BBC’s live telecast of the funeral of Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy on August 29th was quite a moving experience for me. Not because I am, like some British people who revere their royal family, an admirer of America’s version of royalty, but because I found the pomp and solemnity involved in the ceremony impressive. Particularly interesting was the presence of so many former American presidents and other personages. It showed that Teddy Kennedy was admired, even loved, not for belonging to a famous clan but for his work and achievements in government. President Obama’s eulogy called him “the greatest legislator of our time” who had penned, in the U.S. Senate, more than 300 statutes and whose name is connected with nearly a thousand laws affecting his country’s citizens.
Watching the extended TV relay reminded me that I’d seen the late senator and met his first wife briefly many years ago. It was a fleeting, not particularly memorable, moment caught in a photograph taken of Joan Bennett Kennedy and me in Kuala Lumpur. And so I wondered, while watching the televised funeral ceremonies, why I could not see Teddy’s ex-wife among the crowds gathered in Boston’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica. As the cameras panned around the dignitaries during the processional and Mass, it was mainly the senator’s second wife, Victoria, who was very visible, as were his three children by Joan and various grandchildren and other relatives.
But I couldn’t find the striking blonde I’d once met whom JFK reportedly described as “a dish.” (In Americanese, “dish” denotes female beauty and glamour, and that American president, a connoisseur of women, obviously knew whereof he spoke.) My late husband Tony was the Associated Press correspondent in Malaysia at the time, so he and other KL-based journalists went to interview the youngest Kennedy brother on his arrival at Subang Airport. I don’t know why I tagged along but think perhaps that Tony suggested I interview Joan to get the “woman’s angle” – which made me nervous, never having interviewed a VIP before.
I think now that as a newly elected senator, Teddy was sent by his brother on an Asian trip early in 1963 when Indonesia and Malaysia were embroiled in Confrontation and the Vietnam war was escalating. By 1962 JFK had been continuing the military build-up in Vietnam, so perhaps he thought that his younger brother, after becoming a senator the following year, needed to go on a familiarisation tour of Southeast Asia, KL being his first stop. Not many months later, Teddy’s brother was assassinated. Like JFK who took along his glamourous wife Jackie on his state visit to France (“I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” he famously said), Teddy took along his own beautiful wife on his trip, similarly to charm his hosts at the various capitals they visited.
What did I ask Joan Kennedy at Subang Airport? Frankly it’s all lost in the mists of time. My old photograph, taken by the AP photographer, shows her wearing a simple sleeveless frock and long thin necklace. Her thick blonde mane was held back by a slim hairband, and her hands were on the low table between us, with one hand apparently toying with her wedding ring. Smiling tentatively across at me as I grinned at her and held a notebook on my lap, she was probably telling herself to reply politely if the rumpled-looking woman “reporter” with a Burmese Shan bag slung over one shoulder asked some silly questions. I’m almost sure I asked her if it was her first trip to Asia but can’t remember her reply nor the rest of our conversation. All I know is that I took some shorthand notes (my secretarial training came in handy) which I later typed out for Tony — who probably wrote that the young American senator was accompanied by his stylish wife on their stopover in Malaysia.
After surfing the Web to find out if Joan had indeed attended her ex-husband’s funeral, I did find a couple of pictures – one of her wearing white and large sunglasses, walking ahead of a stern-looking Victoria. One report said Joan had remained on friendly terms with Teddy, but that relations with Vicky were frosty. I found the other write-ups about Joan quite poignant. She apparently came from a comfortable background, though one story mentions both her parents were alcoholics. She went to the same elite Catholic academy as Ethel Skakel, who later married Robert Kennedy and who introduced her to his younger brother Teddy. Marriage into that famous clan must have been intimidating, and difficult. Teddy’s memoir, published posthumously in late September, shows he acknowledges having caused Joan to drive “deeper into her anguish.” Indeed Joan herself attributes her alcohol addiction to the Kennedys, particularly the notorious Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 in which Teddy left a young woman to drown in his car during an accident.
In subsequent years Joan was arrested a few times for drunken driving. One report that called her a “casualty of Camelot” said she tried to mask her drinking with mouthwash and vanilla extract. Though the couple separated in 1978, Joan helped Teddy campaign in the 1980 presidential campaign which he lost. They divorced in 1983. Today psychotropic drugs are what weak, beleaguered persons turn to for relief, but Joan used alcohol to dim her woes which included three miscarriages, one son’s lingering asthma, two of her children’s cancer scares and her husband’s occasional carousing. She also coped with the assassinations of Teddy’s two brothers and the deaths of his three nephews — which drove him to drink sporadically.
Such tumultuous events would shake an ordinary person’s life, and Joan was particularly fragile. In 2005 she was briefly in the news when she was hospitalized with a concussion and broken shoulder after being found lying drunk in a Boston street near her home. This resulted in her eldest son Edward being appointed as her legal guardian. Not long afterwards, she underwent surgery for breast cancer. The litany of woes seems endless. Joan reportedly had a brief love affair but now lives alone in her homes in Boston and Cape Cod, with her estate placed in a trust overseen, not by her children, but by two court-appointed trustees.
President Obama’s eulogy of Teddy said “We weep because we loved this kind and tender hero who persevered through pain and tragedy – not for the sake of ambition or vanity, not for wealth or power; but only for the people and the country he loved.” Having been married for 25 years to that ill-fated “kind and tender” man, perhaps the fragile young woman I met in Kuala Lumpur long ago finds solace today in the piano, at which she’s said to be accomplished. She did, after all, write a book in 1992 called “The Joy of Classical Music.” So maybe there is some joy in her life today.
– This article appeared in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club magazine: The Correspondent in October 2009 –