The Fall of Joan


It was the blood that caught the attention of a passerby, a streak
running down one side of the woman's face in a long red tear as she
tried to hoist herself off the Beacon Street sidewalk. She looked like
a disoriented street person who had wandered into the Back Bay from the
nearby Boston Common. “She said she was okay, but she did not look
okay,” says Constance Bacon, who shielded the helpless woman from the
rain as they waited for an ambulance. “She was conscious. She had just
hit her head pretty hard. She knew that she had fallen and she tried to
get up and she couldn't. So I just waited until the ambulance came. I
had no idea who it was, that it was anything special.”  

It took little more than a day for Bacon—and the rest of the world—to
find out that the woman she had helped had a last name recognized
across the globe, that this bloody and disheveled person was the former
model once nicknamed “the Dish” by her brother-in-law, the late
President John F. Kennedy. As with other members of the Kennedy clan,
notoriety was nothing new to her. Her fall, which resulted in a
concussion and a broken shoulder, was the latest incident in a long and
very public struggle Joan Bennett Kennedy has waged against alcoholism.

“No, she did not appear drunk,” Bacon said repeatedly afterward. But a
source close to Kennedy's three children says Kennedy's blood-alcohol
level was well above the legal limit when it was tested at the hospital
that night. The limits of her ability to look after her own affairs had
also been exceeded, setting the stage for a battle worthy of any of the
political or media skirmishes in which the Kennedy's have engaged over
the years.

Joan Kennedy had taken to drinking in secret in the months before her
accident, and her drugs of choice were mouthwash and vanilla extract.
Both contained enough alcohol to assuage her cruel thirst without
producing the rank odor of hard booze. A caretaker complained that
Kennedy, 68, had begun locking her out of the Beacon Street condominium
where the one-time presidential in-law lives. (She also has a
waterfront house in Hyannis Port.) The caretaker told Kennedy's son
Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island, about the large quantities of
vanilla extract his mother was bringing home from the market. “She said
she had taken up baking,” the friend of the Kennedy children says. “She
would tell the caretakers she would meet them somewhere and never show
up. She'd try to lose them.”

Suspicious amounts of mouthwash vanished from the bathroom. And there
were Kennedy's frequent absences from the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
she attended during periods of sobriety. In the world of AA, identities
are closely guarded, and the shapely older woman in the baseball cap
and expensive ensembles was no different there from the homeless,
disoriented drunks still reeking of alcohol who would wander in from
the Park Street T station, lured by free coffee and cookies. In the
meetings she was no longer a Kennedy, but merely “Joan,” a fellow
alcoholic with a soul-sapping disease.

Booze does not discriminate. Still, Kennedy had a lot of people fooled.
She cleaned up well and continued to travel in elite circles. In fact,
her close friend, philanthropist Ann Gund, insists even now that
Kennedy had been staying sober. Kennedy's doctors do not agree. The
vanilla extract and mouthwash she apparently guzzled on a regular basis
caused enough damage to her kidneys that her children say she was
within a year of needing dialysis to stay alive. That, and the spill
she took on Beacon Street, amounted to much more than just another
embarrassing bout with the bottle. The kidney problems, the concussion,
and the broken shoulder buoyed an argument Kennedy's children had been
making for some time: Their mother was incapable of taking care of
herself.

About a day after his mother's tumble, Patrick Kennedy decided not to
pursue his ambition to follow his father, Edward M. Kennedy, into the
United States Senate. He and his siblings, Edward Jr. and Kara Kennedy
Allen, launched a complex court case aimed at taking over their
mother's life. In addition to alcoholism, at issue was her involvement
of a distant relative, Webster E. Janssen, to control her $9 million
estate, which includes the Back Bay condo and the house on Squaw Island
in Hyannis Port. Janssen, a financial planner who lives in Connecticut,
railed against the Kennedy offspring for hiring a “zookeeper” to
scrutinize their mother's routine. “I don't know why they would put
their mother through this misery,” he said.

That dispute would drag out through the spring as bitter Kennedy v.
Kennedy lawsuits were filed in Barnstable Probate and Family Court on
Cape Cod. Court papers were submitted as discreetly as possible, but
one incendiary element, according to the family friend, was a reference
to the bipolar disorder and depression from which the children claimed
their mother suffered, in addition to her alcoholism. “The children are
there for her as much as they can be, but she has no husband and no
significant other, and she's someone who really needs someone to be
with her,” this source says. “It's been a very draining situation for
the children, and they don't wish this on anyone else, but they know
this is happening to families all across the country.”

The acrimonious battle began in July 2004, when Joan's older son,
Edward Jr., cofounder and president of a New York business development
and government-relations firm, was appointed her legal guardian.
Barnstable Judge Robert Terry had ruled that Joan was “incapable of
taking care of herself by reason of mental illness.”

