One Year Later

05.16.13

New Questions Arise About Mary Richardson Kennedy’s Suicide

A year after Richardson’s suicide, family and friends bitterly feud: was she plagued by mental illness or tormented by her husband, Robert Kennedy? Nancy Collins reports on new details.

“Was I surprised that Mary killed herself? No, because she threatened so often,” a friend recalls about Mary Richardson, the wife of Robert Kennedy Jr., who slipped her head through a hangman’s noose a year ago today at the age of 52. “A few days before she died, a friend who had dinner with Mary and the kids said, ‘She seems to be doing great. And I just looked at her. ‘You don’t get it. Mary is ill, not getting the right care, it’s ending. I pray that I’m wrong but this is going to play out one of two ways: She’ll kill Bobby or herself, and the greater fear, will she be alone or drive off a cliff with the kids in the car?’ ”

“There’s no blame to be laid here,” adds someone familiar with the Kennedy divorce case. “This is not about what Bobby Kennedy nor Mary Richardson did or did not do. She was a beautiful, charming, enthusiastic, devoted, loving mother, but Mary had serious demons that she could not get under control.”

On the road to dying there are many little deaths. And so it was with Mary Richardson in the weeks leading up to her death on the Bedford estate that she shared with environmental lawyer and activist Robert Kennedy and their four children. In its aftermath, her friends still ponder when and why she made her fatal decision. “She’d been thinking about it,” an insider muses, “practicing. The day that she died … there was a coil of rope lying on her bed … and, under the covers, a bandana, showing how to tie major nautical knots—including a hangman’s noose. Tying the perfect knot would have appealed to Mary’s extreme sense of order.”

The story of Mary Richardson Kennedy is a tale of two Marys, one told by those who lived with her, the other by those who did not, for whom she was ”the life of the party,” says one of her closest friends, “the first person on anyone’s list, at home in Studio 54 or a Honduran village, hugely curious, always reading books, writing diaries, keeping up with friends, organizing the next event. In every way, brilliant, beloved, great friends, Mary won the lottery but, long before Bobby, there were these times of devastating, debilitating pain.”

Though her death blindsided most, for her family and a handful of confidantes, it was the tragic culmination of years of threats—apparently, not always taken seriously by her five siblings. “I know you think Mary’s going to kill herself,” her brother, Thomas Richardson, replied to Kennedy’s 1997 email outlining their sister’s latest suicide threats and suggesting an intervention, “but I guarantee she won’t. I may regret those words one day, but that’s how I feel.”

In the spring of 2011, however, beaten down by a fractious two-year divorce battle, during which she lost temporary custody of her children, the brunette beauty was fearfully facing the imminent loss of the marriage, family, and man who had defined her for 18 years. “Mary never wanted a divorce,” says Richardson’s matrimonial attorney, Peter Bienstock of Hennessey and Bienstock, revealing details of his client’s divorce and custody proceeding for the first time. “”Until the day she died, I think that Mary loved Robert, truly believing that he was coming back.”

Whatever the state of Richardson’s private darkness, it was invariably eclipsed by her public glow. “Mary combined that RFK/roll-up-your-sleeves/get-the-job done ethos, with Jackie’s otherworldly elegance, including the breathy voice,” recalls Michael Mailer, who lived with Richardson before her marriage to Kennedy. She was ethereal but not fragile—fearless, really, with amazing optimism and fortitude.”

So persuasive was Richardson’s public persona that when her yoga instructor, Colleen Breeckner, called some of Richardson’s friends four months before she died, saying that she feared her student was suicidal, “nobody believed that she’d kill herself,” she says. “But it was frightening. I saw a woman crumbling inside.”

Though much has been written, and more whispered, about Richardson’s troubling behavior during her final months, the publication of Kennedy’s 2011 divorce affidavit, part of which appeared in Newsweek, following her death, seemed particularly unsparing to many. Portraying Bobby as the alarmed family man, fleeing to protect himself and his children from their depressed, alcoholic, physically abusive, suicidal mother, the document infuriated Richardson’s family, who publicly dismissed his “vindictive lies, proof of the unbelievable emotional and psychological abuse that Mary endured during the last years of her life, and now in death.”

