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Prime time with Joan Kennedy

"A lot of wives married to famous men make themselves well known by telling all. I was sort of quiet about it."
By Sally Jacobs, Globe Staff

Joan Kennedy is sweating. She is splayed within the steel frame of a leg press, her feet flush against the weight bar, her hands clenching the grips at her side. As her legs strain, the 220-pound weight inches off the ground, and a tiny bead of moisture rolls down her face.

Paul, her 20-something personal trainer, is triumphant. He bobs before her, muttering encouragement, his baggy white pants flapping. When she is done, he bounds toward her with a pair of 5-pound dumbbells. She eyes them skeptically. "Too easy," she says. "Give me the tens. Bring them on, sweetheart."

Joan Kennedy is buffing up. At 63, the woman perennially described as fragile, forever memorialized in the history books and curled newspaper clippings as the drunken ex-wife of US Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy, is hitting the gym. It is, to be sure, a certain kind of workout. Kennedy dons a fresh coat of makeup and black velvet leggings adorned with scarlet flowers for her exercise. She pauses during repititions to admire a woman's swimsuit in the adjacent pool. The 10-pound dumbbells are her max. Paul, the trainer, admits he has no idea if she has firmed up in the three months she has been going to the tony Candela spa across from the Ritz in Boston's Back Bay, because she is always clothed from head to toe.

But she goes, as often as three times a week. The female staffers there recognize her and nod: "Hello, Mrs. Kennedy." Some know only her name. A few are old enough to remember her younger self, the arrestingly beautiful blonde ingenue, the stricken wife dutifully trailing her husband through the wreckage of Chappaquiddick, the glazed-eyed celebrity caught in the camera's sweep. Like the scores of fans who write her mail, and the occasional pedestrians who stop to stare, they admire her for reasons they do not entirely understand. They admire her, in a way, simply for having survived.

She has done more than that. In her seventh decade, Kennedy seems at last to have come into her own. Single for nearly 20 years, she has a vast network of friends and a jammed social schedule that take her from dog sledding in Wyoming to ballroom dancing at the Sheraton to an Elton John concert at the Fleet Center. Apparently sober for nine years, she has completed the course work toward a second master's degree in education and intends to teach music in the public schools "when I get old." A regular at the Arch Street Worker's Chapel downtown - chosen in part, she confesses, because "it's near Filene's Basement" - she partakes in an eclectic variety of spiritual retreats and counsels other women in Alcoholics Anonymous. An ardent patron of a variety of musical arts, she is currently reading Sex Lives of the Great Composers.

There have been resurrections before, it is true, heralded by bold headlines proclaiming her sobriety, her launching of a new life. But each time she has fallen, Kennedy has picked herself up. And she has been standing tall for a long time now.

Joan Kennedy is not young anymore. She is the mother of three and the grandmother of four, a doting, warm-and-fuzzy kind of grandmother who hides Easter eggs and plays "Ring Around the Rosie" on the piano. And all the purple eye shadow and high-heeled black leather boots and mirrors arched over the king-size bed do not quite dispel a certain tiredness. If age comes hard to a former model - one dubbed "The Dish" by her brother-in-law Jack - it has also brought for Kennedy a certain peace and sense of self that had long eluded her.

It is a self curiously rooted in being a Kennedy. Nearly two decades after her divorce, Kennedy is an integral member of the clan, her place perhaps more certain now than it has been in the past. Keenly aware of the potency of her name, she lends it generously to a host of public causes and is a familiar figure on the benefit circuit. But while Kennedy is deeply proud of the family name, she does not abide by all the family rules. She talks openly. She expresses deep feeling. She cries. Kennedy has never publicly criticized her former husband and seems more bemused by the family's failings than angry. She does not live in secret anymore.

"It's such a relief now to be free," declares Kennedy. "So much of my married life was about keeping secrets and pretending that I was doing great and was happy. But once you sober up, the whole idea is to become honest with yourself and other people. I mean, all the secrets I've had to keep: mine and all the secrets of the Kennedy family. I don't have to do that anymore. It's such a relief to be free. To be a genuine person."

The Old Wife tells a secret about the New Wife. Joan Kennedy rather likes the New Wife, as she calls Ted Kennedy's current wife, Victoria Reggie. The New Wife has replaced the old cook at the Hyannis Port compound with one who specializes in lighter, healthier fare. The New Wife has reached out to the Old Wife and helped unite the family. But the New Wife has also taken control of the swimming pool.

The compound pool had been a free-for-all in the past, churning with Kennedy cousins and children and grandchildren and baby sitters. Shortly after Reggie married Kennedy, in 1992, she put a stop to it all: The pool, she declared, was for Ted Kennedy and his children alone. She posted little signs saying so around the pool. But when Kara Kennedy Allen, Joan and Ted Kennedy's oldest child, and her children visited the compound last summer, Joan Kennedy went into the pool. Ethel Kennedy, walking by, noticed Joan and shouted to her in astonishment: "Joansie! What are you doing in the pool?"

Kennedy didn't hesitate. "I'm baby-sitting Ted's grandchildren," she shouted back.

Joan Kennedy is largely recognized for who she was in the past, but her life is vastly different now than it once was. Watching Kennedy power-walk along the Charles River in her jaunty blue Ryder Club cap and stylish black leather jacket or hoisting bulky weights with her slender legs, it is hard to remember the bad old days.

But once upon a time, Kennedy told other family secrets, told them in the same fey, wide-eyed way she tells about the pool, and the family was not happy. It was 40 years ago, and Joan Kennedy was the family's luscious new showpiece in Washington, D.C. She was also a chatty one and happily revealed to reporters that Jackie Kennedy wore wigs. And that Jack Kennedy was unable to pick up his children because of his bad back. The family's press operatives bore down upon Joan Kennedy swiftly, and she quickly learned to suppress her instinctive candor and coquettish sense of humor. In the shadow of the hard-driving Kennedy clan, as well as her husband's notorious womanizing, Joan Kennedy withdrew and found comfort in a vodka bottle.

Through decades that delivered her three miscarriages, the loss of her eldest son's leg to cancer, and a grinding post-divorce loneliness, her drinking worsened. Despite multiple visits to rehabilitation centers and hospitals, Kennedy continued to flounder. Three times she was arrested for drunken driving, to explosions of publicity. The last time was in 1991, when she was found weaving along Interstate 93 in Quincy in her blue Buick with an open vodka bottle at her side.

Before self-help groups like AA were in vogue, Kennedy's drinking was treated as a shameful condition, and she became further isolated within the family. One afternoon in the late 1970s, according to The Kennedy Women, by Laurence Leamer, Ted Kennedy led a reporter outside the couple's Squaw Island home on Cape Cod to meet his wife. There, Joan Kennedy lay dead drunk in the back seat of a car. In 1977, she fled the couple's McLean, Virginia, home and headed to Boston, leaving her children - then aged 17, 15, and 11 - behind. The Kennedys did not divorce for five more years, but Joan Kennedy had decided to fight back.

"If she hadn't changed her life, if she hadn't left Ted, she wouldn't be the person she is today," says Candy McMurrey, Joan Kennedy's sister, who lives in Houston. "She would be dead. Dead from drinking and the sadness."

Boston seemed a curious place for her to land. Joan Bennett Kennedy, after all, had grown up in New York and raised her children in Washington, D.C. But Joan and Ted had lived in Boston briefly after they were married, and Joan had a number of friends in the area. It had a substantial arts and music community. That it was the throbbing heart of Kennedy country was oddly comforting. Joan Kennedy has developed a life in Boston singularly her own over the past two decades, but being a Kennedy was as central to her identity then as it is today. The difference is that now she is Joan Kennedy. Not Ted Kennedy's former wife.

"It was nice, because I did it slowly," Kennedy says of the transition. Seated on the floral-print couch in her Back Bay apartment, she explains: "I never wrote a book. I never went on television or made myself famous or was out there taking advantage of my experiences for 25 years as a Kennedy. So it took longer, because I didn't do some of those things some wives of famous men do. A lot of wives married to famous men make themselves well known by telling all. I was sort of very quiet about it, and it all went very slowly. That's the way I am."

