The death of Mary-Jo Kopechne in Teddy Kennedy’s car on the night of July 18th, 1969, ended Teddy’s chances of the presidency, then thought very good, in 1972 and the memory of it, still recent, prevented him replacing Jimmy Carter at the top of the ticket in 1980. He never sought that office again. The Reagan years ensued, and it was said thereafter by thoughtful historians that ‘Roosevelt’s America drowned at Chappaquiddick, along with Mary-Jo.’

The dreadful truth of that night is well-known among Kennedy staffers and his surviving family, and it is that Teddy was nowhere near the car when the accident occurred.

What happened was a reunion party of Bobby Kennedy campaign volunteers a year after his assassination which Teddy attended, making a thank-you speech and drinking vigorously. He was booked into the same hotel as Mary-Jo, a 19-year-old virgin, whom he offered a lift for whatever reason, planning to seduce her perhaps, or not.

They set off together in the car, and several of the party revellers saw them go, with Teddy at the wheel. A quarter mile down the dirt road, Teddy saw up ahead a parked police car. He pulled over. He told Mary-Jo he couldn’t be seen in charge of a car in his drunken condition, it would cause a headline, it would harm his political career. “I’ll get out, and walk to the hotel,” he said. “You drive, and I’ll see you there.” She agreed and drove off, passing the police car unnoticed.

Teddy walked the three-quarters of a mile back to the hotel, using the newly constructed bridge to the island. Mary-Jo, unacquainted with the territory, drove down the old road to the old broken bridge and into the water. She was alive in an air bubble for five hours and asphyxiated.

Teddy came to the hotel, didn’t see her in the bar, shrugged, went upstairs and slept. He came down refreshed to the breakfast room next morning in his yachting jacket, prepared for a day’s sailing. A young man approached him and spoke to him, telling him the news, and his face fell.

Political advisers flew in and phoned him, and the problem was chaotically discussed. He had been seen driving away in the car with the girl, and the police already knew this. She drowned in his car. What to do? What to say? If he said he wasn’t in the car at the time, would he be believed? It might look like he murdered her.

So a story was fabricated that he was at the wheel, and he took the wrong road, and the car drove off the bridge and into the water, and he got out, but she didn’t, and he repeatedly dived to rescue her, and couldn’t find her, and he crawled ashore, groggy, and went to the hotel and … went to bed.

Immediately he was asked why he didn’t inform the police, and why he left the scene of an accident, and the whole story fell apart. He went on television and said there seemed to be a curse on his family, and this looked very self-serving, and even sinister. A couple of days later men landed on the moon. A front cover of Private Eye showed him saying to Richard Nixon, ‘Can I drive you home?’ He was thought a murderer for some time, a careless playboy thereafter, and Camelot therefore did not return. The curse, it appeared, was a plausible theory.

What was worse, however, was the real, unyielding truth. This was that a cop on duty caused by his looming presence on a country road the end of the Kennedy adventure, and the social democrat America of the Roosevelt years that never therefore returned.

Mary-Jo’s parents demanded an autopsy to discover a certain medical fact. And it was as they expected.

She died a virgin.

This story was told to a close political friend of mine by Dun Gifford, a Bobby Kennedy staffer who wrestled the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan on the fatal night of his boss’s assassination and is now, in the American way, a prominent food writer.

*For more Kennedy commentary, try the collection.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey