DEAD MAN TALKING: A Kennedy Cousin Comes Clean
By Michael Skakel
With Richard Hoffman
"The house itself,
if it had a voice,
Dead Man Talking: A Kennedy Cousin Comes Clean is a first-person account of the inner workings, both political and familial, of the myth-enshrouded, Machiavellian and ruthless Kennedy clan.
For thirty-five years, books about the Kennedy family have consistently appeared on the best-seller lists. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Christopher Anderson’s Jack and Jackie: Portrait of An American Marriage, Marcia Chellis’s Living with the Kennedy’s: The Joan Kennedy Story, and most recently, Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot, among many others, attest to the reading public’s unabated appetite, when it comes to the Kennedys, for both romance and iconoclasm.
This unwavering fascination extends to the present generation of Kennedys, with the sons of RFK on the cover of the current Esquire, and recent stories in Vanity Fair, Life, and Newsweek. This younger generation of Kennedys has also given rise to a new crop of best-sellers, among them Sheila Rauch Kennedy’s Shattered Faith, Collier and Horwitz’s The Kennedys, and several others, appealing to readers who cannot seem to get enough of the House of Kennedy. There are well over a hundred books about the Kennedy family currently in print, many in their third or fourth edition. Dead Man Talking is the first insider account, however, of what it means to cross the Kennedys and incur their wrath.
At once a memoir and a piece of historical nonfiction, Dead Man Talking will combine the best features of both these genres to bring the reader into the inner workings of campaigns, dirty tricks, back rooms, bedrooms, courtrooms, and lay bare the devious workings of a propaganda machine that works night and day to hide the sordid truth behind a scrim of patriotic idealism, hero-worship, and religiosity. Think Angela’s Ashes meets The Dark Side of Camelot. Think Primary Colors without the veil of fiction.
I was there. By bringing to bear all the tools of dramatic writing, the reader will feel that he has been there too.
Beginning with the death of my cousin Michael Kennedy, the story unmasks the truth about the scandal and controversy that accompanied his last year, the subsequent cover-up, and my betrayal at the hands of the ruthless Kennedy political machine when I would no longer lie to hide the truth of my cousin’s behavior.
My attempt to understand what happened, to connect causes and consequences, then leads me to a family secret kept for two generations: that my mother’s father, an attorney, was betrayed, slandered and vilified, in almost precisely the same way, by Joseph P. Kennedy long before I was born. My maternal grandfather, a monogamous family man, found that he had unwittingly become dangerous by declining to take part in an orgy arranged by the Kennedy patriarch. Within days he was smeared in the press, slandered in an instance of character assassination very much like the one I suffered at the Kennedy family’s hands, and typical of tactics I saw employed again and again before my own fall from favor.
In the aftermath of my expulsion from the clan, I looked back with new eyes on the feuding, the mutual distrust, the competitive disdain between my father’s family, the Skakels, and the Kennedys. This ill will was merely arrested, not resolved, by my father’s sister Ethel’s marriage to Robert Kennedy. In trying to understand the love-hate relationship between these two parts of my family, whose histories and tragedies are inextricably entwined. I have had to confront the systemic dysfunction, at times surfacing as extreme pathology, that is common to both. I have come to see this dysfunction as the price of wealth and power in a society that worships romantic myth at the expense of truth.
My attempt to extricate myself from this trap of lies, secrets, and silence takes me back to my patrician boyhood in the exclusive enclave of Belle haven, in Greenwich Connecticut, and to the examination of its corrupted values and toxic lessons. For all its wealth, the Skakel family had all the problems of any family afflicted by chronic illness, alcoholism, and a repressive Catholic moral and sexual outlook. My struggle for identity and self-respect in the face of extreme and unrelenting cruelty, chaos and psycho pathology is really the struggle of many children of alcoholism, but in the case the Truth, the much-feared obvious, was further obscured by all the denial that money could buy.
A poor student whose undiagnosed dyslexia (I was at least diagnosed in my 20s) all but ensured repeated failure in school, I became my family’s scapegoat, ashamed, wondering if I was crazy. When I was twelve, my mother died, and in the aftermath and even more intense level of chaos came to rule our household. I became a full-blown daily-drinking alcoholic by the time I was thirteen.
On the night before Halloween, 1975, a neighbor and new friend of mine, Martha Moxley, was murdered near our home. My brother Tommy was considered the chief suspect. I was also questioned. This murder, the subject of a best-selling novel by Dominick Dunne, and renewed press and media attention, has had consequences for me to the present day. The recently published book, Murder in Greenwich by Mark Fuhrman, alleges that I am the murderer! I have seen fit, in this book , to recount that evening’s events as honestly as possible, to refute any and all suggestion that I had anything to do with Martha Moxley’s death, and to let the chips fall where they will.
I continued to careen and caroom through my life without an understanding of either dyslexia or alcoholism. After failing out of more than a dozen schools, and after several brushes with the law, I was sent to a reform school in Maine called Elan. It seemed to operate on the pedagogical principle that beatings, humiliation, and degradation are helpful tools in restoring teenagers’ self-esteem. (Later in the book I recount my efforts, with other former students, to close the place down.)
The turnaround came for me in my 20s when I found sobriety. Like many other alcoholics, my reputation by the time I sobered up was that of a five-star debaucher so when it was clear that I was in fact clean and sober and not merely "on the wagon" temporarily, I became an example of sorts to others in my family. My Kennedy Cousins watched me carefully. We’d done a good deal of drinking and carousing together, including trips "offshore" where we could drink without worrying about the press or that in the States we would have been under-age. Later, each would tell me that I had represented hope that there was another way to live.
David Kennedy’s first brush with death was the first time I found myself able to help. I threw myself into helping him not only because I had committed myself to helping other alcoholics, as my recovery program suggests, but because he was cousin and I was damned lonely being the only sober one among us.