She has lived in the same spacious condominium with its black-and-white-striped awning and sweeping view of the Charles River for two decades. The apartment was originally a meeting place for Ted and his political allies, and Joan Kennedy got it as part of her 1982 divorce settlement, which reportedly also included $4 million and the house on Squaw Island in Hyannis Port. She later had the apartment redesigned in hunter green and gold, with a heavy accent of mirrors. She has lived alone except for several years when Patrick, her youngest son and now a Rhode Island congressman, lived with her in the 1980s.

The past echoes faintly. A hallway shelf holds a dusty collection of Kennedy volumes. The readings at Jackie Kennedy's funeral. A small history of Boston, containing a handwritten pink note from Rose Kennedy to her son, saying, "To Teddy. Grandpa Fitz' book." Kennedy, clad in tight black pants and black ankle boots, fondly runs her hands along the Queen Anne antiques that fill her living room. She bought them at an auction on the same weekend in 1964 that Ted Kennedy, then a young senator, crashed in his plane on the way to a convention in Springfield. The pilot and an aide died.

"If I hadn't been at the auction, I would have been on the plane," Kennedy recalls quietly. "In the front seat."

She will not talk much about Ted, who keeps a home on Marlborough Street just five blocks away, and she agreed to an interview only on the condition that neither he nor their past together be discussed. Some of the old secrets, at least, she still keeps. Nor will Ted Kennedy talk about her. Citing "Joan's privacy concerns," a press aide released a statement from the senator, saying: "I have great respect for Joan. She continues to make outstanding contributions to the arts, especially in the area of music. She is an excellent mother to Kara, Teddy, and Patrick and a terrific grandmother for Grace, Max, Kiley, and young Teddy."

Alcohol is also a subject Joan Kennedy does not want to discuss, particularly the arrests for drunken driving, which she wryly refers to as "my famous one-nighters." But she does, anyway.

"I haven't had a drink now for nine years, and after that amount of time, people start to forget," says Kennedy. "So, I'd rather not bring it up and have people say, `Ohhh, Joan. Oh, yeah. She's the alcoholic.' Because a lot of places I go, people don't know, or maybe they've forgotten, or they never knew in the first place. . . . Unfortunately, in a lot of the stories - less and less now, but in a lot of the old stories - that was my identity. And it is no longer my identity, so I don't want to reintroduce that, because it hasn't been my identity for a long time."

Her new identity is one that springs from many sources. An accomplished pianist and author of a family guide to classical music, Kennedy is known for her narrations with the Boston Pops and is a keen supporter of both symphony and opera. From 1995 to 1999, she served as the chairwoman of the Boston Cultural Council, which distributes state money to local nonprofits. Kennedy is an overseer at both Children's Hospital and the New England Conservatory, a member of the Lesley College Corp., where she received a master's degree in education, and a board member of the Max Warburg Courage Curriculum. (Under the Max Warburg Curriculum, Boston public school sixth-graders write about courage in memory of an 11-year-old Boston child who died of leukemia in 1991.) An active supporter of the Pine Street Inn, she has shown up unannounced in the women's wing to play the piano on several occasions, including one Christmas Day. She was recently appointed to the board of the President's Advisory Committee on the Arts of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Her desk is thick with invitations to benefits and musical events. Although she attends many, she has two categorical priorities: fighting cancer and retardation. "Retardation, because it's the Kennedy thing," she says. "Cancer, because of Teddy Jr." She recently returned from golf camp in Florida but declines to say exactly where because she doesn't want two new beaus to follow her there.

Kennedy is, clearly, proud of her life. While the pain of her past has not left, "it is not what drives her anymore. She has moved on," says Pamela Humphrey, a friend who lives two blocks away. "She has rediscovered who she is."

As her son Patrick, 32, for whom she campaigns regularly, describes it: "I think her experience of being kind of isolated and put into a one-dimensional role as my father's wife obviously was very debilitating for her. Now, I think she has found ways to express herself in areas that are of interest to her, and she has gotten happier, particularly over the past 10 years. She has perspective over what happened to her. She has survived."

It is a somewhat lonely life. Kennedy has a large network of girlfriends who dote on her. Men have come and gone, and there has been no one special for many years. As she has gotten older, Kennedy concedes, dating has gotten more difficult, but she remains flirtatiously hopeful, with her tight black pants and golden hair. She poses enthusiastically on her white canopy bed for a Globe Magazine photographer but warns that "the one thing I do not want is a realistic picture." (Kennedy advises older women not to smile too hard into the camera, to avoid causing eye wrinkles. As for her own complexion, which is extraordinarily unlined, she says coyly, "Yes, I'm lucky.") But she is looking: "I am open to meeting men and dating and having a relationship. Isn't that a wonderful word?"

