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'Say nothing, do nothing': How Ted Kennedy's friends circled wagons on police after Chappaquiddick crash

Journalist John Farrell's book 'Ted Kennedy: A Life' suggests the senator tried to 'save himself' in the aftermath of the crash in 1969
UPDATED OCT 26, 2022
Senator Ted Kennedy tried to 'save himself' after the crash, according to a new book (Keystone/Getty Images)
Senator Ted Kennedy tried to 'save himself' after the crash, according to a new book (Keystone/Getty Images)

CHAPPAQUIDDICK, MASSACHUSETTS: Late US senator Ted Kennedy told his friends and family to "say nothing and do nothing" in the wake of the Chappaquiddick car crash that claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969, a private unseen diary claims.

Journalist John Farrell's new book 'Ted Kennedy: A Life' claims the late senator, who panicked after the death of Kopechne, tried to "cover up" the scandal by controlling what was being said to the investigator at the time. Citing remarks made in the private diaries of Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Farrell described Kennedy’s actions in the wake of the crash as "craven".


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The infamous accident happened in 1969 when Kennedy hosted a party with his friends and the women known as the 'Boiler Room Girls', who worked on his brother Robert Kennedy's 1968 Presidential campaign, on July 18 in Chappaquiddick. However, around midnight, the former senator left the party and drove off with Kopechne, a 28-year-old secretary, supposedly to give her a ride back to her hotel. But Kennedy, who was allegedly heavily drunk at the time, lost control of their car on a bridge. Despite going at a slow speed, the car flipped and landed upside down in a pond. While Kennedy managed to escape from the car, Kopechne drowned in the pond with the vehicle.

Rather than informing the authorities, Kennedy went back to the party and told his cousin Joseph Gargan and Gargan's school friend Paul Markham. The three then went to the bridge and tried to save the secretary but the sandy water of the pond had already swallowed her. Gargan and Markham advised him to report the accident but Kennedy ignored their advice and went back to his hotel room. Rather than dealing with a manslaughter charge, Kennedy admitted to leaving the scene of the accident and got two months in prison, the minimum possible, which was also suspended.

According to Farrell, Kennedy "could not face it" and sought to shirk the blame for Kopechne's death "to save himself." He also noted that his "family's iconic status" in Massachusetts "gave them the advantage." According to Farrell, the investigators didn’t even carry out an autopsy and believed what Ted described, thanks to the family's reputation and power. 

Later, in a public interview, Kennedy claimed that he failed to report the accident at the time because he was gripped by a "jumble of emotions".

But Farrell's book tells a whole other story. According to the book, the next morning, Markham and Gargan confronted Kennedy and asked him to go to the police. But Kennedy told them, "I'm going to say Mary Jo was driving." Farrell writes, "By this point Kennedy looked like a man who wants to establish an alibi as his friends concoct a story that absolves him."

However, Schlesinger, who visited Kennedy and his relatives in the weeks after the incident in July 1969, wrote in his private diary that Kennedy’s whole world was turned upside down when he returned to the US after spending weeks in Europe. Kennedy was "maddeningly inconsistent" about the crash, according to the diary, telling his doctor he escaped through the window and others he couldn't remember how he got out of the car. "What happened to John and Robert Kennedy was beyond their control, while (Ted) Kennedy's wounds are self-inflicted," Schlesinger wrote. While nobody thought that Kennedy was drunk, the three drinks he had may have "constituted the margin that propelled the car off the bridge," it added.

Farrell writes, "Had Kennedy gone straight to a nearby house and called for him, Farrar [the diver who recovered the body] came to believe, they may have had Kopechne out of the car in 40 or 50 minutes." Regardless of Ted’s motive, the crash caused serious harm to the Kennedy family’s reputation and made it hard for the family members to handle the situation. The stress and the media pressure after the crash even led to Kennedy's wife Joan miscarrying the following week. They also added to the woes of his ill father, Joseph Kennedy Sr. Kennedy blamed himself for his father's deterioration, telling a friend, "I killed my father."