The same weekend that I shepherded into treatment, Bobby Jr. was discovered strung out on heroin, a needle in his arm, in an airplane bathroom. Aware that I had been clean and sober for some time, and that I’d just gotten David on the path of sobriety, Bobby entered treatment saying, "if Skakel can get clean and still enjoy himself, what the hell, maybe there’s hope for me."
When David died of an overdose, it was terrible blow to me. I had felt closer to David than to anyone else in my family. During the period of his sobriety we were like brothers. We needed each other. We relied on each other. Nobody else saw so clearly the insanity, the pathology, the thickly layered alcoholic denial that distorted and twisted all the best intentions of the people we loved. When David relapsed, my aunt Ethel called me to see if I could get him into treatment. She insisted that David remain anonymous. I called every place I knew. None had any beds available. I felt desperate. I was sure that if I told them it was for David Kennedy, they’d relent. I knew how dire the situation was. I begged my aunt to let me use the Kennedy name. "No. Absolutely not," she said. "I’m not going to let him drag this family through the mud again." By the following evening, David was dead.
Not long after I embarked upon a life of sobriety, I was diagnosed with a severe learning disability. This was a tremendously uplifting time in my life – I had discovered that I was not crazy but alcoholic, and that I was not stupid, but dyslexic. Decades of shame, rage, and self-loathing seemed to fall away in a very short period. I enrolled at Curry College, a school with extensive programs for learning disabled students, and graduated four years later. I turned my love of both skiing and sped (I had already been to car-racing school) to speed-skiing and made the U.S. World Cup team. I spent a great deal of time with my cousins, Bobby, Chris, and Max Kennedy. Just as we had once pursued drinks, drugs, and thrills, now shared a commitment to sobriety and, I thought, to building a better world.
I settled down, got married, and began looking for work.
One day, I got a call from my cousin Michael asking if he could bring his family to our house in Windham for a weekend of skiing. Bobby, Chris, and Max had been coming to Windham and staying with us for years by then. I was happy to have him come, and I looked forward to getting to know him and his family a little better. My friendships with Bobby, Chris, and Max were close. We often went to 12-step meetings together. All three of them were ushers at my wedding. I was an usher at Bobby’s. I hope to become better acquainted with Michael, whom I knew to be fun-loving, energe3tic, witty and a great skier.
He arrived with his children, without his wife, and with a teenage babysitter, Marisa Verochi. As the weekend unfolded, two things became apparent – first, Michael was not in control of his drinking, and second, there was something not right about his interactions with the babysitter. At one point, both of them having a good deal to drink. Michael asked her for a backrub and lay on the sofa while she straddled him and rubbed lotion on him. My wife and I retreated to the bedroom, feeling awkward and somewhat alarmed.
Michael asked me to come and work on Senator Kennedy’s campaign. He emphasized that it would be a lot of fun, that we’d be working closely together, and that after the campaign, there’d be a good job waiting. I needed a job. I’d been interviewing for six months without an offer, and my self-esteem was sinking to a level I knew all too well. But I declined. I had my eye on a career in sports marketing, and I wasn’t yet ready to throw in the towel.
Over the next several weeks, Michael was persistent, calling me to nudge and cajole me to come to Massachusetts and help with the campaign. Finally, after a phone call I remember as especially convincing since I’d just been on another raft of interviews without success, I said yes. My wife was losing faith in me. I was going nowhere fast. Michael made it sound like a great adventure. Michael made most things sound like a great adventure.
The truth, as I would find out later, was that Michael desperately needed someone to replace a Kennedy lieutenant, Jimmy Recidlow, who had been accused of rape by a young college volunteer whose father was a wealthy campaign contributor. In order to assuage the father’s rage, it was agreed that Recidlow would have nothing further to do with Senator Kennedy’s campaign. The Kennedys found a quiet spot to hide Recidlow (whose sister, by the way, was sleeping with Michael) at that National Association of Government Employees. There, at N.A.G.E. he was in a position to provide them with inside intelligence on any number of potentially threatening political enemies.
Not long after the campaign, I was hired on at Citizens’ Energy Corporation, where I worked my way up to Director of International Programs traveling with Michael to Portugal, Cuba, Angola, Venezuela, Brazil, and elsewhere.
When Michael’s wife, Victoria Gifford Kennedy, caught him in bed with Marisa Verochi, I saw this along with his many other infidelities as the out-of control behavior of an alcoholic. I arranged for Michael to enter treatment for his alcoholism, and drove him there on the weekend of Rose Kennedy’s funeral.
The following year, in the midst of growing scandal, I convinced Michael to seek help for his sex addiction, and took him to treatment. Upon his return, he began stalking Marisa Verochi, frightening her and her family. She came to me for help. I asked Bobby and Joe to help and was refused. I brought Marisa to a therapist. Michael and I fought, bitterly. He claimed that I’d threatened him physically. H even tried to claim that I was the one who had been stalking Marisa Verochi in an attempt to smear and blackmail him. He dropped that strategem only when confronted with a security-camera videotape that showed him breaking and entering the private garage where Marisa kept her car. He was a desperate addict caught in a trap of his own devising. He had used up all his options. He was dangerous. How dangerous I was soon to find out.
As Michael’s image suffered in the press, as Joe Kennedy was forced to drop out of the Massachusetts gubernatorial race, as John F. Kennedy, Jr. referred to his cousins as "poster-boys for bad behavior", the timeless Kennedy strategy of circling the wagons and looking for a scapegoat began. They did not have to look very far.
Soon I was blindsided by a series of betrayals that were designed to assassinate my character and sacrifice me to the media in order to hide the sordid truth about my cousin’s addiction and its many secret consequences. I was already reeling from successive waves of disillusion when the scapegoating began. I had been taken in . All the idealistic talk was conceived as a useful mythology to hide reality, not only about Michael, but about his brother Joe, and even my aunt Ethel, who had been like a mother to me.
