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Bump in the Road

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According to a witness, the blue Buick was swerving all over the back roads of Cape Cod on the evening of Sept. 10. When police officer John York finally found the driver, who was standing by her car on a dead-end street, she would only give her name as Joan, he says, and she politely refused to turn over her license and registration. “She was swaying from side to side, and I could smell booze on her breath,” says York. “And her speech was slurred.” Sadly, it soon turned out that the suspect was Joan Kennedy, 64, the former wife of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Placed under arrest and taken to the Barnstable, Mass., police station, Kennedy made bail and was released, but not before providing a telling glimpse of a life haunted by memories. “She told one of our female officers that she hadn’t been drinking for nine years,” says officer York, “but she was home looking at old pictures and got sad.”

To friends, the really sad part was that Joan had seemed to be doing well at last. Divorced from the senator in 1983, she was arrested three times for drunk driving between 1974 and 1991, but after the ’91 arrest she joined Alcoholics Anonymous. According to Kennedy cousin Joseph Gargan, Joan, who has homes in Boston and in the exclusive community of Hyannisport, faithfully attended AA meetings twice a week. Friends insist she was dedicated to sobriety. “I haven’t seen her have anything to drink for so many years that I was just stunned—stunned,” says close friend Stephanie Warburg of Boston.

During winters in Boston, Joan stays fit at the Candela Spa, where she spends a couple of hours a day doing aerobics, weight training and yoga. “She was very serious about it,” says her personal trainer Paul Cagnon, who worked with her until June, when she left for Cape Cod. She is even more serious about her charity work, which includes the Boston public schools. Her goal has been to mentor young students to stimulate their interest in music, and she helped launch a curriculum that highlights courage, in memory of Warburg’s son Max, who died of leukemia nine years ago. Says Ann Gund, a good friend of Joan’s for the past 20 years: “She realizes that her name still has some cachet.”

Her greatest joy appears to be spending time with her children—Kara, 40, who has worked in television and video production; Ted Jr., 38, a lawyer in New Haven; and Patrick, 33, a Rhode Island congressman—and her four grandchildren. Gund says that Joan takes her grandkids swimming in the pool at the Hyannisport home of her ex-husband, 68, and his second wife, Victoria Reggie, 46, whom he married in 1992. Indeed, Joan and Ted remain on very friendly terms. “She’s included in a lot of things that Teddy and Vicki do as a family,” reports Gund.

Though she has not been romantically involved with anyone in recent years, Joan’s spirits have, on the whole, remained high. “It’s such a relief to be free,” she told The Boston Globe in an ebullient interview in July. “So much of my married life was about keeping secrets and pretending that I was doing great and was happy. But once you sober up, the whole idea is to become honest with yourself and other people. I mean, all the secrets I had to keep: mine and all the secrets of the Kennedy family. I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s such a relief to be…a genuine person.”

Kennedy, who pleaded not guilty to driving under the influence and faces a pretrial hearing on Oct. 6, expressed deep remorse over the Sept. 10 incident to friends. “She’s not happy about it,” says Warburg, who talked to her a day after the arrest. “She doesn’t take this lightly.” But she is determined not to let it get her down. “She does not wallow—ever,” says Warburg. “She really doesn’t.” Instead Joan is already exploring the idea of counseling teenage girls on the dangers of substance abuse. “She said that she was thinking of ways that she could help other people and also help herself,” says Warburg. “That’s Joan—always constructive and trying to think of the positive.”

Bill Hewitt

Jennifer Longley on Cape Cod and Fannie Weinstein and Eve Heyn in New York City