This Is The First Person Ted Kennedy Called After His Chappaquiddick Crash

"The Kennedy Curse," as it's been called, was on full display in the 1960s. In 1963, even before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy's newborn died after 39 hours of life (via People). Five years later, in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot like his brother before him (per History). And one year after that, Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into the water around Chappaquiddick Island near Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. He survived, but his passenger — secretary and campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne — did not.

Ted Kennedy's car accident led to a police investigation in the short term and more than its fair share of suspicion, intrigue, and innuendo in the long term. After all, there are a lot of odd facts surrounding the case, as History describes. Ted, for instance, didn't report what happened for 10 hours. He'd left a family-and-friends party on Chappaquiddick with Kopechne sometime after 11:00 p.m. on July 18, 1969, to drive back to a ferry to go back to Edgartown on the mainland. After the crash, Ted reportedly enlisted the help of his cousin Joe Gargan and another friend to dive down into the water to try to find Kopechne, but to no avail. Then at 2:25 a.m., the innkeeper of Shiretown Inn in Edgartown saw Ted step out of his room after changing his clothes — he'd apparently swam the distance. Only by 9:45 a.m. did Ted tell Edgartown police what happened. 

And the first person Ted called after the accident? His lover, Helga Wagner, with whom he was having an extramarital affair.

The wife, the lover, and the 'fixer'

If the only odd thing about Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick crash was him calling his lover Helga Wagner afterward instead of his wife Joan Kennedy, people might raise a couple of eyebrows, but only that. It's all the other details in Ted's tale that drew it to the foreground. And how Wagner fits into it — aside from Ted preferring to confide in her — is a source of further conspiratorial whispers.

At the time of the crash, Ted and Joan had been married for over 10 years; they'd gotten together while Joan was still finishing law school, as Heavy recollects. Per People, they wound up having three children together and divorcing after 24 years, citing an "irretrievable breakdown." Even though they divorced in 1982, they'd stopped living together in 1976, as The Independent cites. Ted and Helga, by contrast, had known each other since 1962, per The Washington Post.

To make matters more complicated, when Ted called Helga at around 8:00 a.m. — almost two hours before he finally went to the police (via History) — it wasn't merely to unload his feelings and express remorse, but also to ask for the phone number of his brother-in-law, Stephen Smith. Smith was the Kennedy family political advisor and campaign manager (per the JFK Presidential Library and Museum), or as People says, the "family fixer."

A deeper look

As The Washington Post described her, Helga Wagner (above right) was a wealthy, Austrian-born socialite who mingled in high political circles. She attended Du Pont Royal Academy in Paris and the Art Students League in New York, could speak five different languages, and by 1980 had already lived in 12 different countries. She was also a friend of Princess Lalla Nuzha, sister of Moroccan King Hassan II.

According to The Washington Post, Wagner was one of an "international jet-set entourage" that followed Kennedy around in the late 1960s and was first noticed by the media in California in 1968. At the time, Kennedy was campaigning on behalf of his brother Robert F. Kennedy and invited Wagner to private events. One source told The Washington Post that she and Kennedy "went out to dinner a lot" in San Francisco. 

Wagner spoke up about her and Kennedy's phone call on the night of the crash for the 2018 podcast "Cover-Up," which aired on the incident's 50th-year anniversary. As People cites, Wagner simply said, "He told me what happened, and that he desperately tried to save her." Regarding Kennedy's delay in approaching the police, she said, "The way I see it, it was confusion and he was absolutely horrified and totally confused ... He certainly did not want to hurt her, that's for sure. It just took a long time for him to get out of this situation."

Connected until the end

By 1980, Helga Wagner had moved to Florida to start a jewelry-making business, as The Washington Post reports. She still operates the business to this day, where, as the Helga Wagner Collection website says, she produces "pearl, shell and coral jewelry for the discriminating lady." 

Wagner expressed her opinions about the Chappaquiddick incident as far back as 1980, saying (per The Washington Post), "It was so long ago and it really has nothing to do with anything ... it is finished and closed." Of Ted Kennedy, she said, "He is a very deep person. He really wants to help ... really wants to do something about this country ... really feels about it and wants to bring it back again to a good level," and finally, "People have to forgive and forget." Later, in 2018, People reported that she said Kennedy was a "strong presence" in her life. In his 2011 book "Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography," author Burton Hersh said that Kennedy called Wagner the "love of [his] life," quoting a source within Kennedy circles. 

In 2009, a few weeks before he died, Kennedy called his former lover one last time. "He knew what was going to happen in a very short time and you could tell he was just trying to keep it all together because that's just the way he was," Wagner said (via People). "He was very strong in many ways."