After 24 Years, Joan Kennedy Ends Her Marriage to Ted and Launches a Life of Her Own

updated 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Joan and Ted Kennedy have celebrated Christmas with each other for the past 24 years, and this month they'll be together again for an early holiday dinner with their children in McLean, Va. But this will be their final Christmas as husband and wife. Last week, after nearly two years of formal separation and a decade of highly publicized troubles, the couple filed for divorce, citing an "irretrievable breakdown" in their marriage. The no-fault agreement grants Joan an undisclosed cash settlement plus alimony and half their tangible personal property. It also specifies joint custody of the couple's youngest child, Patrick, 15, for whom Joan will also receive child support. "Our children...have been the greatest joy of both our lives," said Joan in a statement released through her lawyers. "Their well-being, happiness and fulfillment will be our common bond. Divorce cannot alter that."

Joan, 46, and Ted, 50, ended their marriage in Barnstable, Mass. in a simple half-hour proceeding witnessed by a few clerks, two uniformed court clerks and four lawyers (one of his, three of hers). It was a stark contrast to their lavish 1958 nuptial Mass in Bronxville, N.Y., which was performed by Francis Cardinal Spellman, shot as a family movie, and attended by hundreds of friends. Last week, on a dismal, drizzling Cape Cod afternoon, Joan and Ted arrived at the modest courthouse, five miles as the crow flies from their Hyannis Port home. Joan, her blond hair flowing freely, looked calm and poised in a black-and-white tweed jacket and gray slacks. Ted wore a dark blue suit and a serious expression. They stood side by side, chatting amiably, indeed, almost affectionately, with one another, as they waited for Probate Judge Shirley Lewis to take the bench. Joan's principal lawyer, Alexander Forger—a New York attorney best known for representing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—approached the bench with Teddy's counsel, his old friend Paul Kirk Jr. Then both Joan and Ted were sworn, answered a few questions from the judge, and the proceeding was over. "So quickly," Joan said, almost unbelieving, to her lawyers and herself. Ted whispered in her ear, grazing her cheek in what might have been a kiss, and was gone. The request for divorce had been granted and, under Massachusetts law, will become final in a year. Joan's cash share of Teddy's estimated $20 million fortune is rumored to be $4 million. She is also retaining her elegant Back Bay apartment and the gray-shingled family home in Hyannis Port, which sits on a bluff about a mile from the Kennedy compound. The divorce announcement came less than a week after Ted withdrew from the 1984 presidential race, citing his children's desire, reached over Thanksgiving, that he not run.

Even with the marriage breakup, both Ted and Joan remain close to their kids. She has dinner once a week with Kara, 22, a senior majoring in international relations at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and she weekends with Patrick, a ninth grader boarding at the Fessenden School in West Newton, Mass. Teddy Jr., 21, is in his third year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., where he is concentrating in American studies. "I don't know any two people who tried as hard as my parents did to keep it together," confides Teddy. "I feel that this is the best thing for them. I'm just thankful there's no animosity."

Joan's past has been all too public: coping with Chappaquiddick (in 1969), the amputation of Teddy Jr.'s leg because of bone cancer (in 1973), and her own bout with alcoholism. To put her life back together, Joan fled to a life alone in Boston in 1978. She has overcome her personal problems, however, and nowadays, looking happy and fit, is often seen about town on the arm of Dr. Gerald Aronoff, the 38-year-old bachelor director of the pain center at the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Hospital. When Joan received her master's degree in education from Lesley College in 1981, Aronoff threw her a party in his 23-room Victorian mansion with a panoramic view of the sea. "Aronoff is the perfect escort. He's attentive and considerate," a friend observes. "But Joan also likes to date other people."

She still would like to take a job and has had an offer to be a television talk show hostess in New York. "Joan is very good on television," says Steve Friedman, producer of the Today show. "She looks good, she is well-spoken, and she seems very relaxed in front of the camera." But will she step back into the limelight so soon? "In the last three years Joan has opened up like a flower," says Alfred Fiandaca, her Boston couturier. "I believe she can do a public job and still have a decent private life."

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