On July 18, 1969, Ted Kennedy was involved in an infamous car crash that killed his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. And while the senator’s presidential aspirations were seemingly curtailed by what became known as the Chappaquiddick incident, he nonetheless spoke freely about the tragedy on a number of occasions prior to his death in 2009. But did Kennedy ever reveal the truth about the accident? Well, in 2019 an investigator who worked on the case weighed in – and what he had to say may change how you see the politician.
Kopechne herself had seemingly cultivated an interest in politics as a young adult. In 1961 – and while studying for a business administration degree at New Jersey’s Caldwell College – she had found inspiration in the words of John F. Kennedy. The newly inaugurated president’s call to Americans to “ask what you can do for your country” had particularly struck a chord.
Then, after Kopechne graduated from college and relocated to Alabama, she became involved in the civil rights movement. Speaking to AL.com in 2019, historian William Kashatus said of the fledgling activist, “She was by nature a fearless, driven and focused young woman, passionate for social justice and making a difference.”
While living in Alabama, Kopechne also embarked on a career in education, serving as a shorthand and typing tutor at Montgomery Catholic High School. And Kay Allen Hassett, one of Kopechne’s former pupils, would look back on this period with fond memories of her old teacher. She told AL.com, “I remember her as a petite strawberry blonde with pep in her step.”
“[Kopechne] had confidence and a zest for life that was intriguing. Her smile lit up a room,” Hassett continued. “She was humble and kind and stood firm in her beliefs. She was a positive role model and motivator for students. Tough but fun in the classroom, creating speed challenges, expecting accuracy and rewarding generously.”
However, Kopechne ultimately left Montgomery for Washington, D.C. in 1963. And in her new home, she set out on a career in politics. The young woman first served Florida senator George Smather; after that, she became part of Robert F. Kennedy’s secretarial team following his election in 1964.
During her time working for Kennedy, Kopechne apparently proved herself as an energetic and devoted employee. She is even said to have contributed to the speech that the senator gave upon announcing his run for president in 1968.
Throughout Kennedy’s subsequent campaign, Kopechne was housed with five other women in a windowless room on Washington’s L Street. Owing to this location, then, the group became affectionately known as the “Boiler Room Girls.” And it seems that Kopechne had been deeply committed to the task of getting Kennedy elected prior to his assassination in June 1968.
Needless to say, though, the young woman was shattered by Kennedy’s untimely death at the age of 42. And, in fact, she would later leave Capitol Hill – reportedly because it reminded her too much of the late senator. According to Peter Canellos’ 2009 book Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy, Kopechne claimed, “I just feel Bobby’s presence everywhere. I can’t go back, because it will never be the same again.”
Yet Kopechne didn’t actually stay away from politics for long, as in September 1968 she joined Matt Reese Associates – a D.C.-based company that assisted politicians in setting up HQs and local bureaus. And while at the firm, Kopechne worked on a number of senate election campaigns, along with helping Thomas J. Whelan to become mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey.
Then, around 12 months after Kennedy was assassinated, his brother Ted threw a party for the Boiler Room Girls on Chappaquiddick. And, ultimately, the island – located near Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts – would become known around the world for what unfolded on one fateful evening in July 1969.
In attendance at the party were Kennedy, a cousin of his named Joseph Gargan, Gargan’s pal Paul Markham and John B. Crimmins, who was driving the senator around that weekend. Kennedy’s associates Charles Tretter and Raymond LaRosa were also present. Aside from Crimmins, the men were all married, although their wives hadn’t been invited to the gathering.
And, of course, Kennedy and his friends and acquaintances were joined at the soiree by the Boiler Room Girls: Kopechne, Susan Tannenbaum, Esther Newberg, Rosemary Keough and sisters Mary Ellen and Nance Lyons. All of the women were unattached and under 30, and they were staying at the Katama Shores Motor Inn in Edgartown.
Though Kopechne wasn’t well acquainted with the party’s host, she apparently left the celebration with him a little after 11:00 p.m. Kennedy would later claim that he had intended to give her a lift to the ferry, which would then take her in the direction of the motel in Edgartown. But on the resulting journey, the senator’s car veered off a bridge and ended up upside down in Poucha Pond.
Fortunately, Kennedy survived the crash and was able to exit the car; Kopechne, by contrast, remained in the vehicle. And while the senator later claimed that he had repeatedly attempted to find the young woman in the water, he was apparently unable to do so. Ultimately, then, he returned to the house in which Gargan was staying.
According to reports, Kennedy consequently returned to the scene of the accident with Gargan and Markham, with the two other men also attempting to recover Kopechne to no avail. Instead of informing the authorities about the crash, however, Kennedy went back to his room in Edgartown. Kopechne’s body would only be retrieved nine hours after the incident occurred.
According to Kopechne’s death certificate, she died of accidental drowning. But exactly what happened in the final moments of the 28-year-old’s life isn’t clear. And as a result of this mystery, the Chappaquiddick incident – as it would go on to be known – became the subject of numerous conspiracy theories for many years to come.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it appeared that Kopechne’s death wasn’t instant. A fire department diver named John Farrar ultimately found the young woman’s body, and owing to the corpse’s positioning, it seemed to Farrar that Kopechne had attempted to reach an air pocket after the vehicle had become submerged.
As a result, Farrar was of the opinion that Kopechne had succumbed to suffocation rather than drowning, having died after the oxygen in the air pocket ran out. In fact, the diver believed that the campaign worker may have lived had Kennedy been quicker to summon the authorities.
In the wake of the Chappaquiddick incident, there was also some speculation about whether Kennedy had been drunk when he drove off the bridge. In a televised statement given a week after Kopechne’s death, though, he denied that he had been driving under the influence. The senator also made no attempt to defend his actions following the accident, saying that they had “made no sense to [him] at all.”
