The grill was too small for the steaks, and the island cottage was too small for the people: six men and six women, drinking rum, vodka and scotch on a hot, breezeless night in July 1969. By the end, one of the women would be trapped in the back seat of a submerged car, as saltwater swelled around her. One of the men, the driver, would be back on dry land but drowning in dread, knowing already that no matter how he strove, or what he achieved, the tragedy at Massachusetts’s Chappaquiddick Island would forever be an anchor around his neck. This was 37-year-old Ted Kennedy.
For those of a certain age, Chappaquiddick is the sound of a Camelot made of sand, dragged away by the tide. In conservative media, the word is still brandished as an insult, or a meme, to undermine any accomplishment of the Kennedy family, which remains the focus of dark conspiracy theories.
But for those younger, Chappaquiddick — if it rings a bell at all — is just another of those proper nouns tied to some nebulous political shame: Kent State, Watergate, My Lai, Iran-contra, Whitewater. Now it’s a new movie by rookie screenwriters, born more than a decade after Chappaquiddick, who first heard the name in their mid-20s. Their efforts aren’t partisan, they say, and one of their goals was to dignify Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman introduced to the world as a nameless victim in headlines and buried as an extended footnote to the career of an august statesman.
The film itself seems oddly apolitical. It’s been advertised on Fox News but on public radio and “60 Minutes,” too — aimed less at Kennedy partisans, pro- or anti-, than at the shrinking audience of grown-ups game for a political thriller. A campaign on social media attempts to catch the attention of young people with the breathless hashtag #ThisReallyHappened.
The movie’s poster calls it “the untold true story,” although it’s been told over and over, in many different ways — though mostly by men, and never to everyone’s satisfaction.
“I made terrible decisions,” Kennedy wrote in his 2009 posthumous memoir, and “I’ve had to live with that guilt for forty years.” On the big screen, he has been brought back to life and surrounded by the six women at the cookout. They were referred to as “the boiler room girls,” because they worked the phones and wrangled party delegates for Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. In subsequent years, the five surviving “girls” would be hounded by journalists, slandered by the public, wiretapped by the Nixon administration, criticized for inconsistencies in their recollections. They have refused big paydays to tell all. They declined to be interviewed at length for story after story, book after book, as Kennedy burnished a career as the “Lion of the Senate.” It is a policy they’ve stuck to for nearly 50 years — even now, in their 70s, as scores of other women are taking a public stand against the misbehavior of men.
Kopechne’s relatives are happy to see her given new meaning on-screen. The Kennedys have been quiet about the movie, leaving pushback to family confidants and associates. The boiler room girls, on-screen and in real life, remain frustratingly out of focus.
Mary Jo Kopechne was a Catholic girl from New Jersey, the only child of a homemaker and a life-insurance salesman. "Quiet congeniality and dauntless charm emerge in the warmth of her smile," said the photo caption in her college yearbook.
After volunteering for John F. Kennedy’s campaign, she earned a business degree, then spent a year teaching underprivileged students in Alabama. By 1965, she was working in Bobby Kennedy’s Senate office. There were still separate lines for men and women at employment offices, but Kopechne and her peers were on the cusp of the women’s movement, quietly acquiring important duties if not respect.
“I know [Ted] was not willing, pretty much, to communicate directly with me for a long time . . . because I was a girl,” said Kopechne’s roommate Nance Lyons, a project administrator for Ted Kennedy’s office, in a 2008 interview for the Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
At 28, Kopechne was a late bloomer, friends would later say, devoted to work and rarely dating. Short and skinny, emerging from her childhood shyness, she devoured books about Vietnam and civil rights; her favorite new album was the hippie-rock musical “Hair.” When Bobby ran for president, Kopechne offered input for the speech, typed up his announcement and saved the pink carbon copy as a keepsake. Then she, Lyons and a few others divided up states and chased delegates. “Only the great ones” worked in the boiler room, Ethel Kennedy wrote later. Devastated by Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, Kopechne rode on the train that carried his body home.