Equally upset, dozens of Richardson’s closest confidantes have also spoken with The Daily Beast. “For five years, beginning in 2007, I quietly represented Mary,” says Bienstock, “but when Bobby’s affidavit showed up in print—we thought the court papers were sealed—that was beyond the pale. We loved Mary and the notion that this trash was put out there, for her children’s friends and teachers to read, I could no longer hold back.”

The debate came to a head in the library of the Kennedys’ Bedford estate the night that Richardson died. Confronting Kennedy, Nan Richardson is said to have angrily announced: “You killed my sister.” “It’s unconscionable of the Richardsons to say that,” responds a confidante of both families. “Four kids lost their mother and Bobby didn’t cause her death. They may think he’s an asshole but don’t publicly say that he’s responsible for Mary killing herself. That wasn’t what was going on between them.”

“Mary was brainwashed,” adds another Richardson friend, “believing everything that Bobby said. And he was leading her on. He might have been with Cheryl [Hines, his girlfriend during Richardson’s final years], but he was still giving Mary enough encouragement to stay hopeful ... Bobby did everything he could to demean and hurt Mary.”

“I understand why people say that it’s Bobby’s fault,” says John Hoving, a social worker and Kennedy friend. “What Mary projected to the world was not someone with an illness. She kept most people at arm’s length, giving the impression that she had it all together. But I lived it. There was no way that this woman was not very, very sick.”

Bienstock, meanwhile, appears to consider both points of view. “Mary was a fabulous mother and, like all of us, a flawed adult whose problems stemmed from her husband’s conduct and her drinking, caused by specific stimuli, with Bobby—who could anger, frustrate, belittle her into taking a drink—as provocateur,” the attorney continues. “Robert could really push her buttons; make her happy if she thought they’d reconcile, sad if he said they weren’t. She was totally vulnerable to him”—and, ultimately, to herself as well.

* * *

In many ways, the marriage of Mary Richardson and Bobby Kennedy was the perfect storm, two people seemingly destined, she who always wanted to be a Kennedy, he who made her one; a relationship, as it hauntingly played out, both fated and doomed. “When they got together,’ recalls Kerry Kennedy, “I thought, There aren’t two people more perfectly suited with so much in common: brilliance, creativity, concern for the wider world, love for large families, our family. They’ll bring out the best in each other.”

Though Richardson was raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, where her father—who died when Mary was 12—was a professor at Hoboken’s Stevens Institute of Technology and her mother, a public-school English teacher, she told people, including her husband, that she’d grown up in Vermont and Princeton, inferring that her father taught at the elite university in New Jersey.

“Mary always felt misunderstood and judged by her family,” says a childhood friend, “always longing to get away from them, especially her mother, whom friends say drank and Richardson felt was not supportive.

“When her father went into the hospital with colon cancer,” recalls another woman who knew Richardson for 16 years, “she told me that they never saw him again, dying a couple weeks later without anyone getting to say goodbye. And when her mother was dying, 90 minutes away, I don’t remember Mary visiting her either, even though, she sobbed uncontrollably at her funeral.”

Once at Vermont's Putney School with Kerry, Richardson began her love affair with the Kennedys, with whom she spent most holidays. “Mary was always with the Kennedys,” says a friend. “Unless there was a crisis, she never had anything to do with the Richardsons.” A friend recalls asking then Brown University–bound Kerry and Mary where they saw themselves in 25 years: “Kerry [said], ‘With a couple kids in a house in a city,’ while Mary, in her dreamy way, goes: ‘That sounds really nice. If I could just have a room in Kerry’s house, that would be so great.’ She wanted to be part of that family so badly.”

In 1993 her hopes were realized when Robert Kennedy Jr., then separated from first wife, Emily Black, ran into Richardson at a New York art gallery. Though the two had worked together earlier, when Richardson had helped Kennedy with a book project, this time “It was like seeing her for the first time,” he is known to have commented; “the scales fell off my eyes”—and his heart.

