By Tom Gliatto
March 30, 1992 12:00 PM

IS THE SHADE OF JANE AUSTEN SOMEHOW coordinating the romantic lives of the rich and famous this month? It is indeed a truth universally acknowledged that Warren Beatty was a man in want of a wife—and, mirabile dictu, Bugsy begat Beatty, Benning, baby and bye-bye to bachelorhood. But not even the most ardent Austenian could have scripted the happy redeeming by love that lay ahead for, yes, 60-year-old Ted Kennedy. Pride and Prejudice, please meet Sense and Sensibility.

Last week the Massachusetts Senator of 30 years—nine of them spent in an often roistering, postdivorce bachelorhood—announced his engagement to Victoria Reggie, 38, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and divorced mother of two, with the simple, romantic declaration: “I love Victoria and her children very much, and she has brought enormous happiness into my life.” (The date remains to be set.)

Kennedy has been quietly a-courtin’ Reggie since June with flowers, twice-daily phone calls, dates to the theater and Redskins games and, last summer, sailing vacations in the waters off Hyannis Port. His present to her for Christmas: a personal trainer. The first public viewing of the relationship came last month, at the Massachusetts Senator’s 60th birthday party at his home in McLean, Va. A bit of the famous Kennedy rakishness was on display as well; he was dressed as Rhett Butler, she as Scarlett O’Hara. “They radiated happiness,” says Washington attorney Lee Fentress, an old Kennedy friend. “He’s in great shape, working very hard and very much in love.”

In short, Ted/Rhett seems to give a damn. For one thing, the occasionally overripe Senator has lost at least 25 lbs. in the nine months that he has been seeing Reggie, an elegant, brown-eyed brunette of Lebanese descent. “I’ve been waiting for people to attribute it to Vicki,” says New Mexico lawyer Karen Kilgore, a friend of Vicki’s from their days as students at Sophie Newcomb Memorial College in New Orleans. As for the legendary Kennedy drinking, “It’s been exaggerated, or he’s got it under control and it’s no problem,” says Kilgore. “That’s what Vicki tells me.”

The transformation comes not long after Kennedy’s public admission that his life did seem to be careering out of control. “I recognize my own shortcomings…,” he said in an extraordinary speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government last fall. “I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them.”

And the confrontations only got worse. A few weeks after his mea culpa, there was the nationally televised trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith, 30, for the alleged 1990 rape of Patricia Bowman, whom Willie had met at a popular Palm Beach, Fla., watering hole while out drinking with Uncle Ted and Ted’s son Patrick. Smith (who, by the way, came as Elvis to his uncle’s birthday bash) was acquitted, and Kennedy’s brief turn on the witness stand was a touching reverie on the clan’s Camelot days. Even so, he was rubbed raw by renewed press scrutiny of such incidents as the time he reportedly had sex with a blond lobbyist on the floor of a Washington restaurant, as well as bitter remembrances of other indiscretions past. According to one poll, his disapproval rating in Massachusetts rose to 54 percent—his highest ever by far. Besides, Camelot wasn’t the only ghost in Palm Beach. Kennedy’s testimony was haunted by the specter of the biggest, blackest blotch on his life: the night in July 1969 when his Oldsmobile went off the Dike Bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick, Mass., drowning campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne.

Ted’s checkered past is not at issue with Reggie’s family back in Crowley, La., a region best known for oil and rice. Edmund Reggie, a former banker and a retired city judge (who is a longtime crony of Louisiana’s Gov. Edwin Edwards), headed the short-lived Louisiana campaign for Kennedy in 1980—and even after the Senator bowed out in favor of Jimmy Carter, Victoria’s mother, Doris, 61, insisted on casting her vote for Ted when she went to the Democratic National Convention as a delegate. “That’s how much we think of him,” says her husband. “We know him, and we love him. He’s one of my dearest friends.”

