NEW YORK – Jean Kennedy Smith, who was the last surviving sibling of President John F. Kennedy and who as a U.S. ambassador played a key role in the peace process in Northern Ireland, has died, relatives said Thursday. She was 92.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Smith’s nephew, confirmed her death Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. He was among the family members and prominent politicians who highlighted Smith's work in Ireland as one of her enduring legacies.
“She took an enormous risk to her own reputation and stature as an ambassador,” Kennedy said. “Any other ambassador at that time may not have been able to pull that off.”
Smith was the eighth of nine children born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, and tragically outlived several of them by decades.
Her siblings included older brother Joseph Kennedy Jr., killed in action during World War II; Kathleen “Kick’ Kennedy, who died in a 1948 plane crash; the president, assassinated in 1963 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, slain in 1968. Among Smith’s other siblings, Rosemary died in 2005, Patricia in 2006 and Sen. Edward Kennedy, the youngest of the Kennedy siblings, died of brain cancer in August 2009, the same month their sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver died.
For much of her life, Smith was viewed as a quiet sister who largely shunned the spotlight. She wrote in her memoir that her childhood seemed “unexceptional” much of the time.
“It is hard for me to fully comprehend that I was growing up with brothers who eventually occupy the highest offices of our nation,” Smith explained. “At the time, they were simply my playmates. They were the source of my amusement and the objects of my admiration.”
Though she never ran for office, Smith campaigned for her brothers, traveling the country for then-Sen. John F. Kennedy as he sought the presidency in 1960.
In 1963, she accompanied JFK — the nation's first Irish Catholic president — on his famous visit to Ireland. Smith later recalled the trip as “one of the most moving experiences of my own life.” Their great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, was from Dunganstown in southeastern Ireland.
Three decades later, in 1993, Smith was appointed ambassador to Ireland by then-President Bill Clinton, who recalled her Thursday as a “tireless champion of peace, inclusion, and dignity."
Clinton said Smith was "immediately embraced" by the Irish people not just for her famous name, but also because of her “clear passion for peace and willingness to push for it. ”
Diplomacy, like politics, ran in the Kennedy family. Smith’s father was ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938 to 1940; niece Caroline Kennedy served as ambassador to Japan during the Obama administration.
As ambassador, Kennedy played a “pivotal role” in the Northern Ireland peace process, Irish President Michael Higgins said Thursday.
“An activist diplomat, she was not afraid to break with convention or explore the limits of her mandate,” he said in a statement. “She will be forever remembered as the diplomat who had a sense of Irish history and of what had influenced the Irish in the United States.”
Simon Coveney, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, said her work in “reaching across political divides” was “invaluable” in Ireland’s hard-won peace.
In 1994, Smith helped persuade Clinton to grant a controversial visa to Gerry Adams, chief of the Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein party. The move defied the British government, which branded Adams as a terrorist.
She also risked controversy in 1998 by taking communion in a Protestant cathedral in Dublin, going against the bishops of her Roman Catholic church.
Smith said at the time it was a gesture of support for Irish President Mary McAleese, a fellow Catholic who had been criticized by Irish bishops for joining in the Protestant communion service.
“Religion, after all, is about bringing people together,” she told The Irish Times. “We all have our own way of going to God.”
Smith, who later received Irish citizenship for “distinguished service to the nation," worked tirelessly to strengthen the “enduring links” between the two nations, the U.S. Embassy in Dublin said Thursday.
In a statement, the embassy quoted from one of her final speeches before stepping down as ambassador in 1998: "Though I am leaving soon, I am not really going away because my heart will always be here."
Caroline Kennedy, JFK's last surviving child, said her aunt also played an important role in burnishing her father's legacy. She helped establish the JFK Presidential Library in Boston and served as a longtime trustee for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, who is RFK’s grandson and the lone member of the political dynasty currently in elected office, remembered her as an “incredible aunt" who led a “remarkable life.”
“I’ll miss your trouble-making and your huge heart, Aunt Jean,” the Democrat tweeted Thursday.
Samantha Power, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Obama, said Smith was a “generous mentor” to young women and was always brimming with energy, savvy and wit.
“This is an immense loss,” she tweeted Thursday.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, the dean of Massachusetts’s delegation to the House of Representatives, was among many who also praised Smith's work on behalf of people with disabilities.
Smith founded Very Special Arts, an education program that supports artists with physical or mental disabilities, in 1974. The effort followed in the footsteps of her sister Eunice, who created the Special Olympics for disabled athletes.
“Like the brothers and sisters of her extraordinary family, Jean was a strong believer in public service and helping those less fortunate,” Neal said in a statement Thursday.
Smith was married to Stephen Edward Smith, a financial and political advisor to the Kennedys who died in 1990. The couple married in 1956 and had four children, Stephen Jr., William, Amanda and Kym.
Their son William Kennedy Smith made headlines in 1991 when he was charged with rape at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Florida. He was acquitted after a highly publicized trial that included testimony from his uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who had roused his nephew and son to go to some nightclubs that Easter weekend.
This story has been corrected to remove a reference to Stephen Edward Smith serving as a White House chief of staff.