CAN we be cursed? Might an individual, or his family, come under such divine wrath as to be granted, henceforth little but mishap, illness, tragedy and loss? I was pondering this in a low moment at the weekend (we remain non-smoking, but with a building capacity for self-pity) when the question was sensationally highlighted by news from America.

As I write, John F Kennedy Jnr, is missing, presumed dead, with his wife and sister-in-law after his small plane smashed into the sea. As if to confirm that all hope is now despaired of, we are told that the Pope himself has prayed for them.

The Kennedys are a large, close-knit and immensely rich Boston clan of Irish Americans. Despite a tendency to toothy grins and premature ends, they have an enduring hold on the popular imagination. It is more than the money and the power. It is the myth of Camelot: that broad, bright, sunlight upland that befell America in the early sixties, when an impossibly young President reigned in Washington with his impossibly beautiful wife.

It ended with gunfire in Dallas: decades on after Vietnam and Watergate, Aids and Lewinsky, the Kennedy presidency shimmers through the past like lost and Edenic innocence.

There was a dark side to all this. One aspect is trivial. President Kennedy had a relentless, pathological and rather disturbing appetite for women. One is serious: the source of Kennedy fortune.

The patriarch, Joseph P Kennedy, died in the autumn of 1969. In one of medicine's sick jokes, he had been long silenced by a stroke, but was granted sufficient alertness fully to understand the calamities piling upon his children.

His eldest son, Joseph P Jnr, was in 1944 blown up in a wartime bombing mission from England. Kennedy's eldest daughter, Rosemary, was mildly retarded. This was embarrassing, so her father insisted on a fashionable lobotomy. This left her severely retarded. (For many years the Kennedys pretended there was nothing wrong with Rosemary, who is still in a mental institution; it was given out that this shy, saintly woman worked in some anonymous orphanage.)

Another daughter, Kathleen, was widowed after a few months of marriage and herself died in a plane crash. John and Jackie lost two children; a boy born in 1963 lived scarcely a day. The President was shot in November of that year. In 1964 the youngest brother, Senator Edward, was fortunate to survive still another plane crash. He has abiding back injuries.

In 1968 Robert Kennedy - the most interesting of the bunch - was shot in Los Angeles, as he made his own bid for the presidency. Two of his sons are already dead: David in a 1984 drug overdose, Michael in a 1997 skiing accident.

In 1969, at Chappaquiddick Creek and in circumstances never properly explained, Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge into a tidal inlet. He escaped from the submerged vehicle. His passenger, a young, unmarried woman, did not. It was the following morning - hours later, and only after Kennedy had summoned assorted advisers and speech writers to his aid, before he notified the authorities. Divers at length found Miss Mary Jo Kopechne trapped in an air pocket of the upturned car. She had survived several hours until the oxygen ran out.

The Kennedys never quite recovered from Chappaquiddick, which exposed the clan at their most cynical and tacky. Memories of the scandal contributed to defeat in 1980 for Edward, when he failed to wrest the Democratic nomination from President Carter.

The scandals and deaths have continued ever since. Several young Kennedys have been convicted of drugs offences. Others have been involved in assorted bizarre accidents. When Robert's eldest son, Joseph P Kennedy III, crashed his jeep 25 years ago, a young girl was paralysed for life.

Senator Edward's first wife, Joan, was driven to drink by his infidelities; by 1980 their marriage was all but over. Their son, Edward Jnr, in childhood lost a leg to cancer. In the early 90s a nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was tried for rape. He was acquitted but the squalid details of fornication did little to enhance the family image.

Much of this old Joe was spared to see. This Joseph P Kennedy was a wicked man. Some of his fortune was built legally, most of it was criminal at source. During Prohibition he made a fortune from bootlegged liquor. Publishing, property and the movie industry were convenient fronts through which to launder the profits of gambling, prostitution and extortion. Kennedy built close links with the Mob. His private life was debauched; an affair with Gloria Swanson was a high moment amid the succession of whores.

Kennedy raised his children to ethics best described as Darwinian. Winning, they were taught, was everything; the defeated merited only contempt.

Old Kennedy owned his children. He controlled their money and to a large degree their lives. Much of John's political career was simply bought; there were untold dirty tricks at Kennedy elections, and thousands of bribes. Through Jack, Joseph sought to fulfil his own failed political ambitions. He had, in the thirties, paid his party enough money to win the post of Ambassador to Britain. As the Second World War neared, Joseph had made little secret of his regard for Hitler and his certainty that England would lose the war. Roosevelt sacked him before he could do real harm.

Where Joe had failed, Jack succeeded, becoming in 1960 the first Roman Catholic elected President. ''It's not the Pope that worries me,'' joked Harry S Truman, ''it's the Pop!''

Do we now see judgment on the Kennedys: the wages of the sins of the father? We should remember that inherited wealth itself is an infliction and a peril. None of Joseph P's descendants have ever had to work for a living. Rich, idle souls are apt to do silly things, and especially to cultivate danger; if life is stress-free, it is necessary to invent some. So, on occasion, Kennedys have done drugs. Or, in dodgy conditions, to make reckless flights in small, private planes.

Beyond that factor, is there a spiritual judgment? Such questions keep one thinking through smokeless days and restless nights. These dark concerns of guilt and death dawn upon us even in earliest childhood. We meet them first in puzzlement, not in fear; like the frown, in that haunting clip of old film, which flickers on a toddler's face as he salutes the coffin of his murdered father.