Facebook Google Menu Linkedin lock Pinterest Search Twitter


United States

Aug 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, the true story

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


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 crikey.com.au collection.



We recommend

From around the web

Powered by Taboola


Leave a comment

33 thoughts on “Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, the true story

  1. Peter White

    I have heard some implausible stories in my time and that is right up there with the best of them….its lacks logic not to mention credibility.

  2. JamesK

    Bob Ellis. Say no more squire!

  3. John Newton

    One real mistake Bob – K Dun Gifford is not a food writer – he’s a food activist and the founder of the Oldways Corporation which is, if you like, an American version of Slow Food.

    A remarkable man, a great organiser, once a Kennedy lawyer, but never have I heard that story from Dun or anyone else. The scuttlebutt around him was that he was in the Kennedy compound that night and he did filed the press.

    As for the rest….hmmmm

    One thing I do remember about Dun Gifford is that in 2005 he told me that the Democrat ticket for the next Presidential election would be Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. “Who’s Barack Obama?” I asked. “Just wait” he said.

  4. michael james

    “This story was told to a close political friend of mine by Dun Gifford”

    So you’re reporting here say as fact.

    And here I was thinking Crikey had pretensions towards being a respectable source.

    I could just as easily go to any number of left wing blogs and get equal amounts of half-truths, opinion and sheer speculation, all dolled up as attempts to rehabilitate the Kennedy name after Ted Kennedy sullied it beyond redemption.

    You can do better Crikey, of don’t you want to?

  5. SBH

    I though Alan Didak was driving?

  6. Adam Barker

    LOL @ SBH!!!!

  7. matt

    Dun Gifford is my best mate and he told me Bob Ellis was the driving the car. Not Teddy Kennedy.

    Bob Ellis you are full of shit.

  8. TheOtherMichaelT

    this story was told to me by your father’s, brother’s, nephew’s, cousin’s, former roommate

  9. Richard Morris

    In today’s Australian there is a photo of Kennedy’s car being pulled from the water . A caption says ” Kopechne’s body was found in the rear!

    This excerpt from another report : “Mary Jo’s body was found in the car’s rear section because that is where she was when the accident happened”.

    Doesn’t sound like she was driving!

  10. Daniel Ashdown

    Duh, Richard. The body was obviously planted there by the CIA/FBI/NSA/DNC and whoever else was involved in the frame-up.

    I believe this is all covered in the next Dan Brown novel.

  11. john

    It is the same conclusion that the 1994 BBC documenary “Chappaquiddick” came to. It actually explains a lot.

  12. Robert Garnett

    I thought Mary Jo was 28, not 19 years old. Born July 26, 1940 sadly died July 18, 1969.

    Could someone please check the facts before publishing. I might have to go back to reading those squalid Murdoch rags!

  13. AR

    Trust bilious Bob to come out with the faarrrr left field story. Better than the stupid, self condemnatory krap the K’s flacks put together but Red Dwarf did a nice number on amerika had JFK survived. Scared the bejasus out of me!

  14. Venise Alstergren

    And I thought I’d heard most of the rumours re the unfortunate Mary Jo. How on earth can anyone state whether or not the woman was a virgin? I mean, how many twenty-nine year old virgins were running around at the time? Not what one could call first-hand evidence.
    I could have almost bought Ted Kennedy being forestalled at the sight of a cop. BUT hey, he was second guessing himself. At the time, before he knew she was dead, he would have had all the confidence in the world that the familiar buying his way out of yet another Kennedy scandal would have been par for the course. Also, any cop in that area would have known him and shut up about it. Until he realized there was a dead girl hanging around. Then the price would have merely gone up.
    Why didn’t the respected friend of the author go to the police with his story?
    Pity, it seemed like a real hypothesis.

  15. AR

    Pytos rule KO – i meant to write “bibulous” but, now that i think about it (hic!), STET.

  16. Tom McLoughlin

    Cute story.

    What does wikipedia say about her age? Uh oh, 29 years old indeed.

    Anyhow, where she was found in the rear is not quite conclusive of anything after a crash going for the air pocket? And chances are if he was in the car he got concussion, drunk, memory loss?

    Also she might have been smuggling herself to his hotel back there. He might have forgot the new bridge was in place.

    By the way, his clothes would say if he had been in the river or not, no doubt at all.

  17. AliceW

    I’m horrifed that Crikey would publish such trash.

