In the summer of 1969, Edward Kennedy was riding high. Tall, handsome and athletic, the 37-year-old senator from Massachusetts was the last great hope of the Kennedy family. His brother Jack had fallen to an assassin’s bullet in 1963, and Robert had been shot while campaigning for the presidency in 1968. The newspapers talked of a ‘Kennedy curse’. But when Ted Kennedy’s fellow Democrats picked him as the youngest ever Senate Majority Whip, his political destiny seemed certain. As the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972, he would surely recapture the White House for the Kennedy family.
That July, Kennedy took part in a regatta off Martha’s Vineyard, a summer playground for New England’s elite. On the evening of the 18th, the senator took the ferry to the neighbouring island of Chappaquiddick. There his staff had arranged a party to thank the six ‘boiler room girls’ who had worked on Robert’s ill-fated presidential campaign the previous summer. It was a fine evening, and the drink flowed merrily. At some point between 11 and midnight, Kennedy slipped away, taking one of the women, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, with him. Later he said that he was driving her to her hotel. Oddly, though, she left her handbag and room key behind.
About an hour later, a policeman saw a car streaking along an unpaved dirt road. It was Kennedy and Kopechne. Lost in the darkness, Kennedy turned down an unpaved dirt road, and at the end his car slipped off the road and plunged into a deep tidal channel. It takes little imagination to picture the scene: the car falling and turning on its head; the water roaring in; the panic of the two passengers, pounding at the windows. “I remember thinking as the cold water rushed in around my head that I was for certain drowning,” Kennedy said later. “Then water entered my lungs and I actually felt the sensation of drowning. But somehow I struggled to the surface alive.”
Mary Jo Kopechne, however, was still down there, trapped, possibly drowning. Kennedy shouted her name and dived fruitlessly into the water. Then he walked back to the party, passing several houses on the way. Back at the party, he told his cousin and an old friend what had happened, but nobody else. They went back to the scene, and the men took turns diving to look for Kopechne. It was no good. Kennedy was now sobbing and barely coherent. His friends told him to go back to Martha’s Vineyard and report the accident to the police.
What happened next was, by any standards, peculiar. Still in a terrible state, Kennedy swam the narrow channel to Martha’s Vineyard and, streaming with water, stumbled up to his hotel. Instead of calling the police, however, he went up to his room and changed his clothes. By his own account, he was paralysed by shock: “I almost tossed and turned and walked around that room… I had not given up hope all night long that, by some miracle, Mary Jo would have escaped from the car.” But the hotel staff later reported that at around three in the morning, Kennedy, now wearing a smart jacket and slacks, complained about the noise from a nearby party. A few hours later, having risen early for breakfast, he was seen chatting with his fellow regatta competitors. He seemed in a “jovial” mood.
It was not until mid-morning that Kennedy rang the police. By now fishermen had spotted the car, and divers had already recovered Kopechne’s dead body. The result was a media furore. After pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, Kennedy was given a suspended two-month prison sentence. His presidential hopes were destroyed, but he saved his political career by giving an emotional television address. He was, he said, the victim of an “awful curse”. He mentioned Mary Jo Kopechne’s name five times.
In the following decades, Edward Kennedy became perhaps the most admired senator in the country and a tireless champion for liberal causes. When he died in 2009, President Obama gave the eulogy. There were no such eulogies for Mary Jo Kopechne. The diver who found her stated that she probably survived in an air pocket for at least two hours. Had Kennedy called the police immediately after the accident, she might still be alive today.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter.