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Moving on

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All these months later, social worker Rosa Pardo still gets excited when she recalls her breakfast last December with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. “I sat right next to her and told her my daughter was named after my mother, and she said, ‘My daughter Rose is named after my grandmother,’ ” says Pardo, 31. One of four people to receive a John F. Kennedy Jr. Hero Award that morning from the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity John had long championed, Pardo, honored for her efforts to prevent child abuse, found Caroline to be as nervous as she was about making a speech. “She said, ‘I hope I don’t sound like an idiot,’ ” says Pardo. “That’s just what I was thinking! She’s a normal everyday person.” Later, when fellow honoree Marc Washington, 25, who works with street youths, broke into tears recounting his brother’s violent death, Caroline hugged him and encouraged him to “stay strong.” Says Pardo: “She exuded this elegance and grace. Caroline was absolutely kind.”

The event marked one of Caroline’s first public appearances since the death last July 16 of John, 38, his wife, Carolyn Bessette, 33, and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34, in the crash of the Piper Saratoga that John was piloting off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. The appearance also suggested how the sole surviving member of Camelot’s First Family intends to honor her beloved brother. “She said she was here to support what John wanted,” says Washington. “She said she wanted to continue what John cared about.” In her quiet, dignified way, Caroline, 42, was serving notice that she intends to do for her brother what she has long done for her father and mother: preserve, protect and promote his memory. “The Kennedy legend is her franchise,” says presidential scholar Stephen Hess. “It’s her legacy.”

If that inheritance weighs heavily on Caroline, the most reserved and least media-friendly member of her glamorous family she is not letting it show. “She’s doing great,” maintains Edwin Schlossberg, 54, her husband of almost 14 years. With characteristic grace and determination, Caroline continues to juggle her self-imposed public duties with the private role that has always come first: that of mother to Rose, 11, Tatiana, 10, and John, 7. “She seems to be very together and very much in control of herself,” says bandleader Peter Duchin, a friend of both Jackie’s and Caroline’s. “She is a very well-balanced and psychologically secure woman.” Adds an old Harvard pal, who, like many of her friends, asks not to be identified for fear of being cut off by the ferociously private Caroline: “She’s doing a hell of a lot better than anyone could expect.”

At the May 8 gala heralding the opening of the American Ballet Theatre season at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, an event she began chairing in her mother’s place the year after Jackie’s death in 1994, Caroline cut an elegant figure in her Carolina Herrera sequined top and silk crepe skirt. She appeared relaxed and happy as she shared a front-row balcony box with Tipper Gore. At the sit-down dinner party that followed, she turned to her mother’s friend Aileen Mehle (a.k.a. Suzy to readers of her society column) and jokingly asked, “Next to mine, which is the most beautiful dress in the room?”

Caroline will again venture into public May 22, traveling to Boston to present the John F. Kennedy Library’s Profile in Courage Award. This year the award, which Caroline cofounded in 1989 with her mother and brother in honor of her father, will be a bittersweet affair, marked by two firsts. The winner, California State Sen. Hilda Solis, honored for strengthening environmental protections for minority communities, is the first woman to receive the award. (“I know Caroline had a whole lot to do with that,” says Elaine Jones, who has served on the award committee.) It is also the first time Caroline will host the event without John. “For her to give the award by herself makes her worthy of a Profile in Courage Award,” says John Perry Barlow, a longtime friend of John’s.

Though Caroline’s continuing grief is evident to close friends, they say it is so intensely personal that most never even mention John’s name. “Caroline has just been trying to make it through this first year,” says a family intimate. On the anniversary of John’s death, there will be neither a huge Kennedy gathering (“too many haunting memories,” says a friend) nor a public tribute. “Caroline is carrying a great emotional burden that needs time to heal,” says an acquaintance. “She’s still in mourning, but she has to be there for her children and carry them through this.”

One totem of their anguish hangs in family patriarch Ted Kennedy’s private Senate office. On a piece of lined school paper, Caroline’s youngest, who was John Jr.’s nephew and godson, wrote, “Dear Uncle Teddy, Will you be my godfather now? Love, Jack.” It hangs next to a note that JFK penned as a prep school student: “Dear Mom and Dad, It is the night before exams so I will write more later. Love, Jack. P.S. Can I be godfather to the baby [Teddy]?” The answer was yes.

While Caroline finds consolation in her faith, her relatives and her public duties, what keeps her grounded is the life that she and Schlossberg, an author and interactive media designer, share with their children. “The major focus of her life is her kids,” says a friend. In their comfortable Park Avenue apartment (“Nice stuff, but nothing you’d find in Architectural Digest,” one observer offers), Caroline tends to her children’s colds, homework and meals, often cooking dinner, despite live-in help. For special occasions, Joseph Spadaro, who usually cuts Caroline’s and her daughters’ hair at a Madison Avenue salon, has come to the apartment to do Caroline’s hair. “It’s a house with children playing,” he says. “It’s not, ‘You wait in the drawing room, darling.’ When we’re finished, they come running and say, ‘Mommy, you look pretty.’ ”

Many days, clad in jeans and wearing no makeup, Caroline walks her daughters to the same private all-girls school that Caroline herself attended. “She’s there a lot, with the dog, picking up the children,” says an acquaintance. As a school trustee, Caroline helps guide school policy and writes articles for a quarterly parent publication. Her husband, a hands-on dad, helped design the school’s computer lab. “They come to parent-teacher nights, they come to assemblies when the kids are performing,” says the acquaintance. “The kids have been brought up in a solid, not a frivolous, way.”

