Vicki Kennedy wasn't looking to fall in love with a man 20-plus years her senior; one for whom she once interned and whom her parents called "the commander." But soon after Sen. Ted Kennedy showed up at her Washington home for a party one night in 1991, she was "head over heels."
Vicki Kennedy has been credited by many with taming the "Lion of the Senate" and overhauling the senator's image from boozing womanizer to elder statesman. But in her first television interview since her husband's death in August, Kennedy told Oprah Winfrey that theirs was not a relationship of political convenience but one built on mutual affection and love.
"He was fun," she said on today's "Oprah Winfrey Show."
"It was great. He's such a nice guy. He really courted me. He sent flowers and wrote notes."
A divorced lawyer and mother of two young children, she invited Kennedy -- an old friend of her parents -- to an anniversary party she was hosting for them in 1991. When the Massachusetts Democrat arrived alone, she joked that she would be his date.
At the end of the night, "he asked if he could call me," she said, beginning a whirlwind relationship Vicki Kennedy described as an "old-fashioned courtship."
She said Kennedy made a point of including her son and daughter in their dates together.
"He said, 'I know you won't go out very much because the children are so young.' They were 5 and 8. So he asked to come to dinner and then he started coming to dinner every night. I'd leave work and go to the grocery store.
"He would tease me that I gave him bearnaise sauce [when we were dating] and after we got married, I [just] put lemon on his fish."
In the aftermath of his first marriage to Joan Bennett Kennedy in 1981, which was reportedly marked by his infidelity and her alcoholism, Kennedy spent nearly a decade as a bachelor, which only augmented his reputation as a hard-partying rake.
Kennedy proposed in 1992 after a performance of the opera "La Boheme." The couple soon married, ushering in one of the least profligate and most productive periods of Kennedy's career, spearheading Senate battles on education and health care.
Following his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2008, confidants say, Vicki Kennedy's role expanded as she became the chief gatekeeper of his schedule, balancing meetings with doctors about his health and meetings with legislators about health care legislation.
At that point, she said, the senator quickly went to work on completing his memoirs and exercising in order to be fit enough to attend the presidential inauguration in in January.
"It was an incredible journey to be with this man I absolutely adored," she said. "It was an inspiration really to watch how Teddy grappled with such a grave diagnosis and always looked forward with hope.
"The real story of the last 15 months is what teddy accomplished. … He completed his memoir; he worked on it every day," she said. "He has notes from over 50 years through dictation. It's a treasure trove."
Kennedy's autobiography, "True Compass," recently hit bookstore shelves.
After his death at age 77, there was speculation that he wanted his wife to replace him and that she, too, wanted the seat he had held since 1962.
But Vicki Kennedy, 55, denied such rumors, telling Winfrey that she would never consider it.
"We had [a] senator in our household," she said, "and, no, not for me."