05.17.12

The Tragic Decline of Mary Kennedy, Found Dead in Apparent Suicide

For the wife of Robert Kennedy Jr., life inside the storied clan was magical—until it all went horribly wrong, writes Michael Daly. Plus, Eleanor Clift on Mary Kennedy’s depression over her estrangement from her husband.

To her four children she was Mom.

On the police report that accompanied her body to the morgue, she was Mary Richardson Kennedy.

But in the news reports of her death she was first and foremost, the wife of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Two years after the divorce papers were filed, Mary Richardson Kennedy was still defined by a marriage that had ceased to exist in all but the most technical terms. Some people even spoke of her apparent suicide as another manifestation of the Kennedy curse. It was far more likely that she fell victim to the curse of not being a Kennedy while surrounded by that storied clan.

How bleak it must be to lose all sense of your own purpose and direction while living in a house filled with mementos of Camelot and the autographs of all but one of the presidents. Alcohol did not help. Nor did prescription pills.

And it must have seemed bleaker still for having seemed so magical and promising on that April day in 1994 when she became a Kennedy by marriage. Mary had been a boarding school buddy and college roommate of her husband-to-be's sister, Kerry Kennedy, and she had already been to one Kennedy wedding. She had served as Kerry’s maid of honor at her 1990 marriage to Andrew Cuomo.

Four years later, in the kind of symmetry that can seem to be fate, she was marrying Kerry’s brother. There was a Mass and then a civil ceremony on the deck of the Shannon, the Hudson Riverkeeper’s research boat.

The 40-year-old groom had divorced his first wife just a month before, and his new, 34-year-old wife was six months’ pregnant, but the Kennedy name was still the stuff of destiny. And, with Robert Kennedy, Jr., that destiny seemed to have reasserted itself. He had shaken off his troubles with drugs to become a champion of the environment. He seemed to be only continuing his ascension with his marriage to Richardson.

“A kind, sweet, generous loving woman,” a member of the clan was saying yesterday.

The first child was followed by three others and they settled into a big house in the well-heeled New York suburb of Bedford. It brimmed with the famously vigorous and boisterous life of fledgling Kennedys. They lived surrounded by woods and had their own pond. There was Mass on Sunday and Grace at meals and prayers before bed.

And Mary Richardson, now Kennedy, proved to be a great mother. A photograph taken around 2006 shows her sitting with her youngest, Aiden, then around 4, in her lap as she gazes lovingly at her husband and he gazes lovingly at her, the two of them surrounded by their three other children. They were Kennedys all, but mostly they seemed to be a family of their own, close-knit but spacious with affection. Mary Kennedy is said to have always made room for her husband’s two children from his first marriage.

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Reporter Michael Daly on the death of Mary Kennedy

For reasons that are for only her family to know—if indeed even they do—Mary Kennedy took a bad turn. A visitor to the home in early 2007 encountered a woman who seemed to be falling victim to anger or alcohol, or perhaps both.

For Robert Kennedy, Jr., it must have been particularly nightmarish. He had triumphed over substance abuse only for it now to threaten his wife. Matters seemed only to turn worse that year, to where this prince of a great Irish-American dynasty felt compelled to call 911 for help on St. Patrick’s Day.

“Responded to the Kennedy residence for a report from Mr. Kennedy that his wife might be trying to hurt herself,” states a Bedford Police report obtained by the Journal News, the local paper.

The report goes on to say that the responding cops “spoke to all the parties and it was determined that [there] must have been [an] error in communication between Mr. Kennedy and his wife.”

That September, Robert Kennedy sought to bring his wife to Northern Westchester Hospital Center for psychiatric help. She leapt from the car in a seemingly blind frenzy. “I remember she was acting kind of out of it,” a witness told the Journal News. "She was running into the street and flailing her arms around. He was trying to restrain her.”

The police responded, and the subsequent report quotes Kennedy as explaining he had been attempting to keep his wife from "injuring herself." She insisted that she neither needed nor wanted treatment, and the cops had no immediate cause to compel her. She was finally driven home by her husband.

