Monday, May 25, 2020

NetGalley ARC | Before Chappaquiddick: The Untold Story of Mary Jo Kopechne and the Kennedy Brothers


I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Like so many others, I have been drawn to the Kennedy family for as long as I can remember. While my grandmother can recall with perfect clarity where she was and what she was doing when JFK was shot, I can do the same in regards to the day that JFK Jr, his wife Carolyn, and her sister/his sister-in-law Lauren were pulled from the ocean.

Admittedly, Teddy is the brother I have always known the least about, and Chappaquiddick is why - though all I have ever known of the story prior to this book is that he left a young woman to die, and they may or may not have been having an affair. It is hard to reconcile that with the decades of work he did in the Senate. I recall having heard more than a few people throughout my lifetime saying they wished it had been Teddy who had died instead of Jack or Bobby. I think that is going a bit far and would never in a million years wish death on my worst enemy.

I discovered this book while browsing NetGalley and read it within one day; I could not put it down. Mary Jo Kopechne became a real person in these pages, and I am grateful to the author for giving Kopechne the proper attention she deserves. As stated before, I have not read anything about Kopechne before, so I do not know how much information is new, and how much is already well-known.

We are given a background of Kopechne's family, going back to the late 1800s. Nothing so details that it drags on, but an overview of the family and how Joe and Gwen Kopechne came to raise their daughter Mary Jo in the 40s and 50s. I feel like this was probably included at all, simply due to their being limited information available about Kopechne's early years and life before politics. Even so, I don't consider it padding, because I found it of interest.

I did not know prior to this that Kopechne actually knew the Kennedy family somewhat well, having worked directly for Bobby's presidential campaign. It was interesting that after Bobby's assassination, the 'Boiler Room Girls' (so-called due to their windowless basement office) did not actually mesh all that well with Teddy's staff. I was under the impression that Kopechne actually was a staffer for Teddy. I now wonder where that belief came from, because I do not recall ever being told as much, or hearing/reading it anywhere. Perhaps it was just an assumption that made sense in my younger brain.

I have found the coverage related to Kopechne to be abhorrent. Reading about the pain and anguish her parents dealt with as they buried their only child, trying in vain to get answers about her death, was difficult. On top of all of that, the hate mail they received is beyond the pale. No one but Teddy derailed his own career, and to blame Kopechne is offensive and demeaning. I find it rather disgusting that people not only thought death by drowning (or suffocation, depending on which theory you believe) was an acceptable punishment for a single woman who was thought to be having an affair with a married man, but THEN those people wrote to her parents making those kinds of statements. Regardless of whether or not they did have an affair (I don't believe so based on this and articles I have sought out since finishing the book), the punishment of death is not at all appropriate and people suggesting otherwise are gross.

As Kopechne graduates from college and moves on to her adult life, the author does an excellent job of weaving the political careers of the Kennedy brothers through the narrative at the same time - without being overwhelming. This is, after all, a book dedicated primarily to the life of Mary Jo Kopechne. It is difficult for anyone to not be overshadowed by the Kennedys, but I think there is a balance here that shows how they eventually came to be in one another's orbits.

Kopechne took a much-needed break from politics following Bobby's murder, something she was devastated by. There is again insinuations from people that she also had an affair with him as well. It is absolutely maddening to me that a young single woman with commitment to various causes and solving the problems plaguing our country can be reduced to something akin to a groupie. (Okay, don't get me wrong, I would totally not have been able to resist advances from Bobby Kennedy, but I am also kind of a terrible person, so...) But as we are reminded throughout the book, this simply does not jive with the person she is repeatedly described as. No one who knew her could have ever believed in either rumor for even a minute.

So what lead Kopechne to be on Chappaquiddick that night? There was a small party, a reunion for the Boiler Room Girls. Details of the party are conflicting, and are probably destined to remain so. Teddy himself insisted he had hardly anything to drink, and others said it was a quieter affair. Neighbors nearby insisted it was raucous and loud until around 1 AM and he nearly called the police.

There are a couple different theories about what happened to even lead Kopechne to be in the car. First, the possibility that she asked Teddy for a ride because he was leaving, and she did not feel well after being out in the sun all day. It is of interest to note her purse and hotel key were left behind at the party. Secondly, there is the idea that Kopechne drank some (and considering she was not a drinker, it would have been easy for her to have become intoxicated quickly), and wound up asleep in the back of Teddy's car. When Teddy got in to leave, he would possibly not have even known she was there. The purse and id of a fellow Boiler Room Girl were found in the car, so some have put forward the idea that there were three people in the car that night. Thirdly, there is the idea that Kopechne herself had been driving and crashed the vehicle after letting Teddy out. This is the least likely to me, as if that had even possibly been the case then surely Teddy would have said so and placed all blame on the deceased victim. He didn't. Instead, he admitted to being the driver, crashing the car, attempting to rescue Kopechne, and then not reporting the accident for ten hours.

Through it all, we get to see the real Mary Jo Kopechne. We see a bright, ambitious, hard-working young woman committed to making this world a better place. That's what drew her to DC in the first place, and to finding a place on Bobby's staff. She was ready to do the work, and push forward to do all the things left undone by JFK's death. Tragically, she would never get the chance. She would suffer, possibly for hours as her oxygen supply dwindled or for minutes as she drowned, and die alone, a promising life cut short.

Unfortunately, we will never really know what happened that night. Teddy's account of what he did immediately following his escape from the car and over the course of the next ten hours doesn't mesh with other facts known about that night. Without a doubt there was some kind of cover-up, but we don't really even know WHAT was covered up. Surely the story is terrible enough. I don't want to believe that THIS is the best version of events they could come up with is something worse actually occurred.

Recommended for those wanting to know more about this specific event, and those with an interest in the Kennedys in general.


  1. I have read a few books about this cover up. Can't seem to get enough!


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