The Reggies have been Kennedy supporters since 1956, when the judge met John F. Kennedy, then a vice presidential hopeful, at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. He managed JFK’s 1960 campaign in Louisiana (the future President even stayed at the Reggies’ home), as well as Robert Kennedy’s campaign there in 1968. The Reggies have been present at assorted Kennedy weddings, and Victoria’s brother Denis, 36, a photographer, shot the Maria Shriver—Arnold Schwarzenegger nuptials in 1986.

Victoria Reggie, the second of six brothers and sisters, was able to grow up in suitably Kennedy-esque fashion, thanks to money from her mother’s family, which owned the Bunny Bread baking company in New Orleans. She enjoyed mornings on horseback, summers at the family home in Nantucket—and visits to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port.

Like the Kennedys, the Reggies are staunchly Catholic. Victoria’s parents have even made a pilgrimage to Medjugorge, Yugoslavia, where the Blessed Virgin is said to have been appearing for a decade. (What sort of church wedding Kennedy and his bride will be able to have, given the Catholic Church’s stand on divorce, remains to be seen.) Victoria attended Crowley parochial schools, where, her father boasts, “She was an extraordinary student. She never made less than an A from kindergarten through high school.” Vicki majored in English at Sophie Newcomb, was Phi Beta Kappa and president of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. She stayed in New Orleans to study law at Tulane University, making the law review and graduating summa cum laude in 1979. That was followed by a prestigious assignment clerking for Robert A. Sprecher in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

It was in Chicago that she met Grier Raclin, a fellow attorney. They married in 1980 and divorced 10 years later after they had moved to Washington, D.C. She became a lawyer with the firm Keck, Mahin & Cate, juggling career and motherhood. (She has two kids with Raclin, Caroline, now 6, and Curran, 9.) “She’s a very charismatic, hard-driving lawyer, and clients are really crazy about her,” says friend and colleague Steven Engelberg. “She eats a lot of salads at her desk.”

(Her specialty is banks and savings institutions, which seems germane, considering her banker father’s current predicament: He is under federal indictment for 11 counts of fraud in connection with the 1986 collapse of a Louisiana S&L and a bank. He denies the charges.)

The Senator and the lawyer started dating last spring after he attended a 40th wedding anniversary party she threw for her parents in Washington, D.C., and several months after he and previous girlfriend Dragana Lickle, a 36-year-old Palm Beach Realtor, broke up. “It’s been very obvious that he’s really smitten with her,” says Kennedy watcher Andrew Miga, Washington bureau chief of the Boston Herald, and apparently he’s devoted to her children. He likes to paint with Caroline and took her and Curran trick-or-treating last year in their affluent Northwest neighborhood. He also attends Mass with them and their mother. The new family will move with him into his home in McLean after the marriage.

“I think she was reassured by Ted’s strong relationship with the kids,” says Karen Kilgore. Kennedy has always had close ties with his own children by first wife Joan, 55. (They are Kara, 32, now a video producer; Teddy Jr., 30, who lost his right leg to bone cancer in 1973, received an M.A. from Yale last year in environmental science; and Patrick, 24, a state representative in Rhode Island.) Kennedy’s 24-year marriage to Joan, on the other hand, was a looser, messier matter. In its later stages, he was linked to a string of women, including skier and Chapstick endorser Suzy Chaffee. Joan was an admitted alcoholic who lived on her own in Boston for the last six years of the marriage, briefly reuniting with Ted for his 1980 presidential bid. She is taking news of the second marriage well, says her friend, Brookline dermatologist Michael Greenwald. “I know she wishes him the best.”

There are some who speculate that Reggie, like Joan in ’80, will prove a plus when Kennedy is up for re-election in 1994. Still, after 30 busy years in the Senate—he is now fifth in seniority and chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee—Kennedy carries extensive baggage, for good or ill. “He’s well beyond getting married to help his career,” says the Herald’s Miga. “Going into every election, about 60 percent traditionally support him, and 30 percent hate him. People made up their minds about Ted Kennedy years ago.”

Judge Reggie certainly did. “I know Ted Kennedy, and I know the kind of commitment he makes,” he says. “He’s making one to my daughter, and that’s enough for me.”