Called before the District Attorney in 1997, I chose, since I was the only one subpoenaed who did not have immunity to tell the truth of what I knew. In this book, I am expanding upon that truth, plumbing its dimensions, coming to understand its lessons, and offering what I have learned for the sake of others.
The necessity for the book and the intention giving rise to it. More than an expose, the book seeks to communicate the human complexity of the people, both famous and unknown, whom it portrays, and to show how unbridled privilege, alcoholism, and an idealistic mythology combine to hide the truth, destroy individuals, and distort public policy.
"Never!" my father would growl, his fingers in my face and his sour-sweet gin breath in my nostrils. "Never say the obvious. Never!"
Much of what is now obvious to me about the world in which I grew up, my class and family, including my cousins the Kennedys, was for most of my life so incongruent with the myths we all clung to, defended, and reinforced that I had hardly any way to apprehend it, let along speak it. Even now the memory of my father’s angry words in my reddening ears gives me pause, but I know too well, by now, the cost and consequence of lies and silence.
My own journey to the edge of despair and back has brought me to believe deeply in the saying "You’re only as sick as your secrets." I am a member of a family sick unto death with generations of secrets. I have seen wasted lives, tremendous pain, and needless death, and I have concluded that there is no escape from recurrent tragedy that does not begin with telling the truth. Though cynics may convince themselves otherwise, I tell this story, as truly as I possibly can, in the spirit of love and healing, for the sake of the future, not the past; for the living, not the dead.
Chapter 1: 12/31/97
I receive the news that my cousin, Michael Kennedy, had been killed while skiing at Aspen, a trip I would have been on under normal circumstances, had Michael and I not been fighting over the consequences of his scandalous behavior, including the statutory rape of a young girl who later came to me for help. My memories of other Aspen ski trips with the Kennedy family. Michael’s death opening the old grief-wound of David Kennedy’s fatal overdose. The story of my taking David to a treatment facility in Minnesota, and the family’s refusal to visit or take part in "family week" at the treatment center. Aunt Ethel calling me for help when David relapsed. How David’s death could have been prevented and why it wasn’t. My relationship with Michael, with my aunt Ethel, with my other cousins. Family conflicts and estrangement in the days leading up to Michael’s funeral.
Chapter 2: The Campaign That Never Ends
Why I agreed to work with Michael on Senator Edward Kennedy’s campaign. Inside the Kennedy campaign. My brief career in commercial real estate: in retrospect, the first time I was used as a pawn in a Kennedy power game. My work as Director of International Programs for Citizens’ Energy. Traveling with Michael to Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Angola, Portugal, and elsewhere. Trying to play the "good lieutenant" and protect him from the press as rumors began to circulate about his relationship with Marisa Verrochi, daughter of a powerful Massachusetts Democrat, and his children’s teenage babysitter. Interceding with his wife, Victoria Gifford Kennedy, to save his marriage after she had discovered him in bed with the young girl on the weekend Rose Kennedy died. Getting Michael into treatment for alcoholism.
All the while that Michael was in treatment, I was trying to save his marriage. As a recovering alcoholic, I had seen some very unlikely people turn themselves around. I was one of them. I believed that Michael, Vicki, and their kids all deserved another chance. I spent every evening for about three weeks at Michael and Vicki’s home. I brought her books about alcoholism, videotapes of Father Martin lectures, tapes of Melody Beattie talking about codependence and family systems. Vicki cried and raged. "I love him!" she’d declare one moment and the next she’d be planning to leave him, saying she hated him, fantasizing about hiring some guys to teach him a lesson.
"Look, Vicki," I told her, "Michael has never had his shot at being sober. He doesn’t know who he is sober. Give this some time. You look at me and see a friend, dependable, honest, faithful to his wife. But you put booze or drugs in my system and I’m none of those things anymore. I can’t be trusted. I’m not reliable. And I’m sure as hell not faithful. So please, give him this chance. If she doesn’t stay sober, then give him the boot. But give him this chance."
She agreed. And also agreed to let Michael visit with her and the children in Vail later that month on the condition that I supervise him.
I arranged for her to stay at the Tivoli Lodge, owned by a friend of mine from car racing school, Buddy Lazar. Like me, Buddy, who went on to become the youngest driver every to win the Indy 500, is dyslexic. He was a schoolmate of mine at Curry College.
I also arranged for Michael and I to stay at his uncle Steven Smith’s condo a couple of hundred yards away. By the third night we were there, Vicki and the kids moved out of the Tivoli and in with us.
I was shepherding Michael to 12-step meetings every day. The family was back together. I remember one night going into my room and hearing Vicki and Michael and the kids all laughing together in the living room, and I felt so good I started crying. It was just the way I’d hoped and prayed it would work out.
At least that’s what I thought.
Chapter 3: Open Secrets
Returning from Maryland where I’ve taken Michael, I attend Rose Kennedy’s wake. Joe Kennedy takes me aside (ironically in David Kennedy’s old bedroom) and asks where I’ve taken Michael. Told, he replies, laughing, "Michael doesn’t have a booze problem! Michael has a pee-pee problem! What happened? Did he get caught fucking that babysitter?" Another woman, a campaign worker, calls me, claiming to be pregnant with Michael’s child. I convince her to have an abortion, get money, $2000, from Michael. Later, she decides to have the child. Michael demands his money back.
Everyone knew it, but no one said anything about it. I didn’t either. But even Michael’s children were aware of what was going on.
It was obvious. Once, on a rafting trip, we were all sitting around the fire preparing dinner when Michael and Marisa suddenly emerged from the woods. Somebody yelled out, "Where have you two been?"