In January 1969, Ted Kennedy became the youngest-ever majority whip in the Senate — a step toward a third family run at the presidency. But 1972 was a few years away, and everyone had wounds to lick. Some of the women, who lived in a tight cluster of Georgetown rowhouses, jumped to other jobs on the Hill. The Kennedys, having skipped the Edgartown, Mass., regatta in 1968 because of Bobby’s death, returned to race in the summer of ’69. It seemed like a good occasion to get the gang back together.
“Honey, be careful of the water,” Kopechne’s mother told her by phone, according to Leo Damore’s book, “Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up.”
“Mother, you know me,” Kopechne replied. “I only like to sunbathe.”
The party was muted by an undercurrent of mourning. The sole surviving Kennedy brother was depressed and weary. At some point, he decided to head back to his hotel on the main island of Martha’s Vineyard, and Kopechne left with him. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy’s black Oldsmobile drove off a small bridge on the east side of the island, hit the dark water of a tidal pond and sank six to eight feet to the bottom.
He escaped the car. She did not. He would later say he attempted several times to rescue her. But it would take him 10 hours to report the accident to police — an appalling lag that has been scrutinized and condemned ever since.
Six months after the incident, the five remaining women were questioned at an inquest in Edgartown.
“We had steaks and potatoes and vegetables, but I can’t remember what time,” Maryellen Lyons said in court.
“I saw the senator and Mary Jo walk out the door,” her sister Nance said. “We continued talking and singing.”
“We were all very happy, but not unusually jovial because of liquor,” Esther Newberg clarified.
Kennedy “certainly seemed sober,” said Susan Tannenbaum.
The next day, the others “told me there had been an accident,” Rosemary Keough said, and “that the car had gone off the bridge and we didn’t know where Mary Jo was.”
Her body was recovered from the pond that morning, in a position that suggested she remained alive — and straining into an air pocket — for an uncertain amount of time.
In its early stories on the incident, the Boston Globe described Kennedy as a man “pursued by tragedy,” who had “narrowly escaped.” When asked by the Edgartown police chief, the senator did not know how to spell Mary Jo’s last name. Early reports didn’t either.
“Copachini,” the New Bedford Standard-Times wrote it.
“Palporki” was the FBI’s version.
One wire service didn’t bother with her name at all: “TED SAFE; BLONDE DIES.”
Screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan both grew up in Dallas, awash in Kennedy lore, but it wasn't until 2008 that they heard of Chappaquiddick for the first time, when Bill Maher riffed on Sen. Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama. The pair, after meeting in film school, began to wonder why a movie star had never played Ted at the center of a feature film. They dove into Chappaquiddick research and in 2015 surfaced with a spec script designed to reexamine a story little known to most of today's moviegoers, and to fully characterize the "blonde" at the heart of it.
“It was important for us not to portray her as a damsel in distress,” Logan said. “We wanted to show, even in a time of great crisis, she was poised. And she was somebody who had great courage and who had a lot of promise ahead of her.”
The screenplay included a sex scene between Kopechne and Kennedy, but the finished film shows only an emotional connection that stops short of romance. In real life, there’s no evidence they had a sexual relationship.
“Novice screenwriters make mistakes,” Allen said, when asked about inflammatory aspects of the screenplay that didn’t make the final cut.
On screen, booze flows at the cookout but no one appears wasted or reckless. The film is damning, however, in its depiction of Ted’s behavior after the accident.
“I’m never gonna be president,” he says in the film, even before it’s clear Mary Jo is dead. The line is a scriptwriter invention, but in his memoir, Kennedy acknowledged that he realized immediately his career would suffer.
Burton Hersh, author of “Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography,” balks at any insinuation of drunkenness, illicit romance or the portrayal of Ted’s father, Joe, as orchestrator of a coverup.
