soundly alongside her husband, Ed, blissfully unaware of the events unfolding twenty-five hundred miles to the east. The couple had planned to celebrate their thirteenth wedding anniversary and Ed’s fifty-fourth birthday on July 19 by white-water-rafting through the region known as the River of No Return. That afternoon John had made his daily call to his sister’s cell phone from the offices of George, the irreverent political magazine he cofounded in 1995. John did not want his nieces, Rose and Tatiana, and his nephew, Jack, to miss this adventure, and had insisted that Caroline not worry about missing Rory Kennedy’s wedding. John and his wife would represent JFK’s branch of the family at Hyannis Port that weekend.

They had always been close, but since their mother’s death five years earlier, Caroline and John seemed to lean on each other.

The foregoing is excerpted from “Sweet Caroline” by Christopher Andersen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.