05.18.12

Mary Kennedy’s Last Days: Distress From RFK Divorce, New Girlfriend

Despairing over her pending divorce and her estranged husband’s new public romance with actress Cheryl Hines, the heartbroken mother of four took a turn for the worse toward her sad end. Plus, read Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz on how children deal with a parent's suicide.

The funeral for Mary Richardson Kennedy will be held Saturday at a Bedford, N.Y., church that is also holding a weeklong annual carnival that has long been a springtime rite.

The four children who will go with their father into St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church had also gone with him to the St. Patrick’s Carnival in 2010, a day after he filed divorce papers.

Robert Kennedy Jr. had been seeking refuge for his kids in the games and rides, saying their pained and furious mother had become intoxicated and irrational. Mary drove to the carnival on her own two days later and was arrested for drunk driving after a cop there saw her 2004 Volvo go up on a curb.

But she had not been ready to accept that her marriage was ending along with that year’s carnival. She would not have become Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s second wife back in 1994 if she thought that she would become just another ex. She must have told herself that with her it would be different, that she was different, so different that she could change him, that he would finally find a balance all these years after his life had been upended by his father’s assassination.

And Mary Richardson Kennedy seems to have still been clinging to that hope seven months after her husband initiated his second divorce. She went ahead and attended another annual event, this the  “Celebrity Skifest” at the Deer Valley ski resort in Utah. A photo taken at this benefit for the Waterkeeper Alliance on the first weekend of December 2010 shows her cozy-close and radiant at her husband’s right side, smiling as if all were what she hoped.

But there were other people in the photo, TV news guy Bob Woodruff on her right, the singer KT Tunstall on her husband’s left. And, on Tunstall’s right was the actress Cheryl Hines.

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AP Photo (4)

Hines was also in the process of divorcing a spouse, Paul Young. Her distance from Robert F. Kennedy in the photo seems to have been an effort to spare his wife’s feelings.

Just how close Hines really was to Robert Kennedy Jr. became increasingly clear over the months that followed. The gossip pages buzzed about their relationship and said that Hines was helping Robert Kennedy Jr.’s daughter by his first marriage get started as an actress.

In a photo taken at the 2012 Fishermen’s Ball benefit for Riverkeeper, Robert Kennedy Jr. stood alone with Hines, his arm around her, both of them smiling as if now they had it right.

Nobody could say they were running around or cheating. And Hines was not some hot young trophy beauty. She was a mature woman who had been cast as Larry David’s wife on TV.

To a coroner, the heart is just a chambered pump and the question of what might have prompted this woman to hang herself was beyond his purview.

A friend says that Mary Richardson Kennedy saw the photos of the new, all-too-real-life couple and that, in her despair, she began to relinquish hope of her husband ever coming back. She was coming to realize that she was ending up as the second ex after all, that she was not so different, that he was not so changed.

She knew that drinking eroded any chance that she could just keep going on her own or maybe even find somebody new. She began going to Alcoholics Anonymous and struggled to stay sober.

This year’s St. Patrick’s Carnival opened on the Tuesday after Mother’s Day. Had the family still been together, they could have all gone to join the rest of the parish in marking the start of another spring.

Early Wednesday afternoon, she was alone save for the housekeeper who is said by news reports to have found her body in the barn. Hanging can trigger a reflex known as vagal inhibition, which can instantly stop the heart. But the autopsy Thursday determined that Mary Richardson Kennedy died from pressure around the neck  that obstructed both her airway and the flow of blood to her brain.

 “The cause of death was put at asphyxiation due to hanging,” said a spokeswoman for the Westchester County Medical Examiner.

Of course, the coroner was only talking in the most immediate and concrete terms. To a coroner, the heart is just a chambered pump and the question of what might have prompted this woman to hang herself was beyond his purview. He was not speaking of the heart as we speak of the core of us, as something that soars or breaks at moments of rapture or despair.

He could say how she died, but not why.

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Robert Kennedy Jr. told The New York Times that his wife had long been struggling with depression that predated their marital difficulties.

“A lot of times, I don’t know how she made it through the day,” he was quoted saying. “She was in a lot of agony for a lot of her life.”

His sister, Kerry Kennedy, who has called Mary Richardson Kennedy her right arm, told the Times that her friend fought mightily “to overcome that horrible disease … fighting, fighting, fighting with every ounce of her being to beat back those demons.”

Others who knew her wonder if the demons were not just her own. What is certain is that any recriminations will only make everything harder for her children.

On Saturday, the children will go with their father and with their mother’s coffin into St. Patrick’s Church. Msgr. George Thompson will face a task beyond all doctors, bringing healing after a death. He is sure to tell the mourners that in the absence of answers there is still faith.

In the afternoon, the St. Patrick’s Carnival is scheduled to reopen and luckier kids will add to their store of happy memories. The carnival is scheduled to close Sunday, but it will return next year for those fortunate enough to see another spring.