Joe Gargan, in the movie Chappaquiddick, is cast at the once loyal Kennedy cousin whose allegiance frays under the weight of the tragedy’s moral consequences.
In the movie, Sen. Edward “Teddy” Kennedy continually evokes the mantle of family when referring to Gargan, even equating him to another brother. The senator by that point, of course, was reeling from the sequential loss of all three of his blood brothers, Joe, John, and Bobby. Ed Helms plays Joseph Gargan in the film.
Chappaquiddick features the real-life story of the car crash that took the life of Bobby Kennedy’s former secretary Mary Jo Kopechne, doomed to die in a watery grave, a horrific event that derailed Ted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations, although not his lengthy career in the U.S. Senate. The closing sequence informs viewers that Gargan became estranged from the Kennedy family and sank into a life of privacy. In the movie, he is portrayed as the loyal fixer and friend, continually at Teddy’s side. He is also portrayed as the one man who realizes: This is wrong.
That has a lot of people wondering: Who was Joseph Gargan in real life? What happened to him after Chappaquiddick? Where is the Kennedy cousin now and how does he fit in the Kennedy family tree?
It’s true that Gargan hosted the fatal party on Chappaquiddick island. He died in December 2017 in Virginia, before the movie’s release. He was related to the Kennedy family through the matriarch, Rose Kennedy and he was indeed Teddy Kennedy’s first cousin.
According to Biography.com, Joe Gargan was son of Agnes, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s younger sister. His obituary says he was “born February 16, 1930 to Joseph and Mary Agnes (Fitzgerald) Gargan in Boston, MA.” Here’s a photo of a younger Gargan with the Kennedys.
He was only two years older than Teddy Kennedy and was close to him due to summers spent at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, the site reports. (The movie also sticks close to real life by featuring Paul Markham, a former U.S. attorney, as being present with Gargan and Ted Kennedy that night. Both Gargan and Markham did try to no avail to rescue Kopechne from the submerged car. According to The Smithsonian, Kennedy took 10 hours to report the accident in real life and questions on the incident remained muddled to the end of his days.)
Gwen Kopechne, the mother of Mary Jo, was critical of Gargan and Markham, according to The Smithsonian. “Gargan and Markham not only failed to get immediate help, but also let the senator swim back alone to report the accident from Edgartown,” she said, according to The Smithsonian. “This is the big hurt, the nightmare we have to live with for the rest of our lives: that Mary Jo was left in the water for nine hours. She didn’t belong there.”
Gargan was 87 when he died. His obituary on Legacy.com is filled with comments such as, “I remember working with Joe when I was an advance man for JFK. He was a joy to be with and my thoughts and prayers are with his family.” Wrote another friend, “He was always grateful for the life he lived and the many people who cared for him over the years. He cared for many people in distress and spent countless hours ministering to them. I’m sure he is resting in peace with the Lord whom he loved.”
Others wrote that Gargan helped those struggling with alcoholism. “Joe was always a beacon of hope to those overcoming alcoholism at the morning meeting held at Our Lady of Victory. He will be missed. So sorry for your loss. God Bless you & Godspeed Joe!” wrote one woman in the condolence section.
Gargan was trained as a lawyer. According to his obituary, he “followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in the University of Notre Dame, where he received his undergraduate (1952) and law (1955) degrees. He was a proud alumnus and avid Irish football fan, and was rarely without his Notre Dame hat. It was at Notre Dame where he met his wife of 63 years, Betty Hurstel, who he married in 1955.”
He worked as a trial lawyer and then worked as an advance man for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. According to his obituary, he was a first assistant U.S. Attorney and worked on Ted Kennedy’s Senate campaigns in both 1962 and 1964. He also was the chairman of Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign but returned to law practice after Bobby’s assassination. “Joe was dedicated to helping those who suffer from alcohol addiction and substance abuse. He was also a devout Catholic and deeply committed to his faith,” the obituary reads.
According to The Boston Globe, a 1988 interview Gargan gave cast light on the machinations that occurred after the car plunged into the waters and did not cast Ted Kennedy in a favorable light. Gargan “claimed that Kennedy wanted to create a scenario in which Gargan would ‘discover’ the accident and inform the police that Kopechne had left the party alone and driven off the bridge. Gargan heatedly rejected the plan,” the Globe reported.