Exclusive: The Last Days of Mary Kennedy

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Courtesy of Kerry Kennedy
  • The account of the couple’s longtime housekeeper, who recalls Mary’s self-destructive drinking habit, her depression in the days leading up her suicide—and tells how she and Bobby discovered Mary dead in the estate’s barn.
  • Details from Bobby Jr.’s sealed divorce affidavit, which contains allegations that Mary physically abused him, stole personal items from his daughter, ran over the family’s dog in the driveway, and repeatedly threatened to kill herself
  • An interview with Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Gunderson, who had met Mary and believes she had a textbook case of Borderline Personality Disorder

In the weeks before Mary Richardson Kennedy began searching the Internet for instructions on how to make a noose, the façade of a life she’d so desperately fought to maintain was rapidly crumbling. She was in the midst of an excruciatingly ugly divorce from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the second son of Robert and Ethel Skakel Kennedy. She was drinking heavily, and her behavior became so erratic that court authorities would only allow her to see her four children during visits supervised by the family housekeeper. “I saw her in the kitchen, like with her head down, and I was like, Oh, golly, she’s talking on the phone and crying,” says the housekeeper, who had lived with the couple throughout their entire marriage. “But then I get close to her, and she was passed out. The plate of food was old, and her face was on top of the plate. And that day, she was drinking a lot.”

Easter Sunday, April 8, should have been a welcome respite from the chaos. She had the children—Conor, 17, Kyra, 16, Fin, 14, and Aidan, 10—all staying with her at the family home in Westchester County, N.Y. But she was drunk, and the housekeeper would now have to tell the court that Mary—who’d already been arrested twice for DUIs since Bobby had filed for divorce in May 2010—was drinking again. “I called Mary’s sisters, and they said, ‘OK, we’re going there,’” says the Colombian housekeeper, who spoke to me on the condition that her name not be used. “But they never show up. So after that, Mary told me, ‘Oh, my sisters, my brothers, they’re all so mad at me they don’t want to talk to me for what I did.’ And then she was so sorry, and then she say, ‘Why I did it? Why, why, why I drink?’”

Because of her condition, the family-court judge decided to give full but temporary custody to her estranged husband, who lived in a rented house just down the road from the couple’s estate. Mary’s best chance to get her children back was to do well with a psychological evaluation that would determine long-term custody. She was scheduled to see psychologist Marc T. Abrams in nearby Bedford Hills in early May, but twice broke the appointments and gave false excuses, which upset the psychologist, who notified everyone involved. She attended a session on May 10, and she had every reason to assume that when Abrams issued his report, he would recommend that Bobby be given full custody. And she feared living without her children.

Mary was spending much of her time in bed, and that Sunday morning, May 13, she looked so ill that the worried housekeeper skipped church to stay with her. Monday was no better, nor Tuesday, and the housekeeper had a feeling that something bad was about to happen. Two weeks prior, Mary had asked the housekeeper’s husband to buy a rope, which she said she needed for a sofa she was making.

On Wednesday, May 16, Mary was nowhere to be found. The housekeeper and her husband looked all over but couldn’t find her. The housekeeper called Bobby and he came over to the house. The three of them searched further, until they entered the barn and found a harrowing sight. Mary was as neat as Bobby was sloppy, and she had tied a beautiful knot at the end of the rope, attached it to a rafter, and hanged herself. The housekeeper fell to the ground in a fetal position and stayed there for several hours. As for Bobby, whenever a Kennedy had died during his lifetime, whether it was his brothers David and Michael or his cousin John Kennedy Jr., his lean face would turn gray with grief, but he never cried. Now the tears flowed.

And then came an even uglier spectacle: a battle between the two families as they lined up on a field of combat that ranged from the funeral and the burial ground to the spin in the media. The Richardsons wanted their sister buried in the family plot in Vermont. Bobby and Mary’s two oldest children, Conor and Kyra, spent the entire day in court two days after their mother’s death to tell a judge that they wanted their mother’s remains buried near the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, where they would have an easier time visiting her. And so the judge ruled.