In the meantime, after she works out at the spa, Kennedy often has a solitary lunch at Legal Sea Foods in the Park Plaza Hotel, and she frequently orders a second meal to take home for dinner. Despite the desk full of invitations, it is not uncommon for her to spend a weekend night by herself, reading or playing her gleaming Steinway. But she will not play for a reporter. Instead, she sifts merrily through the sheet music she likes best. She tosses a copy of Camelot on the floor, groaning, "Ohhh, that old thing." She pauses with a score for The Second Time Around gripped in her hand. "Oh, that would be a good song for me if I ever fell in love again, wouldn't it?" she exclaims.

The first time she fell in love, she fell fast. Joan Kennedy was an exquisite catch. At 21, she was a young woman of striking beauty and poise, easily one of the most popular students at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. Reared in a prominent Catholic family in nearby Bronxville, she had spent summers appearing in television ads for Revlon and Coca-Cola. And so, when a young law student named Ted Kennedy came to campus one afternoon in 1957 to dedicate a new building - several Kennedy women had attended the school - his sister Jean Smith plucked Joan from the crowd and introduced her to her brother. They were married the following year.

The first several years were happy ones, flush with John F. Kennedy's presidency and the birth of their first two children. But Ted Kennedy's sexual wanderings, coupled with the Kennedy family's fierce ambition, began to gnaw at Joan Kennedy. Each Kennedy wife - including Jacqueline and Ethel, who married Robert - bore it in her own way. But pitied in the press for her husband's infidelities, disdained by some members of her own family, and plagued by mounting insecurities, Joan Kennedy drank.

"Joan Bennett Kennedy was not in the league of these tough ladies," Garry Wills wrote in his 1981 book, The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. "Try as she would, she was on the outermost rim of the concentered Kennedy family. . . . Joan was not equal to the other two; she came in a distant third, farthest from the family's animating center - till she spun out, alone, into darkness."

Press accounts at the time invariably used the words "fragile" or "vulnerable" to describe her. "Oh, it made me mad," she says. "They would all write about how vulnerable I was, and everybody felt sorry for me, because I was in a marriage that wasn't good. If they only knew that I was so strong. I was stronger than anyone else just to be able to survive. It was very hard."

Family members also balk at the term. Eunice Shriver, the Kennedy sister to whom Joan is perhaps closest, says, "If fragile means somebody who can't cope, well, Joan coped. I think she had a life that was very demanding of her. Sometimes she had real problems in those days. I think she never gave up. She consistently tried to improve and overcome her problems, and eventually she did. So that is not a person who is fragile."

Despite the obvious pain of those years, Kennedy does not seem bitter and, by most accounts, including her own, now has a cordial relationship with her former husband. She attends numerous Kennedy family events, particularly during the summer, when she stays at her house on Squaw Island, just a short walk from the Kennedy compound. Nor does Joan Kennedy, whose own mother had a drinking problem, seem to blame the senator for her drinking.

In "the program," as she calls AA, "they tell us not to blame anybody, and we have to look to ourselves. And I think that is true. And I think that is probably a good, healthy thing. If you were to blame other people, then you don't get well yourself."

Afraid that if she sought professional help it would erupt in the press, Joan Kennedy kept largely to herself. She did confide in Jackie Kennedy, "who I had a lot in common with. Oh, yes, we could talk." She also talked to Eunice Shriver, the eldest sibling after Jack Kennedy was assassinated, and the one family member who had long sought to protect Joan. Best of all, adds Kennedy, "she was safe, because she was on the inside." But, mostly, Kennedy was on her own.

"I was in public life, and I just had to keep everything to myself," Kennedy says. "Things I knew. I couldn't even tell my girlfriends. . . . At the time, I didn't know how dangerous it is to not be able to speak to anybody about your troubles or troubles in the family that bothered you. Now that I'm well, I look back and think: How the h-e-l-l did I make it through?"