Marisa turned to Michael, winked, and said, "Yeah where have you been?" Everyone laughed. My eyes met Michael Jr.’s He was not only not laughing, but the depth of pain and confusion in his eyes frightened me. What a burden for a thirteen-year-old kid to have to carry. What does he do, I thought, when he gets home and his mother asks him if he had a good time with his Dad?
It is a deadly game of silence and lies and secrets, and it has a life of its own, drawing in new players too young to have a choice whether to play or not.
After that rafting weekend, one of the women on the trip who had seen what was going on told a friend of hers, who in turn told June Verocchi, Marisa’s mother. June called Paul, Marisa’s father, in Washington where he had gone to meet with Vice President Gore about an ambassadorship to Italy. He canceled the meeting and come home to Cohasset. That night they confronted Marisa. She denied it. Then she called Michael.
I was out sailing with Max Kennedy and Michael Mailer, and a Harvard student named Ethan who’d been hired to crew. I got a call from Michael on my cell phone.
"Where the hell are you? You get your ass back here, Skakel! Jesus, the shit’s about to hit the fan! This is your fault, damn it! Your wife has been talking to people about this, damn it. You get your ass aback here and straighten out this mess."
I figured he was just panicked. I tried to calm him down. "Look, Michael. You knew you were going to get caught. Didn’t I tell you? So cut the crap about ‘This is your fault, Skakel,’ and listen to me. What do you hear from Paul and June?"
"Nothing. Marisa denied it. They believe her."
"OK. So think. You just dodged another bullet, Michael. What do you have to do?"
"I have to stop."
"Right. I don’t care who you fuck, OK? But this is wrong. This is a kid. You have to stop."
But of course, he didn’t.
Chapter 4: A Boyhood Above the Clouds
The Skakel family returns, in June 1969, in our private plane, from the first anniversary memorial for RFK at Arlington. My family’s love-hate relationship with the Kennedys. The rags-to-riches story of my grandfather, George Skakel Sr., who founded the Great Lakes Carbon Company and revolutionized the world’s aluminum industry vs. the whiskey-running gangsterism of Joseph Kennedy. The story of Joseph P. Kennedy’s calumny and slander against my mother’s father. Memories of that day with my aunt Ethel and my cousins. My terror when my father insists, over the pilot’s objections, that we fly back from Washington in a thunderstorm. Airstruck from turbulence, I wonder what will happen if lightning strikes the plane. While praying silently, I hear my mother saying in a frightened voice that this is how my grandparents and later my uncle George died. Death is palpable to my nine year old’s mind. We land in Greenwich. The exclusive world of Belle Haven. Introduction of my siblings. The family servants. Private boats and planes. Our own private ski area in Windham, New York. Our own baseball team: The Atlanta Braves. Meeting Hank Aaron. Genteel racism. Jean Claude Killy presides over my sister’s birthday party at Windham. The Florida compound at Longboat Key. Touring NASA with John Glenn. First indications of the high price of unreality. Alcoholism, Violence. Neglect. Abuse. Repeated injuries. Hiding in my closet, looking for safety, needing the darkness and quiet.
My early schooling. Reading difficulties. Severe dyslexia that would not be accurately diagnosed until I was 26. Shame. Removal to St. Mary’s School. Failure not an option for a Skakel. Mother enrolls me in Persons Reading School. It’s obvious: I’m stupid. Shame. My father’s lectures become spankings become beatings. My brother Tommy follows suit, bullying and terrorizing me with my father’s tacit consent. I continue to fail in school. My mother becomes ill. My father’s drinking. The daily appointment with my father before the bell for dinner – adults in one dining room, children in another. My father’s relations with her sister and other members of the Kennedy family. His devout Catholicism. My friends and I, age 10, discover a cache of Playboy magazines. I struggle to understand sex. A neighbor tries to rape me, and I get away. Shame. My father discovers my friends and me with the magazines, and I learn my mother is dying. We pray, in vain, for her recovery. Relics are brought from all over the world. Just after my twelfth birthday, she dies, and to my frightened guilty mind it is obvious that I killed her.
All the way home we’d been rough-housing on the bus my father bought for us to go back and forth from Greenwich to Windham. My brother Rushton Jr. drove while we threw sneakers at one another, fought and mooned other cars out the windows. As we came through the gate we saw cars parked all along both sides of the drive. Here and there people were walking across the lawn. We were suddenly silent.
We slowed in front of the house, and before we’d come to a full stop there was a banging on the door. Rush pulled the lever, the door hissed open, and my father stepped up into the bus and faced us. "Well," he said, "you know what happened. She’s dead." Then he turned and got off the bus. We all just sat there in the dark.
I knew what had happened. No one else. It was between me and God. I had tried not to think the terrible thoughts that kept intruding as the rosary droned on and our singsong prayers wafted up with the incense, but I couldn’t help it. I chased them away by pinching my beads harder and concentrating on the words of the prayers, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen," but they kept coming back. I’m sick of going to church after dinner every night. This is stupid. It’s obvious my mom is going to die. And after a while, the thought, the wish, the prayer that rose and had reached God’s ears: I want my mother to die so things will change. I had killed my mother.
Chapter 6: 10/30/75: Murder Most Foul
The murder of Greenwich teen Martha Moxley. The character of Halloween and "mischief night." Booze and drugs. The who, what, when, where, how of that evening’s surreal, nightmarish, and ultimately tragic events. Repudiation of various press accounts of that evening, including the account by Mark Fuhrman in his new book, Murder in Greenwich, which attempts to prove I was the murderer. My relationship with Martha. Why I lied to investigators. Where I really was and what I really did. The investigation’s continuing impact on my family. The personal and psychological consequences of that evening include the necessity for ongoing therapy, continuing painful suspicion by the community, estrangement from several of my siblings, and a public vulnerability that has allowed others, particularly the Kennedy family, and now Mark Fuhrman to cast me as the scapegoat whenever it suits their purposes.
