The release of the new movie “Chappaquiddick” is refocusing the spotlight on a tragic incident that happened almost a half-century ago involving one of America’s premiere political families. Late in the evening of July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy’s car ran off a bridge and plunged into the water on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. Kennedy escaped the submerged car and made his way to the shore. Mary Jo Kopechne, a young senate aide riding with Kennedy, drowned in the overturned vehicle.
June Davison and her then-boyfriend Leo Damore were about to go to dinner that night when the phone rang. Damore was an award-winning reporter/columnist for the area’s weekly newspaper, The Cape Cod News. Davison says the couple never made it to dinner. Damore went on to cover the story, and later wrote a best-selling book about what happened that night, and in the years to follow.
“Somebody from the island called, since he was a stringer for the Cape Cod News,” Davison remembers of that night. “They started saying ‘you better get over there’. That was the beginning.”
Davison took early retirement from teaching English in Connecticut and moved to Wilmington in 2005, after her son had finished his freshman year at UNCW. She taught for a decade at Brunswick Community College and still does some editing work. She married Damore in 1973, and ended up copy-editing his best-selling book Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Coverup, which published in 1988. She remembers Damore working on the original crash story, and on the inquest that followed months later in 1970. But it wasn’t until many years later that Damore began doing extensive work on the Chappaquiddick story, using trusted sources he had cultivated over many years of covering news on the cape. Davison says Damore’s passions were ignited by a phone call by one of those sources, a detective named George Killen. Killen died in 1979.
“Killen was dying, and (Leo) went to see him,” Davison says at 2:30 of the podcast. “He kind of gave (Leo) a charge. He felt like he had messed up the case, and he thought he would like to have (Leo) do it.”
Damore began to dig, as only a good investigative reporter could. He dug for documents. He pushed to interview people involved in the original investigation of the crash and those connected to the inquest that followed in 1970. Davison says the pieces came together showing behaviors that contributed to Kennedy receiving preferential treatment and avoiding serious criminal charges related to the crash and Kopechne’s death.
“I think it dawned on (Leo) before it dawned on Dominick Arena, the (Edgertown) chief of police,” Davison says. “Everybody was very obsequious and helpful to the senator. Then, they suddenly noticed everything was gone, the people were gone, the body was gone, the car was gone. Everything was gone. They had nothing, and then it got a little testy.”
Damore also scored an interview with Joseph Gargan, Kennedy’s first-cousin who hosted the party Kennedy and Kopechne had attended before the crash. Gargan, who is portrayed by actor Ed Helms in the new movie, died in December at the age of 87. Gargan and then-United States attorney Paul Markham went to the scene of the crash, and reportedly tried to rescue Kopechne from the submerged car.
“That was the other reason Leo started working on the book,” Davison says. “Joe Gargan, Kennedy’s first cousin, wanted to talk about it because he’d never defended himself very well. He really took the fall for a lot of what happened, later. He started wanting to talk. The more they got talking, the more the cover-up became apparent, and some people were victims like Arena. He didn’t realize, because nothing like this had ever happened before, that they (Kennedys) were being taken care of, given extra considerations.”
Davison says Damore received a $150,000 advance from Random House to publish his book. Davison copy-edited the manuscript, and the couple was eager to have it approved and sent to print. She says the company’s response was ‘the book was unpublishable’. She speaks to the issue at 20:00 of the podcast.
“When he delivered the manuscript, which we were dying for it to happen, he was inexplicably shot down, and we couldn’t believe it,” Davison says. “It was terrible for us, because so much energy, but not only that, they wanted the money back, which is unusual. So, the publication history was very difficult.”
Stories began to circulate on the reasons behind the Random House decision. A November 5, 1987 article in the New York Times said:
"Several publications, including The New York Post, have implied that Random House, in canceling the book, had bowed to pressure from the Kennedy family and friends. But the publisher has denied that it canceled the book for other than the stated reasons.”
Random House wanted Damore to return the advance. He refused, and the case went to court. A judge ruled in favor of Random House, and the two parties later reached a settlement. Damore took his story to another publisher, Regnery Gateway, where it was released and became the national best-seller despite not getting much national coverage.
“It was really not reviewed in the mainstream press, except the Wall Street Journal picked it up, and that’s when it started selling,” Davison says. “It was then one year on the bestseller list.” Davison says she believes Damore wrote a screenplay from his book, and he retained the film rights to his story.
Leo Damore took his own life in 1995, a few months after he and Davison divorced. He was working on another book involving the Kennedys at the time. Although she won’t go too deep into the circumstances, Davison believes that subject matter may have contributed, at least in part, to Damore’s decision to commit suicide.
June Davison says she is eager to see the new movie Chappaquiddick. The writers have not cited Damore’s book as a source for the film, but Davison wants to see for herself if Damore’s extensive research is used in this story. She reflects on it at 28:30 of the podcast.
“That’s why I re-read it (the book), because it’s in my head,” she says. “The language and everything is in my head. If I sit there and hear the same language, then I’ll really wonder. It’s a mystery.”
Leo Damore’s book has now been re-released in paperback under a new title. Chappaquiddick: Power, Privilege and the Ted Kennedy Coverup, to coincide with the release of the film.
You can listen to the interview with June Davison right now on the free “1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast.
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