Since John’s death, the family has taken several trips. “They go away from the crowds, where nobody knows them, and it’s quiet,” says a friend. In September, Civil War expert Shelby Foote gave the Schlossbergs and the families of Ted Kennedy and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend a private tour of the Antietam battlefield near Sharpsburg, Md. At Thanksgiving, Caroline and her girls visited the horse country of Middleburg, Va., where a very young Caroline was first introduced to riding by her mother. “It’s quite wonderful that she carries on this tradition,” says Eve Fout, a longtime riding friend of Jackie’s. Caroline also retreats frequently to the Schlossbergs’ two-story, wood-shingled weekend house in Sagaponack, N.Y., on Long Island. “She comes to church on a regular basis and brings her children,” says Father Patrick Callan of the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church in nearby Bridgehampton. “She has a real sense of faith that carries her through.”

The house, which sits behind a tall row of hedges, also offers distance from the tabloid press, which has filled the vacuum created by her silence with unsubstantiated rumors. One such rumor maintains that Caroline intends to sell her mother’s Martha’s Vineyard estate, a notion that at least one island neighbor dismisses as “100 percent not true.” Rumors also persist that John’s marriage to Carolyn Bessette was tempestuous. Yet other sources assert that the relationship between the sisters-in-law was strained as well. “Caroline and Carolyn had a falling out over Carolyn’s lifestyle and over the people she consorted with,” says Jackie biographer Edward Klein. “John and his sister had a chill because he was defending his wife.” John Davis, a cousin on Jackie’s Bouvier side, affirms that Carolyn “was not close to Caroline,” but in sists that John and Caroline “remained very close.”

Beyond her nuclear family, Caroline leans most steadily on her Uncle Ted. At a November fund-raiser for the senator, Caroline said in her introductory remarks, “Without Teddy, I don’t think I could have gotten through the past few months.” There are also indications that Caroline, after decades of following her mother’s lead and keeping a distance from the more raucous Kennedy cousins, may be renewing family ties. In a rare interview for a recent 60 Minutes II segment about Ted, Caroline said that since John’s death, she has gained an appreciation “for how lucky I am to be in our family.”

Her work also provides solace, connecting her to those she has lost. Though she doesn’t speak directly about carrying on the family’s tradition, a Profile in Courage Award staffer notes, “she says so by what she does.” As president of the JFK Library Foundation board, Caroline steadfastly “represents her father,” serving as the “compass for his library,” says Paul Kirk, the board’s chairman. For a library exhibit of Jackie’s overseas travels that opens May 27, Caroline selected and donated paintings from her mother’s estate. The effort, says a confidante, “has been emotional and at the same time satisfying.” Other tasks have been more onerous. “Last year, Caroline dismantled John’s apartment and had to deal with his personal effects,” says a family intimate. “All of this was just so painful.” Last October she sold her brother’s 50 percent stake in George magazine to Hachette Filipacchi, the magazine’s publisher.

But despite her vigilant oversight of Camelot memories, Caroline seems more interested in shielding her children from her sad inheritance than sharing it. “She runs the show with a confident toughness,” says an acquaintance. “You get the feeling that she doesn’t want to pass this ‘legacy’ on to her children.” If anything, some say, she errs in the other direction. “Remember when her daughter stuck her tongue at the photographers?” asks biographer Klein, recalling young Rose’s high jinks at John’s memorial service. “That obviously has to come from absorbing her parents’ attitude towards media intrusion into their private life.”

Caroline’s passionate defense of her privacy is more than a pose. It is a mission—and may well prove to be her own legacy. Both bestselling books that she coauthored with law school pal Ellen Alderman—1991’s In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action and 1995’s The Right to Privacy—explore the nature of privacy. According to their literary agent Esther Newberg, the pair has no new book projects in the works. But they did recently post a lengthy piece titled “Expectations of Privacy” on the Mighty Words Web site. “If we do not protect our privacy it will be taken from us,” they wrote. “And if we accept intrusion, we will be conditioned to expect less privacy than we deserve in a free society.”

That unflinching attitude can prove scorching. A few friends who reminisced fondly but publicly about John after his death quickly found themselves persona non grata. “Caroline won’t talk to me, and I adored her,” says an old Kennedy staffer. Adds Klein: “She’s very much a Kennedy: Don’t get mad, get even. What other credo can she live by, given the way the media treats the Kennedys?” Some observers find such intransigence insupportable. “As an activist and a woman who wrote about the First Amendment, she can’t just shut the door and disappear,” says Helen Thomas, until recently UPI’s White House correspondent. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Those who know Caroline aren’t so sure. They anticipate that she will continue to bear the family torch while pursuing her own passions, living each day—on her own terms—to the fullest. “Everybody gives her a lot of credit, but nobody worries about Caroline,” says Massachusetts State Rep. James Vallee, who roomed with her cousin, Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, in college. “She is like a rock.” Joseph Gargan, who is Caroline’s first cousin once removed, agrees. “She knows that John would want her to be strong and move on with her life,” he says. “That’s always been a Kennedy family message: to pick up and carry on.”

Jill Smolowe

Elizabeth McNeil and Jennifer Longley in New York City and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.