The Surprising Phone Call Ted Kennedy Made to His Mistress After a Woman Died in His Car in Chappaquiddick
In the early morning hours after Sen. Ted Kennedy crashed his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, killing his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, he turned first not to his wife — but to his mistress for help
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on June 22, 2018. Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the Chappaquiddick scandal.
In the early morning hours after Sen. Ted Kennedy crashed his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, killing his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, he turned first not to his wife — but to his mistress for help.
Helga Wagner, who friends say was the love of the senator’s life, was the first person Ted Kennedy said he phoned on July 19, 1969.
Now, almost 50 years later, Wagner recalls Kennedy’s frantic call in PEOPLE’s podcast, Cover-Up, produced in conjunction with Cadence13, which explores the enduring mystery of Kopechne’s death 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 fourth episode, Wagner says Kennedy was in shock when he called her at around 8 a.m. the day after the fatal accident, asking for the number of his brother-in-law Stephen Smith — the family fixer.
“He told me what happened, and that he desperately tried to save her,” Wagner, who remains protective of her relationship with Kennedy and refers to herself as his “good friend,” says on the podcast.
Flicking at why Kennedy waited hours before going to the police to report the crash, Wagner says, “The way I see it, it was confusion and he was absolutely horrified and totally confused … He certainly did not want to hurt her, that’s for sure. It just took a long time for him to get out of this situation.”
Wagner, who is now in her 80s and runs a Palm Beach, Florida, business selling custom jewelry made of seashells, admits now that Kennedy was a “strong presence” in her life.
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Friends of the senator told author Burton Hersh for his book, Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography, that Wagner was the love of Kennedy’s life.
He even called Wagner a few weeks before he died in 2009 to say goodbye.
“He knew what was going to happen in a very short time and you could tell he was just trying to keep it all together because that’s just the way he was,” Wagner says now. “He was very strong in many ways.”
There was also another mysterious call made that morning. From the White House.
Tony Ulasewicz, who was then-President Richard Nixon’s private investigator, received a call that morning to get to Chappaquiddick “as fast as you can.” Nixon viewed Kennedy as a potential threat to his political future, and wanted the accident investigated.
So Ulasewicz was one of the first people on the scene of the accident and is said to be the man who knew more about Chappaquiddick than anyone else.
Ulasewicz wrote about Chappaquiddick in his 1990 memoir, The President’s Private Eye. And this week’s episode of Cover-Up excerpts the tapes of the interviews he did for his book.
In one recording, Ulasewicz said that Chappaquiddick was “a complete and very well done cover-up.”
“It doesn’t make sense — so much of it doesn’t — that it must be cover-up,” Ulasewicz said at the time.
Ulasewicz would later go down in history as Nixon’s “bagman,” acting as a conduit between the White House and early Watergate defendants and their lawyers. As The New York Times wrote in his 1997 obituary, Ulasewicz “was, quite literally, a ‘bagman,’ toting bundles of cash in brown paper sacks as if they were sandwiches.” He delivered hush money in brown paper bags to E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, two of the men who directed the Watergate break-in.
But Ulasewicz was haunted by Kopechne’s death and never forgot it until his dying day, his son Peter Ulasewicz says now.
“He ruminated over the years right up until his death in 1997, he was really was very bothered by Chappaquiddick,” Peter Ulasewicz explains. “He felt so strongly that justice had been thwarted. That there was a concerted effort not to find out what really occurred and what really happened.”