She had no doubt sought to conquer drink as her husband had conquered alcohol, but being married into the Kennedys was not the same as being one. She did not seem to have that uber-sense of identity and purpose that had steadied Robert Kennedy, Jr. once he had kicked drugs and was back on a course.

Those dynastic dynamics were once again played out before the world at Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral in 2009. However Mary Kennedy was doing, she appeared to be very much living up to her married name as she accompanied her husband into the church. Her own troubles must have seemed to her to be very much those of a Mary named Richardson as the president of the United States extolled the greatness of this fallen chieftain and his clan.

A bright moment came in April of 2010, when Mary Kennedy invited reporters to view the numerous innovations and improvements she had made in her eco-conscious home. She is an architectural designer by profession, and she seemed to have recovered herself as she proudly showed off her work. Photos show her beaming happily as if life had become what she hoped for on that other April day aboard the Shannon, 16 years before.

Then came a May such as she most likely never could have foreseen. She called 911 early on the evening of May 10 to report a domestic disturbance. The police arrived to find her barefoot and in a white bathrobe.

“Mrs. Kennedy was visibly intoxicated and had great difficulty collecting her thoughts and articulating her reason for calling 911 for assistance,” stated a subsequent Bedford Police report obtained by the Journal News. “During the interviews, Mary Kennedy repeatedly stated that she had ongoing issues with her husband, Robert.”

The report adds that Mary Kennedy called 911 three times in 10 minutes later that night, and was all but unintelligible. She was not likely faring much better two days later, when her husband filed divorce papers.

The following day, another 911 call came from the house on South Bedford Road. The caller hung up before speaking and the police investigated. The cops found that Robert Kennedy had departed with the kids to a carnival at the nearby St. Patrick’s School and subsequently spoke with him.

“Mr. Kennedy stated that his wife was intoxicated and was acting irrational, so he took the children to the carnival to remove them from the situation,” the police report says.

Two days later, Mary Kennedy herself drove to the St. Patrick’s School carnival with a family dog. She came to the attention of police when her 2004 Volvo went over a curb. She failed several field sobriety tests and a breathalyzer put her blood alcohol level at .11. The legal limit is .08, and she was arrested for drunk driving. In the mug shot, she looks swollen-faced, weary and worn. The primary curse at work seems to be alcohol.

The arrests and the subsequent hearing drew considerable attention from the press. Mary eventually pleaded guilty in July to a reduced charge of driving while impaired. A number of Kennedys, along with Dan Aykroyd, wrote letters on her behalf. Kerry Kennedy interestingly used only her bridal buddy’s maiden name when writing, “When I look at my three daughters, my wish for them is that they are as blessed as I have been to have a companion, a confidante, a friend, like Mary Richardson."

Mary’s license was suspended with special exceptions for 90 days and she was fined $500 and ordered to undergo psychiatric care. “I don’t want to see you here again,” the judge was quoted saying in news accounts.

A month later, she was back in court, having been stopped for driving 82 mph on the way to a yoga class. Yoga had been allowed as an exception to the suspension. She had been found to be under the influence of prescription medication and was arrested for driving while impaired. The charges were dropped when it turned out the drugs had been prescribed by her physician.

At 1:35 pm on Wednesday, there was one more 911 call from the house on South Bedford Road. Numerous sources and news reports say that this time the responding officers are said to have discovered Mary Richardson Kennedy hanging in a barn behind the main house. They are said to have lowered her and done all they could to resuscitate her, but she was now beyond help. She is said to have left a note.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday, a grim Robert Kennedy, Jr. was seen arriving at the house. The Kennedy family released a statement that spoke of the Mary Richardson Kennedy who had beamed so brightly when showing off the home she had transformed with abilities beyond the marital and the maternal.

"A tremendously gifted architect and a pioneer and relentless advocate of green design who enhanced her cutting edge, energy efficient creations with exquisite taste and style," the family said of her.

The Richardsons also released a statement, speaking of the woman whose four children knew her to be first and foremost, Mom.

"Our heart goes out to her children who she loved without reservation," the Richardson clan said.