joan vennochi

Another Kennedy spin?

Mary Kennedy was found dead in her New York home last month at age 52.

For the children. That was supposed to be the reason Robert F. Kennedy Jr. fought in court for the right to bury his estranged wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy, near the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, after she hanged herself.

His wife’s relatives wanted to bury her in a family plot in Vermont. They lost and he won, as the Kennedys often do.

But now it’s fair to wonder if the couple’s four children really are the priority, after a sealed affidavit from the couple’s divorce proceedings made its way into an explosive Newsweek magazine cover story. Or, is the motive another illustration of Camelot-connected spin control? Instead of trying to protect his children, is RFK Jr. more interested in trying to cast himself in the most sympathetic light possible, at the expense of a woman who had serious mental health issues but is no longer alive to challenge his account?


Newsweek doesn’t say how it got what writer Laurence Leamer describes as a “sealed, 60-page court affidavit filed by Bobby during divorce proceedings.” But Kennedy family members know how to keep records from seeing the light of day, when that’s what the family wants. Crates of documents generated by Robert F. Kennedy remain stacked in a vault at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester. They are so closely guarded that even the library director can’t look at them.

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The no-longer-secret affidavit from the Kennedy divorce case paints a disturbing portrait of a woman with a long history of destructive behavior. According to her husband (they never officially divorced), it included heavy drinking, physical abuse of her spouse, repeated threats of suicide in front of her children, and other erratic conduct, such as running over the family dog in the driveway.

Leamer, who has authored several books on the Kennedy family, seems focused on countering the narrative that developed after Mary Kennedy’s death, that of “the womanizing Bobby, always described as a former heroin addict, leading his innocent wife to her death, yet another victim of an overweening male ego.” As he puts it, “It was a juicy tale, lacking in nuance. But perhaps Bobby wasn’t guilty. Perhaps no one was guilty. Perhaps Mary Richardson Kennedy was and had been for some time, a desperately sick woman.”

Perhaps it does lack nuance. But there is a well-established pattern of Kennedy men exerting power over women as they satisfy overweening male egos. There is also a pattern of assorted male friends in the media exonerating them from any guilt when it comes to the consequences of their relationships with wives and other females.

It is more often female writers who see the view from the other side. In a New York Post column written after RFK Jr. won the battle over where his estranged wife would be laid to rest, Maureen Callahan noted, “Yesterday, the Kennedys buried Mary in Hyannisport, near the famous family compound. In life, Mary had been banned from there for years. In death, she is now the good Kennedy wife, keeping up appearances.”


Marriages are complicated, and the one between RFK Jr. and Mary Kennedy had more than its share of heavy lifting. The accusations in the affidavit may be true. At the time of her death, Mary Kennedy could only see her children, whose ages range from 10 to 17, during visits supervised by the family housekeeper.

The affidavit, where ever it came from, gives one side of the story. After the Newsweek article, the Richardson family blasted what family members called a “scurrilous” document that was written by Bobby Kennedy as part of a contentious custody battle. It “was nothing more than a brutal psychological weapon in the divorce case,’’ the statement said. “This latest piling on is proof perfect of the unbelievable emotional and psychological abuse that Mary endured during the last years of her life and now in death.”

The Richardson family statement also references the fallout for the offspring of the woman Newsweek describes as the love of Bobby Jr.’s life: “Our hearts are breaking for what her children continue to witness. We hoped Mary could rest in peace.”

Allowing his estranged wife to rest in peace may not be Bobby Jr.’s chief concern.

But protecting his children, not his image, should be.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.