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Fall revives Joan Kennedy's struggle with alcohol

By Associated Press
Published April 2, 2005

BOSTON - Once dubbed "The Dish" by brother-in-law John F. Kennedy, Joan Kennedy clearly had the looks to fit right into America's most glamorous political family. Whether she had the legendary Kennedy toughness was another matter.

She has struggled with alcoholism, gotten arrested several times for drunken driving, and gone through rehab repeatedly.

On Monday, she found herself back in the public eye when a passer-by discovered the 68-year-old ex-wife of Sen. Edward Kennedy sprawled on a sidewalk on Boston's Beacon Street in the rain. She was hospitalized with a concussion and a broken shoulder.

Exactly what happened to her is unclear. The Kennedys are not saying, and no police report was filed.

The next day, her son Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who also has battled substance abuse and helps oversee his mother's affairs, decided not to run for the Senate. His top aide said the decision was made before his mother's fall, but said the Rhode Island Democrat has been very concerned about her.

It was another sad episode for a family that has known great triumphs and crushing tragedy.

Virginia Joan Bennett was born into a prominent Bronxville, N.Y., family and as a teen worked as a model in TV ads. She was a classmate of Jean Kennedy, the future senator's sister, at Manhattanville College, where her exceptional beauty caught Ted Kennedy's eye when he visited the campus for a building dedication in 1957.

They married a year later, but Joan Kennedy struggled from the start to fit in to the high-powered family.

"Joan was shy and a really reserved person, and the Kennedys aren't," said Adam Clymer, author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.

Joan Kennedy came from a family that had its own history of alcoholism, and she married into another that has had numerous bouts with substance abuse.

Her drinking worsened after the Chappaquiddick scandal of 1969, when a car driven by her husband ran off a bridge, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy did not immediately report the tragedy, and later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.

Joan Kennedy, pregnant at the time with a child she would later miscarry, stood by her husband, but Laurence Leamer, author of The Kennedy Women, said the ordeal took a huge toll.

Joan Kennedy has "this incredibly guileless quality," he said. "She never learned you just can't trust people. . . . She's a total innocent, even now."

A series of drunken driving arrests followed, starting in 1974. Other Kennedys would mock her binges at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Leamer said.

"They used to point at her and say, "She's a drunk,' while they're lying there with a drink in their hands," he said.

Marcia Chellis, Joan Kennedy's secretary from 1979 to 1982, said her boss could not shake off the hurt of her husband's infidelity and spoke of the strain of portraying herself as sober when she wasn't.

Kennedy was miscast in a family famous for strong women, such as Ethel, Rose and Jacqueline, Chellis said.

"She took on something she just couldn't handle," said Chellis, who became estranged from Kennedy after her 1985 book, Living With the Kennedys: The Joan Kennedy Story, which Joan Kennedy said contained distortions and inaccuracies.

Still, the couple stayed together through Kennedy's unsuccessful presidential bid in 1980 and had three children - Kara, in 1960; Edward Jr., in 1961; and Patrick, in 1967.

Edward Jr. acknowledged being treating for alcohol abuse in 1991, and Patrick, a six-term congressman, has admitted using cocaine when he was younger.

After Joan Kennedy's third drunken driving arrest in 1991, she was ordered into an alcohol treatment program. Her fourth arrest in 2000 on Cape Cod led to two years' probation and another round of treatment.

Her fall this week again focused attention on Kennedy's alcoholism.

"She's very courageous and she does seem normal and fine and suddenly, "Boom!' " said friend Ann Gund. "It's really heart-wrenching."

Last year, her children took temporary guardianship of their mother, an arrangement they plan to renew in the next few months.

Patrick Kennedy did not say whether the burden of handling his mother's affairs led to his decision not to seek the Senate seat held by Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee. His chief of staff, Sean Richardson, said the decision was made before her fall. "I think it was a separate issue," he said.

Friends and observers say the Kennedys' 1982 divorce was generally amicable, and they have occasional contact. The senator remarried in 1992.

"I've never heard her say anything but wonderful things about Ted and her kids," said her friend Stephanie Warburg of Boston.

Joan Kennedy splits her time between a home on Cape Cod and a condominium in Boston's affluent Back Bay neighborhood. She has been praised for her frequent charity work, and also as an accomplished pianist.

The senator said this week he is proud of how his children have stood by their mother.

"It's been a long, difficult, very hard struggle," he said. "I think people whose lives have been touched by (alcoholism) can understand."

[Last modified April 2, 2005, 01:03:15]

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