Looking back, I’d have to say that my brothers and I were pretty wild, especially when it came to Halloween. Halloween was our favorite holiday of the year, better than Christmas, better than New Year’s, better than Fourth of July. In fact, my brothers and I used to stockpile our Fourth of July fireworks to use on October 30th – mischief night – which was the best part of Halloween. Mischief night meant setting off fireworks, soaping windows, greasing doorknobs, throwing eggs. There was nothing really malicious about it. It was all pranks and laughter. It was sheer fun.
My father was away on a hunting trip that Halloween, in 1975. He’d gone to Gil Wayman’s house in Cambridge, New York. Gil had a private 600 acre preserve and my father was among his frequent guests. He’d left on Thursday and wasn’t coming back until Sunday, and had left us in the charge of Ken Littleton who had only that week been hired as our live-in tutor. Littleton scared me. He was the football coach at school, a swaggering tough guy who could glare a hold right through you. Humorless and cold, he had a weird quiet way about him that disturbed me.
Probably on my father’s instructions, and certainly on my father’s tab, Littleton took us all to the Belle Haven Club for dinner that night. When the waiter came around I ordered a rum and tonic. I tried to look nonchalant and waited for Littleton’s veto. It never came. About the third drink I began to think that this live-in tutoring might work out nicely. Here I was having just turned 15 years old, ordering rum and tonics and planter’s punch with the football coach in this swanky club, and no one batted an eye! I looked around at my brothers Rush, Tommy, and David, my sister Julie and her friend Andrea Shakespeare, my cousin Jimmy Terrien, and Ken Littleton, and I began to form an idea. I would become Littleton’s drinking buddy. I would get in good with him, and he would make my life a lot easier by getting the other teachers to lay off me.
After dinner, we went back to the house. We were all drinking my father’s booze, hanging around, playing Backgammon, and feeling like – at least trying to act like – grown ups. This turned out to be pretty boring though so after a while we began to chase each other around, whoo0ping and giving out "noogies" to each other and knocking things over. Then my cousin Jimmy suggested that we go over to his house to watch a new show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, that was supposed to be really funny and was going on the air for the first time that night. He also said he had some great pot over at his place.
We had some more to drink, and after a while Martha Moxley, Geoffrey Byrne, Helen Ix, Marjorie Walker, and Jackie Wettenhall came by to see what we were all going to do for mischief. I remember standing in the kitchen drinking with Littleton and telling him that I thought Martha was really pretty. "Yeah, she’s hot!" he said. After a while I saw her through the window, standing a little aside from the others, so I went out and asked her if she wanted to hang out and smoke a cigarette in my father’s Lincoln.
We called my father’s Lincoln "the lust-mobile." After my mother died, my father really went off the deep end trying to impress women with his money and with what he thought was his impeccable taste. He bought the Lincoln and had a sun-roof put in it. He had a machine-shop remove the Lincoln ornament from the front and replace it with a five-thousand dollar Lalique eagle, and then he had them mount a little light under it. We used to joke around, never within his hearing, that we were going to buy him some fuzzy dice for the rear-view mirror.
While we sat in the Lincoln, I tried to convince Martha to come to the Terrien’s with us. I really liked her. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted her to be my girlfriend, but I was going slow, being careful. The truth is that with Martha I felt a little shy. I thought that maybe if we spent the evening together at my cousin’s something romantic might develop between us. Maybe we could hang out there if she wanted. She seemed to like me. I told her there was a new English show that was supposed to be hilarious.
"I can’t," she said. "My Mom gave me a curfew. I have to be home by nine."
"Come on! Nine o’clock? That’s ridiculous! It’s mischief night! Come on, come with us. We’ll have a blast!"
"I can’t," she said. Then she touched me, on the shoulder. "Tomorrow night, though. OK?"
Tomorrow night, she’d said. She’d touched me. It was a promise. I nearly swooned with joy.
"We’ll go nuts and trash this town," she said and smiled.
"Great!" To try to get a kiss then would have ruined everything. Tomorrow night, I thought. Tomorrow night I’ll kiss her.
"Hey! Hey, you guys! It’s time to go!" My brothers Rush, David, and Johnny and my cousin Jimmy opened the doors. "It’s coming on in fifteen minutes, man. Let’s go."
Martha got out. I jumped in the back with David and Johnny. Jimmy drove, with Rush riding shotgun. I waved to Martha, my brother Tommy, Helen, Jackie, Marjorie, and Geoffrey at the back door of the house as we pulled away.
We headed over to Terrien’s fifteen or twenty miles away. Jimmy always liked to race, to time himself from one place to another. He always had to beat his best time. He was running all the lights, driving like maniac.
I wished Martha’d come with us. At Terrien’s you never had to worry about anything. My cousins’ stepfather was a drunk, and he was always away in New York, living at the New York Athletic Club or shacking up with his latest mistress. My aunt Georgeanna was also drunk all the time and she pretty much kept op her own wing of the house. They had a huge castle-like place. We could do anything. We were basically on our own. I always felt good there. My father couldn’t get at me, and my brother Tommy couldn’t give me a hard time either; it wasn’t his turf. I felt safe there.
It was great. We smoked a lot of pot and drank some more and laughed through the whole Python show. Afterward I wandered off to my older cousin Johnny’s room. He was away somewhere. His room was a kid’s fantasy, so big it had a balcony, and an oval section with about twenty windows that looked out over a meadow and an orchard. He had a king-size bed with two life-size statues of palace guards, the Beefeaters, on either side. There were three big TV sets stacked on top of one another, and a movie screen that dropped down. In one corner was an old upright honky-tonk piano like the ones I’d seen in Westerns, but the front had been replaced by plexiglass so you could see the hammers hit the strings. God, I wished I could have brought Martha here, I thought.
