• JFK and two of his most infamous mistresses, Marilyn Monroe and Judith Campbell Exner. (SBS)Source: SBS
No number of extramarital affairs and early deaths could tarnish the family's legacy.
Jim Mitchell

20 Mar 2019 - 2:14 PM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2019 - 2:58 PM

Grand tragedy and a list of sex scandals have not changed the Kennedy dynasty's image as “America’s royal family”. But did the political clan's legacy truly escape unscathed?

New SBS documentary series The Kennedys profiles the family's rise to power, and examines how personal relationships within the Kennedy dynasty shaped national and global events. Episode four, 'Family Secrets', looks into the impact of John F Kennedy’s dalliances, which may remind viewers that these were not the only scandals in the extended Kennedy clan. 

The Kennedys: Family Secrets 

As personal scandal threatens his marriage and looming nuclear war undermines his administration, President John F. Kennedy must fight to protect the presidency, the country, and the world.



John F. Kennedy


JFK’s list of alleged lovers is legendary, but the most infamous of affairs centred on a mobster, a mysterious murder and a Hollywood icon.

The Kennedys examines one very dangerous liaison, between the president and Judith Campbell. The pair were introduced by JFK's pal Frank Sinatra in 1960.

"Judy was always available for Jack Kennedy when he came into town," says her press agent, Michael Selsman.

Also through Sinatra, Campbell had been introduced to Sam Giancana, a Chicago mafia boss and nemesis of Bobby Kennedy.

"I mean, imagine: this is the president of the United States having an affair with this woman who is also involved with the head of the Chicago Mafia. It is a devastatingly dangerous thing for him to be doing," Kennedy biographer Laurence Leamer says in The Kennedys

Campbell made a series of revelations after the fact - and after all parties were long dead, including Jackie Kennedy. Among her claims was one about JFK allegedly asking her to courier cash to Giancana and the mob for vote-rigging and to “eliminate” Fidel Castro. 

When her involvement with JFK was made public, Campbell became a pariah and something of a recluse, fearful for her life. “People who loved Jack,” she said, “felt if they could degrade me, then he was just a bad boy. On the other side [his critics] felt they could destroy Jack by destroying me, by making me as bad as possible.”

Another of JFK’s apparent mistresses, the socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer, would meet a violent end, almost one year after the president’s assassination. The story of their tryst is not explored in The Kennedys  documentary, but in October of 1964, Meyer – whose ex-husband was CIA top brass Cord Meyer, brother-in-law of famed co-breaker of the Watergate scandal, Ben Bradlee – was gunned down in Georgetown. Her unsolved murder has been the stuff of conspiracy theories for decades.  

The same conspiracy or cover-up theories abound in relation to the death of Marilyn Monroe, at 36, of a barbiturate overdose at her Brentwood, LA home in August 1962. Ruled a “probable suicide”, it came about three months after her infamous performance of ‘Happy Birthday’ for JFK at a Democratic Party fundraiser at Madison Square Garden.

'Family Secrets' offers first-hand accounts from attendees of the event, who witnessed that performance, such as Monroe's press agent Michael Selsman, and after-party performer Diahann Carroll. 

"After the show, I think the whole world knew that there was a relationship between Marilyn Monroe and the president of the United States," Carroll reflects.  


Robert F. Kennedy


According to Carr, when JFK tired of Marilyn, he gave Bobby the task of ending the affair. But the fixer became the fixated, as the younger Kennedy brother and the star engaged in a short-term affair. But Bobby too tired of their fling.

Carr claims that in her anger at her treatment by the Kennedy brothers, the Hollywood legend threatened to call a press conference “and let everybody know what the Kennedys are really like,” and reveal details of their mob connections.

Adding to a conspiracy theory that the Kennedys were even involved in Marilyn Monroe’s demise were witness accounts of a recording from within her house on the night of her death, in which it was alleged she could be heard screaming along with an angry Bobby.

Despite being a moralist politician, Bobby was also accused of womanising behaviour. In the biography, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye, it’s claimed he had affairs with actors Kim Novak and Lee Remick, and with singer Claudine Longet.


Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

The Kennedy patriarch, Joe Sr. was portrayed – as Phillip Whitehead, co-producer of the unrelated ‘90s series The Kennedys, colourfully put it – as “a priapic hunter of women”. 

