Everyone Knew Mary Jo Kopechne's Name After She Died in Ted Kennedy's Car, but No One Knew Anything About Her
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on June 14, 2018. Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the Chappaquiddick scandal.
On July 18, 1969, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s car crashed off the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island and plunged into the water below –– killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old campaign worker for Ted’s brother Bobby.
The day after her body was found, the headline of the New York Daily News read: “Teddy Escapes, Blonde Drowns.” And that about summed up the coverage of her tragic death — the stories that followed were always about Kennedy — never about Mary Jo.
But now, almost 50 years later, PEOPLE’s new podcast, Cover-Up, produced in conjunction with Cadence13, puts a new lens on the tragic accident, exploring its enduring mystery through interviews with over 50 people, including Kopechne’s cousin and closest living relative, law enforcement officials who oversaw the investigation, the diver who recovered her body from the car, and many more.
In the third episode, you’ll get to know the real Mary Jo — a small town girl with big dreams who was deeply affected by Bobby Kennedy’s death — and so much more than a “blonde secretary.”
She was passionate. She was political. She worked 24-7. And she was a true believer. She played a key role in Bobby’s campaign: handling correspondence, researching convention delegates and canvassing for votes. She had traveled to Los Angeles for the Democratic Primary and was at the Ambassador Hotel the night he was assassinated. And she was there, along with some of the family’s closest friends, on the slow moving funeral train that carried Bobby’s casket from New York City to Arlington Cemetery where he was buried next to his brother, Jack.
But all these details were left out at the time.
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Ted Kennedy was also haunted by his brother’s assassination, which took place a little more than a year before the Chappaquiddick accident.
One of Ted’s closest friends, Senator John Tunney, once said that Chappaquiddick was “a direct result of what happened to Bobby a year earlier.”
And in a 2009 interview with the Miller Center, Tunney described his friend’s extraordinary grief that summer of 1969.
“I could tell there was a wildness in his brain,” Tunney said. “There was kind of a wildness there that was almost a flaunting of rules of the game, so to speak, because he was so angry. There was an anger that he felt about the unfairness of the way his brothers had been gunned down.”
In the aftermath of Chappaquiddick, Ted was also tormented by fears of displeasing his father, Joe Kennedy — fears that sent Ted spiraling back to another tragedy from his childhood.
In 1941, when Ted was 8 years old, his older sister Rosemary was given a lobotomy on their father’s orders. The procedure was a disaster and Rosemary, then 23, was left with the mental capacities of a toddler and sent to live at a Catholic school for the disabled in Wisconsin. She lived there for 56 years until her death in 2005.
After the lobotomy, no one told young Ted what had happened to his eldest sister. And he thought he might disappear too — if he did not do what his father wanted.
After Mary Jo’s death, Ted told his biographer Burton Hersh, author of Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography, that he was “dealing with the suppressed anxieties of the eight year old who dreaded that he would prove unworthy of his father like the lobotomized Rosemary and disappear as well.”
Ted’s anxieties worsened when Joe Kennedy died four months after Chappaquiddick, on Nov. 18, 1969.
Hersh says Ted blamed himself for the death of his father, who stopped eating after he learned about the fatal accident. “He felt his father was so disheartened by the Chappaquiddick situation that that’s what caused him to stop eating and starve,” Hersh said.
“This was a very heavy burden for Ted for the rest of his life,” Hersh added. “He said to me, ‘I killed my father.’ ”
As for Ted’s role in Mary Jo’s death, her cousin Georgetta has no doubt that he was responsible.
“I believe, no matter what part he did or did not play in Mary Jo’s death, that she died because of him,” Georgetta says now. “He knew it and knew he was responsible. There is so much we do not know.”
There are still so many unanswered questions for Mary Jo’s family. Georgetta doesn’t understand why Mary Jo tested with a high blood alcohol level. “She was not even a social drinker. If she had one drink she’d nurse it all night,” Georgetta says.
The uncharacteristically elevated alcohol level led some of Mary Jo’s friends — including her former boyfriend Dick Toole — to believe something else may have happened that night.
“I wondered if [Ted] even knew she was in the car,” Toole says. “She was the type of person that rather than break somebody’s fun up, she might climb in the back and sleep. She was not a drinker.”
For more on the Chappaquiddick scandal, subscribe now to Cover-Up on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or wherever podcasts are available. And to continue the discussion, join our Facebook group or reach us directly at email@example.com.
But there was so much more to Mary Jo’s story. Georgetta reveals one particularly poignant moment she and Mary Jo shared, when Mary Jo once wondered if they’d ever be famous.
And in a strange and very sad way, she did become famous. No one knew anything about Mary Jo Kopechne, but her name entered the history books. And decades later, the mystery surrounding her death endures.