Yet Farrar has since queried Kennedy’s reasoning. In a 2019 episode of ABC series 1969, the diver said, “Since [Kennedy] had plenty of time to get help, why didn’t he get help? Might’ve saved [Kopechne’s] life.” Even if the senator had raised the alarm, though, both the car’s condition and the cold water may have worked against Kopechne surviving for any great length of time.
During his address, Kennedy also denied that there’d been any “immoral conduct” between himself and Kopechne. And while people have indeed wondered why the senator and the young woman were driving alone together on the night of her death, no proof has ever been found to link the pair romantically.
In any case, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of the accident at a subsequent court hearing. A charge of involuntary manslaughter was off the table, as for this police would need to prove that the senator had committed a crime such as driving under the influence.
And given that Kennedy had waited many hours to inform the police of the accident, law enforcement had been unable to test his blood for alcohol. As a result, they only charged the senator with leaving the scene of the accident, for which he was subsequently handed a suspended prison sentence of two months as well as a ban from driving.
But while Kennedy would never be behind bars for his part in the Chappaquiddick incident, his career did suffer as a result. At the time, he had intended to run for president in 1972, yet Kopechne’s death had naturally damaged his public standing. And, in fact, it wasn’t until 1980 that Kennedy finally entered the race to become the Democratic presidential nominee; even then, he eventually lost out to Jimmy Carter.
On the whole, though, Kennedy escaped the Chappaquiddick incident with much of his reputation intact. This was partly down to the maneuverings of Ted’s advisers and confidantes, who had helped with legal and PR efforts in the wake of the accident. Another factor, perhaps, was that Kopechne’s death coincided with the moon landing, meaning many Americans were distracted by the historic happenings in space.
Ultimately, then, Kennedy would be a senator for almost half a century – from 1962 until his passing from brain cancer in 2009. But even despite the illustrious career that followed the Chappaquiddick incident, it seemed that the politician never entirely managed to shake off the events of July 19, 1969.
Kennedy certainly saw fit to address the accident in his posthumous autobiography True Compass. In the book, he claimed that his behavior on the night in question was “inexcusable” before writing, “My burden is nothing compared to [Kopechne’s] loss and the suffering her family had to endure… She deserved better than that.”
And after Kennedy’s final words on the Chappaquiddick incident were published, it may have seemed that there was nothing else to learn. However, almost 50 years after Kopechne’s death, an investigator who had worked on the case came forward with an account that would cast doubt on Kennedy’s telling of the tale.
Yes, the events of that fateful night were revisited in an episode of ABC’s 2019 docuseries 1969. Entitled “The Girl in the Car,” the special set out to return Kopechne to the spotlight – not least because her life had seemingly been overlooked.
Prior to airing the episode, ABC published a press release that said of Kopechne, “Her story has largely been lost to history. The media and the public focused on the man whose career was forever damaged by the accident, rather than the bright young woman who did not live to tell us what really happened on that mysterious night.”
And “The Girl in the Car” may certainly have given Kennedy defenders pause for thought. In his televised speech in 1969, the senator had spoken mostly of his own ordeal when giving a vivid description of the moments directly after the crash. “I remember thinking as the cold water rushed in around my head that I was for certain drowning,” he had said. “Then water entered my lungs and I actually felt the sensation of drowning, but somehow I struggled to the surface alive.”
During his address, Kennedy also claimed, “I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo… but succeeded only [in] increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm.” However, when the politician was questioned about the incident by police, he was reportedly not as forthcoming with information.
That’s likely down to the approach that law enforcement allegedly took with Kennedy. Speaking to ABC News in 2019, erstwhile investigator Bob Molla revealed, “It was implied without direct words that we were not… not to push him too hard. Show Senator Kennedy the respect of a senator… You weren’t going to be able to grill him, [only] ask your questions. He’ll give you an answer, and [you’ll] take it at that.”
Liz McNeil, the host of podcast Cover-Up, has additionally claimed that Kennedy had called a pair of lawyers before finally telling police about the accident. She also suggested that the senator had tried to garner public sympathy by wearing a neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral when he may not genuinely have been injured.
And Molla and McNeil haven’t been the only people to raise questions about the Chappaquiddick incident. In 2019, you see, the late campaigner’s family received a mysterious letter from a man who claimed he’d spoken to a witness of the accident. The woman in question was apparently another Boiler Room Girl whom the letter writer referred to as Betty.
In the note, the man said that Betty had told him Kopechne had fallen asleep on the backseat of Kennedy’s car after she had drunk too much at the party. He then claimed that the senator had taken another girl out in the car, with both ignorant of the fact that Kopechne was in the back. Then, when the vehicle had crashed, Kennedy and the other woman allegedly walked back to the cottage together – not realizing there had been a third person in the car.
What’s not clear from the anonymous letter, however, is why Kennedy would then go with a story that was potentially more incriminating. Nonetheless, this may explain why Kopechne had left her hotel key and purse at the party – which made little sense if Kennedy had indeed been giving her a ride to the ferry.
All in all, we may never know what really unfolded on the night that the Chappaquiddick incident occurred. Yet regardless of what did go on, the victim of the fatal accident has arguably been largely forgotten in the decades that have passed.
Perhaps with that in mind, Kopechne’s cousin Bill Nelson attempted to keep his relative’s memory alive when being interviewed for “The Girl in the Car.” In the episode, Nelson revealed how Kopechne had been a kind, caring and compassionate woman who was the first in her family to go to college. Even so, he added, “Mary Jo, unfortunately, ended up being a footnote in her own death.”