The Hollywood mogul, accused bootlegger and head of the Securities and Exchange Commission had an affair with Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson, beginning in 1927, that was an early indicator of just how ruthless the Kennedy men could be.

Joe Sr. became Swanson’s business manager – the extravagant star was reportedly US$500,000 in debt – shortly before becoming her bedmate. He allegedly swindled her by setting up a production company in her name which he used to pay for everything from gifts for the star to redecorating her studio bungalow.

According to David Nasaw, author of The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, he dropped Swanson “like a hot potato” when his tenure in Hollywood was up. Nasaw wrote that after their three-year relationship, Joe Sr. had reportedly tripled Swanson’s debt to US$1.5 million, and profited millions.


Michael L. Kennedy

In 1997, Michael Kennedy, son of Bobby and Ethel, was the subject of a controversy surrounding an apparent  sexual relationship with his then-underage family babysitter. The girl was the Kennedy babysitter for seven years, and neighbours alleged that the would-be political aspirant had commenced a sexual relationship with the girl when she was 14. Kennedy blamed his drinking problem for the affair that continued until the babysitter ended the relationship when she started college.

But Kennedy escaped being charged with statutory rape, after the young woman, by that time a 19 year-old student,  wouldn’t cooperate with prosecutors. And in yet another Kennedy tragedy, Michael died in a skiing accident in Aspen on New Year’s Eve, 1997.


William Kennedy Smith

JFK’s nephew William Kennedy Smith starred in a sinister chapter of the Kennedy annals of scandal – a prime example of the clan’s clout to get one of its own off the hook.

In a much hyped court case that began in early December 1991, the then medical student was accused of raping 29-year-old Patricia Bowman at the Kennedys' Palm Beach estate. He testified that the encounter was consensual.

Aiding his case was the decision of Judge Mary E. Lupo not to allow testimony from a further three women who claimed they’d been assaulted by Smith. He was acquitted of the charge.

It later emerged that Smith’s defence team, according to Vanity Fair, included five investigators looking for dirt on the plaintiff, at least 12 experts to pull apart her story and a defence attorney who would discredit her as being 'disturbed'.

“It’s the acquittal that money can buy,” Bowman told famed journalist and Vanity Fair contributor Dominick Dunne. He wrote that the Kennedy clan was so confident Smith’s acquittal was a fait accompli, that a victory party was already being discussed as the trial began.


Edward M. Kennedy

Senator Edward “Teddy” Kennedy was remembered as a tireless advocate for the welfare of disadvantaged women on his death in 2009. But it was the spectre of the Chappaquiddick incident that followed the Senator ever since that fateful night of 18 July 1969, when he drove his car off the Dike Bridge on a small island near Martha’s Vineyard. Teddy, 37, saved himself and claimed he then made several attempts to rescue his passenger, 28-year-old former campaign worker for Bobby Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne – who perished.

The case attracted suspicion when Teddy failed to report the incident to police until 9:30am the next morning. In the aftermath, he said in a televised speech that he’d been “overcome… by a jumble of emotions” after the accident. But the time lag seemed the perfect cover to hide any wrongdoing: it was too late for the police to test his blood alcohol levels, for example.

Meanwhile, a court ruling prevented an autopsy on Mary Jo, adding to perceptions of a broadening cover-up. Though there was no evidence of a sexual relationship between the pair, it was strongly suspected.

“It was not the presumption of fornication that was damaging Teddy so severely; it was the implication that he had callously left a young female companion underwater to drown while he sought only to cover up his involvement with her,” wrote Joe McGinniss in his expose The Last Brother. “Perhaps he feared that an autopsy would have established this as fact.”

In the absence of evidence to charge the Senator for involuntary manslaughter, Teddy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of the accident.

Chappaquiddick seemed a perfect example of the might of the Kennedy dynasty. A clearly culpable man of privilege escaped with a two-month suspended jail sentence and a temporary driving ban. Though his presidential hopes were dashed, Teddy Kennedy remained a Massachusetts senator until his death. And while he acknowledged his “inexcusable” actions, he managed to rehabilitate his reputation.

“For many people, they are America’s royal family," Dunne wrote, summing up what is arguably the enduring legacy of the Kennedys, "... despite Chappaquiddick, despite their flaws, despite their abuses of power, despite their marital infidelities”.


The Kennedys airs on Monday nights at 7.35pm on SBS. Catch up on episodes at SBS On Demand.

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