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The Occurrence at Dyke Bridge

Dyke Bridge at Chappaquiddick, 1969 (Bettman/Getty Images)
Francis Russell, private eye, reconstructs what probably occurred that fatal night and comes up with a hypothesis that puts Kennedy in a better light. Francis Russell, historian, concludes the Kennedys are through.

Editor’s Note: The following originally appeared in the August 26, 1969 issue of National Review.

Edgartown, Mass. A sedan swings down the dirt road of an inconspicuous summer resort on a beat-heavy July night, reaches a makeshift bridge over a tidal creek, slurs toward the low wooden siding, and plunges off into eight feet of swift water. The driver manages to squirm out of the overturned car; a passenger does not, and is drowned. It is a deplorable accident, but commonplace, one that might have occurred on any summer night in any resort in a country whose casualties from automobiles exceed those from wars. If the driver and the unlucky passenger had been nobodies, the occurrence might at best have been worth the notice of a local paper. But the driver happened to be Edward M. Kennedy, junior member of his family and senior senator from Massachusetts, the most glamorous probable Democratic presidential candidate for 1972. Because of the magic of his tribal name, the occurrence at Dyke Bridge on Chappaquiddick, Martha’s Vineyard’s minuscule island within an island, became an international front-page event. Thousands of columns on the incident have been printed here and abroad, editorial writers from coast to coast have had their say, while an army of newspapermen has deployed across the sedate Cape Cod community.

On the surface, the occurrence seems simple enough — a small party of former Kennedy campaign workers gathered after a regatta in a rented cottage; Ted Kennedy affably offering to drive one of the young women present, Mary Jo Kopechne, to catch the ferry from Chappaquiddick to Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard; a mistaken turn in the road, an unexpected and treacherous bridge, and then disaster. But the simple occurrence, when examined even superficially, is blurred by a fog of complexities. The accident took place near midnight. Ted Kennedy did not appear at the Edgartown police station until nine or ten hours later. He attributed his delay in reporting the accident to his having been “in a state of shock….When I fully realized what had happened…I immediately contacted the police.”

In a statement that he wrote out for the Edgartown chief of police, Dominick Arena, with the help of his lawyer friend Paul Markham, who had also been at the party, he said that at 11:15 P.M. he had been driving down Chappaquiddick Road to get the ferry back to Edgartown. Unfamiliar with the road, he had made a right turn onto Dyke Road instead of bearing left to the ferry. After driving about a mile, he went down a hill and came to a narrow bridge. The car went off the side of the bridge, sank into the water, and landed with the roof resting on the bottom. The statement concluded: “I attempted to open the door and the window of the car but had no recollection of how I got out of the car. I came to the surface and 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 back seat. I then asked for someone to bring me to Edgartown. I remember walking around for a period of time and then going back to my hotel room.”

*    *    *

At midnight the ferry On Time shut down. Kennedy gave no explanation as to how he had crossed the 500-foot-wide Katoma Bay Channel to reach his hotel room in Worth House, the white clapboard annex of Edgartown’s Shiretown Inn. But early that morning Russell Peachey, one of the Inn’s owners, acting as night clerk, noticed the Senator standing outside on the patio and asked if he could help him. Kennedy, in a clean, dry sport shirt and trousers, showed no sign of discomposure. He said he had mislaid his watch, and asked what time it was, then mentioned that be had been disturbed by the noise of a party next door. Peachey told him it was exactly 2:25 A.M., and promised to have the noise stopped.