I lay on the bed, flanked by the stalwart Beefeaters, thinking of her. I loved this room. I was sleepy with booze and pot. I wanted to fall asleep. I wanted to stay the night, but how would I get back the next day? And the next day would become tomorrow night and I would see Martha. I roused myself.
My brother Rush decided to drive us home. He was really hammered. Johnny, David, and I all rod in the back seat since neither of us trusted him to get us home in one piece. We got out of the Terrien’s driveway and on up to Cliffdale Road, about a half mile. Then we turned onto River View Road, but after about 300 yards, Rush pulled over, put the car in park, and fell asleep.
Johnny took the wheel even though he didn’t have a license. He managed to get us home.
No one was around. All the lights were out in the house and…I went upstairs. My sister Julie’s bedroom door was closed so I figured her friends had gone home. The TV was on in the master bedroom, but nobody was there. I went to the kitchen and got something to eat, then I headed up to bed.
I couldn’t settle down. A part of me really wanted to go to sleep but I was keyed up, nervous and horny. After a little while longer, still unable to fall asleep, I kicked off the covers and decided, "Fuck it. I’m going back out."
Chapter 7: Elan, or "Boldness of Spirit"
Still failing school Dismissed from several high schools. The "hippie" Vershire School: drug central. I lose my virginity to a 30 year old teacher. I quit. My shame, despair, and alcoholism. Drunken car crash in Windham. Forcible removal to reform school: Elan. "A concentration camp for kids." Synanon model. "Aversive therapy." Brutality, public humiliation, indoctrination, inhumanity. Interviews with others who were there. The 4-foot dunce cap. The sign around my neck: I am an arrogant rich brat. Confront me on why I murdered my friend Martha. My cousin Michael Kennedy my one and only visitor. My escape. Hiding from the dogs. The journey home. I am disbelieved. My father sends me back.
I slept till about nine thirty. When I woke I went into the kitchen where the bottle of gin and my glass sat on the counter from the night before. I filled the glass, looked in the fridge for some orange juice to splash in it, stirred it with my finger. Halfway to the living room, glass in one hand, bottle in the other, I raised my glass in a wordless toast to nobody. The first drink of the day is the worst one, but the best one too because once you get it to stay down, the day is possible. Maybe the cops were right, I thought. Maybe I was trying to kill myself. Maybe I ought to. At least this time I’d left school by choice without being thrown out. I sat at the backgammon table by the big plate glass window and looked out of the mountain. It was Monday, everybody was gone, back to their jobs, their families, their lives. The other kids were all gone back to school I realized that almost the whole season had gone by and I’d skied maybe half a dozen times. What the hell was wrong with me?
I sat there for a long time, smoking and drinking and lining up the cigarette filters along the windowsill like toy soldiers or something. I remember staring at the label, at the guy in the brocade and muttonchops. Mutton. Never ate it, I thought. A sheep. Not me. I’m a Beefeater. Ha! They guard the palace. I took another drink from the bottle, held it up. So here they are, the fucking Beefeaters. Guarding the palace. Protecting the king and queen. Two genies in the bottle. Spirits. Ha! You can’t see them, though. They’re secret. They’re disguised. They look like water. Ha! Another swallow and I felt protected, safe, as the familiar feeling lifted me, rocked me gently held me.
I heard footsteps. Somebody was in the house. My brother Tommy? Shit My father?
"Michael? Where are you, Michael?" It was Tom Sheridan, my father’s lawyer. "Michael. There you are."
"You want a drink?" Nothing. "Well, fuck it then. I’ll have another one. Have a seat." He didn’t sit down. I refilled my glass. Your father’s made a decision. You have to go back to school."
"Not to Vershire. To another place, in Maine."
"It’s a great place for you. They’ve got skiing. White-water rafting. Rock climbing. The school has a great reputation for working with kids like you."
"I thought you wanted to go back to school?"
"Of course, I want to go back to school. I want to graduate at least from fucking high school."
"It’s the middle of the term. What school is going to take me in the middle of the final term? Forget it."
"So you’re refusing?"
"No. I’m not refusing."
"Because it’s all set up already. Nothing for you to worry about. Just pack your stuff."
"Hold on a minute. This isn’t right. I don’t know anything about this place. Why should I just pack up and go some fucking place I don’t know anything about?"
"So you’re refusing?"
"You are. You’re refusing."
"No. I want to know more."
"Your father wants you to pack and go. Today."
"Go where, God damn it!"
"Fine. You refuse. I don’t have time for this." He walked backwards, his palms up, holding his shoulders in a shrug. He turned, went down the stairs, muttering, and slammed the door on his way out."
I’d blown it again. What was I supposed to say? Before I even know what’s going on, I’m wrong. I’m always fucking wrong. That’s a given. I looked at the Beefeaters. The Guards. Ha! I poured. No orange juice in the glass by now. Another swallow. Out the window a lone skier slalomed down the mountain.
I lit a cigarette, smoked it, lit another from it, and stood the filter in the row with the others. Then I heard the door open, and what sounded like an army coming up the stairs. It was Sheridan, and there were four guys with him. The first guy up the stairs was wearing a lumberjack shirt. The guy behind him had a bomber jacket and sunglasses on. Another guy had a huge Afro . Bringing up the rear was a guy about six foot two; later I’d learn his name was Joe Carrier. They surrounded me.
"Why don’t you use an ashtray, man?"
"What’s going on here? Who are you guys?"
"These gentlemen," Tom Sheridan said, "are here to talk to you about the Pinehenge School in Maine."
"You always drink in the morning?" the lumber jack asked me.
"You want one? Anybody?" I held out the bottle.
"Look, kid, we don’t want trouble," said the bombardier. "Tom says you have some questions for us." He took off his Ray-Bans. His eyes were bloodshot. "Personally, if I were you, I’d can the questions and come along."
