Caroline Kennedy, the last scion of one of America's most famous political families who, for years, has led an intensely private life, announced she will seek the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
After weeks of speculation that New York Gov. David Paterson was considering Kennedy for Clinton's seat, Kennedy broke her silence on the matter and called the governor to declare her interest.
"She told me she was interested in the position," Paterson told reporters Monday. "She'd like at some point to sit down and tell me what she thinks her qualifications are."
If Clinton is approved by the Senate to become President-elect Barack Obama's secretary of state, Paterson will name her successor.
A lawyer and author who has never held even the lowest elected office, and who in recent years has been known as much for compiling poetry anthologies as for promoting public service, Kennedy has begun a campaign to prove she is qualified.
But beyond proving her credentials, Kennedy must also prove she has the stomach for public life, capable of weathering the attention of her constituents and the scrutiny of the national and local media -- a marked departure from her life thus far.
First shielded from photographers' flashbulbs by her mother Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, following the assassination of her father, President John F. Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy has spent a lifetime cultivating a low profile, dodging curiosity seekers, shunning interview requests and sometimes even refusing to read aloud her books at promotional events.
Friends and biographers say Kennedy's lifelong desire to stay out of the spotlight began with her mother, who tried to keep Caroline and her brother John F. Kennedy Jr. out of the tabloids.
"Her mother was intensely private, and Caroline was brought up in a way that avoided unnecessary publicity," said Ted Sorensen, speechwriter and special counsel to President Kennedy and longtime friend of the family.
"She had no great hunger for public life or the publicity that comes with it," he said.
Caroline and her mother began retreating from the public view soon after President Kennedy's death in 1963, and receded further after the murder of her uncle, Sen. Robert Kennedy, who occupied the same New York Senate seat she now seeks.
Following President Kennedy's assassination, Onassis moved with the children to a home in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., where they were constantly harassed.
"It was a harrowing experience for the family," said Kennedy biographer David Heymann, author of "American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy." "It became a main stop for tour guides. There were tourists and curiosity seekers constantly hanging around the house and peeking in the windows. Every time she left the house, she would have to walk through a gauntlet of people and photographers. On one occasion, a disturbed woman from the Bible Belt threw herself on Caroline and started wailing. There was a real mania surrounding the family, and it caused her to recede."
In 1964, at 7 years old, Caroline threw herself on the floor of her French teacher's car while the two were out for a drive in order to avoid photographers trying to get a picture, according to Heymann.
Onassis later moved the family to New York, hoping to be more anonymous, but the Kennedy children had a constant Secret Service detail.
"She was never unattended. The attention and the security were a constant reminder of her father's death," Heymann said.
In 1967, at age 10, her uncle and surrogate father Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and her mother married Aristotle Onassis a few months later and considered moving the family to Europe.
"If they're killing Kennedys, my kids are number one targets," Jackie Kennedy Onassis told White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger. "I want my children out of this country."
The family remained in New York where Caroline attended high school at Manhattan's Sacred Heart, where she was "incredibly shy and introverted and would often recede into a corner," said Heymann.
Her husband, designer Edwin Schlossberg, has been credited with maintaining the privacy Kennedy sought in her youth and sheltering the couple's three children.
As an adult, Kennedy has worked as a fundraiser for the New York City Department of Education and written or edited several books. It was not until this spring, however, with her endorsement of then-Sen. Barack Obama's bid for the presidency, that Kennedy actively sought the political spotlight.
"It took Obama's candidacy for her to come out of that shell," said Sorensen. "Once she decided that the election of Sen. Obama was important in terms of the furtherance of the country and the furtherance of her father's ideals, she endorsed him and joined the campaign."
Only Kennedy knows why after years of shunning public life, she decided to actively pursue the Senate appointment. But with the death of her brother John Kennedy Jr., who many assumed would one day run for office, and with her uncle Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in ill health, some believe she feels obligated to carry the family mantle.
Kennedy has been endorsed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton.
She is in a unique position to ascend to the Senate without having to do all the things candidates normally do to get elected, the very public events that she has long despised.
"In a political age where celebrity is important, where name recognition and the ability to raise money are important, Kennedy meets those criteria," said political analyst Stu Rothenberg. "But being a senator is a lot of work, and you have to really want it. It doesn't seem she has the fire in her belly."
If she takes over the seat that Clinton vacates to become Obama's secretary of state, Kennedy would assume the position in the fourth year of a six-year term.
"She may have gotten a pass with not having to run an actual campaign, but she will have to in two years," Rothenberg said. "She can't avoid an election entirely. If she gets the seat, she will have essentially been coronated. It's an ideal scenario for someone like Kennedy. But she's still going to have to go back and forth from Washington and do real work.
"Being a senator is a very public job. It's giving speeches and kissing babies and eating matzo ball soup in New York and debating financing bills in Washington," he said. "I don't get the sense that it's really for her."