  18. Most Peculiar Mama

    Only Marieke Hardy writes better fiction than dipsomaniac Bob Ellis.

    This piece of fatuous garbage is only topped today by the announcement by Barry Yobama that he will deliver the eulogy at Ted’s funeral.

    This is the same Barry who worshipped at the feet of William (Billy) Ayers and his trog wife Bernadine Dohm,

    This is the very same couple who dedicated their communist manifesto to – amongst others – Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Ted’s older brother Bobby.

    Nice company you keep there Mr President.

    How do you manage to keep a straight face?

    Bob deserves the Poo-litsa for this shite, written obviously on a slow day in Byron.

  19. Daniel Ashdown

    “This is the same Barry who worshipped at the feet of William (Billy) Ayers and his trog wife Bernadine Dohm”

    How disingenuous

  20. Steve

    I thought it was Marcus Einfeld driving

  21. Syd Walker

    I’ll give Bob Ellis the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t choose the title of this article himself. It’s more suited to the National Enquirer.

    Bob’s article makes reference to an autopsy: “Mary-Jo’s parents demanded an autopsy to discover a certain medical fact.

    Is there a reference for that? It contradicts other sources, such as John Simkin’s Spartacus Educational article about Mary Jo Kopechne:

    There were also doubts about the way Kopechne died. Dr. Donald Mills of Edgartown, wrote on the death certificate: “death by drowning”. However, Gene Frieh, the undertaker, told reporters that death “was due to suffocation rather than drowning”. John Farrar, the diver who removed Kopechne from the car, claimed she was “too buoyant to be full of water”. It is assumed that she died from drowning, although her parents filed a petition preventing an autopsy.

    And yes, regarding Mary Jo’s age, this is one case when Wikipedia is more accurate than a friend of a friend.

    Having said that, I think the article is not as gormless as some comments have suggested. It’s timely to look again at the Chappaquiddick incident. It had a significant historical impact and clearly Ted Kennedy’s official account of the incident was a cover. Bob Ellis’s contact’s friend’s tale is a more plausible way of explaining some of the anomalies than much of the rubbish that’s around. I don’t think it’s correct, but that’s another story.

    Incidentally, Bob, I enjoyed your contributions on Q & A some time back – especially the excellent response on the subject of politicians expenses rorts. I also liked your book on the 1982 British general election. (Just getting a couple of plaudits off my chest…)

  22. Bullmore's Ghost

    “how many twenty-nine year old virgins were running around at the time?”

    My thoughts exactly, and running around in the company of Kennedys. Pigs may fly.

    “I thought it was Marcus Einfeld driving”.

    Yes, and it was Angela Liati in the back seat.

  23. kellylark

    Good lord man, this isn’t even close to the truth. The only “truth” herein is that the official story is not true. I do know the real story, and if you wish to know, keep googling.

  24. Syd Walker

    @ Bob Ellis

    I just read your follow-up comments on this article.

    Sorry, but it really won’t do.

    You begin with the remark:

    “It’s hard to see what else took place that night once you examine what is known. The autopsy showed she was not pregnant, died a virgin, and was in an air bubble for five hours and might have been rescued…”

    I’ll stop you right there Bob, because as I pointed out in a previous comment, there was no autopsy, just a blood test. This is what Time reported in August 1969:

    Mills, who pronounced Mary Jo dead, omitted an autopsy. Mills examined the body, but an autopsy would have shown how much Mary Jo had been drinking. Instead, a blood sample, which is much less conclusive, was taken that showed she had drunk a moderate amount. “An autopsy is best in cases like these,” said District Attorney Dinis, “because it clears the air and there is no room for speculation.” Dinis, however, did not order an autopsy or take over the inquiry from Arena, and both of these steps were in his power.

    As you seem to be the only author I’ve come across who believes that Mary Jo Kopechne’s body was subjected to autopsy, could you either provide a reference or issue a correction?

    I agree that Kennedy didn’t murder Mary Jo. I also agree the official story was a falsehood foisted upon him. But your scenario doesn’t wash, IMO – and to be blunt, it’s poorly researched.

    You also write:

    Once you look at it only one other theory fits the facts as they are known: that she was in the back seat of the car asleep and he didn’t know she was there…

    Bob, surely you’re not claiming that your article exhausts all the possible scenarios? On what rational basis could you make such an assertion?

    You say:

    …like the JFK-Monroe-murderer theory all that was needed back then was the headline, the smear, the nod and the wink, the two-word vilification (like ‘death panels’) which the twentieth century perfected and the Murdoch Method continues today.