Once they called it Camelot, now they called it the Curse, and the media was having a field day over this latest tragedy to befall one of America’s most storied and dysfunctional clans. Here was the womanizing Bobby, always described as a former heroin addict, leading his innocent wife to her death, yet another victim of an overweening male ego—and he did so while flaunting his affair with actress Cheryl Hines, who played Larry David’s wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was a juicy tale, lacking in nuance. But perhaps Bobby wasn’t guilty. Perhaps nobody was guilty. Perhaps Mary Richardson Kennedy was, and had been for some time, a desperately sick woman. That’s the portrait that emerges from a sealed, 60-page court affidavit filed by Bobby during divorce proceedings, which I have reviewed in detail, and from interviews with those who were closest to Bobby and Mary, including medical professionals who treated her and said she suffered from a psychiatric disorder.

The Kennedys have a celebrated tradition of keeping their secrets to themselves, but Bobby’s affidavit, sworn Sept. 16, 2011, and filed in New York Supreme Court in Westchester County as part of their divorce, discussed a Kennedy family’s private life with sad candor. In the document, Bobby made the startling claim that Mary was physically abusing him and threatening suicide in front of the children. He said he cried often during his marriage, but not from sadness or grief. “Mary’s violence and physical abuse toward me began before we were married,” Bobby said in the affidavit. “Soon after Mary became pregnant with our first son, Mary, in a sudden rage about my continued friendship with [my ex-wife] Emily, hit me in the face with her fist. She was a trained boxer and I got a shiner. Her engagement ring crushed my tear duct causing permanent damage ... Mary asked me to lie to her family about the cause of my shiner.”

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“Bobby had this strange lump over his left eye,” recalled one of Bobby’s oldest friends, who requested that he not be named. “But everything seemed great with Mary, and I didn’t think anything about it.”

The affidavit was by no means a balanced account of the woman Bobby said he had loved more than anyone in his life. He could have written a hundred pages about her wit and beauty, a hundred more about her generosity and love, and still more about her concern for others and the originality of her mind. But this document was a litany of everything Bobby said he had suffered.

“On May 26, 2011, Mary ran over and killed the dog, Porcia, in the driveway,” Bobby wrote of an experience after he and Mary had separated. “She had [our youngest son] Aidan call me to tell me. He was disconsolate and crying. I asked to speak to Mom and Mary came on the phone. She said I should come over and spend the night in my old room with the kids who were distraught. She said she intended to kill herself unless I called off the divorce and unless I promised to recommit to the marriage. She promised that if I came over she would stay in her room and wouldn’t see me or harass me.

“I drove over in a tow truck with my boat on the trailer in preparation for a planned trip to Cape Cod the following day. When I got there, Aidan was in Mary’s room. Mary was intoxicated. I opened the door and she leapt out of her bed and hit me with a roundhouse punch that, had I not blocked it, would have undoubtedly broken my face. Pointing to Aidan, she screamed, ‘You told this child you didn’t love me?’ and hit me again, raining blows down on me as I backed down the hall. She struck me maybe 30 more times or more. I moved slowly backward because she was drunk and unsteady and I didn’t want her to tumble over the banister. She screamed at Aidan as she hit me. ‘He is a demon. He is a demon. He is the most evil kind of man in the world. Everything he does is evil and a fraud. He is a philanderer, an adulterer, a sex addict.’ Aidan was crying. I backed down the back stairs blocking her blows—and dodged out the kitchen door. She pursued me, pummeling and pushing me with her fists all the way.”

Few people had any inkling of what was happening inside the family house in Bedford that Mary had so lovingly transformed over the past several years. In 2003 a great storm had fallen on Bedford and left standing water in the home, spawning black mold and rendering the large 1920 structure largely uninhabitable. Before she’d married Bobby, Mary had been an architect at the prestigious design firm of Parish-Hadley, where she had worked on an ecologically advanced renovation of the Naval Observatory, the official Washington residence of then–vice president Al Gore. Though their marriage seemed to be ending, Bobby wanted to give his wife a purpose and their relationship a final chance, so he agreed to let her redo the house. Like so many other things in Mary’s life, it was on the surface a splendid achievement, so much so that a book was written on the Kennedys’ green house. But it had cost double the original estimate, and now, half a dozen years after starting the project, the solar panels were already falling apart, and it was costing $40,000 a month to maintain the house and staff. With the extraordinary legal bills from their divorce topping $1 million, neither Mary nor Bobby could afford to live there much longer. Compared with his wealthier relatives, Bobby and his siblings were paupers. His father had spent much of his inheritance on his 1968 presidential run. What was left went largely to his widow, the remaining amount divided among the 11 children.

