If you’ve been with me since day one, you already know that when I was a kid I was something of a Kennedy family aficionado. I had probably every book written about every member of the Kennedy family (of which there were, and are still, many many many). Therefore, I’ve always known about the Chappaquiddick incident. This week, when the film about it came out and there was this sort of air of disbelief on social media as people realized they had never heard or known about it, I knew I was going to end up writing or podcasting about it. So, you’re gonna wanna settle in to be unsettled for this one.
If you need a brief refresher on the Kennedy family, you probably know of John F. Kennedy, whose presidency ended when he was assassinated in 1963. JFK had come from a robust political family which included a brother, Robert called Bobby, who went on to make a run for the presidency in the wake of JFK’s conspiracy-theory-laden assassination — to continue the Kennedy legacy. Bobby was also assassinated just a few short years later in 1968.
Of the Kennedy men with active political careers, that left one remaining living brother: Edward called Ted Kennedy, a U.S. senator who was also expected to make a presidential run. This expectation was particularly lofty after the deaths of his brothers at the height of their political careers and their endearment to the American public.
The summer after Bobby’s assassination, Ted decided to throw a get together for some of his political friends & allies, as well as a group of young women who had worked on Bobby’s campaign. It was no secret that the Kennedy men loved women and didn’t need to throw a barbecue to give themselves a reason for a little extra-martial dillydallying, but the party Ted had in mind was more in the spirit of supporting the women who had been, as much of the nation was, devastated by Bobby’s death. The women had been affectionately known as “The Boiler Room girls,” as they had done their work (cold calling delegates to curry favor for Bobby during his campaign) from a windowless, stifling room in Bobby’s campaign office.
Among them was soon-to-be 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, whom the press would later reduce to simply: the Blonde.
The only child of Joseph and Gwen Kopechne, Mary Jo had been a school teacher before relocating to Washington D.C. to work on Bobby’s campaign. She had a degree in business administration and had done a great deal of secretarial work for politicians, as well as their speechwriters and aides. She herself had worked on the speech that Bobby Kennedy gave announcing his presidential bid in 1968. Despite her wealth of knowledge and work experience that had set her up for a promising career, Mary Jo was so devastated after Bobby’s assassination that she felt she could not return to work on Capitol Hill.
After a brief period away to work in Colorado, she ultimately found her way back to D.C., where she returned to her work on political campaigns, garnering the respect of Washington’s elite along the way.
It was in the summer of 1969, while she was building her career and living with a few other women in Georgetown, that Mary Jo was invited to a reunion cookout in honor of The Boiler Room Girls. If it was still a tender spot for her, that didn’t stop her from attending the party, which was being hosted by Bobby’s brother Ted, a state senator, on an island off Martha’s Vineyard (near to where the Kennedy clan had their famous, or infamous, compound at Hyannis Port, Cape Cod).
The party on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18th, 1969 was reachable by a ferry, but the guests would need to stay in a hotel for the night in Edgartown. The Boiler Room Girls settled into one, while Ted Kennedy and his friends filled another. The barbecue on Chappaquiddick was relatively small, maybe you’d even say intimate, affair: there were six men including Kennedy. All married, and all older than the six young women who joined them — who were all single and under the age of 30. Just a few days shy of her 28th birthday, Mary Jo Kopechne was the oldest of the female guests. Ted Kennedy was 37.
What happened between Ted and Mary Jo toward the end of the evening (which, by all accounts, had mostly consisted of drinking, cooking up steaks, and music) comes largely from his recollection. He stated that around 11 o’clock, he decided he wanted to go back to his hotel room. He’d been talking with Mary Jo at the time, who either made mention that she didn’t feel well or simply asked if he’d mind dropping her off at her hotel along his way. Whatever the impetus, Ted next went looking for the Kennedy family’s chauffeur, John Crimmins and asked him for the keys to the Oldsmobile. When asked later why he didn’t have the driver take them, he insisted he hadn’t wanted to disrupt the man’s dinner.
Ted and Mary Jo left the party together — although no one knew that, because neither of them had told anyone they were leaving. This was odd for several reasons, not least of which was that Ted was the host. It would have been odd, if not an unforgivable faux pas by Kennedy standards, to leave a party without at least bidding one’s guests goodnight. And while the story had always been that Mary Jo wanted to return to her hotel room, she hadn’t told anyone she was leaving, either. More puzzling was that she’d left both her hotel room key and her purse behind at the party. As though she’d intended to return. Or, as though she’d never wanted to leave in the first place.
From here it’s important to note the layout of Chappaquiddick Island — at least to point out that both Mary Jo and Ted had traversed the route to the ferry landing several times during their stay. Neither of them would have been what you’d call completely unfamiliar with the road, even if they were traveling along it in the dark of night.
Still, Ted Kennedy always maintained that he’d simply taken a wrong turn, become somewhat disoriented in the process of navigating, and the small bridge over one of the island’s tidal ponds came upon him suddenly.
When it came into view, he slammed on the brakes in panic, which sent the car over the edge of the narrow wooden bridge — not hard to do, since it had no guard rails at the time. The car, with Ted and Mary Jo in it, sunk down seven feet where it landed on the bottom roof-down.