"Hold on a minute," Carrier said. "The kid’s got questions. Wouldn’t you?"
"I don’t have time for this," Tom Sheridan put in.
They all kept glancing back and forth among themselves and I knew I had to get out of this.
"Where’s he think he’s going?" Afro asked, looking at me. "You want to stay here getting drunk in your bathrobe till you shit yourself? You want to wreck another car, maybe kill somebody this time? Maybe it’s jail you want. Do you want a taste of jail? Is that it?"
"Just let me get dressed," I said. I went downstairs to my bedroom and my brother David came in, looking as scared as me. I locked the door.
"What’s going on?"
"Jesus, man, I don’t know. These guys are upstairs and they want to take me away somewhere." I was putting on my clothes when the lumberjack threw himself against the door and broke in.
"You’re coming with me, you little motherfucker." He got me in a headlock with my arm up behind my back. "You come with me or I’ll break your fuckin’ arm. You hear me?"
"I want a different lawyer!" I screamed. "Sheridan! You’re fired! You hear me? You work for my family, you bastard. You can’t do this! You’re fired! Now! I’m firing you! Your hear me?" Sheridan stood on the stairs watching, shaking his head.
Soon we were in a twin engine plane, the four goons and me. I sat handcuffed, and looked out the window at the terrain, trying to figure out where we were headed. They all had headphones on and paid no attention to me. When we landed at the airport in Poland Springs, Maine, there was van waiting on the tarmac. "Where are we going?" I asked.
"We had enough of you, man."
"Just shut the fuck up."
After a short ride we passed through a security gate and on up a dirt road to a building where I would go through "intake."
The first thing I noticed was that people were screaming. Everywhere throughout the building people were screaming obscenities. The kids my age had signs around their necks. I couldn’t read them. The good behind me kept shoving where he wanted me to go. He shoved me up the stairs and into a room. A man behind a desk got up, walked around and leaned against the front of the desk with his arms folded. He just stared at me for a long time. I tried to see in his eyes if he was somehow benign and trying to help me, unlike the thugs that had brought me here. I couldn’t read him. "Why do you think you’re here?" he asked me.
"I don’t know. Because I have a problem with alcohol?"
"He threw his head back and laughed. Then he jabbed two fingers into my chest. "Let me tell you something. There’s no such thing as ‘a problem with alcohol.’ You got that? You, my friend, are here because you’re slime. Because you’re an arrogant little asshole. That’s why you’re here. Because you’re slime.
"Take him and strip him."
I had landed in hell.
Chapter 8: The Road Back
Continued drinking. Failed attempts to stop. Accidents and injuries. "Hitting bottom." A voice inside me. Asking for help. After three months sobriety in a recovery program, I know I will need more help. St. Mary’s Treatment Center in Minnesota. The generosity of strangers. Car racing school in California. An accurate diagnosis of my dyslexia. Entry into Curry College. Graduation. Speed skiing. Marking the US World Cup team. I resume my relationships with my Kennedy cousins, especially Bobby, Chris and Max, this time with sobriety as our common bond. My attempts to have Elan shut down. The Maine Attorney General’s investigation of Elan. Marriage: Bobby, Chris and Max Kennedy are ushers. A new beginning.
Chapter 9: Firestorm at Citizens’ Energy
The truth comes to light. Trying to get Joe and Bobby to intervene. Running political interference. Michael’s behavior also a betrayal of Marisa’s father who had treated him like a son since RFK’s assassination. Attempting "damage control" with Marisa’s mother. Taking Michael to sex addiction treatment in Pennsylvania. After treatment Michael stalks Marisa. For several weeks, he denies his behavior, saying I am framing him. Finally, he is caught on a security camera videotape, breaking into the garage where Marisa’s car is parked, and placing an artificial penis on her windshield. When his brothers can no longer deny what’s going on, Bobby says to me, "Oh my God, he’s just like Willie!" Questioned further, he tells me that William Kennedy Smith was guilty of rape, that his acquittal was the result of Kennedy power.
Chapter 10: Something to Hide, Someone to Ride
Helping Marisa into therapy. The Kennedys close ranks. "Circling the wagons to protect the cesspool." Ethel Kennedy invites me to lunch. Representative Joseph Kennedy calls from his congressional office to urge me to lie. My refusal to slander Marisa in the press. Michael’s rage. My banishment from Citizens’ Energy. I’m called to appear before the Preliminary Grand Jury. Just before the date of my testimony, I am slandered in the press in the same way as my grandfather had been. I decide to tell the whole sordid story.
Ethel asked me to meet her for lunch the week before Christmas at the Boston Harbor Hotel. "OK," she said, taking a quick look around, "this is dead man talking, Michael. I know the whole story. All of it. I invited you here to thank you for keeping this out of the press. Sometimes I don’t know what this family would do without you." She reached across the table and put her hand on mine.
All I could think was that she was pitifully mistaken. What she meant, no doubt, was that she knew that Michael had first had sex with Marisa when she was fourteen. I doubted that she knew of her "other" grandchildren, or any of the rest of what I knew. By then I knew enough to doubt that any of us knew the whole story.
Certainly Joe and Bobby knew a great deal. Earlier, in October, at the Annual RFK memorial Golf Tournament and Fund Raiser, I had tried to enlist their help. Marisa had been calling me and pleading with me to keep Michael away from her. He was obsessed. He wouldn’t leave her alone. She’d become afraid of him.
Joe was already telling the press that Michael was going to run his campaign for governor of Massachusetts. I told Joe and Bobby that Michael was about to self-destruct. I suggested we do an intervention of some kind. I told Joe that I thought Michael was dangerous to his campaign that he was harassing Marisa. They had known about her for a long time. It was an open secret as early as Senator Kennedy’s 1992 campaign.