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Like the Kennedys and the Skakels, Mary came from a large Irish-American family. Her father, a college professor, died when she was barely a teenager. The Richardsons were far from wealthy, but they managed to send Mary to the progressive Putney School in Vermont. Her Putney roommate was Kerry Kennedy, Bobby’s younger sister. Kerry recalls Mary both as troubled and extraordinarily creative and original. Mary was a tall, svelte young woman with long brunette hair and a windblown, natural beauty that was intimidating to most men. She was a straight-A student, but hardly the scholarly sort. She had a daring, adventurous quality, unlike the withdrawn, quiet Richardsons, and she was drawn to the excitement of life with the Kennedys.

Of the grandchildren of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, the offspring of Robert Sr. and Ethel Skakel Kennedy had been the most troubled. In part, this was the legacy of their father’s assassination in 1968, but also the emotional inheritance from the Skakel side, whose wildness went far beyond that of the Kennedys. In the summers at their Greenwich, Conn., estate, Ethel and her siblings enjoyed a game of riding up on the backseat of a convertible while the driver passed under low-hanging trees, trying to knock off the passenger—not unlike the game of football on skis that Bobby’s brother Michael was playing when he crashed into a tree in Aspen in 1997 and died. The Skakels had their share of scandal, too: Michael Skakel would be convicted in 2002 of murdering 15-year-old Martha Moxley, bludgeoning her to death with a golf club.

Within no more than a year or so, Mary became a regular presence at Kennedy clan holidays and celebrations. As she grew to adulthood, she bloomed into a statuesque, smart beauty. She was particularly attracted to sophisticated, dangerous men who often had among their assets titles and fortunes. Bobby, who was seven years her senior, had only part of the equation. She and Kerry traveled with Bobby on one of his rafting trips to Colombia, but Bobby was not quite urbane enough for her tastes. There was a sense of foreboding in this lean Kennedy prince who had seen so much pain and drowned it in drugs. Mary was not attracted to the rawness nor to his drug habit.

During their years at Putney and Brown University, and living together while working in Boston and New York, Mary and Kerry had the closeness of twins. “Mary was as talented with the left side of the brain as the right,” Kerry says. “She was the kindest person I’ve ever met. And she was that way to everybody, not just celebrities but fishermen, cabdrivers, and the guy who installed her floors.” For a while, Mary worked for Andy Warhol and was part of the artist’s avant-garde set. She defined herself as a “SoHo girl,” living and partying in what was in the ’80s Manhattan’s bohemia. Dressed always elegantly in black as she danced through the nightlife of the city, she intimidated most men. It wasn’t only that she was gorgeous, but that she had an intellect to match, a nearly photographic memory, and a promising career as an architectural designer.

In 1993 Bobby was still married to his wife of 10 years, Emily Black Kennedy, mother of Bobby III and Kathleen (“Kick”), but this homespun, Midwestern woman had had it with her husband’s hyper-Kennedy life. That was when Bobby and Mary saw each other as if for the first time. “Mary was fooling around with Bobby when he was married to Emily, but that marriage was essentially over,” says one of Bobby’s closest friends. “It ended amicably and it was just the right thing to do. But Bobby is a philanderer. Always was, always will be. And Mary knew that.”

Bobby had become far more sophisticated, with a growing reputation across America for his work with the environment. A decade earlier, to satisfy a community-service sentence after he was busted for heroin possession, Bobby had joined New York’s Riverkeeper organization; now he was the group’s chief attorney, punishing polluters and cleaning up the Hudson River. Mary, too, was more serious than she once had been, working as an architect on her own environmentally conscious projects. In April 1994, Bobby, 40, married six-months’ pregnant Mary, 34, on the deck of the Riverkeeper’s research boat, the Shannon. Those waters, which had once been dark with pollution, were now on the way to becoming clean again thanks to the crusading zeal of environmentalists such as Bobby. “There was a fateful joining when Bobby and Mary got together,” says Chris Bartle, who was godfather to their first son, Conor. “He thought he had finally met the person that he was going to spend the rest of his life with. They couldn’t take their eyes off each other, couldn’t keep their hands off each other. She was glowing and he was repeatedly saying how much he loved her and how glad he was they had gotten together.”

