Read an Excerpt
Let others delight in the good old days;
I am delighted to be alive right now.
This age is suited to my way of life.
ON A FINE summer’s day in 1970, Ted Kennedy skippered his sailboat from Hyannis Port over to Monhegan Island, an unspoiled, rocky outcropping ten miles off the coast of Maine, where
I customarily spent the month of August with my children. He’d come to visit our mutual friend, the artist Jamie Wyeth, who’d painted a portrait of Ted’s brother Jack not long after the president’s assassination.
Jamie always worked from live subjects, and while making his preliminary sketches of JFK, he’d asked Ted to sit in, as it were, for the dead president. As the portrait took shape, Ted had assumed the identity of his martyred brother, and in that guise, he and Jamie had become fast friends.
Ted and Joan Kennedy were staying with Jamie and his wife,
Phyllis, who owned the most beautiful home on the island. It had once belonged to the famous illustrator Rockwell Kent, and it overlooked a boulder- strewn beach called Lobster Cove, where a picturesque old shipwreck lay rusting on its side.
Automobiles weren’t permitted on Monhegan Island, and I ran into the Kennedys and Wyeths as they were coming down the footpath from Lobster Cove on their way to the general store. Phyllis
Wyeth, who’d been left paralyzed from the waist down as the result of an accident, was in a wheelchair. She introduced me to her weekend guests: Joan, thirty- three, blond and willowy, at the height of her mature beauty; and Ted, thirty- eight, in robust good health. It was easy to see why Ted had been called the handsomest of the handsome Kennedy brothers.
“How are you, Senator,” I said, shaking his hand.
My commonplace greeting seemed to perturb him, perhaps because
Phyllis had mentioned that I was a journalist with Newsweek,
and Ted Kennedy, at that time, was a fugitive from the media. Recently,
Massachusetts had released the official transcript of the inquest into the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island.
The judge presiding over the inquest strongly implied that a drunken Ted Kennedy had been driving Mary Jo to a sexual tryst when his car plunged off a bridge and into a body of water, where
Mary Jo died.
I couldn’t tell whether Ted had a sailor’s sunburn, or whether his face was scarlet with shame. His edgy defensiveness was underscored by his stumbling syntax–a stammer that at times made him sound slow- witted and even a bit dumb.
“Well, um, yes, ah, glorious day . . .” he said. “Beautiful here, isn’t it? . . . Sailing, um. . . . Good day . . . er, for that. . . .
Wind. . . .”
Someone once referred to Ted Kennedy’s off- the- cuff speaking style–as opposed to his superbly crafted speeches–as a “parody of
[Yankees manager] Casey Stengel: nouns in search of verbs.” I later learned that the senator was aware of his tendency to speak in cryptic fragments, joking that as the youn gest of nine children, he’d never had a chance to complete a sentence. To correct the problem,
he’d consulted a psychologist, who prescribed a daily therapeutic regimen to make him sound more intelligible when he wasn’t using a prepared text. But he quickly lost interest in the therapy, and kept on uh-ing and ah-ing with no noticeable improvement.
As we talked, I was struck by the fact that Ted didn’t look at
Joan. Their eyes never met. Indeed, they didn’t even bother with the casual intimacies that are common between husband and wife.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, Joan was well on her way to becoming a full- blown alcoholic. If Ted had once counted on Joan to turn a blind eye to his infidelities, her alcoholism had changed all that. Instead of tranquilizing her and making her more submissive,
drink had freed Joan to speak her mind.
She had recently given an indiscreet interview to the Ladies’
Home Journal. She and Ted, she said, “know our good and bad traits, we have seen one another at rock bottom. . . .” It was clear that Joan’s tendency to talk about Ted in less than glowing terms had put a strain on their marriage. The tragedy of Chappaquiddick had only made matters worse.
AFTER OUR BRIEF chat on Monhegan Island, ten years passed before I ran into Ted Kennedy again. This time, it was at a Christmas party given by his sister- in- law Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at her Fifth Avenue pent house apartment. Ted was still recovering from his ill- fated primary race against President Jimmy Carter. A month or so before Jackie’s cocktail reception, Carter had been soundly defeated by Ronald Reagan in the general election, which must have given Ted Kennedy a feeling of schadenfreude. It also might have accounted for the high spirits he displayed that December eve ning at Jackie’s.
Ted had gained a good deal of weight, and there were strands of gray in his thick mass of disordered hair. I had heard rumors that he and Joan were living apart, and in fact he’d come to the party without her. Joan’s absence was particularly conspicuous because other members of Jackie’s extended family–including her mother,
her stepbrother, and assorted Kennedys, Shrivers, Lawfords, and
Smiths–were present. So were a few favored writers and journalists who, like me, had been befriended by Jackie.
“Teddy,” Jackie said as she introduced us, “this is Ed Klein. He used to be at Newsweek, and now he’s the editor of the New York
“The senator and I have met before,” I said. “You were visiting
Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth on Monhegan Island.”