"I don’t see how that’s any of your business," Bobby said.
"My brother can fuck anybody he wants," said Joe.
I also acted as liaison to the other Democrats in New England, and it was becoming more and more difficult to put off their requests for Michael to stump for them. I tried to substitute other speakers. The Kerry campaign was calling and asking for him. "We need Michael," they kept saying. Finally I took aside a guy I know and told him what was going on and what a time bomb Michael was.
A few weeks later Marisa came to me and asked for my help. I took her to a psychotherapist in Cambridge. Not long after that she called to tell me her therapist was urging her to tell her parents the truth.
"You won’t be mad at me, will you?"
"Why would I be mad at you? Marisa, you need to do what’s right for you."
"Yes, but this has been going on a lot longer than you think. Will you support me?"
"Oh, my God," Michael said. "Oh Jesus, I’m going to jail! How could you do this to me, Skakel? Who the fuck do you think you are? You’ve gone off the fucking reservation! What the fuck do you think you’re doing taking Marisa to a therapist? I had her under control. Now you fucked everything up. Everything! Wait. What if I got Vicki pregnant? What do you think? If we had another kid on the way, they wouldn’t put me in jail, would they? Would they? And that would take Vicki’s mind off all this for a while too."
Michael’s next move was typical. There was a guy who had worked in the Senator’s campaign named Jimmy Recidlow who might be able to help. Recidlow who had been accused of raping a young campaign volunteer whose father was a wealthy Democrat. It was agreed to keep everything quiet as long as Recidlow left the campaign. Someone on the campaign got Recidlow a job at NAGE, the National Association of Government Employees. NAGE includes the FBI, ATF, CIA and all the State Police Departments, everyone who’s a government agent.
"Get Recidlow on the phone!" Michael said. "Right now. Tell him to dig some dirt on Paul Verrochi, see if there’s a file on him. Maybe he beats his wife or something. Tell him to get something."
Next think I know, I’m reading in the papers that "the young woman’s family has declined to pursue the matter."
The morning of the Preliminary Grand Jury Investigation, I came out of my house and there were reporters everywhere, satellite trucks, lights, cameras. Of the four people testifying that day, Michael, Vicki, Marisa, and me, I was the only one who couldn’t plead the Fifth Amendment.
That morning’s Boston Herald convinced me what to do. An article by jack Sullivan purported to have the inside scoop on Michael Skakel, a suspect in an old, unsolved murder and a chauffeur for the Kennedy family, who was trying to extort a quarter million dollars from them by fabricating a story about Michael and the family babysitter. Clearly the family was taking no chances on me.
I should probably have seen it coming. Earlier, when the truth could no longer be hidden, Michael had instructed me to tell the press that Marisa was promiscuous little slut who had come on to him, been rebuffed, and was angry. I refused. Later, Joe called me from his office in Congress. "What are your memories of what I said to you about all this?" he wanted to know.
I recounted them.
"Oh, my God. I said that? Look, Michael, I need you to say that neither of us knew anything about this. Can I count on you? Can I count on you to say that you are certain I never knew anything about? God damn it, I need to know! Can I count you?"
I told him I would simply reply to questions with "No comment." Evidently that wasn’t good enough. A half hour later the phone in my office was dead, and all my Citizens’ Energy credit cards had been canceled; a half hour after that and The Boston Herald was getting the story that would run the next morning: Michael Skakel, a chauffeur for the Kennedys was trying to extort money from them by making up lies about Michael Kennedy and an under-age girl.
Whatever one may think of loyalty such as mine, whether it seems laudable or immoral, or just plain foolish, I had been prepared to do time. Though I did not want to lie, I would have kept silence and gone to jail if necessary. For Michael. For the Kennedys. For the myth. For the memory of a day in Aspen when I came down with a fever and my aunt Ethel sat by my bedside, soothing me with a cool cloth on my forehead, a hand on my cheek and a soft maternal concern on her face. But that morning’s paper had finally slapped me awake.
I told the DA everything I knew.
Epilogue: Longboat Key, 1998
A visit with my father. An encounter with Ethel. History repeats itself as Joe of Citizens’ Energy and others, no longer useful, are discarded. Speculation about the real reasons for Joe’s decision not to run for reelection. My uncle Jimmy Skakel’s funeral where Wild Bill Donovan reassures me that I will survive the slander. A meeting with Bobby Kennedy. The rift between the Kennedys and Skakels widens.
Michael Skakel is a graduate of Curry College, a former member of the U.S. World Cup Speed Skiing Team, and the former Director of International Programs for Citizens’ Energy Corporation.
Richard Hoffman is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Half the House, published in 1995 by Harcourt, Brace. Publisher’s Weekly called Half the House a "moving boyhood memoir," and Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post wrote that it "offers heartening evidence, to borrow William Faulkner’s phase, of the human capacity to endure and prevail." In this "spare, poignant" work (Time) the author depicts his family’s struggle to care for his two dying brothers and his own harrowing coming-of-age. Moving from darkness to light, from grief and rage to understanding, Half the House "is ultimately a story of love, reconciliation, and triumph over adversity," (Library Journal) and "as stark and graceful as a bare winter tree." (Los Angeles Times) Mr. Hoffman’s work has appeared in Hudson Review, Bostonia, New Age Journal, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere, as well as in several anthologies. He has been awarded fellowships from the New Jersey Council on the Arts for poetry, the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation for non-fiction prose, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council for fiction.
Author’s note: Dead Man Talking: A Kennedy Cousin Comes Clean will be approximately 90,000 words in length, and we anticipate that it will take 9 months to complete.
Dead Man Talking: A Kennedy Cousin Comes Clean, the first account by an insider of the avarice, perversion, and gangersterism of "America’s Royal Family," will reveal: