Outsized in their ambition, their flaws, their tragedies and their accomplishments, the Kennedys have long occupied prime real estate in the political arena and the public imagination.
After Sen. Edward Kennedy's death late Tuesday, the family's last towering public figure is gone, but the Kennedy legacy is woven through American life in ways that will never disappear.
It lives on in the fusion of politics and celebrity created by patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy and his sons: in John F. Kennedy's leadership style and call to service; in a commitment to social justice inspired by Robert F. Kennedy, and in dozens of laws that bear Ted Kennedy's name or imprint — including one that made possible the multicultural, multihued society that elected a black man president.
The dark side of the family story also endures: Two assassinations and 13 children who grew up without fathers; accidents that claimed and damaged lives, and men behaving badly toward women, one generation after another.
Kennedys have been idolized and demonized for decades, romanticized as the second coming of Camelot and splashed across tabloids as exemplars of self-indulgence. "Sooner or later, we'll get a balanced vision of what they were," says Laurence Leamer, author of three books on the Kennedy family.
Boston University historian Thomas Whalen says anyone in a family, especially a large one, can relate to the adventures and misadventures of the Kennedys. "They are America's family," he says, "both good and bad."
The story of the Kennedy clan in America began with Patrick Kennedy, an Irish man who fled the potato famine in 1849. As the Kennedys prospered, many immigrants saw in the family's rising fortunes what they hoped to achieve for themselves.
Few people were as driven or flamboyant in pursuit of success as Joseph P. Kennedy, Patrick's great-grandson. He invested profitably in stocks, commodities, real estate and movie studios. There were stints as a bank president and a steel executive. Leamer and other historians say he supplied bootleggers with imported liquor during Prohibition. Afterward, he made a mint selling the stuff himself.
Joe Kennedy married Rose Fitzgerald, daughter of Boston's mayor, and became a friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. That led to appointments as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and, in 1937, U.S. ambassador to Britain.
But Kennedy was out of step on World War II. He tried to improve German-American relations and opposed U.S. involvement in the war. When Britain was under siege in 1940, he made defeatist-sounding statements such as "Democracy is finished in England."
The miscalculations ended Joe Kennedy's diplomatic career and political prospects. Instead, he became what writer Vincent Bzdek calls a human blowtorch, propelling his sons into politics. He expected possibly all four to become president.
"He wanted to create a more lasting dynasty than the Roosevelts," says Bzdek, author of The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled.
The children — four boys and five girls — were schooled to be clannish. For all their wealth and education, "they always felt they weren't accepted," Whalen says. The prevailing attitude was "all we have is each other. We have to stick together."