PEOPLE’s first-ever podcast, Cover-Up, debuts on May 31 and will dig into the Chappaquiddick scandal that scarred the Kennedy family and changed the course of American presidential history. In the seven episodes of the series, PEOPLE’s east coast editor Elizabeth McNeil seeks answers to the burning questions from the 1969 tragedy, which left one woman dead. Below, McNeil details the ten surprising things listeners will learn about the tangled case in the podcast.
Over the past eight months, I’ve investigated what really happened on the tiny Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick on July 18, 1969, when Ted Kennedy drove his car off a narrow wooden bridge — an accident which took the life of his passenger, 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne. The results of my reporting can be heard in >Cover-Up, which PEOPLE produced with Cadence 13.
The podcast will explore the events of that night and the scandal that ensued — starting with the 10 hour delay between the time Kennedy escaped from the car and when he reported the accident to the police — all in an effort to understand a mystery that has lasted nearly half a century.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images (2)
Here are 10 surprising facts about Chappaquiddick that listeners will learn in the series.
1. Mary Jo Kopechne almost didn’t go to Chappaquiddick. According to her cousin and closest living relative, Georgetta Potoski, 78, “Mary Jo was never supposed to go to Chappaquiddick that weekend.” Potoski tells PEOPLE Kopechne had a work obligation in New Orleans that was going to prevent her from attending the reunion party for her fellow campaign workers in Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential run. But, at the last minute, Potoski says, “she got someone to cover for her and she went because she wanted to see her friends.”Getty Images
2. Mary Jo Kopechne was much more than just a “a blonde secretary,” which is how she was often described after her death. But her story was overlooked by the media who instead focused on Kennedy. Mary Jo was one of the Boiler Room girls, a group of accomplished women who worked for R.F.K.’s presidential campaign, gathering campaign information in designated regions of the country and researching convention delegates. (They got their nickname from the windowless office where they worked.) She was at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, the night R.F.K. was assassinated and she rode on the slow moving funeral train, along with his family and close friends, that brought his body from New York City to Arlington National Cemetery. “She was more than the girl in the car,” says Potoski’s son, William Nelson. “But her story was forgotten.”
3. Mary Jo’s mother, Gwen Kopechne, always regretted that she had opposed an autopsy for her daughter. “Years later, Gwen said it was the biggest mistake she ever made,” says Potoski. “There should have been an autopsy. She knew it would have cleared up a lot of things.” But at the time, Mary Jo’s parents were afraid the autopsy was solely to determine if their daughter was pregnant. And they did not understand its importance. Although it was ruled that Mary Jo died by drowning, there were always lingering questions about exactly how long she survived in the car and whether she suffocated or drowned. An autopsy would have answered those questions.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
. Many believe the accident at Chappaquiddick changed presidential history —and may have kept Ted Kennedy from winning the White House. “It hung over him like a permanent cloud,” a friend tells PEOPLE. “He felt like he let himself, his family and the country down in Chappaquiddick.” The tragedy haunted Ted for the rest of his life. As Ted wrote in his 2009 memoir, True Compass, “Atonement is a process that never ends … maybe it’s a New England thing, or an Irish thing, or a Catholic thing, Maybe all of those things. But it’s as it should be.”
5. Mary Jo’s last conversation with her parents left them with unanswered questions. In their last phone call, several days before she died, Mary Jo told her mother, Gwen, she had three things to tell her. “The first was she was thinking of getting engaged,” says her cousin Georgetta Potoski. (Her boyfriend worked in the Foreign Service.) “The second thing was she had taken a job working for Matt Reese, a political consultant. But before she could tell them the third thing, her father got on the phone to say ‘hi’ and they never found out the third thing. We’ll never know what the third thing was.”
6. Many people were haunted by what happened at Chappaquiddick. Edgartown Police Chief Dominick Arena who took Ted’s statement the next morning, and later charged him with leaving the scene of the accident, still wonders why the senator waited 10 hours to report what happened. Now 88 years old, Arena says, “I’ll never understand why he left Mary Jo in the car for ten hours before he reported the accident.”Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
. On the same weekend that Ted’s car went off the Dike bridge in Chappaquiddick, an American astronaut became the first man to walk on the moon. On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong took his first lunar steps as part of the Apollo 11 mission and proclaimed: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was the fulfillment of the promise from J.F.K. that someday a man would walk on the moon. And yet the same weekend that Americans watched the historic event, a shining moment in the Kennedy legacy, Ted’s car accident in Chappaquiddick threatened to unravel it.
8. Deputy Sherriff Huck Look saw Ted’s car, 90 minutes after he said his car went over the Dike bridge. On July 19, 1969, at around 12:45 a.m., Look was driving back to his home on Chappaquiddick, when he saw a dark car and thought the driver appeared “unsure or lost.” He parked his car and got out to see if the driver needed help but before he could get there, the car took off and went down Dike Road towards the bridge. Look continued home, but the next morning, when he went to the scene of the car accident on Dike bridge and saw Ted’s car overturned in the water, said “That’s the same car I saw last night.” The 90 minute time difference between 11:15 p.m., when Ted said the accident occurred, and 12:45 a.m., when Look said he saw the senator’s car, was never fully explained.GETTY
9. The Ballou family had a strange encounter on the water that night. A little before 2 a.m. on the morning of July 19, 1969, C. Remington Ballou and his family were on their boat, which was moored close to the ferry channel. As Ballou told the New Bedford Standard Times, he saw a small boat, carrying three people, douse its lights and its motor — an unusual occurrence. He then saw the small boat drift towards a larger boat that had crossed the channel towards the Chappaquiddick landing. And that boat also turned off its lights. A few minutes later, the smaller boat revved up it’s motor and sailed out of the harbor. At the time, Kennedy’s press aide Dick Drayne denied any connection. “If there was a boat, the senator wasn’t on it,” he said. “The senator swam across [the water].” But Remington’s daughter, Cristy Ballou tells PEOPLE her father always wondered if the boats were somehow linked to what had happened earlier that night. “The next day when he heard what happened at Chappaquiddick, he thought the were definitely connected,” says Ballou. “He thought it was very odd for that time of night.”
10. Mary Jo Kopechne’s family is hoping for a “death bed confession” from someone who knows more about what happened that night. “The truth has never come out,” says her cousin William Nelson tells PEOPLE. Adds his mom Georgetta Potoski, “Mary Jo’s parents never had her final hours explained to them. We are hoping some day more information will come out. Maybe someday there will be a death bed confession.”
Listen to all the episodes:
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