    Pleased to say I agree with you about that.

    I ask anyone with any other explanation to supply it.

    To undertake such an endeavour as a worthwhile attempt to establish the truth – as opposed to flippant scenario-guessing better suited to coffee shop chit-chat – would, in my opinion, require a significant amount of contextual analysis. I don’t think this is the place.

    Suffice it to say in my opinion, Ted Kennedy was most certainly set-up – and the set-up was most likely orchestrated by the same networks of impeccable-connected criminals who previously murdered two of his brothers.

    I think the really interesting question that should be asked is how such a cover-up could have been effected? Could it be that – as in the case of the assassination of JFK and RFK – the charming folk who put the screws on Teddy Kennedy knew perfectly well the western mass media wouldn’t ferret out and print the truth? That’s my hunch, FWIW.

    Incidentally, you mentioned the original source for this story was Dun Gifford. If you ever have the chance to quiz him directly, why not ask him about the death of RFK? It’s a topic he does know something about. He was there, in the pantry, when the shooting occurred.

    Unlike other eye-witnesses of Robert Kennedy’s assassination – such as John Pilger – Gifford seems to have confirmed the official view that Sirhan Sirhan was the sole shooter whenever he subsequently spoke about the case.

    It would be most interesting to check if that’s correct.

    However your story came to be constructed, Bob, someone played fast and loose with the facts. You might like to share with us how it happened in more detail. Study of the process whereby fake stories come about sometimes yields clues of broader relevance.

  25. Venise Alstergren

    Syd Walker: I just happen to be reading an old book of mine ‘Nemesis: Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the love triangle that brought down the Kennedys, Peter Evans. New York 2004’. Deliciously scandalous, but very well written. It is Evan’s contention that Aristotle Onassis was behind the RFK murder. Which of course, gives added strength to your argument. That Sirhan Sirhan was the shooter-just that.

    I can’t believe anyone who mistakenly maintains that Mary Jo Kopeckne was nineteen, when, in fact, she was twenty-nine. He shoots himself in the foot right there. IMHO.

  26. Syd Walker

    Hi Venise

    I just took a quick look at online info about the book you mention. It’s interesting to see the ‘Onassis-dunnit-theory’ get a second wind after all these years…

    You may not be aware of this, but one of the earliest and most sensational fake stories (other than the Warren Commission report) that was put about concerning the assassination of JFK was called ‘The Gemstone File’. It was circulated from the mid-70s; poorly written, lacking in references and full of extraneous weirdness. Aristotle Onnasis was identified as arch-villain in The Gemstone File. It was the type of document that actually helped discredit the idea of a conspiracy to kill JFK. I think it’s now safe to identify it as deliberate disinformation. Peter Evans recent book appears to be cut from similar cloth.

    One can now look back at history of The Gemstone File as a text, study who was active in promoting it at the time of its initial release – and draw some interesting conclusions about who played an active role at that time in spreading disinformation.

    The so-called and mis-named ‘intelligence agencies’ have a old term for this activity: “poisoning the well”. It works on the principle that it’s easier to taint a water supply than stop the population from drinking. In plain terms, if the curiosity of the public for the truth can’t be quenched, best to strew so much disinformation around that most people don’t know what to believe. ‘Poisoning the well’ has been very effective in the case of those politically significant assasinations in the 1960s.

    The doyen of Kennedy assassination disinformationalists, incidentally, is Gerald Posner. He was tasked with writing a book in the 1990s which give the “Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible” line of argument a second wind. His book, ‘Case Closed’, is a classic text in the history of disinformation about the JK assassination.

    It’s not hard to figure out Mr Posner. Check out his broader interests and connections. Incidentally, he is still churning out disinfo about the Kennedies. Crikey decided to link to his latest article, which is about Ted Kennedy. It is published (appropriately enough) in the Daily Beast. The article is called: “Who gets Ted Kennedy’s millions?“.

    I am not, incidentally, accusing Bob Ellis of knowingly spreading disinformation re: the Chappaquiddick incident. Most of the people who write nonsense about the Kennedy assassinations and related matters are probably well-motivated. I imagine Bob falls into that category.

    If you’re interested in more about the Kennedy assassination, I maintain a website that contains several articles on the topic.

    In my personal opinion, the murder of Jack Kennedy (and RFK) is a mystery that by now has essentially been solved. It’s instructive that one nevers encounters, via the mainstream western mass media, the one theory that can adequately explain both the assassinations and subsequent cover-ups.

