My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
— Senator Edward M. Kennedy, speaking at the 1968 funeral for his late brother Robert.
After covering celebrity trials for Vanity Fair over the years, I have become so cynical that I simply assumed Michael Skakel would walk, as people of his class and wealth so often do. In the novel I wrote about the case, the character based on Michael did walk. But at the trial, justice prevailed.
— Dominick Dunne, writing in Vanity Fair, August 2002, about the trial of Michael Skakel, nephew of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, convicted for the 1975 murder of his neighbor, 15-year-old Martha Moxley.
Given the gavel-to-grave coverage of the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, you might have missed the news of the death of Dominick Dunne, “a minor league Kennedy,” as he once described himself, a former player in the entertainment industry who reinvented himself in his 50s as a chronicler of the rich and famous and their celebrated trials. Dunne died just a few hours after Kennedy, thereby becoming the Farrah Fawcett to his Michael Jackson.
It’s hard to fault the media for their fawning paeans to the fallen senator. In fact, simply by asking the world in 1968 not to idealize or enlarge his brother Bobby, Teddy was practically engraving an invitation to do so. And as the Kennedy mystique became focused on the remaining brother, the effect became even more intense. He was not only carrying on the political tradition — the direct lineage back to the liberalism of FDR — Teddy was also shouldering the family tradition. He was the father to his own three children and the surrogate father to 13 other children of JFK and Bobby. On the day in November, 1973, when his first born son had his cancerous right leg amputated, Kennedy first had to give away Bobby’s daughter Kathleen in marriage; then he had to rush to the hospital to be with his son.
Among the reporters at Robert Kennedy’s funeral in 1968, who then rode the train to Washington and Arlington Cemetery to cover the burial, was a Princeton University junior who happened to be alone in the newsroom of the Daily Princetonian two days before the event when a call came in from a Kennedy campaign operative: Ethel Kennedy believes that the college press should be represented at her husband’s funeral. Can you send a reporter? I was the one who took the call, and I assigned myself to the story.
My memories of that day at St. Patrick’s Cathedral do not include Ted Kennedy’s exact words. My memory is the image of the guy physically carrying a burden with him: The oldest brother killed in the war; the family legacy invested in the next brother, who was assassinated; the legacy transferred yet again to the younger brother, also assassinated. Ted Kennedy had a weight on his shoulders.
And so as his life went into a downward spiral, Chappaquiddick and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, Ted Kennedy’s problems could be understood, even if not excused. At a personal level, a lot of people felt sorry for the man. But at a political level, another standard was in place. And sorry wasn’t good enough for a would-be presidential candidate.
In the mid 1970s, after a few years at Time magazine, I was back in Princeton, freelance writing and taking a part-time job as a teaching assistant for a university course in expository writing. In 1974 or so, the visiting professor was a regular good ol’ boy from Texas who had covered politics for papers like the Texas Observer and national magazines such as Harpers. Larry L. King (no relation to the television talk show host) would later become famous as the author of the story that led to the celebrated play, “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” But at this point in Princeton he was a hard-charging, beer drinking journalist who wasn’t afraid to tell it as he saw it.
One of his stories, probably recounted over beers at the Annex on Nassau Street, was about Ted Kennedy. My memory (certainly blurred by the beers and the years and unfortunately not refreshed by King, whom I was unable to locate) is this: Within a year or so of the shameful Chappaquiddick incident, the senator was out on a political junket that included several journalists, who witnessed an inebriated Kennedy groping a young woman. Larry King was no tee totaler and he probably chased a few skirts in his youth, as well, but Kennedy’s behavior, so soon after Kopechne’s death, was simply not presidential.
But, I asked King, didn’t he believe that history inexorably would move Kennedy into the presidential spotlight? No, was King’s emphatic reply. Ted Kennedy would never be president. Because if he ever got near a serious run for the presidency, King and a band of other journalists were all committed to blow him out of the water with stories they had collected about him.
A few years later, in 1979, Kennedy was drawn to that presidential flame. As support began to grow for him in his challenge to Jimmy Carter, Kennedy sat for the nationwide interview with Roger Mudd of CBS television. The television newscasters who lavished praise on Kennedy after his death saw the Mudd interview as a testament to Teddy’s growing self-awareness: Even as the public was drawing him into the presidential arena, he was realizing that it was not his true calling, that he was destined to be great senator, not a president.
It all hinged on this exchange:
Mudd: Why do you want to be president?
Kennedy: Well, I’m — were I to make the announcement and run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country, that it is — there’s more natural resources than any nation of the world, there’s the greatest-educated population in the world, the greatest technology of any country in the world, the greatest capacity for innovation in the world, and the greatest political system in the world. And yet I see at the current time that most of the industrial nations of the world are exceeding us in terms of productivity or doing better than us in terms of meeting the problems of inflation.”
That was the 2009 reconstruction of that 1979 interview. My memory is of Mudd also grilling Kennedy on Chappaquiddick, and getting no plausible explanations in return. And then there was an open-ended but politically damning exchange about his marriage:
Mudd: What is the present state of your marriage?
Kennedy: Well, I think that it’s a — it’s had some difficult times but I think we have — we, I think, have been able to make some very good progress and it’s — I would say that it’s — it’s — it’s delightful that we’re able to — to share the time and the relationship that we — that we do share.
Just as Larry King had predicted, I thought at the time.
For those who believe that liberals such as Ted Kennedy get a free pass from the liberal media, the Mudd interview should be instructive. We can guess that Mudd is a liberal, and we know that he was a Kennedy family friend and frequent visitor to RFK’s Hickory Hill estate.
In 1968, when Bobby lay mortally wounded on the kitchen floor at the Ambassador Hotel, Roger Mudd escorted Ethel through the melee so she could be with her husband.
Dominick Dunne, meanwhile, was also no stranger to the Kennedys’ social circle. Born to a heart surgeon in Hartford, Connecticut, Dunne was drafted into the army during his senior year in high school, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and then entered Williams College, Class of 1949.
Always with a knack for making social connections, Dunne and a date attended the glittering 1950 wedding of Bobby Kennedy and Ethel Skakel in Greenwich, Connecticut. Soon Dunne himself was married, had three kids, and had become a producer of television shows and movies, including “Panic in Needle Park” and “The Boys in the Band.” By then living in southern California, Dunne suddenly found his marriage over. He was arrested for drug possession and became “a hopeless alcoholic,” even falling out with his famous writer brother, John Gregory Dunne. Nick Dunne spent time unemployed and then drove to Oregon, where he got a flat tire and ended up staying for six months in a one-room cabin.
While drying out Dunne tried his hand at writing. His first work was a novel set in Hollywood, “The Winners.” In 1981 he moved to New York. The next year brought a Kennedy-esque tragedy to his life. His 22-year-old actress daughter, Dominique (“Poltergeist”) Dunne, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. During the course of the legal proceedings, Dunne met the new editor of Vanity Fair, Tina Brown, at a dinner party. She suggested he keep a journal at the trial. That turned into a 1984 story in Vanity Fair.
Dunne turned his eye, and sympathetic view of the victims and their families, to other celebrated trials: Claus Von Bulow, the Menendez brothers (those nice boys from Princeton), O.J. Simpson, and two members of the Kennedy clan. In 1992 Dunne covered the Palm Beach rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, accused of committing the crime after a late night of drinking with uncle Teddy.
By Dunne’s account of the senator’s testimony at the trial, Teddy was still a flawed hero:
“It was a masterly performance, reeking of bathos, having nothing whatever to do with the rape trial at hand, but he mesmerized the courtroom and, more important, the jury. The man who instigated the Good Friday incident by getting his son and nephew to go out drinking reversed the dynamic from a night of debauchery to one of sorrowing for dead relations . . . Liquor, that distorter of memory and perception, went virtually unmentioned. And no question was asked about the senator’s highly publicized appearance without his pants. The senator snowed the prosecutor.”
Meanwhile the name Skakel, Ethel’s maiden name, had bounced in and out of the news following the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley. Dunne had written a novel about the case, “A Season in Purgatory,” and had steered some tips about the case to Mark Furhman, the controversial cop in the O.J. case.
Without Dunne keeping the case warm, many believe, Skakel never would have stood trial in the quarter century old case. But he did and — to Dunne’s pleasant surprise — was found guilty.
The Kennedys were not happy. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Skakel’s cousin and childhood buddy (including a lot of time they spent together in rehab), wrote a 14,000-word article in the Atlantic Monthly in 2003 challenging the evidence and verdict and denouncing Dunne for trying to “lynch the fat kid.” Appeals in the case, however, have been denied, and Skakel remains incarcerated.
But in the wee hours of the night on August 25 and August 26, the Kennedys gained a final, small piece of revenge. Ted Kennedy died in Hyannis Port late in the night, and the 24/7 news operations immediately swung into full deployment. A few hours later Dunne died, and his family initially tried to keep the news private, so that the media would have a full day to disgorge its Kennedy material, and give Dunne’s death a chance to be noted the day after the Kennedy news broke.
The New York Times of Thursday, August 27, gave Kennedy more than half of the front page, followed by five full pages inside the A section. Dunne’s obituary took up a little more than half of page 12 in the B section. The second paragraph contained this ironic note:
“The cause was bladder cancer, a family spokesman said. The spokesman had initially declined to confirm the death, saying the family had hoped to wait a day before making an announcement so that Mr. Dunne’s obituary would not be obscured by the coverage of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s death.”
The media’s obsession with Edward Moore Kennedy continued through Saturday, August 29, and his mass of Christian burial at Our Lady of Perpetual Hope Basilica in a working class neighborhood of Boston. There at last came a genuine tribute — Ted Kennedy Jr.’s description of his father standing by him as tried to climb an icy driveway shortly after being fitted with an artificial leg.
The senator who had a special place in his heart and in his political agenda for the ordinary citizen was borne off by an angel band that was accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma on cello, tenor Placido Domingo, the Tanglewood Festival Choir, and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (a bipartisan choice, since she sang at Bush’s 2005 inaugural). Among the mourners (in addition to all the living former presidents except George H.W. Bush, who decided that his son, W., could represent the entire family) were Lauren Bacall, Jack Nicholson, and Bill Russell.
It was not a fanfare for the common man.
It was rather a showcase for what is as close to a royal family as our country has ever had. Dominick Dunne did not live long enough to put Teddy Kennedy into full perspective, and the senator’s death put Dunne’s own demise in a shadow. But he would not have been surprised. In fact, in his 1992 account of the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, Dunne described the dynamics that could produce such a spectacle:
“The Kennedys are America’s most famous theatrical family and have been for a half a century. They have outdone the Greeks for tragedy. They have outdone Hollywood for scandal. Love them, hate them, they are bigger than life, and they know instinctively how to play each scene in their continuing, mesmerizing saga.”