Peculiarly, despite its perilous appearance, in all the years the bridge has been on Chappy, Ted Kennedy was and remains the only person to have ever driven off it.
Though he could never recall precisely how Ted managed to escape from the car and reached the water’s surface. According to his account, he dove back down several times to try to pull Mary Jo free. He fatigued after several attempts, rested on the bank, then dove in again — but to no avail.
Perhaps if the story had ended there, the only mystery around the incident would have been regarding the pair’s departure from the party. But what Ted Kennedy decided to do next — or rather, what he did not do, — became one of the most confounding elements to the case.
He left the scene and walked back to the cottage where the party had continued on in his absence. Along the way, he passed several houses, many of which, despite the late hour, still had their lights on. He also passed by the island’s fire department.
But he did not ask for help.
In fact, it would be another ten hours before the accident was reported.
The truth of what happened that night, what Ted Kennedy did next, is as murky as the water from which Mary Jo Kopechne’s body would be pulled the following morning.
The official statement (written and unsigned) that Ted Kennedy gave the following morning tells his version of the story which, in spite of its plot holes and weaknesses, has remained the truth on record:
On July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 p.m. in Chappaquiddick, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, I was driving my car on Main Street on my way to get the ferry back to Edgartown. I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right onto Dike Road, instead of bearing hard left on Main Street. After proceeding for approximately one-half mile [800 m] on Dike Road I descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge. The car went off the side of the bridge. There was one passenger with me, one Miss Mary [Kopechne], a former secretary of my brother Sen. Robert Kennedy.
The car turned over and sank into the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom. I attempted to open the door and the window of the car but have no recollection of how I got out of the car. I came to the surface and then repeatedly dove down to the car in an attempt to see if the passenger was still in the car. I was unsuccessful in the attempt. I was exhausted and in a state of shock. I recall walking back to where my friends were eating. There was a car parked in front of the cottage and I climbed into the backseat. I then asked for someone to bring me back to Edgartown. I remember walking around for a period and then going back to my hotel room. When I fully realized what had happened this morning, I immediately contacted the police.
The diver from the fire department tasked with retrieving Mary Jo Kopechne’s body was a man named John Fararr. When he reached the vehicle, he found her locked in a harrowing and somewhat hopeless position from rigor mortis: her face was turned up toward the water’s surface, her hands gripping the backseat — as though she had died desperate for air. It was not the appearance of someone who had died on impact or even moments later — Mary Jo had lived for some time beneath the water before she died.
Although an official autopsy was not conducted, the medical professionals on hand briefly examined her body to determine the cause of death (although it had seemed fairly obvious that she’d drowned). Of note, several of these experts reportedly felt it would have been more accurate to say that she’d suffocated as opposed to drowning.
Some who have investigated and analyzed the case in the years since have proposed that Mary Jo had found an air pocket in the car’s cab —perhaps a large one. Farrar said in a radio interview some years ago that he believed this. If that had been the case, he reasoned she could have stayed alive for at least an hour, if not longer. That could well have been long enough for her to survive — if someone had called for help.
Help had not come for Mary Jo, but plenty came for Ted Kennedy in the hours after he left the scene and in the weeks that followed the accident. In many ways, it was about political strategy: for one thing, he was painted almost immediately as a tragic hero, which fit perfectly into the rather unfortunate legacy of his family.
By now it was well established that the Kennedy family seemed to be cursed, and people close to Ted Kennedy probably figured that if the incident at Chappaquiddick could become part of that narrative it might help salvage his political career in the long run. In the short term, it would hopefully be enough to keep him out of prison.
After he submitted his statement, the police let Kennedy go. They reportedly did so at least in part because they felt sorry for him. The investigators had also assumed they’d have the chance to question him later. This proved an incorrect assumption to make, as Ted retreated to the Kennedy compound, protected by his family (what was left of it) and his high-powered political allies — most of whom were lawyers. The only time he left the compound in the week following “the incident” was to attend Mary Jo’s funeral.
The Kopechne’s were not rich like the Kennedy’s, nor were they as well acquainted with the cruel circumstances of having to bury a child. In order to pay for her burial, Mary Jo’s parents had to draw on the savings account they’d set aside with the intent of one day helping their daughter pay for a wedding.
When Ted Kennedy finally spoke about what had happened that night, he was careful (or strategic) to make several points: On the night of the incident, neither he nor Mary Jo had been drunk — and certainly not driving drunk (he’d stated that he’d had his last rum and Coke several hours before).
He also insisted that he had been behind the wheel and that he’d not been driving recklessly or speeding (he said he’d been going no more than 20 mph, even as he approached the bridge — a claim that would be tried and tested by engineers in the decades to come).
Ted also insisted that there had been no illicit tryst between he and Mary Jo. He’d just been giving her a ride back to her hotel. It had been no more than a tragic accident.
