When Ted Kennedy’s widow takes the stage Thursday night at Manhattan’s 92nd Y, to sit with her stepson Ted Kennedy Jr. for a joint interview with Katie Couric about the late senator’s best-selling memoir True Compass, the former Victoria Reggie will be doing something against the grain: lingering in the spotlight.
The 55-year-old Mrs. Kennedy—a banking and bankruptcy attorney, partner in a Chicago law firm, and the daughter of influential Louisiana Democrats and longtime Kennedy family political allies when she became the senator’s second wife in 1992—is no shrinking violet. A raven-haired Southern charmer with a quick wit and sharp mind (and “beautiful hazel eyes,” according to her husband’s memoir), she “is one tough cookie,” says an admiring family insider.
“I think she can do pretty much what she wants to do,” Kerry says. “If she wants …be in elected office or be engaged in foreign affairs in some way—there are any number of things that Vicki is capable of doing.
But during 17 years of marriage to one of the most famous men on the planet, she preferred to stay behind the scenes, watching his back. Vicki, as she likes to be called, was conspicuously absent from Tuesday’s Democratic primary election in Massachusetts to fill the seat Teddy held for 46 years. There is ample senatorial precedent for a wife replacing her deceased husband. It was a race Sen. Kennedy would have loved for her to make, and one she’d likely have taken in a landslide.
“She obviously could have run very easily for the job, but she opted for something different, and I understand that,” says close friend John Kerry, who with Ted Kennedy’s death from a malignant brain tumor in August became the senior senator from Massachusetts. “She never had a vacillating moment about it. She was just instantaneous. I remember asking her, and she said, ‘Oh, no, not a chance.’”
Kerry tells me: “She’s a very smart lawyer, very politically astute, very committed on the issues and savvy about the issues. She’s got the whole package. But I can’t imagine coming out of what she came out for the last year and a half and suddenly immersing yourself in an active political campaign. She needed to take the time to figure out her life a little bit. To have been caretaking and managing the complicated medical issues, to be with Teddy every second, was just draining. Not to mention the emotional loss of your partner and your lover and your husband and your rock.”
• Samuel P. Jacobs: The Woman Who’ll Likely Take Teddy’s SeatVicki insisted to friends and family that there could be only one Senator Kennedy—and that was Teddy. The idea of coming home from a day’s work in the Senate, and not having him to talk to about it, was inconceivable to her. What’s more, she was struggling with grief. “It’s got to be most difficult for her to wake up every morning in a house where, for a period in her life, the sun was shining through her window, and then all of a sudden, the sun isn’t there,” says Boston Herald columnist Mike Barnicle, a Kennedy family friend who had dinner with Vicki the Friday after Thanksgiving—poignantly enough, a night when she and the senator annually hosted a neighborhood party in Hyannis Port for local officials, emergency medical technicians, cops, volunteers, and most anyone else. “It takes a while,” Barnicle says.
Back in June 1991, Vicki Reggie was a recently divorced mother of two small children when she started dating the legendary senator, who was 22 years older, long split up from his first wife, Joan, and coming off a tabloid-ready, hard-drinking bachelor lifestyle that had been sparking rumors and concern in Washington and beyond. A few months earlier, Kennedy had been a key player in the boozy night that resulted in the sensational Palm Beach rape trial of his nephew William Smith, who was eventually acquitted. Although she’d met the youngest son of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy through her parents, JFK loyalists Judge Edmund and Doris Reggie, and had spent a college summer break as an intern in his office, Vicki didn’t speak to Teddy at length until her parents invited him to the Washington dinner party celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.
The senator showed up on Vicki’s doorstep alone, and the scene described in True Compass is pure Bogie and Bacall.
“What’s wrong? Couldn’t you get a date?” Vicki teased.
“I thought you’d be my date,” the senator fired back.
“Dream on, Kennedy,” Vicki answered.
They were married a year later.
“She adored him, he was the love of her life, and she was the love of his,” says Vicki’s friend Heather Campion, a Boston bank executive and longtime member of Sen. Kennedy’s inner circle. “She’s unbelievably savvy and has a great read on people. And this is what enabled her to be his partner in every way, both personally and professionally.”
