IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'She was in a lot of agony for a lot of her life'

“A lot of times I don’t know how she made it through the day,” her husband, , said of Mary Kennedy. “She was in a lot of agony for a lot of her life.”
Image: Mary Kennedy arrives at the 5th Annual Food Allergy Ball at The Plaza Hotel in New York City on Dec. 3, 2002.
Mary Kennedy arrives at the 5th Annual Food Allergy Ball at The Plaza Hotel in New York City on Dec. 3, 2002.Scott Gries / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

Friends remembered the capture-the-flag games, the signature event at Mary and Bobby Kennedy’s forested estate with the pool, treehouse and sprawling grounds in the green reaches of northern Westchester County.

Like a variation on eternal Kennedy themes, they brought out famous families — Glenn Close, Christopher Reeve, Chevy Chase and their spouses and children — and many less pedigreed friends, neighbors and schoolmates for long afternoons of lemonade, Oreos and spirited rambles through the woods.

It was, friends said, the unpretentious essence of Mary Richardson Kennedy, who led an adventurous life, but whose greatest gifts seemed to be for friendship, good spirits and building the family nest.

And, stunningly, it became yet another backdrop for what seemed like the perfect life gone awry when Ms. Kennedy, 52, facing a divorce she dreaded, a recent history of drug and alcohol problems and a long fight with depression, was found hanging on Wednesday in a barn behind the three-level red-brick house she had painstakingly rebuilt.

“A lot of times I don’t know how she made it through the day,” her husband, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., said Thursday. “She was in a lot of agony for a lot of her life.”

The Westchester County medical examiner’s office said Thursday afternoon that the cause of Ms. Kennedy’s death was asphyxiation due to hanging.

Mr. Kennedy said that contrary to earlier reports, there was no note found at the scene.

The Bedford Police Department, which was investigating the death, declined to provide any details on Thursday. There was no indication that it was anything other than a suicide.

Mr. Kennedy, in a somber interview, recalled meeting Mary Richardson when she was 14, not long after her father, a college professor in New Jersey, died. (After his death, she ran away with a puppet theater group for six months, he said.)

Where are they now: Key figures from RFK's life

She had met Kerry Kennedy, a sister of Mr. Kennedy’s, at the Putney School in Vermont, a boarding school where they bonded over being two of very few practicing Roman Catholics. They became close friends, with Kerry Kennedy introducing Mary to some of her 10 siblings, including Bobby, and with Mary accompanying some of the Kennedys on white-water rafting trips in South America.

The two young women roomed together at Brown University, where Mary studied architecture and design. Ms. Kennedy, who is the former wife of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said her friend never did anything halfway. She learned how to make her own curtains and dust ruffles; when Ms. Kennedy’s uncle, Edward M. Kennedy, ran for president in 1980, she got Andy Warhol to make a print that was sold to help the campaign.

“You know, you sometimes hear things like ‘I’ve lost my right arm’?” Kerry Kennedy said Thursday. “I feel like I’ve lost half my body, half my soul.” After college, Mary worked for Warhol and as a white-water rafting guide for an outdoors company owned by another Kennedy sibling, Michael Kennedy, who died in a 1997 skiing accident; she also worked as an architectural designer.

Always a Kennedy
“Every member of my family, long before I married her, considered her a Kennedy,” her husband, an environmental lawyer, said Thursday.

After his first marriage broke up, Mr. Kennedy and Mary saw each other at an event at an art gallery. He asked her for a date, and in 1994, soon after his divorce became final, they were married.

Friends, for the most part, saw an accomplished, generous, nurturing woman, exemplified by the nearly open invitation to the capture-the-flag afternoons.

Peter T. Michaelis, who knew her and others in the family in high school, overlapped with her for a year at Brown and was a neighbor and friend, took photographs documenting the green redesign of her home in Bedford. “She really relished her friendships, and if she was your friend, there was nothing she wouldn’t do for you,” Mr. Michaelis said.

He said he saw her a week ago, at a party for a friend’s 50th birthday, and photographed her, smiling. “This whole thing comes as a total shock to me and to anyone who knows her,” he said.

But if Ms. Kennedy’s death was a shock, her personal problems had found their way into public view in recent years.

In 2010, Ms. Kennedy was arrested twice, once on a charge of driving while intoxicated, and later on a charge of driving under the influence of prescription medication. The first charge was reduced to a violation. Ms. Kennedy was ordered to undergo alcohol treatment, and her license was suspended for 90 days. The prescription drug charges were dismissed.

The Journal News, a Westchester newspaper, reported after the drunken driving arrest that Mr. Kennedy, concerned about his wife’s mental state, had tried to drive her to Northern Westchester Hospital to see a psychologist in 2007, but that she resisted and ran from the car into the road.

Her problems became awkward for those around her, said one person who knows the family well but declined to be named because she did not want to upset them. The person said Ms. Kennedy’s family often had to cancel events or appointments on short notice, saying by way of explanation, “Mary is sick.”

“She had good moments and bad moments,” this person said. “She could be at times absolutely beautiful and outgoing and engaging and professional in one respect, and in other times she just seemed like she was out of it.”

Living separately for 4 years
Her marriage was also failing. In 2010, Mr. Kennedy filed for divorce, and he said Thursday that he and his wife had been living separately for almost four years. Mr. Kennedy, who has recently been dating the actress Cheryl Hines, lives in a home a few hundred yards from hers, he said.

They had been in a custody battle over their four children, who range in age from 11 to 17; Mr. Kennedy also has two children from his first marriage.

Kerry Kennedy said Mary, who participated in Alcoholics Anonymous, had been sober for five months. But that was not her only battle. Mary Kennedy also suffered from depression, people close to her said, and had talked of suicide in the past.

“She fought with every ounce of her mission to overcome that horrible disease,” Kerry Kennedy said. “It was not something that she asked for; it was something that she was dealt.”

Mary Kennedy’s siblings declined to talk about her death other than through a statement issued by her brother, Lawrence Richardson.

“We deeply regret the death of our beloved sister Mary, whose radiant and creative spirit will be sorely missed by those who loved her,” it said. “Our heart goes out to her children, who she loved without reservation.”

Mr. Kennedy said that despite her problems, she continued to do extraordinary work for causes like the environmental group Riverkeeper, of which he is vice chairman, and the Food Allergy Initiative (their oldest child, Conor, has severe allergies).

“My sister once asked her to help her find money for earthquake victims in Nicaragua, and Mary got on the phone and cold-called over 200 C.E.O.’s over five days, and I think they got 80 truckloads of supplies to Nicaragua,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Kerry Kennedy said that the two sides of Mary Kennedy, the seemingly extraordinary one and the deeply troubled one, coexisted for years, but that she fought to the end to try to make things work. “As so many people who suffer from mental health issues,” she said, “she was unable to do the things that she desperately wanted to do, and she was fighting, fighting, fighting with every ounce of her being to beat back those demons.”

Alain Delaquérière, Sarah Maslin Nir and Noah Rosenberg contributed reporting.

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.

More content from and NBC News:

Follow US News on on and