After the passing of Ted earlier this week, only one of the nine Kennedy siblings remains. Jean Kennedy Smith, the second-youngest and last daughter, is now the sole survivor of a family shrouded in perhaps equal parts of triumph and heartbreak. Jean was just 16 when her brother Joseph Jr. was killed in World War II. But less than two decades later, she saw her other brother Jack sworn in as president. She also traveled the country with another brother, Robert, as he nearly clinched the Democratic nomination in 1968, although she was with him the night he was slain in Los Angeles. After losing her other siblings in tragic ways─a plane crash and a botched surgery that left her sister Rosemary incapacitated and isolated─she and her brother Ted, along with their older sister Eunice (who died earlier this month), have carried the family's legacy of public service.
Jean has often been recognized as the shy Kennedy, the quietest of a very public family. Less vivacious than her limelight-grabbing brothers, Jean has committed much of her working life to society and culture─pushing for accessibility of the arts and joining Eunice to advocate for people with disabilities. Since 1964, the year after John was assassinated in Texas, Jean has held a spot on the board of trustees at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, a post to which she has been reappointed by every U.S. president. Soula Antonio, president of the VSA arts program, which Smith founded in 1974, describes her as "a pioneer"─someone who started working to further the arts and for disabled people at a time when no one else was.
"Her passion is really to create opportunities for people with disabilities," says Ann Stock, White House social secretary during the Clinton administration who now works with Smith at the Kennedy Center. "When you think about all the [Kennedy] kids, they were all raised in a home of arts and public service. When she makes up her mind about something, she just does it. She's a doer; she's not in it for the recognition."
Still, Smith's life hasn't been entirely apolitical. In 1993, President Clinton nominated her to follow in the footsteps of her father─who once served as ambassador to England─and lead part of the administration's diplomatic efforts as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, the country of her family's origin. During that time, she was involved in the controversial decision to grant an American visa to Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams, who later visited the U.S. According to biographer Patricia Keegan, the memory of seeing Ireland for the first time with her brother the president, five months before he died, "was one of the earliest seeds of Smith's enduring Irish connection."
But despite the ups, Smith has been marred by the downturns inherent in almost any Kennedy saga. Her husband, Stephen Smith, died of cancer in 1990, and less than a year later her son, then a medical student at Georgetown, was accused of rape. Teddy, the young man's uncle, testified as a character witness at the trial, at which Smith's son was acquitted of all charges.
Now, with the deaths of her two remaining siblings this month, Smith stands alone, the last of the family dynasty that saw its greatest expansion during her generation. The daughter whom her mother described as too young to experience the great triumphs of her family has now become the matriarch of her bloodline. It's a valid question whether, considering the open Senate seat that has stayed in her family for five decades, she may switch gears, and perhaps run for office to continue the legacy of her more political siblings. But at 81, her interest is unlikely. And the way her friends describe it, she's got her own pursuits to attend to.
For a photographic look at the highs and lows in the lives of Jean Kennedy Smith and the other Kennedy siblings, visit our gallery here.