“I knew Ted a long time, and the picture of a self-interested daddy’s boy . . . is utterly inaccurate,” said Hersh, who read a draft of the screenplay but had not seen the finished product. As for Joe Kennedy, debilitated by a stroke in 1961, “he was a broken man barely able to understand what was happening around him at times.”
Mary Jo’s cousins reached out to the production to share their self-published e-book “Our Mary Jo,” a collection of letters and remembrances. Kopechne relatives were reportedly pleased with the film after seeing a preview in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., last month.
“Maybe now Mary Jo will be brought to the forefront and remembered not just for how she died but for who she was,” her first cousin Georgetta Potoski told People magazine recently.
The filmmakers did not contact the boiler room girls — though one contacted them, to demand her name be removed.
“It was frustrating to read the screenplay and see one thing made up after another,” Esther Newberg, now a top executive at International Creative Management, told People.
In the film, Newberg is replaced by “Rachel Schiff,” a fictional character who appears cold and calculating after the accident.
“What do we need to do to help the senator?” says Rachel, played by Olivia Thirlby.
The line implies a conspiratorial awareness when, in reality, the women were hustled to the mainland in a state of shock and bewilderment.
“We didn’t want every character in the boiler-room-girl party to be just distraught,” said Allen, explaining that line of dialogue. “We wanted to show strength. That’s our way of three-dimensionalizing them as a core group.”
Only one of the women responded to a reporter’s inquiry about the movie, and would only comment anonymously.
“How dare they now say it is to make us look stronger,” she wrote in an email. “Our friend died and they invent motivations? Distraught is an understatement.”
Over time, the cookout became something symbolic, even sinister. But on July 18, 1969, it was just a group of idealists in their prime, summering for a spell, united by grief over Bobby and hope for Ted.
Kennedy and Kopechne had left the cookout, apparently headed for the last ferry to Edgartown, and the rest remains clouded by questions. Why did he turn right, onto the rugged dirt path to the small dike bridge, instead of left onto the paved road to the ferry? Why was the car going fast enough to flip off the low bridge? How did Ted get out of the sunken car, and why didn’t Mary Jo? Why did it take so long for Ted to report the accident?
Old grudges bubbled up when the movie opened the Martha’s Vineyard film festival last month. “People knew [Ted] committed homicide,” a seasonal resident said after a screening, according to the Vineyard Gazette. “He should have gone to jail.”
Last month, at a D.C. preview hosted by the conservative website the Federalist, many attendees scoffed audibly at the Kennedy family in crisis mode.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to see this movie without a beverage,” joked editor Ben Domenech beforehand. Conservative media have suggested that Mary Jo, viewed as a victim of corrupt men, is a prototype for the #MeToo movement.
The boiler room girls, however, remain women of few words. Rosemary Keough, who went on to practice law, was the only one to issue a statement on the five-year anniversary, in 1974. “My friend Mary Jo just happened to be in the wrong car at the wrong time with the wrong people,” she told the Boston Globe.
Nance Lyons later submitted a four-paragraph addendum to her 2008 oral history, as if to clear the air once and for all. “Chappaquiddick changed my life,” she wrote. In politics and the press, the women “were portrayed as girls of no significance — even as party girls. It was humiliating. . . . The women from Chappaquiddick suffered greatly both personally and professionally.”
Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence. He was reelected seven times. “Atonement is a process that never ends,” he wrote shortly before his 2009 death.
Kopechne’s mother, Gwen, took solace, according to her cousins’ book, knowing that she lived “the dream of so many girls” by working in Washington with “a team of very special men and women who were helping reshape the nation.”
If part of the girls’ dream died with Bobby, the rest died a year later on that island. Nance Lyons hinted at that deferred dream in her oral history, 40 years later.
Had Chappaquiddick not happened, “I would still be there,” working in Congress, she said. “The events in the aftermath of Bobby’s campaign, and the relationship of the Senator with the boiler room girls, and then Chappaquiddick — it changed everything.”