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut—one of Teddy’s closest friends and for a time his wing man in some decidedly unsenatorial misbehavior—goes even further.
“I don’t have any doubt whatsoever that she not only saved his life physically, but she saved his life in many ways,” Dodd tells me. “I think after 1980 it was a bit of a wandering, you know. The presidential ambitions had fallen on rough shoals and it was, What do you do next? It was a bit of a free fall. Everybody ends up in one of those at some point, but when it came to Teddy, it was far more of a public event. And she really brought stability, and gave him a direction, and convinced him he had a lot to offer, a lot to give. I think she had an awful lot to do with his success and helping him to make the contribution he did here in the Senate. In a sense, his most successful legislative years were probably his last 10.”
The 65-year-old Dodd, who in the 1970s used to party with Bianca Jagger and Carrie Fisher, also entered a period of domestic tranquility in the 1990s—marrying a Republican Senate staffer named Jackie Clegg, a Mormon from Utah, and, not coincidentally, following his old friend into a life of marital bliss. At a dinner in Ireland where the Dodds sat with the Kennedys, he gave a memorable toast “to the most important woman in my life, the woman who has changed my life…Vicki Kennedy!” It was half in jest, wholly in earnest.
Vicki is universally credited for helping the politically damaged Kennedy, tarnished by lurid media coverage of Palm Beach and other ill-advised exploits, to win a tough 1994 re-election race against an up-and-coming liberal Republican named Mitt Romney. According to Kennedy family insiders, she put a firm hand on the tiller, imposing a reassuring order and discipline on the senator’s daily life in and out of the Senate, and fiercely protected him from potentially harmful distractions, even requiring Kennedy nieces and nephews to check with her first before visiting Uncle Teddy.
She forbade touch football games on Teddy’s lawn in Hyannis Port while the senator was trying to take a nap, an unheard-of edict that was greeted by grousing, and she required blood relatives to ask permission before making use of the property, something they’d never felt the need of before. All this, understandably, did not make Vicki universally popular with the large, aggressive, fabulously entitled family of which her husband was the patriarch. But it helped bring sanity to a life that, before her arrival, had been spinning out of control.
“Not to be overly dramatic, but his life was in play,” says a family insider, “and somebody had to set boundaries, and hold to them. They were necessary for him to survive, and Vicki set those boundaries. That’s a process that’s not easy, and one that requires a lot of toughness.”
Constructing a blended family of sorts with herself, her son and daughter, and her husband’s three grown children—Teddy Jr., Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, and Kara—required a different asset: the diplomatic skills of tact and sensitivity. Vicki has managed to forge a friendly relationship; they all spent Thanksgiving together, along with Caroline Kennedy, Ed Schlossberg, and their three children. She regularly spends quality time in Washington with Kara, also a mother of two, and recently stayed with Ted Jr. and his family in Connecticut.
For the moment, Vicki is preparing for life without Teddy. She has put their $6 million Greek Revival mansion in Washington up for sale and purchased a comfortable townhouse nearby—which she’s planning to renovate top to bottom. She is seeing friends, including the president and Michelle Obama, who regularly call and have invited her to the White House for dinner, and last week she accepted a presidential appointment to the board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She also has been active in the lay leadership of the Catholic Church. In the meantime, she regularly reads to the D.C. elementary school student that her husband mentored.
A self-described multitasker, Vicki Kennedy is looking for ways to carry on with Teddy’s legacy—planning to become more active in the Boston-based Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, a center for academic and practical education on its namesake’s favorite legislative body, and exploring how she might use her legal skills to promote their shared ideals, such as gun control. She might even try her hand at business. Although she’s financially more than well-off, retirement is out of the question.
“I think she can do pretty much what she wants to do,” Kerry says. “If she wants to take an appointive position or run a department one day, be in elected office or be engaged in foreign affairs in some way—there are any number of things that Vicki is capable of doing. She has been so engaged in all of those kinds of issues on an active basis with Teddy and through her own interests. I wouldn’t push her in any specific direction. I would encourage her to be happy and take the time to take care of herself.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.