Edward Jr. was the most qualified for the responsibility, having spent
the bulk of his adult life advocating for the disabled. It was a cause
he could relate to, having lost a leg to bone cancer at age 12. For a
few months, the relationship was an effective one. The children took
turns being with their mother as much as possible and took care of her
finances. But Joan's resentment ultimately bubbled over. That fury was
what Janssen, 70—a second cousin on Joan's mother's side—tapped into
when he showed up on the scene.

It remains unclear how Webster Janssen managed to track down and make
contact with his distant cousin. He insists that he has been a part of
the family all along and claims to have attended Kara Kennedy Allen's
wedding. Patrick Kennedy says he does not remember meeting Janssen. Nor
do any of the other children, according to the family friend. He grew
up in Bronxville, New York, not far from where Joan was raised, and is
a licensed securities professional, but he could not explain what
benefit he would bring to Joan Kennedy's life, merely insisting in an
interview that he “never took a dime” from her.

Janssen quickly assumed complete control, denying Joan's children
access to records of her assets, according to both Patrick and Edward
Jr. He put Joan's Hyannis Port house on the market, a violation of the
court order that had put her elder son in charge of her affairs.
Janssen also set up two trusts, of which he was the sole trustee.

Those moves were questionable enough that the Kennedy children got a
court order preventing the sale of either of their mother's properties.
Then they filed a complaint against Janssen. “We are contemplating
other legal action against Mr. Janssen,” Edward Jr. said, “for
financial advisor malpractice.”

Janssen fired back, accusing the Kennedy offspring of ruining Joan's
life. “I have been in business for 45 years and never had a client
complain about me,” he said. “So lotsa luck.”

It was not the first time Joan Kennedy had found herself mired in
chaos. The alcoholism, the drama and despair that would soon become
synonymous with the Kennedy name—all were a part of her life from the
start.

Virginia Joan Bennett was born September 9, 1936, in the Riverdale
section of the Bronx, a neighborhood that closely resembles the
lace-curtain Irish communities in Boston where paintings and
photographs of JFK still hang on the walls. She was named for her
mother. Her parents, Henry Wiggin Bennett Jr. and Virginia Joan Stead
Bennett, were both successful professionally but also lived with
untreated alcoholism. “It's a terrible disease,” says the Kennedy
family friend. “Her parents were both alcoholics and it's just a
disease that gets worse and worse unless you try and get some control
over it.”

Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, was the ideal escape for
Joan—close enough to home that she could drop in on her parents, but
still removed from the claustrophobic environment of an alcoholic
household. It was there that she met her future sisters-in-law, Jean
Kennedy—JFK's youngest sister—and Ethel Skakel, who would later marry
Robert Kennedy. The three women had all grown up among garrulous Irish
Catholics, but Joan and Jean were the shy and reserved members of their
respective families. Jean's mother, Rose, once remarked of her
daughter, the second youngest of nine children: “She was born so late
that she only was able to enjoy the tragedies and not the triumphs.”
There would be plenty of tragedies in the lives of all three women.

Joan Bennett was a startlingly beautiful blonde. Leggy and coquettish,
she caught Ted Kennedy's eye in 1957, when he was a dashing young law
student visiting his sister's campus during a building dedication. At
that time she was a part-time model and did the occasional TV ad for
Revlon or Coca-Cola. After a yearlong courtship, they were married.
They had their first child, Kara, in 1960. In typical Irish-Catholic
fashion, the couple continued to expand their family: Edward Jr. was
born in 1961, and Patrick came along five years later.

There was little hint of trouble between the handsome politician and
the TV model. Laurence Leamer, author of The Kennedy Women, described
Joan in a recent interview as having “this incredible guileless
quality. She's a total innocent even now.” Then, in 1964, the Kennedys
had a stillborn baby boy. That baby is buried in the Kennedy plot at
Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, a site that has become a sad symbol of
what many now see as the Camelot curse. The baby is buried alongside
Michael Kennedy, one of Senator Robert F. Kennedy's children, who was
killed in a ski accident in 1997. Joan and Ted would lose three
children, including a baby that was miscarried in the aftermath of the
Chappaquiddick tragedy.

That famous accident, which would dash any chance Ted Kennedy had to
become president, occurred on a sultry July night in 1969, when the
senator drove off a bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick, at the
eastern end of Martha's Vineyard. A young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne
was beside him. His car plunged into a shallow waterway, Poucha Pond,
landing upside down. Kopechne drowned; Kennedy swam to shore, leaving
her body in the water to be found by Edgartown police. Afterward, his
wife stood by her man, even at Kopechne's funeral. Already pregnant
with another child, Joan would lose the baby a month later. “For a few
months everyone had to put on this show, and then I just didn't care
anymore. I just saw no future. That's when I truly became an
alcoholic,” she told Laurence Leamer.