And then it got worse. On a hot July night in 1969, Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick with a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne sitting beside him. Kopechne drowned. Kennedy swam to shore. But his first call was not to his wife, according to Leamer's book, but to the blond, voluptuous model who was his girlfriend, Helga Wagner.

Joan Kennedy, then pregnant, played the devoted wife, clinging to her husband's arm through the funeral and beyond. But Kennedy, who suffered her third miscarriage the following month, knew her marriage was a sham. After Chappaquiddick, she told Leamer, "It became worse. For a few months everyone had to put on this show, and then I just didn't care anymore. I just saw no future. That's when I truly became an alcoholic."

Joan Kennedy had never seen the infamous bridge that altered the course of her life until six years ago. At the time, she was a guest at the Chappaquiddick home of friends Vivian and Lionel Spiro, a retired co-founder of the architecture supply store Charrette. Spiro owned an all-terrain vehicle, and one day Kennedy asked him to drive her to the bridge along the beach. "I didn't feel any passion when I saw it," Kennedy says. "I've just put that in my past. I've worked it through."

The 1970s were the hardest years. In 1973, Teddy Jr., then 12, was diagnosed with cancer and had to have his right leg removed above the knee. The following year, Joan Kennedy was charged with drunken driving, and her license was suspended for six months. Long a lover of fashion, Kennedy began to parade in increasingly flamboyant costumes: miniskirts, see-through blouses, and leather ensembles. Although public opinion had long been sympathetic to her, both Washington social circles and the press were growing tired of her behavior. And Kennedy knew it. "It was time I started taking care of myself in order for my children to be happy," she says. "I needed to get myself out of a bad situation."

One day, not long after she had met Joan Kennedy in the mid-1980s, Pam Humphrey ran into her new friend walking briskly down Commonwealth Avenue. Kennedy, who had traveled around the world and met world leaders, who had lived at the pinnacle of America's most famous political dynasty, was bubbling with enthusiasm over her destination.

"She was going to the grocery store," recalls Humphrey. "She was so excited, because she had her own money. It was as basic as that. Someone had always done it for her. Some1one always had the wallet or bought the groceries, the whatever."

For Kennedy, moving to Boston meant more than learning to live on her own. For a woman who had been swaddled in privilege her entire life, who at one time commanded a French chef, a maid, a nanny, and a social secretary, it meant learning to take care of herself.

"I took my own clothes to the dry cleaners and vacuumed and took out the trash. I'd never had to do any of that before," recalls Kennedy with a laugh. "It was part of my readjusting and learning to take care of myself. It was fun. The only problem was, I would go to the grocery store, and it would take hours. Most women would know where everything is and go in and out. I'd be, ohh, look at that sauce. I love sauces."

Groceries were the easy part. Kennedy had a powerful entree into Boston's tight social circles because of her name. Heart-grabbing stories in the women's magazines, describing her battle with alcohol, had also generated widespread empathy. That Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign had foundered badly seemed only to add to her appeal. But when conversations about divorce got underway in earnest after the campaign, Joan Kennedy found herself looking into the void.

"If she were no longer a Kennedy, who would she be?" recalls close friend Cathy Beatty, who lives nearby and is married to Paul Beatty, one of Ted Kennedy's former Harvard roommates. "She knew that the name opened many doors and gave her a lot of perks. So she was afraid. It was a very hard time before the divorce, and even afterward."

The nights were the hardest. Kennedy had been admitted to McLean Hospital in Belmont several times since she had come to Boston, but the battle was far from over. A handful of friends kept a close watch over her, and there were several hawklike sponsors from AA. Kennedy and her friends sent notes of encouragement to one another, as is their habit. And when their phones rang late in the night, her friends knew who it was.

"You'd get the phone call, and she'd be there," says Beatty. "Something had happened. She was in an accident or going through a hard time. But Joan was always good. She was never ugly when she drank. She was just always working at it. Trying to conquer it."

