Saturday, April 07, 2018

Her name was Mary Jo Kopechne

My more vivid memories of that summer are the astronauts. I was 11, and it felt like the whole world had just changed with the moon landing.

1968 had been a scary year to be a kid. Dr. King and Bobby had been assassinated. Riots in the streets. Vietnam raged on every night on the news. But 1969! The astronauts and the moon landing! Yea!

Chappaquiddick seemed like a storyline from one of my mom's soaps. The Edge of Night, The Secret Storm and As the World Turns. A group of people met at a beach house for a reunion to celebrate and remember their time working on late Brother Bobby's campaign. Senator Ted Kennedy took one of the girls to the ferry. His car went off a bridge. She died, he lived. It was sad, but oh! The astronauts! The Cubs had a legendary team that summer, too.* The Beatles were singing "Yellow Submarine."

Then I heard my dad tell a joke. He and my mom had another couple over, and after he thought I was asleep, he stood in the hallway outside my door and shared a knee slapper with that ended like this:
"But Ted, what if I get pregnant?" "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

The next day I confronted my father. I told him I didn't think it was nice to make fun of the dead girl. He said he didn't think it was nice of little girls to listen to adult conversations. I wanted to point out that he had the adult conversation in front of my bedroom door, but didn't. I could tell I was pushing my father's buttons. It's not too much of a stretch, though, to say that joke aroused my nascent feminism. It wasn't right to make fun of that dead girl.

"That dead girl" is why I recommend the movie Chappaquiddick. Mary Jo Kopechne is played by Kate Mara. She has lines, she has motivation, she is a real character in the story of her death. There is nothing that implies that she and Kennedy had a sexual relationship, just as there is no evidence that points to that. She was not a party girl. She was not a groupie. She is treated with the dignity she deserves. Has always deserved.

I believe Ted Kennedy panicked in the water that night. It certainly wasn't heroic, but I understand it. People forget that, in 1964, he was trapped in a wrecked plane and was hospitalized for months afterward. Being in physical peril like that again could have triggered a powerful impulse to flee.

What I've never understood is the cowardly way he behaved in the hours and days afterward. This movie doesn't white wash any of that. I do, however, believe that he spent the rest of his life in public service, trying to make up for it. That counts for something with me. Whether that evens the ledger is up to God.

The Kennedy storyline here isn't new, though. It's her. It's Mary Jo Kopechne. She's the story here. She's why you should shell out your hard earned dollars to see this movie. Because all these years later, she finally gets a moment of attention.

The real May Jo Kopechne. RIP, gallant lady.

*Though they suffered a legendary fold, too. Ever hear of the 1969 Mets?


  1. I wondered if you would tell us (your faithful readers) about this film. I suspect it will not make it to my local theater, so I will wait for it On Demand.

  2. I agree with you. I also think he may have been drinking too much but we'll never know, will we? I will see him as an honorable statesman who worked hard for his country. Rest in Peace, Ted Kennedy. And you, as well, Ms. Kopechne.