All these years later there is still a heap of unanswered questions, many of which arose in the years that followed Mary Jo’s death. But the most urgent queries and inconsistencies emerged almost immediately. Several were even posed to Ted Kennedy and his lawyers by law enforcement and the judge during the inquest. The foremost of which being: why the hell didn’t he call anyone for help? Why did he wait all night — only reporting the incident after it became clear, the next morning, that the accident had already been discovered?
In his testimony, he skirted around the question and never really gave any kind of direct answer. The closest he came in his lifetime was that, eventually, he did take responsibility for what he called “a poor decision.”
For many, the next question has always been: if he had gone for help would it have been in vain? Would it have even been possible for Mary Jo to survive long enough? Some have argued (including John Fararr, the diver who recovered Mary Jo’s body) that if Ted had immediately gone for help, she could have potentially survived, and that for a time she may have been revivable even if she’d run out of air. There are others who maintain she simply never had a chance, even if there had been air pockets in the car and she’d been able to get to them.
There are also those who believe in a number of conspiracy theories, one of which was that Mary Jo and Ted Kennedy had been involved in an affair that had resulted in a pregnancy. In fact, this rumor circulated even before the press and the public got ahold of the story — at least insofar as her parents were concerned. They reportedly filed the petition to prevent an autopsy from taking place, because they believed the sole purpose of the post-mortem was to determine whether their daughter was pregnant out of wedlock.
Another theory has always been that Ted Kennedy hadn’t been the one driving that night. That, in fact, Mary Jo had been behind the wheel — which may have lent itself to some kind of explanation as to why he survived and she did not. There were also those who claim that she had been both drinking and driving — for which Kennedy may have been motivated to take the fall.
Even if he’d not been the one driving it would have made more sense for him to say that he had been in order to facilitate one very important move when the incident finally made it before a judge: he would plead guilty to the lesser offense of leaving the scene and failing to report the accident. Since no one could prove anything illegal had occurred in terms of the driving of the car, he wouldn’t be held accountable for manslaughter — bodily injury, maybe, but not manslaughter. Not murder. Even though Mary Jo had died.
In the end, that was more or less how it played out: Ted Kennedy was sentenced to two months in prison, which was suspended. He walked away with just a brief suspension of his driver’s license. Essentially, he went free.
When people are shocked to realize that they somehow didn’t know this story, I point out that one of the best things that ever happened to Ted Kennedy was the Moon landing, which took place within days of this accident and was exactly where most of America’s attention was turned. Nothing — not even the death of a young woman in the car of a married, high-ranking U.S. senator in the middle of the night on some island in the Atlantic — could have drawn the press away from Neil Armstrong’s one small step.
Those who were paying attention then, or who came to know about it in the years that followed, kept asking how could it have happened. Not just the accident itself, but Kennedy getting off more or less Scott-free after just a ten-minute trial. The answer, best as anyone can agree at this point in history, is an altogether unsatisfying one but a fairly textbook miscarriage of justice.
All politicking aside, all legacy of the Kennedy a family’s power aside, all small-town island life of crime aside, the simplest explanation is that no one could prove without a shadow of a doubt that Mary Jo would have survived if Ted had gone for help, and no one could prove that anything had happened between them in the car that night that would indicate Ted Kennedy could legally be held responsible for her death.
Still, there was a pervasive feeling that he was — not just from within the investigation, but coming from the American public. There would be no justice for Mary Jo in large part because of the legal footwork the Kennedy family could perform as they attempted to salvage what they could of Ted’s reputation. He eventually addressed the American people directly, giving a televised speech about what happened at Chappaquiddick.
No one seemed particularly swayed by his effort, though: not the press or the public. Certainly not those who had known Mary Jo. As such, Ted’s image never recovered enough for him to make a successful presidential bid, but he did remain in the U.S. Senate for another three decades.
The film, which I’ve yet to see, could only have happened in the last decade; Ted Kennedy died of brain cancer in 2009. In his memoir, he only spoke of the night so long to call his actions “inexcusable” and to say that as for any lingering rumors that he had been having a doomed affair with Mary Jo Kopechne, that “She didn’t deserve to be linked to me in a romantic way; she deserved better than that.”
What always seems incredibly ironic to me about this case, because I know a lot of random things about the Kennedy family, is that Chappaquiddick wasn’t the first time Ted Kennedy had been involved in a fatal accident. Just four years before he’d been in a small plane that went down in an apple orchard.
One of his aides and the plane’s pilot died in the crash. Though Ted suffered a serious back injury that debilitated him for a time and troubled him for the rest of his life, he survived. Not by some miracle, but because of two other passengers in the plane: a Senator named Birch Bayh and his wife.
When the plane went down, Ted had become trapped. The Bayh’s managed to escape, but they didn’t leave Ted to die alone in the wreckage.
They pulled him out. They saved his life.
Perhaps in the aftermath of that tragedy, grateful just to be alive, Ted Kennedy might have made a promise to himself that someday, if he had the chance to be a hero and save a life, he’d rise to the occasion. He’d pay the favor forward.
Whether he made such a promise to himself or not, we’ll never know. But we know he didn’t make, or keep, the promise of life to Mary Jo Kopechne.
Abby Norman is a science writer & the author of ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN. She lives in New England with her dog, Whimsy.