U.S.A.

Joan's painful comeback

Rita Christopher December 10 1979
U.S.A.

Joan's painful comeback

Rita Christopher December 10 1979

Joan's painful comeback

U.S.A.

Rita Christopher

Although the international crisis in Iran put much of the election politicking out of the headlines (though not out of action, see box) last week, it was still open season on Teddy Kennedy’s checkered private life. In a provocative article in The Washington Monthly, contributing editor Suzannah Lessard unequivocally argued that the embarrassing question of Kennedy’s womanizing should be “publicly discussed as a legitimate issue in the campaign,” not resolutely ignored as an invasion of privacy—the usual formula with public figures.

Initially Kennedy’s advisers had argued that in the sexually liberated 1970s, the candidate’s notoriously roving eye might titillate the electorate but would cause no long-range political damage. But those calculations have proved far from correct. Rumors of Kennedy liaisons regularly continue to surface and, even more politically damaging, very direct questions are being asked about his two-year estrangement from his wife, Joan.

The couple’s rare and obviously painful public appearances have done nothing to improve Kennedy’s image as a

champion of wedded bliss. One such occasion was last October’s opening of the John F. Kennedy Library. Joan Kennedy sat surrounded by sinewy, strongjawed Kennedy women, their faces brimming with ambitious energy. As always, she looked painfully uncomfortable, still wondering after 22 years of marriage how she had ended up among these tribal warriors. Only one other person, himself an interloper, seemed to sense her agony. United in awkwardness, he patted her hand and whispered something that caused Joan to relax into a wide smile. But it seemed sadly appropriate that her benefactor was her husband’s arch political rival — Jimmy Carter.

Initially, it appeared that the blonde and beautiful Joan Bennett, a graduate of the exclusive Catholic College favored by Kennedy women, would fit right into her new husband’s family. She received Jack Kennedy’s seal of approval (he referred to her as “the dish”), and repaid the compliment by working hard to acquire the competitive instinct so prized by her in-laws.

While Teddy finished law school at

the University of Virginia, Joan, never much of an athlete, struggled through the requisite golf, skiing and tennis lessons. But before she had time to enjoy her hard-won athletic skills, she faced new demands. At the age of 30, Teddy waltzed into J.F.K.’s old Massachusetts Senate seat and Joan, then 26, became one of the youngest political wives in Washington. She was also one of those most talked about. She made headlines for wearing a series of outfits ranging from the merely inappropriate to the downright bizarre.

Whether Joan’s fashion tastes were

spiced by alcohol even at that early stage remains unclear. Teddy himself began to drink heavily after J.F.K.’s murder, though a protective press hushed up his indulgences. But after Chappaquiddick it was no longer possible to maintain discreet silence. Like the fire at the Albany governor’s mansion, which revealed the late Nelson Rockefeller and his first wife, Mary, clambering down rescue ladders from bedrooms in different wings of the house, the plunge over the bridge made the strains on the Kennedy marriage a matter of public record.

A month after the accident, Joan suffered her third miscarriage. By 1971, she sought psychiatric treatment, explaining later: “It is very easy to feel insecure when you marry into a very famous, intelligent, exciting family.” From then on, her existence followed the roller-coaster fortunes of a soap opera. In 1973 her older son, Teddy, a victim of bone cancer, had his right leg amputated above the knee. And doctors

diagnosed her younger son Patrick’s chronic breathing problems as severe bronchial asthma. Under intense emotional stress, Joan signed herself into Silver Hill, a fashionable Connecticut psychiatric facility specializing in alcoholism.

It was one of three such establishments to which she had recourse up to 1976. By then, Teddy’s name was appearing regularly in gossip columns linked to such long-stemmed beauties as New York socialite Amanda Burden, Standard Oil heiress Page Lee Hufty and former Olympic skier Suzy Chaffee. In addition, The Washington Monthly article charges Kennedy conducted numerous liaisons of another pattern: “The type of womanizing that Kennedy is associated with is a series of short involvements. . . . Sometimes he hasn’t even met the woman previously. She has been picked out by his cohorts as the type of woman who appeals to him and asked if she would like to have a ‘date’ with the senator.” The idea was merely “lunch and a dalliance.”

On her own since 1978, Joan has worked for a master’s degree in music education at Lesley College and resumed the piano lessons she abandoned more than 20 years earlier. On weekends, her children regularly visited their mother’s spacious apartment, but reunions with Teddy had become infrequent events, seemingly designed only to satisfy inquisitive reporters and photographers. “I don’t know if we’ll get back together,” Joan admitted a little more than a year ago.

Now, however, she is being wheeled back into the political limelight to support her husband’s presidential ambitions. When Teddy Kennedy stood on the platform at Boston’s Faneuil Hall to declare his candidacy, his wife and children dutifully filled the background on the dais.

Reporters pressed the inevitable questions about his marriage and Kennedy invited his wife to the microphone to respond. She moved awkwardly forward like a grade-school child at a dreaded assembly performance. Her face was frozen into the tight little smile that makes no pretence of mirth. With evident discomfort, she proclaimed her joy at her husband’s candidacy. But the most revealing comment on the subject was unspoken.

After the festivities, Teddy shook hands with his two sons and bussed his daughter’s cheek. He bent toward Joan but froze midway and then retreated. Teddy Kennedy, who had just promised decisive national leadership, was clearly unsure whether the delicate personal truce that governs his long-distance marriage provided for anything as demonstrative as a kiss in public.

Rita Christopher