The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ted Kennedy spoke of a family curse after Chappaquiddick. He had good reason.

Sen. Ted Kennedy’s car is pulled from the water off Dyke Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in July 1969. (AP)

Among the “scrambled thoughts” that came to a young Ted Kennedy as he stumbled from the water into which he had crashed his Oldsmobile, killing his passenger and crippling his political career, was a sort of existential question, if not a supernatural one.

The 37-year-old U.S. senator from Massachusetts wondered that night in 1969 whether “some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys.”

He recalled the thought aloud one week later in a televised speech, after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of the crash and failing to notify police until morning, as Mary Jo Kopechne died in the water off Chappaquiddick Island.

Kennedy emphasized the word hang.

Then he looked down from the TV camera at his notes, inhaled and went on with a speech designed to salvage his career.

This was the first known time a Kennedy had spoken of the family “curse” in public, but the senator didn’t need to explain what he meant; the American public had long entertained the idea.

Ted Kennedy was the youngest of nine famous and ambitious siblings, nearly half of whom had died in freak catastrophes before his car accident in the summer of 1969.

And those were only the dead.

A botched brain surgery crippled Ted’s oldest sister. His father, Joseph, had gone mute from a stroke in the early 1960s, and thereafter watched helplessly as two of his sons were assassinated and a third was accused of causing a woman’s death.

What really happened at Chappaquiddick? A new movie explores the truth we’ll never know.

And still, for decades after the crash in Chappaquiddick, the curse’s legend grew.

More than 30 years later, strange and sudden deaths came to the next generation of Kennedys — including a 1999 plane crash that killed the son of the late President John F. Kennedy.

In 2003, a book purported to explain why so much darkness stalked the family. “The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America’s First Family for 150 Years” was panned by many critics — as much for its gossiping about the marital lives of latter-day Kennedys as for its speculations about the so-called curse’s origins.

For example, the author, Edward Klein, relayed a rumor told to him by Jewish mystics — that a rabbi had hexed family patriarch Joseph Kennedy in the 1930s, “damning him and all his male offspring to tragic fates,” because the two men got into a dispute on a boat.

Klein preferred a different explanation — that the Kennedys were actually cursed by a fatal “thrill-seeking gene” embedded in their DNA.

A critic in the Globe and Mail called this “psychobabble,” but the book caused enough buzz to get Klein invited onto the chat circuits, where he added his own gloss to the myth of the curse.

“I’ve looked high and low and cannot find another family since the ancient Greek House of Atreus that has suffered more calamities and misfortunes than the Kennedys,” the author said in an online chat with Washington Post readers.

Klein’s book offered little evidence that Joseph Kennedy was actually cursed — whether by mystics, genes or otherwise. But the author pointed out that the ambitious father had, at least, infected many of his children with political and social drives that shaped their sad fates.

JFK assassination conspiracy theories: The grassy knoll, Umbrella Man, LBJ and Ted Cruz’s dad

And Joseph Kennedy was, without question, directly responsible for the first real tragedy to befall his children.

Rosemary, Joseph’s third child and first daughter, was in many ways as promising as any other Kennedy. She turned heads at Buckingham Palace after her father was appointed U.S. ambassador to Britain in the 1930s. She was training to be a teacher’s aide — a life of service.

She was also intellectually disabled, learning more slowly than her siblings, and was prone to seizures and tantrums, as the New York Times recounted in a review of the biography, “Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter.” Her disabilities embarrassed her parents, who feared that their eldest daughter would detract from her more presentable siblings’ careers.

“Unwilling to accept that anything could be truly wrong with his own flesh and blood, Joe Kennedy, with his wife’s complicity, subjected 23-year-old Rosemary to an experimental treatment,” the Times wrote.

The treatment was prefrontal lobotomy.

The young woman who had once written to her father, “I would do anything to make you so happy,” was sent to a doctor in 1941, the Times wrote. He instructed her “to recite songs and stories as he drilled two holes in her head and cut nerve endings in her brain until she became incoherent, then silent.”

The lobotomized Rosemary Kennedy was then sent to live in a psychiatric institution and largely shunned by her parents, whose miseries had only begun.

The eldest Kennedy child died three years after Rosemary’s surgery in the final year of World War II. A pilot, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was ferrying explosives over Normandy on a secret mission, according to the family’s presidential library, when his plane was destroyed by two explosions whose cause is still unknown.

Four years later, yet another plane crash in France claimed another of the Kennedy siblings. This time it was Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, a 28-year-old Red Cross volunteer who had married into British nobility.

The 1960s began with great promise for the family. Joseph’s dream of seeing a son become president was fulfilled when his second-born, John, was inaugurated in 1961.