Just before 8 o’clock, two boys fishing off the bridge noticed a car under the water, one wheel just breaking the surface as the tide ebbed. Hurrying to Dyke House, a cottage less than a hundred yards away, they told the tenant, Mrs. Pierre Malm, to telephone the police. In the quarter of an hour it took Chief Arena to arrive, the rear license plate had become visible — L78-207 — a number the chief radioed back to have identified by the Registry of Motor Vehicles. At the same time he sent for an Edgartown scuba diver and member of the Volunteer Fire Department, John Farrar. Diving down, Farrar found the body of a young woman in the back of the inverted car, but it took him 25 minutes in the swift current to bring the body to the surface. It was then five minutes to nine. On learning who owned the car, a black Oldsmobile sedan, the chief sent out a call for Ted Kennedy, whom he still considered to be unaware of the accident. During the morning, police- and fire-department rescue workers hauled the Oldsmobile up with power winches. In the back seat was a woman’s purse containing the Senate pass of Rosemary Keough, Senator Kennedy’s staff secretary, who was then assumed to be the dead girl.

Rumor and Surmise

At about the time Farrar at the Dyke Bridge was trying to extricate the body from the rear of the Oldsmobile, Kennedy, accompanied by Markham and by a cousin, Joseph Gargan, crossed over on the ferry to Chappaquiddick. During the night, Markham and Gargan had, in some undisclosed manner, made their way from the rented cottage to the mainland. On reaching the Chappaquiddick shore the three entered the small ferry shed on the landing where a public telephone hung on the wall. For over an hour, they conferred inside. By the time they emerged, news of the bridge mishap had reached the crew of the On Time. The skipper and the fare collector, sixteen-year-old Stevie Ewing, who lives on the island and attends Holderness in the winter, walked over to the three and asked if they had heard of the accident. Kennedy stalked toward the ferry without replying, but one of the others told Stevie; “Yeah, we heard of it.”

It was a week of rumor and surmise, aided by the silence enveloping the Hyannis compound. Those who loved, honored, and obeyed the Kennedys saw the episode as an innocent reunion of loyal campaigners marred by a tragic accident that might have happened to anyone.

As the ferry docked at the Edgartown slip, Kennedy, in a blue sport shirt and white sneakers, strode briskly off the boat, trailed by his retainers. A photographer, knowing nothing of the accident, snapped his picture and recorded the time. It was 9:50 A.M. Ten minutes later, Kennedy walked into Edgartown’s Greek Revival town hall that contains the police station to make a statement to chief Arena, who had not yet left the bridge but was hurriedly summoned. During the three hours Kennedy spent at the station he tried repeatedly to reach Burke Marshall, his brother Bobby’s former chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. In his statement, he could not spell Mary Jo’s last name and so left it a blank, but he did reveal that it was she who had drowned and not Rosemary Keough. After signing the statement he asked the chief to withhold the contents for an hour until he could consult his lawyers, then left for the family compound in Hyannis Port. Arena agreed and withheld the statement for two additional hours, but when by late afternoon no word had come from Hyannis Port, he at last released it to the press. Almost at once Markham called, asking him to hold back, but by then the story was out.

Kennedy made his statement on Saturday, July 19. Then for the next six days, days of rain and fog, he remained in the high-fenced seclusion of the Hyannis compound, emerging only on Tuesday to fly in the family DC-3 to Plymouth, Penn. for the funeral of Mary Jo. The Kennedy family physician announced that the Senator had sustained a mild concussion. Kennedy appeared at the funeral, his neck encased in an orthopedic collar, accompanied by his wife and by Bobby’s widow Ethel. During the week the high counselors arrived — Robert McNamara, Ted Sorensen, Richard Goodwin, Kenneth O’Donnell, Burke Marshall, the motor-vehicle legal expert Robert Clark Jr., and enough others to fill the compound. They advised Ted to make an immediate explanation. The task of setting the pictured disaster in a decent frame was turned over to Sorensen, with the assistance of Kennedy’s administrative aide, David Banks, and a Washington lawyer, Milton Gwirtzman.

It was a week of rumor and surmise, aided by the silence enveloping the Hyannis compound. Those who loved, honored, and obeyed the Kennedys saw the episode as an innocent reunion of loyal campaigners marred by a tragic accident that might have happened to anyone. As Senator Mike Mansfield explained it, with a certain lack of felicity, “After all, even a politician is human.” Those who disliked, feared, or distrusted the Kennedys, those who were merely skeptical, had grosser explanations. It was whispered that Ted had been drunk when he drove down the wrong road, that he was having an affair with Mary Jo, that the “cookout” in the cottage hideaway masked a Roman orgy. And jokes circulated, too cruel to bear repeating.

