Who was Mary Jo Kopechne, forever linked to Ted Kennedy because of Chappaquiddick? Read her biography below, read about the incident itself, see photos and a video.
It was the summer of 1969 on Chappaquiddick, a small island connected by ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. Mary Jo Kopechne, age 28, was attending a party – a reunion of girl friends called “the Boiler Girls” and others – who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. At 11:15 she left with Ted Kennedy who had offered her a ride to catch the last ferry to Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, where she was staying. It was that very incident that forever links Mary Jo Kopechne, Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick.
Taking the keys of his 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 from his chauffeur, Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne left the party. There are many details you can read about the Chappaquiddick incident here from the FBI, but in brief Ted Kennedy made a wrong turn onto an unlit dirt road that led to Dike Bridge. Dike Bridge was a wooden bridge with no guardrails that ran parallel to the road. Kennedy drove over the side of the bridge with the car landing upside down and underwater. Kennedy supposedly was able to swim free of the vehicle, but Mary Jo Kopechne was not. Kennedy claimed at the inquest that he called Kopechne’s name several times from the shore, then tried to swim down to reach her seven or eight times to no avail.
Ted Kennedy contacted several aides that night for help, but failed to report the incident to the authorities until the car and Kopechne’s body were discovered the next morning. Ted Kennedy himself, after leaving Mary Jo to die, spent the night in his hotel room in Edgartown and didn’t even report the accident to police until 10:00 am the next morning when he went to the police station with several aides.
It was fishermen who found the submerged car and Mary Jo Kopechne’s dead body the next morning, a little bit after 8:00 am where it was pressed up in the car in the spot where an air bubble would have formed. If divers had known, had been able to get to her, some say she would be alive today.
After the incident, Ted Kennedy entered a plea of guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. He was sentence to 2 months in jail but that was suspended. We know what happened then. Ted Kennedy went on to live a long and prosperous life and became the liberal ‘Lion of the Senate’.
Questions still remain, 40 years later, about Ted Kennedy’s timeline of events of the Chappaquiddick incident, about his actions after the accident, and the quality of the investigation and whether official deference was given to a powerful politician and family. The events surrounding Mary Jo Kopechne’s death damaged Ted Kennedy’s reputation so much that he was never able to mount a successful campaign for President of the United States thankfully.
Mary Jo Kopechne was born on July 26,1940 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She was the only child of Joseph and Gwen Kopechne. She attended parochial schools in New Jersey where she grew up and graduated with a degree in business administration from Caldwell College for Women in 1962. She moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to teach for a year at the Mission of St. Jude as part of the Civil Rights Movement. And then in ‘63, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as secretary to Florida Senator George Smathers. Mary Jo Kopechne joined New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s secretarial staff, following his election in 1964 where shw worked as a secretary to one of RFK’s speechwriters.
By all accounts, Mary Jo Kopechne was a loyal and tireless worker for Robert Kennedy. During his campaign, she worked as one of the “Boiler Room Girls”, an affectionate name given to six young women who worked from a central, windowless location in Kennedy’s Washington campaign headquarters.
After Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968, Mary Jo was devastated and felt she could not return to work on Capitol Hill. She eventually went to work for Matt Reese Associates, a Washington, D.C., firm that helped establish campaign headquarters and field offices for politicians and was one of the first political consulting firms.
Mary Jo Kopechne lived in a Georgetown neighborhood with three other women. She was a devout Roman Catholic with a demure, serious personality, rarely drank much, and had no reputation for extramarital activities with men.
On July 18, 1969, Mary Jo Kopechne attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, held in honor of the Boiler Room Girls – her old friends and fellow Robert Kennedy campaign workers.
Reportedly, Mary Jo Kopechne left the party at 11:15 p.m. with Ted Kennedy, after he offered to drive her to catch the last ferry back to Edgartown, where she was staying. That ride cost Mary Jo Kopechne her life. After supposedly making a wrong turn, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge, freeing himself from the submerged car and leaving Mary Jo to die. Mary Jo Kopechne was 28 years old.
A funeral for Kopechne was held on July 22, 1969, at St. Vincent’s Roman Catholic Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. Ted Kennedy attended. She is buried in the parish cemetery on the side of Larksville Mountain. You can see photos and a video below of the Mary Jo Kopechne: Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick Incident.
Mary Jo Kopechne: Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick Incident Video