Warning: Contains spoilers for the movie Chappaquiddick
The evening of July 18, 1969, started out as an ordinary midsummer’s night for one of America’s most extraordinary families.
Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy — who had come to Martha’s Vineyard to race in the Edgartown Regatta on the family’s prized Victura sailboat — was at a cookout for former volunteers and staffers on the 1968 presidential campaign of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, who had just been assassinated the month prior. The party was at a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island, and Ted Kennedy attended with Paul Markham, who worked on his 1962 senatorial campaign, and Joseph Gargan, a cousin. Late in the night, he left the party in a black Oldsmobile with 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, who had worked on the RFK campaign.
Then tragedy struck.
The car, with Kennedy at the wheel, careened off the island’s Dike Bridge. Kennedy managed to extricate himself from the overturned vehicle, but Kopechne drowned. Kennedy reported the accident to the police at 9:30 a.m. the next day.
That delay in reporting remains the central mystery surrounding the incident, and the resulting scandal destroyed any hopes of another Kennedy in the nation’s highest office. About a week after the fall, Kennedy told the world in a televised address from his home that he had been “overcome…by a jumble of emotions” in the wake of the event, in a statement masterminded by Ted Sorenson and a damage-control dream team of people who had served in his brother John’s administration. But weeks later, and even now, many agreed with Kopechne’s mother when she said she could not understand what had happened: “Why didn’t they get help?”
In John Curran’s new movie on the scandal (out April 6, starring Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy, Kate Mara as Kopechne, Ed Helms as Gargan, and Jim Gaffigan as Markham), footage of the realization of the Senator’s brother’s dreams — the Apollo 11 astronauts landing on the Moon on July 20 per JFK’s order to get there by the end of the decade — is woven into the movie’s narrative of Ted Kennedy’s political dreams being dashed.
“The Kennedy debacle became a topic of more interest in much of Washington and elsewhere in the country than man’s landing on the Moon,” as TIME reported in its Aug. 1, 1969, cover story on the scandal. Psychiatrists even speculated that the turn on the wrong path was “some sort of subconscious desire to escape the path” on Kennedy’s part, to “avoid the burdens of becoming a presidential candidate.”
Though the film is primarily set during the week-long period between the scandal and Kennedy’s televised mea culpa, the timeline is based on the accounts documented in a Jan. 1970 inquest into whether there was evidence of any criminal act beyond the misdemeanor to which Kennedy had pleaded guilty, which was the leaving the scene of an accident. (He received a suspended sentence of two months.) In terms of why he did not call the authorities to help rescue Kopechne, the Senator explained that he was convinced it was too late for her.
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Here’s how TIME reported key details about the accident in the inquest:
The transcript told a great deal about Kennedy’s state of mind at the time of the accident. In a televised act of contrition a week after Chappaquiddick, the Senator was uncertain as to the length of time he spent trying to rescue Mary Jo and vague as to how long it took him to make his way back to the cottage where his friends were partying. By the time of the inquest, his memory had improved considerably. His testimony vividly described his and Mary Jo’s struggles to get out of the overturned car and his own seemingly miraculous escape: “I can remember the last sensation of being completely out of air and inhaling what must have been half a lungful of water and assuming that I was going to drown and that no one was going to be looking for us that night until the next morning, and then somehow I can remember coming up to the last energy of just pushing, pressing and coming up to the surface.”
He was even more specific on what happened after he surfaced and caught his breath some 30 feet downstream from the car. According to his account, he dived down to the car seven or eight times during a 15-to 20-minute period, trying to reach Mary Jo, then spent another 15 or 20 minutes resting on the bank before starting down the road to the cottage.
Kennedy’s companions placed his return to the cottage at 12:15 a.m. Gargan and Markham told almost identical stories of their return to the bridge with Kennedy, and their attempts to bring up Mary Jo. Gargan and Markham insisted that they advised Kennedy repeatedly to report the accident and summon help. By the time the trio reached the Chappaquiddick ferry landing, Kennedy seemed to agree. Believing somehow that a full explanation would send Mary Jo’s girl friends down to the bridge in a fruitless—and dangerous —attempt to dive for her themselves, Kennedy instructed Markham and Gargan not to alarm them, said that he would take care of reporting the accident, then plunged alone into the channel and swam across to Edgartown. This despite the fact that the ferry could have been summoned by telephone. Gargan acknowledged that earlier in the day he had discussed post-midnight ferry service with the boat operators. Also, a sign giving instructions about the service was at the landing.