Explanation

On a fog-streaked Friday morning, just a week after the fateful Chappaquiddick reunion, Kennedy appeared in the brick, 100-year-old Duke’s County Courthouse across from Edgartown’s town hall to answer the Commonwealth’s charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident and failing to report it. The grey week had washed away most of his tan, as well as his self-possession, and as he sat in the prisoner’s dock with his head down and his chin propped on his clenched fists, he looked more a delinquent college student caught in some prank his father could not fix, than a United States senator. “Guilty,” he answered almost inaudibly after the clerk had read the charge, and then repeated more loudly “Guilty!” still without lifting his head. District Judge James Boyle sentenced him to two months in the Barnstable House of Correction — he could have made it two years — and then suspended the sentence on the grounds that Kennedy “has already been, and will continue to be, punished far beyond any sentence this court can impose.” On leaving the courthouse for the airport to fly back to Hyannis, Kennedy told reporters that he had asked for time on television that night “to explain to the people of Massachusetts.”

Sorensen and his assistants had spent a long week hammering out the twelve-minute apologia that Kennedy was to present that evening to over 30 million Americans, yet for all their skill the result was synthetic. By evening, Kennedy had regained his composure and, discarding his collar prop, sat at the desk in his father’s library facing the television cameras, prepared finally to justify himself in words supplied by others. The explanation of his week of silence was the legalistic subterfuge that it would have been improper for him to make any comments before his appearance in court. The Chappaquiddick party, termed more innocuously a “cookout,” had been arranged for “a devoted group of Kennedy campaign secretaries.” Only reasons of health had prevented his wife from being there. He described Mary Jo as one of the most devoted members of his brother’s staff, “a gentle, kind, and idealistic person.” Then, confronting the swirl of rumors, he insisted that there was “no truth whatever to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior and hers regarding that evening. There has never been a private relationship between us of any kind.” He had left the party with Mary Jo about 11:15. He had not been under the influence of liquor. When the car went off the bridge, the cold water rushed around his head and he had felt the actual sensation of drowning. Somehow, he struggled to the surface, dove repeatedly to try to reach Mary Jo and then lay exhausted in the grass on the bank. When he had recovered sufficiently he walked back to the cottage and asked Gargan and Markham for help. He admitted that it was “indefensible that I did not report the accident to the police immediately,” and added that “all kinds of scrambled thoughts, all of them confused, some of them irrational…went through my mind” and he felt himself overcome by “a jumble of emotions — grief, fear, doubt, torture, panic confusion, exhaustion, and shock.” With Gargan and Markham, he returned to the bridge and they tried in vain to reach the car.

Questions

Then, telling the two not to alarm the others, Kennedy had them drive him to the ferry landing. Since the ferry had shut down, he jumped impulsively into the water and swam across to Edgartown, almost drowning again as he did so. When he reached his hotel room he collapsed, but remembered going out at one point to say something to the hotel clerk. In the morning, his mind more lucid, he went to the Chappaquiddick ferry shed to call Burke Marshall from the public telephone there. Then he had gone to the police station.

Kennedy concluded with an appeal to the people of Massachusetts to decide whether or not his standing had been so impaired that he should resign his Senate seat. It was at best a maudlin appeal, with the foreknowledge that in Massachusetts the answer could only be an overwhelming endorsement. Yet the perorating quotation from his brother’s Profiles in Courage might in itself have been considered a condemnation of a man who had run away: “The stories of past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this, each man must look into his own soul.”

There have been no further amplifications, no press conferences. The five remaining girls at the party and the three other men left Chappaquiddick in a hurry on Saturday morning and have since kept their silence. It is true that the television address answered some questions, but it raised others as well as contradicting at several points the earlier statement to the police.

