April 18, 2005 12:00 PM

On Tuesday, March 29, Boston philanthropist Stephanie Warburg got a call from her old friend Joan Kennedy to say that she wouldn’t be able to keep their dinner plans for that week. “She said she was in the hospital, and her shoulder was being operated on,” says Warburg. “She said, ‘I’m probably going to have to wear a sling.’ ”

Actually, her situation was far more serious. Shortly after 5 p.m. the day before, Kennedy, 68, had been found sprawled on a sidewalk not far from her condo in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood with a bloody gash on her head. At first, according to Constance Bacon, 35, the local artist who found her, Kennedy, well-dressed in black pants and wool overcoat, tried to wave off any help. But Bacon, who had no idea of the woman’s identity, dialed 911 and held an umbrella over her in the rain until an ambulance arrived. “She said she was okay,” says Bacon, “but she didn’t look okay.”

Kennedy was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was treated for a concussion and multiple shoulder fractures. The next day her son Patrick, 37, a six term congress man from Rhode Island, visited her in the hospital and later made clear what many suspected—that the incident was related to his mother’s long-standing battle with alcoholism. “This was a real wake-up call,” said Patrick, the youngest of her three children with ex-husband Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. “And I think that a silver lining may be that we’ll be able to make her understand that all we’re trying to do is be of help.”

It’s not that they haven’t already tried. Last year Patrick, along with siblings Edward Jr., 43, and Kara, 45, took over temporary legal guardianship of their mother in an effort to control her drinking. While Monday’s fall “has been publicized, there have been many [incidents] that have not been,” said Patrick, who has himself publicly acknowledged that he suffers from depression and spent time in rehab for cocaine addiction as a teen. “This again reminds us as to why we had to seek guardianship in the first place.”

Joan, who is an active volunteer and serves on the board of a number of charities, never remarried after her 1983 divorce from Ted, who has tacitly acknowledged his own problems with alcohol. Since pleading guilty to drunk driving in 1974 in Virginia, she has undergone a string of alcohol-related arrests and hospitalizations. “It has been hard,” she said in 1992. But “it is easier now. I have all this support…. There’s wonderful forgiveness from people.” Then, on Sept. 10, 2000, she was arrested for driving drunk a few miles from Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. At the time she told a police officer that she had not had a drink in nine years but had become so melancholy while looking at old family photographs that she had had some wine.

More recently, friends and family had expressed optimism about her recovery. Late last month, when she attended a dinner at Warburg’s, “I told her, ‘You look the best you’ve looked since little Teddy’s wedding,’ ” says Warburg, referring to Teddy Jr.’s 1993 nuptials. “She just laughed.”

Patrick has said that he and his brother plan to meet with their mother to discuss her future care. Sadly, more careful supervision may now be a necessary fact of Joan Kennedy’s life. “She’s a terrific woman, but she has this problem, and she’s struggling with it,” says Warburg, echoing the sentiment of many of Kennedy’s family and friends. “I feel so bad for her. She’s such a good soul.”

Susan Schindehette. Anne Driscoll and Jennifer Longley in Boston and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.

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