There was something else they had in common. They were both recovering in 12-step programs and had exhibited destructive, addictive behavior. In 1985, two years after Bobby had been busted for heroin possession and become sober, Mary was in a hospital to get treatment for anorexia, which she had suffered from at least since her Putney days. Afterward, finding the structure and radical honesty of 12-step meetings helpful, she became a regular at AA, just like Bobby. Bobby had what his brother Doug called the Kennedy “St. Francis complex,” always trying to do good and help people, and he reached out to Mary as if reaching out to a version of himself.

While Bobby thrived on chaos, Mary needed structure and constancy and could not rest if there was an unmade bed in the house. And yet it all seemed to work. For a while. In a story told in Bobby’s affidavit and confirmed by one of his friends, the first major crisis in their marriage concerned the way Mary treated Bobby’s two children from his first marriage, who stayed with them three weekends a month. No divorce is ever easy on the kids, and so it was with the younger of the two, 9-year-old Kick. Almost every time Bobby drove her to the airport at the end of the weekend, she seemed to have lost something that created all kinds of unnecessary problems. One week it was the plane ticket. The next week it was her wallet. Bobby gently asked his daughter to be more responsible.

“Daddy, I think Mary is stealing from me,” Kick said, as Bobby recalled in the affidavit.

“Honey, don’t say that, Mary loves you.”

“No, Daddy, Mary hates me.”

Bobby went on to write in his affidavit that “a few weeks later, looking for something in Mary’s bureau, I found a collection of Kick’s lost items concealed beneath a layer of Mary’s clothing.” For all his sophistication and all the painful life experiences, Bobby turned a blind eye to what he saw. He did not go to his daughter and ask what other difficulties she might be having with Mary, according to the affidavit. For the first time, Bobby considered divorce.

It wasn’t until about five years after the original incident, he said in the affidavit, that “I learned from Kick and many others who had witnessed Mary’s conduct, the heartbreaking story of Mary’s long campaign of cruelty and abuse directed toward Kick.” He alleges that Kick told him that Mary would take her into a closed room to harangue her about her many supposed faults, including the way she dressed. On at least one occasion, she slapped Kick for speaking critically to one of Mary’s children, according to the affidavit.

Bobby couldn’t understand what was happening to this beautiful woman he adored. She would be fine during the day, but he came to dread the evenings. “She would go into a kind of altered state which we came to call her ‘episodes,’?” Bobby said in his affidavit. “Her features would change with her jaw set forward, her face paled, her eyes notably darkened, her voice alternatively breathy or hard. Mary’s mood vacillated between rage and self-pity. Her behavior often became violent and destructive.”

Sometimes in the middle of the night, Bobby would awake to find Mary standing over his bed, beating him, according to the affidavit. Bobby tried to protect himself from her punches and even once jumped out a second-story window to escape.

In 1997, after three years of marriage, Bobby asked Mary for a divorce. Her reaction, as expressed in the affidavit, was explosive. Mary vowed that she would kill herself and before doing so tell the world what a monster he was. Whenever Bobby mentioned divorce, she would threaten suicide, but the next morning she would be calm and gentle. She would say she was sorry and didn’t know why she was acting this way. For a time she would be her old wonderful self at night as well as during the day, and Bobby had renewed hope, the affidavit said.

Mary sought the help of psychiatrists and therapists. There was all sorts of family counseling. But nothing got better. By 2003 Bobby wanted out, and he started living a single man’s life. He began an affair that lasted three years, but after Mary made several halfhearted suicide attempts it scared Bobby so much that he broke off the relationship, according to the affidavit. And then he returned to trying to forget in a series of short-lived affairs.

But Mary learned about the affairs, and she began telling her friends and her family. And a number believed that by having these outside relationships Bobby was emotionally abusing his wife. “Mary talked about going to therapy a lot with Bobby and talking about all his affairs,” says one of Mary’s friends. “She tried very hard, and part of it was going to therapy and talking about it.”

In 2006 Bobby talked to Mary’s psychotherapist, then Sheenah Hankin, an author with a clientele heavy with celebrities and semi-celebrities. “You are married to a woman who has borderline personality disorder,” Hankin told him, according to Bobby’s account in the affidavit. “It’s important that you read these books.”

Bobby had never even heard of borderline personality disorder (BPD), but when he opened I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me by Jerold J. Kreisman and Hal Straus, he felt he had an understanding of what was happening with his wife. Bobby read that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association lists nine criteria for BPD, five of which must be present for a diagnosis. Mary seemed to have every one of the nine, including a perceived sense of abandonment, a lack of identity, recklessness, suicidal threats, intense feelings of emptiness, and inappropriate displays of anger.