Joan's show came to a grinding halt in 1974, when she was arrested in
Virginia for drunken driving and lost her license for six months. The
Kennedys were all too familiar with public scandal, but even they were
horrified by Joan's unraveling. Her marriage to Ted ended in 1982, two
years after his disastrous run for the presidency.

The divorce did not end Joan's drinking, however. In 1988, she crashed
her car into a fence in Centerville on Cape Cod and was ordered to
attend an alcohol education program; she lost her license for 45 days.
In 1991, she was arrested after being observed drinking vodka straight
from the bottle while weaving her car along the Southeast Expressway.

She would go through drying-out stints, including ones at Belmont's
McLean Hospital and also at New York's St. Luke's?Roosevelt Hospital
Center, which has treated other celebrity alcoholics, including
baseball players Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry and author Truman
Capote. And with each misstep came more intense media scrutiny. “It has
been hard,” she said in a 1992 interview. “It is easier now. I have all
this support. There's wonderful forgiveness from people.” Referring to
her sobriety in a July 2000 interview, she said, “It's such a relief to
be free.”

That freedom apparently ended in the fall of 2000 with another drunken-

driving arrest on Cape Cod. A motorist called 911 saying a blue Buick
had been all over a road in Marstons Mills. When cops arrived, they
found Joan on unsteady feet outside her car. Later she failed a
Breathalyzer test at the station. It was her fourth arrest, and it was
serious now. Even the Kennedy name might not be enough to keep her out
of jail this time. It is not uncommon, however, for a judge to
recognize alcoholism as a disease and recommend probation and
rehabilitation rather than jail time, which is how matters were dealt
with.

Patrick then called on the media to give his mother “the room and
privacy to be able to deal with this latest incident as she has handled
other setbacks in her life.” He added, “I love my mother very much.”

The 2000 arrest came just a few months after Joan told the Boston Globe
she had been sober for nine years. “After that amount of time people
start to forget,” she said. “So I'd rather not bring it up and have
people say, 'Ohh, Joan. She's the alcoholic.' Because a lot of places I
go, people don't know.”

The duration of Joan's sobriety may have been in question, but what she
accomplished during the dry times was not. While her children were busy
with their own lives and careers, and with her ex-husband remarried,
Joan combated her loneliness by turning to charitable endeavors and the
arts. An accomplished pianist with a master's degree in education, she
is well known in Boston for her support of the symphony, the opera, and
the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter. She has served as chairwoman of
the Boston Cultural Council and remains a fixture on the social scene,
rubbing elbows with the city's movers and shakers.

Shrugging off her checkered past, she wrote a family guide to classical
music, and in early 2000 she hired a personal trainer and started
working out at a Back Bay gym. Her children were excited that she was
pulling her life back together—again. Then came the humiliating stumble
in the Back Bay, and Joan found herself back in the swirling cycle of
addiction.

Patrick Kennedy feared the worst when he received the
middle-of-the-night call. His brother's voice on the other end of the
line told him only that their mother had been found on a Beacon Street
sidewalk and was now in New England Medical Center. “Anyone who
receives a call in the middle of the night saying a loved one is in a
hospital fears the worst,” he says through a spokeswoman.

When Patrick arrived at the hospital, his eyes were red-rimmed with
sleeplessness and he was clearly shaken as he spoke with reporters
about the difficulties of helping his mother. “You want to make sure
there's someone there for her all the time . . . but at the same time
you don't want to encroach on her privacy too much,” he said. “When
things like this happen, it makes you feel as though maybe you should
have done more to make sure there's someone with her 24/7, and perhaps
that might become necessary.”

It was then that Patrick added he was dropping out of the Senate race.
He had too much to tend to. One such concern was a bill he is
cosponsoring in Congress that proposes clear-cut laws to protect the
elderly from con artists and make it easier for relatives to step in to
protect their loved ones' interests.

The family's public sniping finally ended in June, when all parties
came to an agreement hammered out in a Barnstable courthouse a few days
before Kennedy v. Kennedy would have become an embarrassingly public
trial. Under the deal, the trusts established by Janssen were dissolved
and the Hyannis Port house was taken off the market. Joan Kennedy
agreed to strict court-ordered supervision, with a guardian to make
sure she stayed away from the bottle. It was a deal she could live
with.

“I'm feeling fine,” she said to a reporter outside her Back Bay condo a
day after she signed the agreement that put her fortune in the hands of
a new trust overseen by two court-appointed trustees. Joan Kennedy has
essentially become a ward of the state, her every move monitored by the
court. She is required to stay sober, comply with her live-in
caretakers, and refrain from any slip-ups. Otherwise, her children will
be granted permanent custody of her.

“She's not happy with all the provisions,” a Kennedy source
acknowledges. “It's fine. She's not mad. She is fine. She really is.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2006/05/the-fall-of-joan/