Joan Bennett, former wife of Senator Ted Kennedy, was born on September 9, 1936, in Manhattan. Bennett married Ted Kennedy on November 29, 1958. Her private struggle with miscarriages and alcoholism became public after she was arrested for drunk driving in 1974. For decades Bennett wrestled with sobriety. She is currently in treatment under her children's care.
Former wife of Senator Edward Kennedy, pianist. Born Virginia Joan Bennett on September 9, 1936, in New York, New York. Her parents, wealthy Irish professionals, struggled with alcoholism during Joan's early life. Bennett escaped to Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, to be out of her family's reach, but also close enough to check in.
Jean Kennedy, an alumnus of the Catholic women's school school, befriended Bennett while they were students. When the Kennedy family came to Manhattanville in order to dedicate a sports complex they built in memory of Kathleen, Jean introduced Bennett to the family. Joan maintains she had never heard much about the Kennedys, and the Manhattanville senior remained unintimidated by her first meeting with the Kennedy clan. She was, however, immediately taken with Ted: "He was tall and he was gorgeous," she later said. Joan was a stunning beauty as well; a leggy blonde, she was a part-time model and even appeared in a few television commercials. Her looks earned her the nickname "the Dish" by Ted's brother, John.
Joan and Ted began a whirlwind, long-distance courtship immediately after their first introduction. Ted, who was in his second year at Virginia law school, phoned Joan every night and often flew in to visit her at school. They also went on frequent—although heavily chaperoned—dates, including time at Ted's Hyannis Port home, ski trips, holidays with their families, and weekends at each other's schools. Joan, an accomplished pianist, also entertained the Kennedy family with her musical performances. Ted proposed in 1957, at his family's Hyannis Port home. Joan eagerly accepted.
Troubled Marriage to Ted Kennedy
Bennett married Ted Kennedy on November 29, 1958. By this time, his older brother John F. Kennedy was already a popular U.S. senator and the Kennedys were emerging as strong political force. When Ted graduated from law school in 1959, the newlyweds took a belated honeymoon to South America before returning to Boston, where Kennedy studied for the bar exam. After he passed, his father soon put him to work campaigning for his older brother John's presidency.
During this time, Joan became pregnant with the couple's first child. Daughter Kara was born in 1960. A few weeks later, she joined her husband on the campaign trail. The next year, her son Edward, Jr. arrived. Along with her role as a mother, Joan tried hard to settle into life as a politician's wife when her husband ran for his brother John's empty senate seat. Ted won the election, and entered the U.S. Senate in 1962. With his election, there were three Kennedys in Washington, D.C.—John had won the presidency in 1960 and brother Robert then became the U.S. attorney general. At 24, Joan became the youngest wife of the youngest senator ever elected in the United States.
Just as she had seen the rise of the Kennedy family, Joan was also a witness to their greatest losses. Her brother-in-law John was assassinated in 1963. The next year, she gave birth to a stillborn boy and, soon after, her husband was badly injured in a private plane crash while on the campaign trail for his re-election. Ted had suffered six spinal fractures and two broken ribs, and two passengers on the plane with him died.
While her husband remained immobilized for several months, Joan campaigned for his re-election to the Massachusetts senate in his stead. The state convention nominated Kennedy in absentia, and he won the election by a landslide. Joan thrived on the campaign trail, feeling that her efforts brought her closer to her husband. But after his victory, their marriage stalled. According to Joan, Ted all but ignored his wife, and his very public affairs deeply wounded her.
The arrival of their son Patrick in 1967 was a bright spot in this difficult time. But then in 1968 her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy, then a senator and presidential candidate, was assassinated. The sudden, violent death hit the familiy hard. Joan was so distraught that she was unable to accompany the funeral party to Arlington. In the wake of their grief, Ted's affairs were also becoming more and more indiscriminate.
Breakup of the Marriage
On July 18, 1969, Ted was traveling with 28-year-old campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne—rumored to be his new girlfriend—on the island of Chappaquiddick in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. For reasons still unknown, Kennedy drove their car off a bridge. He was able to swim out of the vehicle and make it to shore, but Kopechne drowned. The media speculation regarding what happened on that July night was painfully revealing for Joan, who had been busy ignoring her husband's drinking and philandering ways.
On July 25, 1969, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Although the judge speculated the Kennedy may have also been operating his vehicle in an unsafe manner, the senator was only sentenced to two months in jail. This ruling was later suspended. While publicly standing by her husband, Bennett was privately falling apart. When she accompanied her husband to Kopechne's funeral, she had already suffered two miscarriages and was on bedrest for a new pregnancy. When she lost her third child a month later to yet another miscarriage, she turned fully to alcohol for solace.
Her private struggle started to become quite public after Bennett was arrested for drunk driving in 1974. By 1977, Joan moved to an apartment in Boston while Ted stayed in Virginia, and the couple affectively separated. She began seeing a psychiatrist, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and pursuing a graduate degree in education in Cambridge.
Bennett still supported her husband as he made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980, but the reunion was superficial. After Ted lost out to President Jimmy Carter, the Kennedys' marriage dissolved. They officially divorced two years later. In 1984, Bennett received an honory degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Manhattanville for her "quiet courage" and her ability to prevail "against circumstances to emerge victor rather than victim."
Struggles for Sobriety
For decades, Bennett wrestled with sobriety. She had a drinking-related car accident in 1988, when she crashed her car into a fence in Cape Cod. She was ordered to attend an alcohol education program, but the class didn't effect her drinking in least. She faced another drunken driving arrest in 1991, after she was seen drinking vodka straight from the bottle while driving. She fought to sober up, spending time in several rehabilitation facilities, including St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City and McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.
For some of the time, Bennett was active and vital. With a master's degree in education, she was involved with teaching children about classical music. Bennett even wrote a book on the subject, The Joy of Classical Music (1992). An accomplished pianist, she performed with the Boston Pops, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and other orchestras for charities. From the mid to late 1990s, she also served on the Boston Council for the Arts and Humanities.
In July 2000, the Boston Globe published an article on Kennedy that portrayed her as a busy socialite and grandmother. The piece reported that she had been sober for nine years at the time, and was on good terms with the rest of the Kennedy clan, including her ex-husband and his second wife. Proving how difficult it is to break free of addiction, however, Bennett was arrested again for drunken driving in the fall of that year.
Continuing to struggle with substance abuse, Bennett experienced a role reversal in 2004, when her children filed a petition to take over their mother's affairs. Her three children became her legal guardians, managing her $9 million estate. The next year, Bennett made the news again when she was found lying in a Boston street after falling while intoxicated. Taken to the hospital, she was treated for a shoulder and head injury. During this time it was revealed that Bennett had been secretly imbibing mouth wash and vanilla extract in large doses to slake her thirst for alcohol. The intake was enough to cause Bennett serious kidney problems.
A legal battle between the Kennedy children and Webster Janssen, reportedly a distant cousin who Joan selected to handle her finances, erupted not long after her fall. Janssen had set up two trusts for Joan's estate and refused to provide the children with any information about her assets. A piece of her property was also put up for sale without their knowledge. The Kennedy children claimed that their mother was suffering from some form of mental illness in addition to her substance abuse problem. An agreement was reached in June, with a Boston lawyer being appointed Kennedy's guardian. It also called for Kennedy to receive treatment. She is currently under their watchful care.
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