  27. Venise Alstergren

    SYD WALKER: Thanks for the info, have had a brief look at the website. it looks interesting. Are you a conspiracy theorist?
    Will come back to website ASAP.

  28. Duke

    I noticed someone here stated that Mary-Jo’s body was found in the back seat so therefore this must cast doubt on her being the driver. Firstly, there are not many couples who drive with the lone passenger sitting in the back seat, especially under all of the circumstances of that night.

    Secondly, It’s believed Mary-Jo was still alive in the car for up to 5 hours. So, it’s not possible that she could have scrambled into the back seat after the crash, where the air pocket was and where she eventually suffocated?

    Most cars sink front first when they’re the conventional ‘engine in the front’ types, which would mean an air pocket would have formed at the higher end, which would be the rear of the car.

    The plunge into the river may have been a short drop, thus preventing any serious injuries to her, which would have enabled her to scrambled over the front seat.

    The scenario in the story above is much more plausible than one of Kennedy escaping, trying to rescue her and then going back to the hotel for a good nights sleep and then appearing next day as if nothing had happened.

    His eventual rise to the position and esteem he held until this day also indicates that a few important people knew the true story and kept it quiet, realising that he was not to blame and his ‘possible’ original intent (sex with Mary-Jo, if that’s actually what he had planned) had not been carried out because of the chain of events.

  29. Julius

    It sounds like a plausible story. Indeed more plausible than the one that made sure that Kennedy didn’t become president (unlikely to have beaten Reagan anyway). What is surprising is that it hasn’t been widely circulating for ages and that it hasn’t been mentioned elsewhere, as far as I know, in the last week. The details of age and autopsies are scarcely relevant and, on the human side, it is easy to see why Mary-Jo Kopechne’s family might have gone along with the “official” story if they knew the truth at some stage. There would be nothing in it for them psychologically or otherwise to break out as myth-busters with, for them, most likely, undesirable publicity and even litigation.

  30. haywood

    what a load of crap. Mary Jo died a long time ago and now finally Teddy, that piece of trash, is dead too. We can only hope that he suffered greatly as she did.

  31. Julius

    The principle problem with the Ellis story is not any quibbles about Mary-Jo’s age or whether or not there was an autopsy, it is just that the story that he handed over the wheel to Mary-Jo to avoid a breathalyser embarrassment would have been the obvious one to run with. Unless the Kennedy spin-masters were so devious that they couldn’t see the merits of a straight simple story, he should have said “I had been drinking a bit and while I was pretty sure I was OK and not either a danger to others or technically over the limit I was quite happy to eliminate the risk that someone would make something of the fact that I had been pulled over and testeed when Mary-Jo volunteered to take the wheel”.

    So, why didn’t they tell that story? Because, according to someone close to the Robert Kennedy camp with whom I correspond, the real story was that Mary-Jo didn’t want to go on drinking at the party (maybe didn’t even want to start drinking) and eventually got bored and/or tired and went to sleep in the back of Kennedy’s car (why his car I don’t know but maybe there is a good answer such as his being the only one rich and careless and rich enough to leave his car unlocked or that he had given Mary-Jo a lift earlier). Kennedy then got in to drive off with another woman not his wife and, because he was pretty drunk, he drove off the bridge. He and the other woman escaped and understandably decided not to tell the police because the drink-driving problem would have arisen immediately, and, anyway it would have been pretty difficult to think of a reason for doing anything in the middle of the night rather than wait till morning light.

    So, why wouldn’t he have given this version? (a) the other woman’s reputation; (b) it might have drawn attention to the fact that Kennedy and the woman-not-his-wife ended up in bed together that night, whereas he could protest that he was only giving Mary-Jo a lift; (c) it would strain many people’s credulity: the person not known to be in the back seat, the fact that they didn’t notice her when getting out (ah, maybe they did and knew that their failure to get her out would compound the other problems), ……..

  32. Tp

    The whole story makes no sense. How did he get out? I’m assuming he rolled down a window since there weren’t power windows yet. So, why couldn’t she do the same or go out the already opened window he escaped from. Why didn’t he grab her on the way out? She was in the car for hours and it never occurred to her to look for a (probably already opened) window? Doesn’t add up. The water didn’t even seem that deep either.

Leave a comment


Telling you what the others don't. FREE for 21 days.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.