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Who Is Mary Jo Kopechne? The Story Behind The Woman In 'Chappaquiddick'

New movie examines the car crash that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and the controversial aftermath for Senator Ted Kennedy.

By Gina Tron

She drowned after a car she was riding in plummeted into water — with one of the nation's most famous senators behind the wheel.

The death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old secretary and political campaign worker for U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, made national headlines in 1969, and is back in the spotlight again with the new film "Chappaquiddick."

The movie, directed by John Curran explores the story, behind the scandal and the woman at the heart of it. Kate Mara stars as Kopechne. 

The media at the time reduced Kopechne to an alleged seductress and a victim. Mara said that in taking the role for "Chappaquiddick" she wanted to show a life beyond that false perception. She told The New York Times that she portrayed Kopechne “as the brilliant, hard-working woman that she was and not just some tabloid story.”

The movie gives justice to Kopechne's demise by depicting her as the ambitious person she was. Kopechne's career began as a teacher and she then became one of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s “boiler room girls," a term for the women who worked on his 1968 presidential campaign. By 28, Kopechne was already on a strong political career path.

“She was so much more than a secretary,” Kopechne’s aunt Georgetta Potoski told People in 2018. “JFK’s idea of ‘What you can do for your country,’ she really tried to do that. She was devoted to Bobby. She wrote up all his personal correspondence and typed up his declaration to run for President.”

Kopechnewas born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., an only child to an insurance salesman and a homemaker. She received a degree in business admininistration in 1962 from Caldwell College for Women. Before working for Robert Kennedy's presidentialcampaign, she worked as secretary for Florida Sen. George Smathers. Robert's assassination in 1968 reportedly left her devastated as she passionately believed in his ideals. After her own death caused by Robert's brother, rumors swirled that Ted and Kopechne were having an affair, a rumor that Potoski told People isn't true.

“There were all the innuendoes they were having an affair, or something salacious going on,” she said. “But if you knew who she was, you’d know that didn’t happen. She was thinking of getting engaged, but no one came out to defend her, and her parents were broken — and they just retreated.”

[Photo: Getty Images]

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