Joan Kennedy first lost her driver's license for six months after a drunk-driving arrest in Virginia in 1974. Three more arrests and frequent hospitalizations would follow.
"It reached a point where [the family] realized she was not going to get better," said Leamer. "Earlier, she would say she was great and be on the cover of a women's magazine, and by the time they hit the newsstands, she was drunk again."
Joan Kennedy once sought the limelight, engaging the press in colorful interviews and showing up at public charity events and even the White House, in low-cut fashions that enhanced her stunning good looks. In recent years, she's been out of the public eye.
Closest to Kennedy sisterEunice Kennedy Shriver, Joan was photographed thin and wearing large sunglasses at the recent funeral of Ted Kennedy's sister in Hyannis Port.
"If fragile means somebody who can't cope, well, Joan coped," Shriver told the Boston Globe in 2000. "I think she had a life that was very demanding of her. Sometimes she had real problems in those days. I think she never gave up. She consistently tried to improve and overcome her problems, and eventually she did. So that is not a person who is fragile."
Edward Moore Kennedy and Virginia Joan Bennett met in 1957 when she was attending Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., not far from the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where she grew up.
A concert-quality piano player and part-time model, Joan Kennedy met her future husband through his sister Jean Kennedy Smith, who also attended the college, along with Ethel Skakel, the future Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy. The couple married in 1958.
Her brother-in-law, President Kennedy, often referred to the leggy blond as "the dish," and, like Jackie, she supported the family's political causes while ignoring persistent rumors of infidelities.
"My personality was more shy and retiring," she said in her 1985 biography, "Living With the Kennedys: The Joan Kennedy Story." "And so rather than get mad or ask questions concerning the rumors about Ted and his girlfriends, or really stand up for myself at all, it was easier for me to just go and have a few drinks and calm myself down as if I weren't hurt or angry."
The couple had three children: Kara, 49, who successfully battled lung cancer in 2003; Edward Jr., 47, who lost a leg to bone cancer when he was 12; and Patrick, 42, currently a Rhode Island congressman. The youngest was arrested in a 2006 car accident and voluntarily went in to rehab for abuse of sleeping pills.
After the Chappaquiddick tragedy in 1969, when Ted Kennedy admitted responsibility for the drowning death of 27-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne in a fatal car crash on Martha's Vineyard, his wife stood at his side.
She accompanied her husband to Kopechne's Pennsylvania funeral and claimed it caused her to miscarry a month later. She had earlier lost two other children, one a stillborn.
"For a few months everyone had to put on this show, and then I just didn't care anymore," she told Leamer. "I just saw no future. That's when I truly became an alcoholic."
During Kennedy's Senate career, his wife was open about her battles with the bottle, seeing a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist and joining Alcoholics Anonymous.
When Kennedy ran for president in 1980, his wife campaigned for him, even though the couple had been living apart for two years.