Muffie Cabot's phone rang, too, way down in Washington, D.C. "It was a terrible time. Terrible," says Cabot, 65, a friend for 40 years who was social secretary to the Reagan White House in the early 1980s. Cabot, who is married to Louis W. Cabot, former chairman of the Cabot Corp., recently moved to Cambridge. "But Joan is very disciplined. She kept at it. She got good help. She tripped, but she would pick herself up and say, `I am going to keep going.' "

And so she did. Gradually, her achievements became her own, not just those linked to her famous last name. Shortly after her divorce in 1982, she began dating Dr. Gerald Aronoff, a noted Boston pain specialist, and later was reunited with an old beau named John J. McNamara, with whom she fell deeply in love before he died prematurely of a heart attack. Kennedy had received her master's degree in education from Lesley College in 1981. Increasingly, she turned to the piano and classical music.

A friend of conductor Arthur Fiedler's from her married years, Joan Kennedy narrated Peter and the Wolf at Tanglewood under his baton - and at a host of other benefits and concerts. She performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 at a Wang Center benefit in 1988 and began narrating other scores under Pops conductor John Williams in the 1980s. When the regular Pops narrator fell ill on the morning of the orchestra's Fourth of July performance on the Esplanade in 1988, Williams called Kennedy to fill in. As she looked out upon the thousands of revelers that night, Kennedy shivered in anticipation.

"It was so exciting, because [Williams] didn't ask me because I was Ted's wife. Because I was no longer Ted's wife," says Kennedy with a burst of laughter. "He asked me because I knew my stuff cold. Because I was a pro. Now, that was exciting. To be doing this in Ted's hometown. Ted's hometown! That's when I really began to feel Boston was my town."

Williams, who had performed with Kennedy before, was also impressed by her performance that night and says it "underscored that we know her to be a brave and courageous woman in both her public and private life."

The alcohol was hardly at bay. Although Kennedy says she had been drinking only on the two occasions when she was arrested, in 1988 and 1991, some say there have been other incidents. Continuing the family's tortured legacy, both of her sons have sought treatment for substance abuse. In 1985, Patrick Kennedy, then a senior at Phillips Academy, Andover, entered an inpatient rehabilitation program for alcohol and cocaine. And in 1991, two months after his mother was found weaving along the interstate and three months after his cousin William Kennedy Smith was charged with rape in Palm Beach, Florida, Ted Kennedy Jr. also sought treatment for alcohol abuse. (Kara, says her mother, is addicted only to cigarettes.) Both young men turned to their mother for guidance.

"Obviously, she has been an enormous inspiration to me and an example to me," says Patrick Kennedy. "She encouraged me to face the pain and deal with it upfront rather than deal with it sideways through any way of substituting it with alcohol."

Although both her sons believe Kennedy has put drinking behind her, they also know how hard it has been. "She has made tremendous strides in addressing the fears and insecurity she's had in her life," says Ted Jr., 38, a lawyer in New Haven. "I think she has really come a long, long way, but, clearly, it's a lifelong struggle."

Dr. Edmund Molis, a neurologist who dated Joan Kennedy in the mid-1990s, says that Kennedy drank several times while they were together. Molis, 45, whose license was temporarily suspended in 1992 after he admitted to being a drug addict, says that sometimes when he went to take Kennedy to the AA meetings they attended together, "she would be plastered. Dead drunk. She's in complete denial about her drinking." But Molis says they broke up for other reasons.

"I always felt like an appendage, like an accessory," says the doctor, now practicing at New England Medical Center. "She had a real problem with intimacy. I think she is very self-absorbed and not a very happy person. But she puts on a very happy face for the world, doesn't she?"

Kennedy maintains that staying sober is no longer the daily battle that it once was. She continues to go regularly to AA. She prays. And she helps other women. When she talks about it, tears roll down her cheeks. "I only cry when I am happy," she sobs. "Or when I feel, I don't know what it's called, religiously. . . . It reminds me of how grateful I am."

When Ted Kennedy announced in 1992 that he was going to remarry, many in Joan Kennedy's circle kept a close eye on their friend. The old demon insecurities lurked. At 38, Victoria Reggie was attractive and an accomplished attorney. Joan Kennedy worried to her friends whether she would be included in Kennedy gatherings. Would she still be a member of the family?

