By Gail Jennes
February 09, 1981 12:00 PM

Campaigning at her husband’s side during the Democratic primaries, Joan Kennedy, 44, wore no wedding ring, slept by herself in private hotel rooms and often dined alone. Yet she insisted that if her husband became the next President, she would move into the White House—and forsake the Boston apartment where she had lived on her own for almost three years. Perhaps she would have. But on Inauguration Day 1981, Senator and Mrs. Edward M. Kennedy were merely among the spectators—and the next day they announced that they were ending their 22-year marriage. By shrewdly posting the news amid the clamor of post-inaugural and hostage-release stories, they minimized coverage to some extent. Yet Boston got the word in a bulletin interrupting All My Children that day—and even some family intimates were taken by surprise. “I’m really shocked,” said one member of the inner guard, recalling Thanksgiving with the couple and their children at their Squaw Island home on Cape Cod. “They all seemed pretty happy. Not that I didn’t think it might happen someday, but I thought things were better after the campaign.”

Things were. The campaign plainly raised Joan’s spirits, and while at first the senator seemed embarrassed by her occasional awkwardness on the podium and her outspoken discussion of her drinking problem, he was soon impressed by her energetic and effective support. “I think they both gained new respect for the other during the campaign and in the exhilaration of teamwork,” one close friend of Joan’s said last week. “But after the campaign, when the curtain fell, the old realities came into play.”

Joan had never grown accustomed to being a competitive Kennedy. Lacking the other Kennedy wives’ saving virtues—Ethel’s gregarious vigor or Jackie’s staunch aloofness—the former Joan Bennett came quickly to feel inferior and lost. The Westchester debutante with an interest in music had felt her life being overwhelmed by the Kennedy epic almost immediately after her wedding to Ted at the age of 22. The tests, to be sure, were unrelenting: a 1964 plane crash that broke Ted’s back; her three miscarriages; the 1969 drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne; the amputation of her son Ted Jr.’s leg in 1973 because of bone cancer; and the continual rumors of her husband’s philandering. Weakened by the strain, Joan has admitted, she became an alcoholic. “For a long time she’s been trying to cope with the reputation of the Kennedys,” says Morris McEvoy, the family’s driver on Cape Cod for 18 years. “If she was a little kid, she would like to be in the chorus rather than in the front line.”

Friends expect the divorce settlement to be unhostile—and generous. (Ted’s fortune is estimated at $20 million.) There will be no custody battle. Kara, 20, is a student at Tufts, and Ted Jr., 19, is at Wesleyan. Patrick, 13, a seventh-grader at the Potomac School, will continue to live with his father in McLean, Va.

Ted’s political future could suffer from the choice he faces between bachelorhood and remarriage outside the church. But the prognosis for Joan is mainly relief. Now back in her Beacon Street apartment, she is concentrating on finishing her master’s thesis and course work in music education at Lesley College by May. After that she expects to get a job teaching music to children. Touchingly, her first appearance in Boston after the divorce announcement was to narrate Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with a Boston Symphony ensemble for the benefit of the Eye Research Institute. The standing ovation she received was not just for her reading.

“She is not going into a vacuum called nonmarriage,” says Nancy Korman, a Kennedy adviser during the campaign, “but into a life which she has created and can be proud of. To many women in their 40s who have gone through enormous crisis, she represents someone who’s come out of it stronger and more real, and we respect her for it.” Her admirers in the press corps remember a candid moment when Joan claimed that triumph during the primaries last spring. “This campaign has been the best thing in the world for me next to getting sober,” she said. “It’s been terrific for my selfesteem. Whether we win or lose, I win.”