ME AND CHAPPAQUIDDICK – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I wrote a blog about famous people that I have had connections with throughout my life. People like Gil Scott Heron, Chevy Chases’ father and brother, Celeste Holm, Erica Jong.

I was reading a review of the new movie about the tragedy involving Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick in 1969. I suddenly realized that I had worked with someone intimately involved with that story!

From the fall of 1971 to March of 1972, I worked at the New York State campaign headquarters for Edmund Muskie For President. The office was in midtown Manhattan and was run by a dynamic woman named Esther Newberg. She was a tough cookie. Very decisive, effective, organized and politically savvy. She had previously worked for the equally tough New York politician and women’s movement spokesperson, Bella Abzug.

Edmund Muskie

Esther had the responsibility of meeting with all the county leaders in the state and lining up commitments for Ed Muskie. She also ran the PR operations and supervised her New York Volunteer Coordinator, which was me.

I recruited eager local democratic volunteers and came up with things for them to do. We helped with frequent mass mailings (no computers) and with phone calls mobilizing other volunteers and politically active young people. I organized political events, usually involving a speaker, refreshments and lots of socializing. I think I may have done more to promote dating in New York City than Muskie’s political ambitions there.

Esther, on the right, in the late 1960’s

I have remembered Esther all these years. She was a person who made an impression. So when I read the review of “Chappaquiddick”, I was surprised to learn that a woman who had worked in Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign alongside Mary Jo Kopechne (who died in the Chappaquiddick accident), was no other than Esther Newberg. I googled her to make sure she was in fact the Esther Newberg I had worked for in the early 1970’s. She was.

Esther and Mary Jo were two of the six infamous ‘boiler room girls’ who worked for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1967-1968. They worked in a windowless room, affectionately called ‘the boiler room’. Each woman was assigned a regional desk and was tasked with coordinating all of the state campaign directors in that region, with the Washington campaign headquarters. They dealt with the key campaign issues of the day and reported directly to Bobby and his campaign manager and brother-in-law, Stephen Smith.

RFK and the ‘Boiler Room Girls’

Ethel Kennedy (Bobby’s wife) once said that “Only the great ones worked in that boiler room.” The ‘girls’ were known to be “frighteningly intelligent, politically astute, capable as all get out.” But they were just ‘girls’, which in those days was a stigma that was hard to overcome. The boiler room girls were often portrayed in the press as ‘party girls’ (not true) and of no significance to the campaign (also not true).

After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968, the ‘girls’ dispersed to other jobs in politics. But they stayed in touch and got together for reunions. One of these reunions, which Ted Kennedy and Stephen Smith attended, was in July of 1969 in Chappaquiddick, near the Kennedy compound in Martha’s Vineyard.

Esther was at the party that night and watched her friend, Mary Jo, leave the party in a car with Ted Kennedy. The car inexplicably drove off a small bridge into the water. Kennedy got out of the submerged car but Mary Jo did not. Kennedy took 10 hours to report the incident. Many people feel he didn’t make enough of an effort to rescue Mary Jo. Others believe that if he had reported the accident immediately, there would have been enough time to save Mary Jo’s life. No one knows for sure.

Esther apparently had her name removed from the movie because she felt that too much had been made up and sensationalized.

The Chappaquiddick tragedy that ended Ted Kennedy’s presidential ambitions, as well as the ‘boiler room girls’, were part of my early political memories. So I was thrilled to learn that I had actually known someone who was part of that history. It’s not really a big deal. But I’m excited that I had two degrees of separation from Bobby and Ted Kennedy and this historical event.

8 thoughts on “ME AND CHAPPAQUIDDICK – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. I remember it well. I’m sure they did a lot of covering up, probably because he was drunk and should not have been driving anywhere — and after that, he never drove a car again. I’m pretty sure he felt very bad about it, too. It didn’t bring back a lost life, but he wasn’t left unscathed, either. And he managed to be a hell of a good legislator.

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      1. It was one of those iconic events that everyone remembers. For different reasons. It was a personal tragedy for both Mary Jo and Teddy. It ended one life and changed the other forever.

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    1. The tragedy killed Teddy’s presidential ambitions, but I think he did more good spending decades in the Senate as a powerful voice for justice and equality and compassion. He had a career to be proud of. But you can never totally distance yourself from an event as awful as Chappaquiddick. He acted badly but I think he did regret it and spent his life working to make other people’s lives better.

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      1. I often think that too. He was a brilliant, clever legislator. He wrote good laws and he knew how to reach across the aisle and get “the other side” to talk business. We need a LOT more of him and a lot fewer of whatever we’ve got there now. When he died a couple of years ago … and of course Tip had gone before … and long gone LBJ … and I realized that the really good ones were simply disappearing. Our problem is NOT that they stay too long. The problem is that we elect the wrong ones in the first place and then KEEP re-electing them, even though they don’t do anything to earn their pay. But I’m ranting. Never mind.

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