This week we may hear a little about the 35th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, but there is another anniversary that has alreeady gone unnoticed. On July 18, 1969, a couple of nights before Armstrong took that “giant step for mankind,” Ted Kennedy took a turn onto a narrow bridge in Chappaquiddick. The passenger in his car that night was Mary Jo Kopechne, a pretty, blond Capitol Hill secretary, just about to celebrate her 29th birthday. The two events are inextricably linked in my mind because my husband, who was a correspondent for a British newspaper, instead of reporting on our glorious odyssey into space, ended up at police headquarters on Martha’s Vineyard covering that sordid story.
In case you have forgotten or never knew the details, Ted and five of his pals and six women known as the “Boiler Room Girls” who had worked in Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, cut short by his assassination the year before, were weekending together. Afterward, the men claimed it was just a couple of days of innocent fun to thank the girls for their help, though the six guys were all married but partying without their wives, and the young women were all single. One of the “Boiler Room Girls” is now big-time New York literary agent Esther Newberg, who was Mary Jo’s roommate for the weekend. Like everyone involved in the incident, Esther remains close-mouthed about what occurred.
What everyone testified at the time was that Kennedy and Mary Jo left the party before midnight. Kennedy said he was driving her back to the ferry to Edgartown, and took a wrong turn, though he was very familiar with the roads on the island. His car toppled off a narrow wooden-planked bridge, a bridge that is in the opposite direction to the road that led to the ferry but is on the way to the beach. The car landed upside-down in eight feet of water and, Kennedy claimed that after escaping, he tried unsuccessfully to rescue Mary Jo. He then staggered back to the party, called out his cousin Joe Gargan and his pal Paul Markham, to return to the scene. What he didn’t do, inexplicably, was seek help in a lighted house only yards from the bridge or use the fire-alarm phone at a fire station he passed on the way back to the party.
Right from the start, the reporters who arrived at the scene were skeptical of his story, skeptical even of how he claimed he got back to Edgartown that night. Markham and Gargan said when they drove to the ferry landing–the ferry had stopped running by then–Kennedy took them by surprise by jumping in the water, and swimming across the channel towards Edgartown. They assumed, they said, he would report the accident that night to the police. Instead Kennedy went back to his hotel, ostensibly to change his clothes but instead, went downstairs to complain about a noisy party that was going on.
The next morning Markham and Gargan were waiting for Kennedy when he arrived at 9 A.M. on the first ferry. The ferry operator said Kennedy appeared to be in a jovial mood, but probably only until he was told that his car had been found. Only then did Kennedy return and report the accident.
Some reporters, primarily the foreign press, did ask tough questions. For example: Did Kennedy really swim back to Edgartown that night? No one saw him with wet clothes and my husband, for one, interviewed a young man who had tied up his rowboat at the Chappaquiddick dock on Saturday night. When he got there on Sunday morning, he said, it had been retied and with what he called a “land lubber’s knot.”
But the whole incident was overshadowed by the worldwide coverage of the moonwalk. Besides, all the people involved had, by midday, left Martha’s Vineyard and headed home. When the police went to the cottage where the party had taken place, all they found were some washed Coca-Cola bottles. There was no one to interview and no one who would talk then–or ever. Besides, Kennedy was treated like Massachusetts royalty by the local police chief, Dominick Arena, who even gave up his office so that Kennedy could make telephone calls to advisers and lawyers in privacy.
It may have been the last time when a scandal was so under-investigated, so quickly dispatched–and the man involved seemed to get off so easily for what he had done. A week later, Kennedy, who arrived in court wearing a neck brace, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a two-month suspended sentence and a year’s probation.
Next week Ted Kennedy will be center stage at the Democratic convention in Boston. “It will be a celebration…of the work of Ted Kennedy…. There will be a lot of appropriate attention paid to a person who has been at the center of national politics for the past forty years,” his colleague Senator Christopher Dodd has enthused. And last year Boston Globe reporter Charles Pierce commented, “If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.”
It would be funny–if it wasn’t so sad.
–Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.