There have been no further amplifications, no press conferences. The five remaining girls at the party and the three other men left Chappaquiddick in a hurry on Saturday morning and have since kept their silence. It is true that the television address answered some questions, but it raised others as well as contradicting at several points the earlier statement to the police. One now knew how Kennedy had got from Chappaquiddick to Edgartown, but how did Markham and Gargan get across the channel? Did Kennedy crawl into Gargan’s car, the only one in front of the cottage, on his return from the bridge, or did he summon Gargan and Markham? How could he, dripping wet and distraught, have reached them without attracting the attention of others? Why did he not do what seems the most obvious thing after an accident, turn to the nearest place for help? The Dyke House and the cottage beyond still had lights burning at the time of the accident. There were other cottages along the 1.2 miles of road he followed back. There was even a small fire station near the hired cottage with an alarm ready to be sounded. Why did Gargan and Markham on driving to the bridge with Kennedy fail to sound the alarm or knock on some door and ask for help? How could they stand on the ferry slip and watch their injured friend swim into the darkness? Why did the party revelry go on until half-past one and then abruptly stop? At that time the noise woke Foster Silva, the local caretaker, in his house 150 yards away. Silva had no knowledge of Kennedy’s presence. “The party wasn’t wild, but they were damn loud,” he said afterward. “If they had kept it up any longer I would have called the police. At one o’clock I was pretty well damn fed up with the whole thing. It was a damned farce, at that hour of the morning.” Did Kennedy leave at 11:15 P.M. in time for the ferry, or was it later? Christopher Look Jr., a county deputy sheriff living on Chappaquiddick, was driving back at 12:30 A.M. from his job at a club. As he drove along Chappaquiddick Road and approached the curve near Dyke Road, a car coming in the opposite direction cut across his headlight beam, started up a dirt lane marked “private” at the head of Dyke Road, and came to a stop. Thinking the driver had lost his way, Look stopped his own car, got out, and started to walk the twenty feet between the two cars. But before he had taken more than a couple of steps the other driver backed up and disappeared down Dyke Road. Look noted that it was a black sedan and that the letter on its license plate was L. There were two persons in the front and another, or possibly a coat, in the rear. Look was later convinced that the car he had seen was the Kennedy Oldsmobile. It could not have been Gargan’s rented Valiant, which was white and had a Y for a plate letter. Was Kennedy dazed when he spoke to the hotel clerk at half-past two in the morning, or was he trying to establish an alibi that would place him on the mainland? What truth is there in the now publicly made accusation that Kennedy’s first reaction was to have Gargan take the blame as the driver of the car, and that Gargan had been willing to implicate himself? Why, finally, did the three men cross over from Edgartown to Chappaquiddick on Saturday morning instead of going directly to the police station?

The Guests

The questions still persist. Certain facts nevertheless remain, however they may be worked over or interpreted. A month before the Edgartown Yacht Club regatta of that weekend, Gargan had rented the two-bedroom cottage on Chappaquiddick Road, sight unseen, from its owner, a New York lawyer by the name of Lawrence, for eight days at $200. It was used only on the seventh day. At the same time, Gargan engaged six rooms for the men at the Shiretown Inn, and rooms for the girls of the party at an Edgartown motel. The six girls attending the “cookout” at the Lawrence cottage were single, in their late twenties, all former Robert Kennedy workers, and had attended similar reunions previously. Mary Jo seems to have been a decent, quiet girl, more devoted to Bobby than to Ted Kennedy, intrigued by her worm’s-eye view of politics, moderately attractive in a muted way. The others could pass in a crowd of Washington office workers. Gargan, a lawyer of sorts, was one of the number of less-successful minor relatives gathered into the Kennedy entourage, an odd-job man, an arranger, renter of conveyances, and maker of reservations. The remaining four men were, like Gargan, married, prematurely middle-aged, of the anonymous sort that one sees trailing the coattails of the more successful politicians.