“Oh, yes, um, I remember that, ah, day, ah, well,” he said.
But he was slurring his words and speaking more loudly than necessary, and I concluded that he’d had too much to drink. Still, it was interesting to note that, even when inebriated, Ted Kennedy displayed impeccable manners. He had not yet turned fifty and could still hold his liquor.
AGAIN, A DECADE or so went by before I met Ted Kennedy for the third time. It was the early 1990s, and I’d left the Times after eleven years as editor of its Sunday magazine and was now writing for Vanity Fair and Parade. I’d been invited as the sole journalist to attend a private dinner given by a group of wealthy contributors in honor of Senator Kennedy at the “21” Club, a Manhattan mecca for top business executives and Wall Street bankers.
Ted was preparing for a reelection campaign, and although he’d established a record as one of the Senate’s all- time greats (he’d had a hand in passing every major health, education, and civil rights bill over the past thirty years), he was in serious po liti cal trouble back home in Massachusetts. As a result of his entanglement in the sordid Palm Beach rape case against his nephew William Kennedy
Smith, Ted’s poll numbers had sunk to an all- time low. It looked as though the unthinkable might happen: a Kennedy might actually lose a race in Massachusetts.
He loved the Senate, and he intended to fight with every weapon at his disposal to keep his seat. His father, Joseph P. Ken -
nedy, had once famously said: “Politics is like war. It takes three things to win. The first is money and the second is money and the third is money.” Ted Kennedy had come to that night’s dinner to raise a lot of money.
He was now sixty years old, and when he entered the room,
I hardly recognized him. There, in the middle of his creased and crumpled face, was his alcohol- ravaged nose–a rough, veined protuberance that was as gnarled as the knot of an oak tree. His bloated body was bursting at the armpits of his suit jacket.
He was seated at a big round table next to his attractive new wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, a tall, dark-haired, hazel- eyed woman who was twenty- two years his ju nior. Vicki glowed with vigor and self- confidence. A successful lawyer in her own right, Vicki had a way of inserting herself into the conversation without appearing to upstage the senator. In fact, it soon became apparent that Vicki was there to look after Ted, monitor his answers, adjust them if necessary,
add some nuances–and make sure that he didn’t drink too much. She sent the waiter away when he attempted to fill her husband’s wineglass for the third time. Ted seemed perfectly content to let Vicki run the show.
His speaking disability was on full display that eve ning. He had trouble answering the simplest questions. He talked in sentence fragments and at times didn’t make much sense. Each time he faltered,
he’d look over at Vicki, who’d beam back at him, and each time he seemed to draw renewed confidence from her. I couldn’t help but notice the submissive way he related to Vicki, and compare that with the cool indifference he’d shown Joan on Monhegan Island some twenty years before.
By the end of the eve ning, I’d come to an extraordinary conclusion:
This was no longer the same Ted Kennedy I had first met on
Monhegan Island. This Ted Kennedy was a less agitated, restless,
and fretful man; he was also less self- conscious and ill at ease, less vain and egocentric.
Fundamental change in a person of Ted Kennedy’s age is rare.
But here was living proof that it was possible. There could be no mistaking the fact that the remote and unresponsive Ted Kennedy of
Monhegan Island–the fugitive Ted Kennedy–had morphed into someone else. He seemed like a more fully developed human being.
What, I wondered, accounted for this remarkable transformation?
THAT QUESTION HAS never been far from my mind in the years following the “21” Club dinner. Since then, I’ve written a half dozen books, including three about the life and death of Jacqueline
Kennedy Onassis and one about the tragic history of the Kennedy family titled The Kennedy Curse. As I delved deeply into the massive literature on the Kennedy family and interviewed hundreds of their friends and associates, I noted that Ted Kennedy’s metamorphosis was hardly ever scrutinized in the thousands of words that have been written about him. He was, I concluded, the least understood and the most underappreciated Kennedy of them all.
And so, when he came out for Barack Obama–marshaling the legendary power of the Kennedy name to help boost Obama’s presxvi idential candidacy–I decided to devote a book to Ted Kennedy. At the time, he hadn’t been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. He still planned to run for reelection in 2012, when he would be eighty years old. But after his brain surgery, he had to confront the somber prospect that he wouldn’t be around to serve another term in the
That realization must have been the cruelest blow of all. For the Senate had come to define Ted Kennedy even more than his famous last name. An unabashed liberal, he had many things he still hoped to accomplish–rights to be protected, wrongs to be redressed.
But he had a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer, and he knew that he was running out of time.
Since his brain surgery in June 2008, each day had been a reprieve;
each week a miracle. And when those weeks had turned into months, his family and doctors were astounded by his resilience, as was the entire country. All Americans, including those who did not agree with his liberal politics, were in awe of his gallant last stand.
He was no longer sitting in for his dead brother. He had become his own portrait in courage.