The popular, single architect at Manhattan’s prestigious Parrish Hadley Design firm, who hung in SoHo and ran with Andy Warhol, was in her urban element. In any room, “Mary was the most striking and confident, the girl who walked on air,” recalls a friend, unaware of the crippling insecurity behind her bravura. For the first time, Kennedy fell wildly, romantically in love.

In April 1994, three weeks after Kennedy divorced his first wife, he married Mary, already pregnant with first son Conor. “Mary and Bobby looked great together,” recalls a friend. “Despite staff, she cooked a lot, did things with the kids, who were great. I thought, Bobby’s finally found this wonderful woman.” In fact, Richardson “fell so madly in love,” sums up a longtime observer, “becoming so emotionally invested in Bobby, that she lost sight of a life outside that marriage.”

“Dogs and kids, that was Mary’s house,” laughs a frequent visitor. “All she ever wanted was a healthy marriage and family,” who looked to her for stability. “Carpooling, doctors, school,” adds Bienstock, “if somebody had a soccer game, Mary was always there.”

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Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times, via Redux

Kennedy, meanwhile, home on weekends, traveled constantly during the week for work, leaving his wife “to manage the house,” says a frequent visitor, “and discipline the children, which he worried she couldn’t do. Mary tried, but the kids would call Bobby, complaining, blaming everything on her when he got home. Sometimes, she felt like a single mother.”

“Robert,” surmises Bienstock, “wanted to be the Disney Dad, the skiing, white-water-rafting, vacation Dad with Mary taking care of the mundane, which she did.”

Immediately, however, bigger problems arose. Within three months, the couple was in marriage counseling. Not only was Richardson at odds with Kennedy’s two children, Bobby Jr. and Kick, from his first marriage, she also, according to press reports, began acting out, targeting him specifically, flying into almost nightly, rage-filled, verbally abusive tirades, threatening suicide and picking fights, often physical, on her part—a side of Richardson that most never saw.

“Mary’s was a classic mental illness,” maintains Kerry Kennedy, Richardson’s best friend since the pair were boarding-school roommates at Putney, “which made her so unlike herself—kind, generous, a wonderful mother, perfect friend, force for good on our earth—that it was as if she’d been invaded by a foreign body. Every time I saw it happening, it scared me. I never held her accountable because that was her disease, not who she was as a person, and we all knew it.”

Indeed, according to documents seen exclusively by The Daily Beast that delineated Richardson’s mental-health issues from early adolescence through her first year of marriage, Richardson, throughout her life, was waging a cyclical battle with her own mental health—ongoing feelings of depression, self-loathing, and low self-esteem. In fact, the surprise is not that she died so young, but that she willed herself to stay alive so long. Early on, unable to handle or explain her feelings, she simply quit talking for 10 days. At 22, her anorexia, diagnosed as a teenager, landed her in Boston’s McLean Hospital for three months. “During the bad episodes,” recalls a close friend, “Mary always talked about suicide.”

At 25, an initial suicide attempt, a plastic bag over her head, was thwarted when she panicked as she began running out of air; a year later, in August 1986, there was another failed attempt when Richardson vomited up the 200 barbiturates that she had swallowed. Afterward, she continued binging and purging, accompanied by regular use of alcohol and drugs, prescription and otherwise, for three years, until 1989 when, through AA, she managed to stop everything until 2005.

Richardson—and many who knew her—never bought her 2009 diagnosis of borderline personality disorder by specialist in the field Dr. John Gunderson. But Kennedy felt Richardson exhibited classic signs of the personality disorder that produces intense and unstable interpersonal relationships; anorexia; chronic feelings of emptiness; fear of abandonment; idealization and devaluation of herself and others; intense, inappropriate anger, most often aimed at Kennedy, he has claimed; a labile personality, capable of instantaneously “switching” from rage to euphoria and recurrent suicidal gestures or threats. (Ten percent of borderlines kill themselves.)