Another Hypothesis

On Friday afternoon Kennedy and his crew of three — none of whom was to be a guest, at the cookout — sailed his blue-hulled family boat Victura in the regatta. Before the race Kennedy had driven a carload of girls in the Oldsmobile to the Lawrence cottage. Stevie Ewing noticed the EMK monogram on his shirt as he crossed and then re-crossed on the ferry. Stevie remembered him crossing again after the regatta with more passengers and speeding down the Chappaquiddick Road, the one paved road on the island. The Oldsmobile was also seen several times that day going over Dyke Bridge to the parking area for the beach beyond. Both roads must have been familiar to Kennedy. Chappaquiddick Road, a lonesome road, the island’s backbone, runs in a blackish streak across an uninhabited landscape. The Lawrence cottage with its yellow shutters and pin-oak tree in the yard, is a shabby little place, but isolated. Where the road curves left and Dyke Road connects to the right, one would have to cut a 90-degree angle to make that false turn. A road sign warns of the curve. Anyone who has driven on Chappaquiddick Road even once could scarcely make the mistake of veering to the dirt road on the right. And even if he had done so, the effect of that corrugated surface would have jolted him into awareness of his mistake. Nor would he have had any reason to continue an additional mile and cross the hump-backed wooden bridge.

There is a simpler hypothesis current on the island for the occurrence at Dyke Bridge, one that may or may not be true, but at least puts Kennedy in a somewhat kinder light.

There is a simpler hypothesis current on the island for the occurrence at Dyke Bridge, one that may or may not be true, but at least puts Kennedy in a somewhat kinder light. According to blood tests, Mary Jo had had two or three cocktails. She may have had more, or she may in her inexperience simply have been more affected by a few. In any case, this hypothesis would have had her feeling slightly dizzy, leave the stale air in the crowded room of the cottage to take a nap in the back of the Oldsmobile. At some time after midnight, Kennedy decided to take Rosemary Keough to the beach. When they left they did not notice Mary Jo in the back seat, although Deputy Sheriff Look observed her at the Dyke Road turnoff. Once the car flipped over at the bridge, Kennedy and Rosemary Keough — minus her purse — got to the surface, to the shore, and back to the Lawrence cottage. With only their car wrecked they would have felt no need or wish to knock on doors along the way. When they did arrive at about 1:30, the first question they were asked was: Where is Mary Jo? Then it was that the party dimmed. Still hopeful that she too might have found her way to the shore, Kennedy and Gargan and Markham headed for the bridge, searched both banks, but could find no sign of her. They may or may not have dived in at the spot where the car sank. Since they said so, let us assume they did. Then they drove Kennedy to the ferry landing in the Valiant and watched him swim across the channel. Possibly they later borrowed one of the many skiffs tied up at the dock and rowed across themselves. Their chief impulse at this point would have been to protect the Kennedy name. It was after the conference in the ferry shed, after whatever telephone calls may have been made there, that Ted Kennedy decided there was no alternative left but to go to the police.

End of Camelot

In the end, one is left with the elemental fact that a girl died, and that while she died the man involved did not act. It is remotely possible that if a rescue team had arrived within half an hour, Mary Jo might have lived. The scuba diver who brought her up noted that “her head was at the floorboards where the last bit of air would have been.” He thought that if he had been called at once there was a chance that he might have saved her. So the matter rests, unless any of those at the party choose to furnish further explanations. From an inquest, instigated by a political opportunist, little can be expected. Massachusetts is solidly for Ted Kennedy and the Kennedys, and he can be reelected senator for the rest of his life if he wishes. Further than that he can probably no longer go.

Yeats was a much-quoted poet in the Kennedys’ Camelot. One hesitates to apply his “Meditations in Time of Civil War” to a sorry summer resort cookout. Yet he did write:

We are closed in. and the key is turned

On our uncertainty; somewhere

A man is killed or a house burned,

Yet no clear fact to be discerned.

At Martha’s Vineyard, it is a girl who is killed, and the house that is threatened — if not burned — is the sudden, coruscant house of Kennedy. Yet if Camelot is indeed over, it might be remembered that the Kennedy version derived not from Malory, or even from Tennyson, but from a musical.

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