Ted Kennedy's First Wife Joan Kennedy: Casualty of Camelot

Ted Kennedy's first wife, sober since 2005, quietly welcome in funeral fanfare.

August 27, 2009, 3:23 PM

Aug. 28, 2009— -- In 2005, Boston police found a disoriented woman lying bleeding and alone on a Beacon Hill sidewalk after she had taken a drunken fall.

Joan Kennedy -- the first wife of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy -- was unrecognizable to the Good Samaritan who had helped her that rainy night.

The woman who called the ambulance later told Boston Magazine, "I had no idea who it was, that it was anything special."

Today, at 72 and living independently after struggling with a lifelong alcohol addiction, the mother of Kennedy's three children is still invisible as the world mourns the passing of the senator.

Trying "not to intrude" yet to honor the life of her ex-husband, Joan Kennedy attended the Thursday mass in the "big house" at the Kennedy compound, according to her sister Candace McMurrey of Houston, Texas.

"She feels it's very nice to be included in the final saying goodbye to him and she appreciates being included in that, because she was married to him for 25 years," McMurrey told ABCNews.com.

While her ex-husband fought a brain tumor at the Kennedy compound this summer, the once-striking blond who in the heyday of her beauty resembled "Mad Men's" lovely and lonely Betty Draper, rented the nearby home on Squaw Island that once belonged to her own wealthy family.

"She is a very private person and she been sort of victimized by the press who never let her alone," said another Bennett family member, who has remained close to Joan Kennedy over the years.

"They had an ongoing friendship," said the family member, who did not want to be identified. "There are all sort of emotions."

Joan Kennedy will attend the funeral services and has kept her sobriety since going into rehab treatment in 2005, according to people close to her.

"She's doing great," said McMurrey.

After that incident, Joan Kennedy's children intervened in her affairs, obtaining a court-ordered guardianship that put Ted Kennedy, Jr. in charge of his mother's care.

At her worst, Joan had been sneaking shots of vanilla extract and mouthwash to hide the smell of booze, according to Boston magazine.

"She's no longer under house arrest," said the family member. "She's been behaving pretty well. I think her health is reasonably good."

Joan Kennedy didn't return calls from ABCNews.com. seeking comment about her ex-husband's death.

"I've had trouble getting through to her the last few days," one person said. "She's been besieged with calls and staying at her house on the Cape and busy with her kids."

Joan received the Squaw Island home after her marriage dissolved in 1982. The pair of battered shingled houses were bought in 1901 by her grandfather and his brothers, 30 years before the Kennedys arrived on Cape Cod.

That was not the only thing she inherited. Joan Kennedy's parents -- New York City professionals Virginia Joan Stead Bennett and Henry Wiggin Bennett Jr. --- were also alcoholics, according to author Laurence Leamer.

Kennedy Women Book Sells Out

Leamer wrote the 1994 book, "The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family," which sold out early in the week after the senator's death.

"She blames her alcoholism on the Kennedys and says Chappaquiddick put her over the top, but she was already a problem drinker," Leamer told ABCNews.com. "An entire generation – almost all of them – has had alcohol and drug problems."

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.

Joan Kennedy Blamed For Miscarriage

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.

In 1982, they divorced at her request, according to Edward Klein, author of "Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died." It was "a real effort on her part to establish herself as an independent woman who would no longer be an extension of Ted's life. She tried very, very hard," he told USA Today.

By 1991, the senator met Victoria Anne Reggie, who has been credited with helping Kennedy stop drinking and carousing.

"After the divorce [Joan and Ted] were still close and spent Thanksgivings together at the compound," said the family member. "She knows his wife Vicki. It's not really a relationship, but they are civil to each other and not a couple of icebergs passing in the night."

Joan Kennedy still maintains her Beacon Hill address, but summers in Hyannis Port, where locals guard her privacy.

"People are very protective of her," said Barbara Blume, who volunteers at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum.

"She didn't know that she would have to take that on when she married Ted," Blume told ABCNews.com. "She was a very private person and then was thrust into the limelight. The Kennedys weren't the best of husbands."

"She learned from Jackie how to be a political wife," said Blume. "She (Joan) had to share Ted -- not only with her children -- but with Bobby's children and John's children because he was the father figure."

Visitors to the museum often ask if Joan Kennedy is still alive or how the couple, as "good Catholics" could have been divorced, according to Blume.

But most locals regard Joan Kennedy kindly.

"I think in Massachusetts and Boston especially, they understand alcohol problems and they understand the Kennedys and are very forgiving," she said.

"She did the best she could with her life," said Kay Faulkner of neighboring Yarmouth. "It's awfully hard to have her personal problems -- alcoholism -- in the limelight."

But according to one longtime Hyannis Port resident, many say privately that Joan Kennedy "humiliated" herself and her family and "made a fool" of the Kennedy name.

"Yet," she said. "People still care about her."

ABC Information Specialist Gerard Middleton contributed to this report.

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