“In two seconds flat,” says Hoving, “Mary could flip from anger and rage into white-picket-fence mode, put on her Martha Stewart face and convince anybody, including her own family, that she was in control of her faculties, environment, and personal matters. It was always jarring.”

In many ways, the marriage was a perfect storm, a relationship, as it hauntingly played out, both fated and doomed.

“Mary never acted out in front of other people,” he continues, “and for years Bobby never told anybody until finally, wanting someone to hear what he was dealing with, he would put Mary on the speakerphone.”

“When Mary was raging,” adds another, “this calm came over Bobby. I never saw him raise his voice—which doesn’t mean he wasn’t furious inside. But on balance he was remarkably patient and kind.

Not everyone agrees, including the Richardsons, who maintain that their sister’s suicide was fueled more by angst over Kennedy’s womanizing than by her mental problems. Another Richardson friend concurs. “Bobby knew how to keep Mary off balance,” she says. “He wield[ed] power over her using emotional ping-pong, idealizing her one minute, putting her down, the next. Mary hung on to the positive moment hoping to get another. And if not, maybe she could figure out how to get it back, always striving to please."

Early on, Richardson began hearing rumors of her husband’s philandering. (“Philandering isn’t a sufficient word,” sniffs Bienstock. “Even he’d cop to that.”). Richardson countered, says a friend, “with unconditional love, constantly protecting, praising her husband.” “It was always, ‘Bobby, Bobby, Bobby,’” adds another. “He was a god.” Even when Kennedy came clean about other women, “Mary justified [it by saying] that he was an addictive personality,” adds a close friend, “with a disease, but in her heart she knew.”

Kennedy had mentioned divorce previously, but on Father’s Day in 2006, he finally told his wife that he was getting a divorce and left—returning two weeks later when Richardson refused to let him see the children. From then on, “every time that Bobby tried to leave,” says a Kennedy insider, “Mary would threaten to commit suicide. He didn’t want his kids thinking that their mother killed herself because their father left.”

Richardson refused to consider divorce, quietly hiring Bienstock a year later. “Mary wanted to prevent a divorce, not get one,” he says. “So for several years—she never agreed on settlement terms—my job was to keep it from happening.”

On that same Father’s Day, Kennedy told Richardson that, feeling “unwillingly married,” he was going to be unfaithful. “Bobby said ‘You won’t divorce me,’” says one close to the situation, “‘but we are not married. I’m going to see other women’—not the best way to be helpful, but he was miserable at home. Bobby’s complicated, got his own issues; I’m not sure he had the emotional skills to deal with it another way.”

Eventually, he settled in with Cheryl Hines, albeit discretely, until the summer of 2011 when, much to Richardson’s chagrin, the pair started showing up publicly. “He thought that seeing Cheryl and him openly together,” says the same friend, “maybe Mary would accept that he had moved on.”

On May 12, 2010, Kennedy filed for divorce. Three days later, jumping a curb at a school carnival, Richardson picked up a DWI (ultimately downgraded to a motor vehicle violation). As her marriage was falling apart, Richardson turned to alcohol. “Mary drank to mask her pain, wipe out her feelings, and sleep,” says a confidante, “not get drunk.” In fact, “until age 48, she never had a problem with alcohol, but in the latter years of her marriage, that changed.”

“Until her last five years, I never saw Mary even have a glass of wine,” says a social friend, echoing a universal observation. “So for her to go from that to drinking bottles a day, hiding them in her closet, was astonishing. It wasn’t just Bobby; it was her mother’s death that made her start again. Eventually, it took over and she became a full-blown alcoholic.”

* * *

As paralyzing to Richardson as losing her husband was losing his family, with whom she had become so intertwined that Ethel Kennedy, recalls Mailer, “referred to Mary as her fifth daughter.” “Mary very much liked being a Kennedy,” says Bienstock, “and was extraordinarily upset over how badly that she felt she was treated at Hyannis Port as things progressed.” As Richardson told a friend, “Once you’re no longer a Kennedy, they don’t want you around anymore.” (Kerry Kennedy, who says she invited Richardson to live with her postdivorce, rejects this claim).