The rest of the decade turned those dreams to ash.

Joseph was partially paralyzed by a stroke in the first year of President John F. Kennedy’s administration. According to the Kennedy Presidential Library, the patriarch could barely communicate in the fall of 1963, when he and the entire country learned that his son had been fatally shot.

The assassination made Robert Kennedy the eldest living son and the best hope of carrying on the family’s political legacy. But as recounted in the biography, “Robert Kennedy: His Life,” this middle child lived in dread of the Kennedy curse.

“On the night JFK died, a friend heard RFK, alone in a White House bedroom, cry out, ‘Why, God?’ ” Evan Thomas wrote in the book. “His Catholic faith in a good God was shaken.”

Seeking meaning for his grief, Thomas wrote, Robert studied ancient Greek tragedies and imagined parallels to his own family. “He began to wonder if the Kennedy family had somehow overreached, dared too greatly.”

Robert Kennedy compared his family to the Greek House of Atreus, “noble and doomed,” the biographer wrote. He saw his father as Shakespeare’s Henry IV and himself as Henry V.

And then, in 1968, in the midst of a presidential campaign to succeed his dead brother, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, too.

Visual story | RFK’s 1968 presidential bid sparked hope, then despair

Finally, the youngest and last of Joseph Kennedy’s sons, Ted, became the vessel for his presidential ambitions — and like his brothers, he seemed at first destined to achieve them. By 1969, he was the youngest-ever majority whip in the Senate and was widely expected to become the Democratic Party’s next presidential nominee, Newsweek wrote.

Then, he left a party one night in Chappaquiddick with Mary Jo Kopechne and drove his car into a tidal channel. A week later, he spoke of a curse on TV.

Joseph Kennedy died six weeks before the 1960s ended, as his last son fought to save his congressional career, all hope of the presidency lost.

If there ever really was a curse, it relented then.

Ted Kennedy lived until 2009, becoming one of the longest-serving and most widely revered senators in the Democratic Party. His mother, Rose, lived to 104. His four remaining sisters lived long lives, too — even Rosemary, who inspired the senator to sponsor the Americans With Disabilities Act.

But at least in the public’s imagination, the idea of a Kennedy curse refused to die.

Near the turn of the century, Robert’s son, Michael Kennedy, died in a skiing accident. Two years later, a plane crash killed John Kennedy Jr., along with his wife and her sister.

“After John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death, it was no longer possible for even the most dedicated rationalist to believe that all this suffering has been a matter of chance,” Klein wrote in “The Kennedy Curse,” which he had started after the 1999 plane crash.

Klein claimed to trace the curse back to the Kennedys’ 19th-century ancestors. “In the 40 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, tragedy has struck the Kennedys and those associated with the family on an average of nearly once every two years,” he wrote.

His grim chronology, however, included everyone from Marilyn Monroe to a victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — a son-in-law of a friend of President Kennedy’s late wife.

It lumped together accidents as well as natural deaths and injuries as proof of the Kennedy curse.

“What makes you think it’s a curse, as opposed to a very large family that had a series of just terrible misfortunes in their lives?” a skeptical Soledad O’Brien asked the author on CNN after the book’s release.

Klein stood firm, insisting that no family had suffered so greatly since the time of Greek myths.

He didn’t need to look nearly so far. The family of Mary Jo Kopechne — the woman whose death caused Sen. Kennedy to wonder whether his family was cursed — released a biography of her life last year, in advance of a movie about the Chappaquiddick incident.

Australian actor Jason Clarke talks about his new movie 'Chappaquiddick', which examines politician Ted Kennedy during his 1969 car accident scandal. Rollo Ross reports. (Video: Reuters)

Our Mary Jo” is a short book, but there’s enough family tragedy within it to string together a sort of sad epic.

Her great-grandmother, Johanna, was widowed soon after the family arrived in the United States and raised her children alone.

Mary Jo’s paternal grandfather, Frank, was crippled when he fell down a mine and could no longer care for his family.

Her maternal grandparents, Bill and Mamie, lost four babies to illness.

According to the book, their families said God was punishing them.

And, of course, there’s the sad fate of Mary Jo herself: a campaign worker who before she turned 30 had forged connections to one of the most powerful families in the United States — only to be driven off a bridge by Joseph Kennedy’s last living son.

But no one ever made a speech or wrote a book about any Kopechne curse.

More reading:

The ironic, enduring legacy of banning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for racist language

A gunmaker once tried to reform itself. The NRA nearly destroyed it.

Four shattering days: The aftermath of JFK’s assassination