In 1969, the dead body of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, was discovered inside an overturned car in a channel on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. The car belonged to Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, who did not report the late-night incident to police authorities until the following morning.
After the discovery, Kopechne’s body was recovered from the submerged car and Kennedy gave a statement to police saying that during the previous night, she was his passenger when he took a wrong turn and accidentally drove his car off a bridge and into the water. After pleading guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury, Kennedy received a sentence of two months in jail, which was suspended. The incident became a national scandal, and may have influenced Kennedy’s decision not to campaign for President of the United States in 1972 and 1976.
John Farrar, the diver who recovered Kopechne's body and captain of the Edgartown Fire Rescue unit, asserted that Kopechne did not die from the vehicle overturn or from drowning, but rather from suffocation, based upon the posture in which he found the body and its position relative to the area of an ultimate air pocket in the overturned vehicle. Farrar also asserted that Kopechne would likely have survived had a more timely attempt at rescue been conducted. Farrar located Kopechne's body in the well of the backseat of the overturned submerged car. Rigor mortis was apparent and her hands were clasping the backseat and her face was turned upward. Farrar testified at the Inquest:
It looked as if she were holding herself up to get a last breath of air. It was a consciously assumed position. ... She didn't drown. She died of suffocation in her own air void. It took her at least three or four hours to die. I could have had her out of that car twenty-five minutes after I got the call. But he [Ted Kennedy] didn't call.
- diver John Farrar, Inquest into the Death of Mary Jo Kopechne, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Edgartown District Court. New York: EVR Productions, 1970.
"Black Water" by Joyce Carol Oates is a slightly-veiled fictional account of these events. Respected American composer Jeremy Beck completed this work in 1994, writing and shaping the libretto himself from her text. This extended composition for soprano and piano is not a song-cycle per se, but is closer in its form to that of a monodrama, with the soprano and the pianist assuming multiple roles and states of mind (following the variety of levels created by Oates).
I begin rehearsals this Thursday for shows with Co-Opera in the Adelaide Fringe Festival, Melbourne, Ballarat, Canberra and Sydney. More details on the "Events" page.