By the second half of 2010, Richardson was in free fall. In July, she checked in for alcohol rehab at the Canyon in Malibu but, upon returning, quickly relapsed, telling one of the children that she wanted to kill herself. “Whether threatening suicide, being intoxicated in their presence, or over-sharing details of her relationship with her husband,” says someone close to the court case, “Mary didn’t realize how damaging her actions were to the children. They, in turn, were very protective of their mother. Never angry. They adored both parents—who were trying to do the best they could with what they had.”

“While Mary cherished, desperately wanted to be, those kids’ mother,” adds Bienstock, “she could ... be sober or not, depending on what came out of Bobby’s mouth. Everyone warned Mary that her conduct was jeopardizing her rights, which the court eventually demonstrated by reducing them.”

That happened in January 2011, when a matrimonial judge determined that, due to Mary’s erratic behavior, it was no longer safe for the children to live with her. (Kennedy never filed, nor asked for, permanent custody; in fact, he was berated by the court for letting the kids remain with their mother as long as he did.)

Bienstock has his own view. “Robert wanted the divorce over,” says the attorney, “and, manipulating her, he engineered temporary custody for himself as a means of forcing Mary to end it.” So, in January, while Richardson returned again to Malibu and the Canyon for another rehab stint, Kennedy was given full, temporary custody of their children. Richardson was devastated. “Depression and drinking didn’t kill Mary,” laments a friend. “It was having her kids taken away.”

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Mary Richardson Kennedy at an event in December 2009. (Michael N. Todaro/FilmMagic)

“The system is Kafka-esque,” declares Kerry. “Here’s Mary, teetering, possibly suicidal. If she admits that she is, the court takes her kids away and her therapist has to commit her, calling police if she won’t go voluntarily. So she was stuck. If she saved herself, she risked losing her children—her greatest fear.”

Suddenly, Richardson, who had thrived on meeting her children’s every need, could only see them a few hours on Sunday and two days a week after school in the presence of her caretaker and housekeeper. Moreover, she was now living alone in a big, empty house. Heartsick, depressed, agonizingly lonely, she would disappear for days behind her locked bedroom doors. Six weeks before her suicide, yoga instructor  Breeckner visited Richardson in Bedford, “where I found Mary, sitting alone in the dark, crying.”

In March, however, determined to get her children back, Richardson rallied, immersing herself in AA, attending meetings and revitalizing her yoga practice, more upbeat than she had been in months. “Mary was still being hammered pretty hard,” recalls an adviser, “but [except for an Easter setback], she was sober. Her pain was so deep … that suicide was always a risk. But I certainly didn’t expect it if she was not drinking, which was the case the day that she died.”

Friends are divided as to when—or if—Richardson had a plan to take her life, though it is known that she asked the caretaker, three weeks earlier, to buy a rope, ostensibly for a crafts project. In the last week of her life, however, Richardson, seemed to methodically arrange to spend time with each of her four children, whom she hadn’t seen since her Easter tumble off the wagon had made the court take away her visitation rights. On Friday, with permission from Kennedy, she attended parents’ weekend at Massachusetts’s Deerfield Academy, where she sat in on Conor’s classes and had dinner with his friends. On Saturday, she similarly showed up for Finn’s parents’ weekend at Vermont’s Stratton Mountain School. And on Easter Sunday morning she attended mass with daughter Kyra, later in the day briefly seeing 11-year-old Aiden when he was brought over to swim by Kennedy who, honoring a court order forbidding the pair to be in each other’s homes, remained in the driveway while Richardson stayed upstairs.

***

Still, Richardson’s sadness on Monday, says someone who spoke with her that day, was palpable. And that night her slide toward suicide gathered steam when two visitors, including a Kennedy sister-in-law, according to accounts of the Bedford police report, showed up at the Kennedy estate, where someone made it clear that “if she [Richardson] didn’t take a certain action”it’s unclear what—she would lose everything including permanent custody of her children. And she believed the messenger. “The pressure on Mary,” says a friend, “was now more than it had ever been before.”

