The ancient Greeks set the standard for cursed bloodlines: Oedipus emerged from the mythical House of Thebes with what should have been a familiar-looking MILF awaiting him at the altar. But when it became clear that he had married his mother after killing his father, Oedipus blinded himself, and his mother committed suicide.
Although Oedipus is myth and parable, when a real family suffers tragedies across the generations, it’s easy to wonder whether something otherworldly has cast a curse on that bloodline.
A curse is, by definition, supernatural, which dismisses the two primary factors at work in all families: genetic predisposition and free will. Examined in this light, a curse sounds less like an explanation for bad luck and more like an excuse for poor behavior.
All told, wealth, notoriety, impropriety, genetics, hubris and even self-fulfilling prophecies play their part in tainting the bloodline.
The Lee family
One evening the martial-arts master known as Bruce Lee took some medication for a headache. An allergic reaction caused his brain to swell and he died of cerebral edema at age 32 and on the verge of super-stardom: His highly influential kung fu classic, Enter the Dragon, was released a month later.
Twenty years on, his only son Brandon was on the wrong end of a decidedly more complicated sequence of events.
Brandon Lee was filming a scene for The Crow that required his character to be shot. The previous day, the props team overlooked a “squib load” -- a real bullet -- that had been pushed into the gun barrel. The next day, another props team loaded the gun with blanks; when fired, the gunpowder proved sufficient to fire the squib load into the 28-year-old Lee, killing him. Like his father, Brandon Lee died young, and on the verge of stardom.
Next generation: Being on the verge of stardom is a dangerous place for members of the Lee family, which might explain why Brandon’s sister Shannon has only acted in movies so awful they have no chance of making her a star.
The Borgia familyWell before 1492, when Rodrigo Borgia bought the title by which he’s better known, Pope Alexander VI, his uncle, Pope Calixtus III, had made him a cardinal and vice-chancellor of the church. As pope himself, Rodrigo made his eldest illegitimate son, Giovanni, both a duke and a cardinal, his second illegitimate son Cesare an archbishop, and it’s possible either he or Cesare fathered his daughter Lucrezia’s first child. While Rome sunk into poverty and decay, the Vatican was a 24-hour party central.
Then Giovanni was assassinated -- most likely by Cesare. When his father died, Cesare was exiled and imprisoned by the new pope and died shortly thereafter.
Next generation: On the plus side, the murdered Giovanni had a boy named Juan Borgia, who in 1671 was canonized as St. Francis Borgia.
The Brando family
Marlon Brando’s mother suffered from alcoholism, and his first wife, Anna Kashfi, developed drug and alcohol problems after giving birth to their son Christian. Along with his own drug problems, Christian shot and killed the boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne. Convicted of voluntary manslaughter, Christian served six years of his ten-year sentence.
In an effort to prevent her from testifying at Christian’s trial, Brando sent Cheyenne to Tahiti so she couldn’t be subpoenaed by U.S. authorities. A year before Christian was released, she committed suicide.
Next generation: Cheyenne’s brother Teihotu is the sole inhabitant of Tetiaroa, an island near Tahiti for which Brando owns the lease until the year 2064. Beyond him, Brando has a handful of surviving children.
The House of HabsburgFrom the famed House of Habsburg, Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I reigned for 68 years, the third longest reign in the history of European aristocracy. His grandfather was Francis II, the last of the Holy Roman Emperors. Franz insisted on marrying his cousin Elisabeth of Bavaria, whose side of the family had a long history of mental illness. Elisabeth was stabbed to death at age 60 by an anarchist.
Their son and heir, Crown Prince Rudolf, hooked up with a 17-year-old baroness and shocked the world by committing murder-suicide. As a result, Franz Ferdinand, the emperor’s nephew, became heir apparent. In 1914 Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, the event is widely considered to be the precursor to World War I.
Next generation: The assassination effectively ended some eight centuries of Habsburg reign in Europe.
The Tutankhamun Dynasty
King Tut was born of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. This bloodline was already old and inbred, giving the ungainly boy a cleft palate, an overbite, big front incisors, and possibly Marfan’s syndrome (in his case, this translated into elongation of the skull). Perhaps this is one small reason he married his father's daughter, Ankhesenamen.
Tut and Ankhesenamen had two daughters, both born premature -- one with spina bifida -- and stillborn. King Tut himself died at age 19, either from bludgeoning, poisoning or rapid-onset gangrene, leaving Egypt without an heir. His wife chose to marry an insider named Ay, who some believe murdered Tut.
Next generation: Ay, a commoner, was the second-to-last pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. He chose his successor from his military, effectively ending the Tut bloodline.
The Nehru-Gandhi family
With India’s independence in 1947 came the rise of this political dynasty. Patriarch Jawaharlal Nehru served as India’s first prime minister, and he urged his only daughter Indira to go into politics.