…Kennedy did not report the accident on reaching Edgartown. Instead, he returned to his hotel, changed his clothes and, after a brief conversation with Innkeeper Russell Peachey in which he pointedly asked the time (2:25 a.m.), paced the floor of his room until daylight. Then occurred one of the more bizarre events in an already fantastic case. Rhode Island Businessman Ross Richards, who had won the previous day’s sailing race, testified that he ran into Kennedy outside the hotel around 7:30 a.m. Giving no indication in manner or appearance that anything out of the ordinary had happened, Kennedy calmly discussed boating, even said that he might accept Richards’ invitation to join him and his friends for breakfast.
He was still chatting with Richards and others when Gargan and Markham arrived at the hotel and asked him what he had done about the accident. He had done nothing. As Kennedy explained at the inquest: “I just couldn’t gain the strength within me, the moral strength, to call Mrs. Kopechne at 2 in the morning and tell her that her daughter was dead.” It was 9 before Kennedy notified the police. It was still later—around 11 a.m.—that Gargan told the five women who had been at the party that Mary Jo was dead.
The release of the transcript and Justice Boyle’s report seemed to preclude any further criminal action against Kennedy, though a new grand jury investigation is theoretically possible. But it did nothing to solve the mysteries that still surround the case or to resolve the doubts about Kennedy’s veracity. It also failed to account for local officials’ inept handling of the case from beginning to end. Police Chief Dominick Arena never asked Kennedy why he had not reported the accident for nine hours. District Attorney Edmund Dinis seemed noticeably reluctant to enter the case at all, then pressed belatedly—and vainly—for court permission to exhume Mary Jo’s body so that an autopsy could be performed. His questions throughout the inquest were somewhat less than probing. Justice Boyle’s handling of the inquest findings was inconclusive. He was empowered to bring charges, such as negligent driving or perjury, against Kennedy if he felt that they were warranted; instead, he merely wrote a report implying negligence and questioning Kennedy’s credibility. Last week Boyle, 63, retired after 36 years of court service.
A grand jury also looked into the case, and on April 1970, it was concluded that there was not enough evidence to indict Kennedy on any charges.
The accident’s run in the courts thus ended, but it would keep coming up throughout Kennedy’s life. A TIME-Harris poll published in the Aug. 8, 1969, issue found that while 68% of Americans agreed that “the same thing could have happened to anyone,” at the same time 40% agreed with that his reaction “showed that he should not be given high public trust, such as being President.” (On that last question 45% disagreed, and 15% were unsure.) It dogged him during failed presidential runs in 1972, 1976 and 1984. “NOBODY DROWNED AT WATERGATE,” some bumper stickers read. A TIME analysis of whether he could win in 1972 deduced that he couldn’t carry the Midwest because of the question of what a married man was doing in a car with a single woman in the first place. On the 1980 presidential campaign trail, Jimmy Carter made a dig at Kennedy by saying he had never “panicked in a crisis” — thought to be a coded reference to Kennedy fleeing the scene.
“His self-confessed ‘inexplicable’ behavior in a moment of stress raises the issue of how he might act in a major crisis,” a TIME essay on how the public judges political scandals put it in the immediate aftermath of the event. “His carefully prepared and yet unsatisfying explanation leaves room for the suspicion that he was somehow trying to escape blame for his actions.”
But, of course, the scandal didn’t actually keep him from having a political career. As a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, he earned the nickname “Lion of the Senate” and left his mark on landmark laws ranging from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Americans with Disabilities Act. That power trumps “postpresidential twilight,” TIME argued in his 2009 obituary—adding that, in fact, “his failure to get to the presidency opened the way to the true fulfillment of his gifts, which was to become one of the greatest legislators in American history.”