Despondent, Richardson spent Tuesday holed up in her bedroom alone. “It was a very bad day for Mary,” says the same friend. That evening, Richardson reached out to her husband for what would be their last phone conversation. As Kennedy would report at her funeral, Richardson told him that “everything was her fault” and “that she needed him to take care of her.” Then Mary, according to someone familiar with the situation, offered a bizarre solution to the couple’s divorce/custody dilemma: offering that it was “best for the kids,” Richardson suggested that Kennedy, Hines, and she live together (harkening back to her girlhood wish of having a room in Kerry’s house).

On the last day of her life, Wednesday, May 16, at 7:53 a.m., Richardson again called Kennedy, who did not pick up. (Four more attempts to reach him also went unanswered.) Between 7:30 and 8 Richardson is said to have left a phone message for the gardener that she’d see him later about some weeds. Driving off in her Volvo shortly thereafter, she returned, unseen, parking near the barn where her body was later found.

By 10 a.m., when Richardson hadn’t emerged from her bedroom, the housekeeper and caretaker started searching the house and property. Calling Kennedy, they told him that despite finding Richardson’s cellphone, driver’s license, glasses, and car with keys intact, she seemed to have vanished. Rushing over, he checked the attic before tracking down Shannon White, Richardson’s AA sponsor, at an 11 a.m., Armonk AA meeting. When he told her that he was afraid that his missing wife might have “hurt herself,” White said, according to the police report, that didn’t make sense because of “the sobriety work Mary had been doing with AA the last couple months. I’d watched her grow hopeful, blossom before my eyes.”

Back at the house, while Kennedy scoured the woods, White and the caretaker headed toward the barn, which had already been checked twice. Walking in first, the caretaker suddenly asked, ‘What’s that over there?” and spotted Mary, in black gym clothes and sandals, “suspended” slightly above eye level, “from an overhead beam by a rope, neatly knotted,” White reported, “nine times around her neck.” Her face was tranquil, her hands, palms facing outward, lodged between her neck and rope, almost as if attempting to pull it away.

Minutes later, Kennedy showed up, and ignoring White’s admonishment—“Don’t go in there”—brushed past. Hugging Richardson, he wept, attempting to lift her down, until, realizing that she was dead, he stepped back.

The news of Richardson’s suicide astonished her legions of friends if only because her devout Catholicism forbids it. And then there were the children, now facing a lifetime of emotional confusion because of their mother’s unexplained actions.

“I knew there wasn’t going to be happy ending, the way things were going before her death,” says John Hoving, “but Mary’s suicide was a conscious decision ... She could no longer see the light. And the saddest part is that this beautiful woman, who was the light of her children’s lives, could not see that life was worth living just for them.”

Texted the news in court, Bienstock was dumbstruck. “Mary had been getting more labile and desperate,” he recalls, still puzzled, “but I didn’t think it would ever come to that. She did not want her marriage to end and that reality was slowly, progressively coming. Bobby and his surrogates were trying to persuade her that she was definitely going to lose the kids, and, unfortunately, she believed them over us.”(Kennedy’s camp denies this.)

“When Mary lost Bobby and then her kids,” says a close friend about Richardson’s possible motive, “… she got scared. If she wasn’t the perfect wife and mother that she projected herself to be, then what was she?”

“Bobby loved Mary,” muses an old friend of both. “When she died, we lost a part of him. I see his sadness, that he misses her, the connection that they once had. They were best friends. Even if the marriage didn’t work, he wanted a relationship.

“I don’t know if he’ll find that chemistry again,” he continues. “Mary fit in, could talk to kings or bartenders, mold herself to any situation. But like with everybody else, there was a dark side that could take over—and did.”

Correction: John Hoving is a social worker and Kennedy friend. This article earlier misstated his first name and profession.