Kennedys still have connections like few families in America, and after Hankin diagnosed the disorder, Bobby and Mary arranged a meeting with Dr. John Gunderson, a Harvard psychiatrist who is often called the father of BPD. After talking to Bobby and Mary, Gunderson says, “I was convinced the diagnosis of BPD was correct. At the heart of this disorder is a hypersensitivity to other people, such that they can perceive rejection and anger from others when it isn’t there, and when it is there, they react with even more desperation. It is thought that this hypersensitivity is present even in childhood, during which they will often feel neglected or mistreated. That sets the stage for their search for an idealized caretaker. The caretaker oftentimes gets exhausted by the unrealistic expectations. But the caretaker finds it difficult to leave as the partner threatens to kill him or herself.”

Almost everyone, including Mary’s own therapists, thought that the marriage was so damaging to both of them that it must end. And in September 2007 Bobby hired a divorce lawyer. With that, everything bad and dangerous escalated.

There was no greater witness to the chaos than the housekeeper. “Once, during dinner, Mary grabbed a plate of spaghetti and threw it all on Bobby in front of the children,” says the housekeeper. “Once they were having a fight while Bobby was taking a bath. We heard lots of noises upstairs. Mary came down the stairs and took the car and left. Five minutes later, Bobby came down. My sister asked, ‘Are you OK, Bobby?’ Bobby’s face was really white. And then my sister said, ‘What happened to you?’ And he said, ‘Mary attacked me in the bath with scissors.’?”

The other person who was often in the house and saw what was going on was John Hoving, a social worker and longtime family friend of both Bobby and Mary. After their separation, “Bobby would arrive to take the kids and she would throw a screaming fit,” Hoving says. “The kids were all witnessing a lot of this stuff ... Horror. Just horror. And I loved Mary. I want that to be known. I adored her. I didn’t adore what BPD did to her.”

Bobby repeatedly pleaded with Mary’s brothers and sisters to do an intervention. On June 17, 2011, he wrote an email to them saying, “Mary is a wonderful, generous, kind, and wise person but depression and illness are now killing her. I know you have told me that her frequent suicide threats are not real. I do not believe this is accurate. I see her now sinking into a terrible darkness. She desperately needs a family intervention.” Thomas Richardson, the titular leader of the family, replied, asking that these emails stop: “We will be forced to respond in kind, and the record that we will be forced to set forth is not one that Bobby will be pleased to have on paper or in electronic form.”

The family feud exploded after Mary’s body was found hanging from the barn rafter. That night, several of the Richardson siblings arrived at the house while Bobby was away, and were rifling through drawers in Mary’s office, presumably looking for a suicide note or other explanation for this tragic end. When Bobby arrived back at the house with his brother Chris and a close friend, the Richardsons asked him to leave what they said was not his house. “You have killed my sister,” Nan Richardson, a publishing executive, said to Bobby, according to several people there. (Nan Richardson declined to comment for this story.) Bobby’s friend was so angry that he charged forward to confront the Richardsons, and the Richardsons were asked to leave.

Whatever her demons, Mary Richardson Kennedy had finally escaped them. “Her suicide was both a statement of hopelessness about her prospects of staying married,” says Dr. Gunderson, “and it was an angry statement of her perception that she had been abandoned and betrayed. There were two sides to it. One was that she was a horrible person who nobody wanted. The other was that she was an abandoned waif who had been mistreated. And both of these things are inherent in this dramatic suicide.”

Editor's note: The Richardson family declined to be interviewed for this story. On June 10, the family issued this statement:

"Mary’s unconditional love for her children and unwavering support of so many people she held close to her heart are the lasting legacies of her life. Our hearts are breaking for what her children continue to witness. We hoped Mary could rest in peace.

The scurrilous affidavit, which is the entire basis for the Newsweek article, was written by Bobby Kennedy as part of a contentious custody battle and was nothing more than a brutal psychological weapon in the divorce case. The affidavit, which Mary repudiated at the time, is full of vindictive lies. This latest piling on is proof perfect of the unbelievable emotional and psychological abuse that Mary endured during the last years of her life, and now in death. The false claim that Mary suffered from BPD is also an insult to those who do struggle with this serious mental illness.

Right now, our primary concern is for Mary’s children. There will be a time and a place for the true facts to come out."

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