She served as prime minister from 1966 to 1977, and was re-elected to the position again in 1980. She had been grooming her unpopular younger son Sanjay to follow in her footsteps, but he died in a plane crash shortly after her re-election. Four years later, she ordered her soldiers to invade the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion, the Golden Temple. The act was perceived as blasphemy by Sikhs everywhere -- including those who served as her bodyguards. Five months later, two of them pumped 31 bullets into her body.
She was succeeded as prime minister by her eldest son, Rajiv. In 1991, a young woman knelt to touch his feet and detonated a belt bomb. Rajiv, the woman and 16 others died in the explosion.
Next generation: Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, leads the Indian National Congress and is among the world’s most powerful women, but trouble is brewing: Her son Rahul is in Parliament and has a terrible reputation nationwide. Meanwhile, the widow and son of Sanjay are both estranged from the family and part of the political opposition.
The Romanov familyThirteen years after his grandfather’s assassination, Nicholas II became the Russian Tsar. His wife Alexandra had inherited a mutated gene from her grandmother, Queen Victoria, which she passed onto her son Alexei, the long-awaited heir. As a result of his gene pool, the boy was weakened by hemophilia, and the Russian population had little faith in his ability to rule the country.
Desperate to heal him, Alexandra further damaged the family’s reputation by enlisting the help of Rasputin, a controversial mystic.
Rasputin prophesied that the end of the Romanovs would follow his own death by a year. Sure enough, noblemen murdered the mystic, and two months later, the February Revolution brought an end to more than 300 years of Romanov power.
Next generation: More than a few women have tried to pass themselves off as one of the Tsar’s four murdered daughters, but since 1918, the remaining Romanov descendants have kept a very low profile.
The Hemingway family
Even a brief glance into this bloodline showcases one clinical curse: severe depression.
At 29, Ernest’s literary career was just taking off when his father shot himself. Ernest went on to earn a Nobel prize, Pulitzers, wealth, and international fame. However, these accolades were not enough to keep him from attempting to walk into the spinning blades of a twin-engine plane before eventually killing himself with a shotgun at age 62.
Five years later, his sister Ursula, who struggled with cancer and depression, committed suicide with an overdose. Sixteen years after that, Ernest’s only brother, Leicester, raised a gun to his own head after learning his diabetes would cost him his legs. Ten years on, Papa’s 35-year-old granddaughter Margaux succumbed to her own depression and deliberately overdosed on barbiturates.
Next generation: Ernest’s bloodline lives on through his well-known granddaughter Mariel, who has two daughters, Dree Louise Crisman and Langley Crisman.
The Von Erich familyFritz Von Erich was a successful wrestler whose wife bore him six sons. Chronologically, it’s pretty much downhill from there.
First-born: Died from electrocution and drowning at age 7.
Third-born: David, the “Yellow Rose of Texas” wrestled successfully in the NWA, but couldn’t seem to “defeat” Ric Flair for the championship. In 1984, the NWA board of directors had allegedly decided David would finally claim the title from Flair, but before that could happen, David died from a drug overdose.
Fourth-born: Kerry, “The Texas Tornado” was the most famous and successful of the brothers, briefly holding the NWA title and even flirting with the WWF. After lengthy drug problems and a motorcycle accident, Kerry killed himself in 1993.
Fifth-born: Michael strapped on the spandex after David died, but he suffered from toxic shock syndrome following shoulder surgery. In 1987 he overdosed on tranquilizers.
Sixth-born: Chris had lost three of his brothers and was a poor wrestler. Depression led to his 1991 suicide.
Next generation: Second-born son Kevin is the only living child of Fritz. “The Golden Warrior” enjoyed a successful wrestling career before retiring in 1995. Kevin has four children and a grandchild.
The Kennedy family
Enter the First Family of cursed bloodlines. The Kennedys embody every angle of the supposed curse, from coincidence to bad luck to impropriety to the remote possibility that something otherworldly really is at work against them. Curiously, Senator Ted Kennedy has been quoted as saying there may be a curse on the family. While the Kennedy clan may buy into that theory, writer Edward Klein suggests the curse is “the result of the destructive collision between the Kennedys' fantasy of omnipotence -- their need to get away with things that others cannot -- and the cold, hard realities of life."
Beginning with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, other events generally attributed to the curse include a botched lobotomy, miscarriages, strokes, cancer, deaths by plane crash, assassination, skiing, overdose, suicide, and a scattering of otherwise preventable tragedies in which members of the Kennedy entourage die by accident, murder, negligence, bad behavior or hubris.
Next generation: As recently as 2006, Congressman Patrick Kennedy crashed his car while on heavy prescription narcotics. His father, Ted Kennedy, has survived a plane crash, a near-drowning, and in 2006 the plane he was in was struck by lightning.