She is. Eunice Shriver, for one, sees her twice a week in the summer. But there have been some bumps. After the wedding, the family rhythms shifted. Joan stopped going to the family home in Virginia for Christmas, as she had in the past, and now goes to the home of one of her children. She also stopped going to Thanksgiving dinner at the compound, at least for a while. Instead, the children ate two turkey dinners, one with their father and a second with their mother on Squaw Island. But two years ago, Ted Kennedy asked his daughter to see if her mother would join them at the compound, and now she does.

The children say Reggie and their mother have a mutual respect. "Vickie is very cognizant of treating my mother with due respect," says Ted Jr. "She realizes that my mother deserves something."

Back in 1994, when Senator Kennedy was locked in a brutal battle for reelection, Joan Kennedy apparently felt she deserved quite a bit more and filed to reopen their divorce settlement. Stung by charges that she was being vindictive, she postponed her bid until after the election, and the couple resolved the matter privately two years later.

Kennedy will still not say what she was after or what she got. But of the timing, she explains: "I thought maybe I'd outlive Ted. I mean, he was huge," and she spreads her hands wide apart. "And he was doing this." She makes a rapid drinking motion with her hand. "And so I thought, `Oh, my gosh.' " And then she chuckles.

It is the cocktail hour at the elegant Westin hotel in Copley Place, and hundreds of women, many of the most powerful in the state, have gathered under the shimmering chandeliers for a benefit dinner for homeless women at the Pine Street Inn. Joan Kennedy, dressed in a trim black suit and wearing searing pink lipstick, is wandering tentatively through the crowd by herself.

She has just gotten off the shuttle from New York, where she spent several days. The first night, she went to a benefit for the literary group PEN and sat between renowned film director John Waters and Edward W. Said, a well-known scholar and Palestinian spokesman. (She had not heard of either beforehand.) The second night, she attended a benefit for the environmental group Global Green, where she spoke to former US senator Gary Hart, the group's interim president ("He still has a full head of hair!"), and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the group's international president. She is supposed to return to New York on the following weekend for a private dinner party where there are to be a number of single men. ("My friends say that the men there aren't as conservative as they are in Boston.") But at the last minute, she will decide to stay home, by herself.

"I could be out every night of the week," she says with a giggle. "And every day." She giggles again. "But I am aware that I have to stand back once in a while and look at all the stuff that is going on and get some perspective."

From the perspective of the causes she does choose to endorse, Joan Kennedy is widely admired. Part of it is that her name adds luster to the guest list. Part of it is that Kennedy's connections are potent, and a few phone calls from her can result in some hefty contributions. But at some places, such as Children's Hospital or the Pine Street Inn, just having her show up is one of the greatest gifts. In addition to speaking at the dedication of the women's garden at the shelter, she also modeled clothes at a fashion show to benefit its thrift shop.

"The women were delighted that someone of her stature would come spend time with them," says Pine Street Inn president Lynda Downie. "Her life experience really resonates with them. It makes them believe that they, too, can move on. That there is hope."

It is, in a way, a very Kennedy thing to do, as some see it. Particularly for someone to whom the name Kennedy means decidedly mixed things. James Carroll, a writer and former priest who has known her for 15 years, believes that over the years she has overcome a certain intimidation regarding her own name and learned to master its potency.

"She carries the name quite wonderfully and puts herself at the service of the culture, like the best of the Kennedys. That is what she has become. She has become the best of them," suggests Carroll. "And there is nothing in it for her. She gets nothing back."

Ah, the Kennedy thing. It's always there, hovering over Joan Kennedy's life like a morning mist draped over Nantucket Sound. Joan Kennedy shrugs at the notion that she has become the best of them. The best of what? Who are the Kennedys, anyway? Joan Bennett thinks she knows, and she has one more secret to tell.

It is about her home on Squaw Island, the house she battled to get from her husband in their divorce. If you look across the creek that separates the island from the mainland, you can just see a pair of old clapboard houses. Once upon a time, they were owned not by Kennedys but by Bennetts, Joan's grandfather and his two brothers. They bought the property in 1901, nearly 30 years before the Kennedys came to town. In fact, Bennetts had come to America in the 1660s, hundreds of years before Kennedys even set foot on American soil. Joan Kennedy never told her husband that. But when they divorced, she hung the Bennett family genealogy right in a front room of the house, for all to see.

"Those Kennedys," says Joan Kennedy with a smile. "They're really newcomers. They're immigrants."

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