The Ali-Kopechne Letter
On July 18, 1969, United States senator Ted Kennedy was driving a car on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts when he lost control of the vehicle. The car plunged off a bridge into a pond. Kennedy survived the accident. His 28-year-old passenger – Mary Jo Kopechne – drowned. Compounding his wrongdoing, Kennedy sought to cover up his involvement in the tragedy. He subsequently pled guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended jail sentence. His behavior before the accident was inappropriate. His behavior after the accident was deplorable.
On May 2, SCP Auctions sold a letter that it says was written by Muhammad Ali to Joseph Kopechne (Mary Jo’s father). The letter, which was written by hand on an 8.5″ by 11″ sheet of white paper, is dated July 31, 1969. It was Lot #319 in the SCP Premier Spring Auction catalog and, in its entirety, reads as follows:
Mr. Joseph Kopechne
Berkeley Heights, N.J. 07922
Regarding Edward M. Kennedy: Cocksmith
Dear Mr. Kopechne = Assert yourself in the interests of the good name of your daughter. Get yourself a good lawyer and sue that no good son of a bitch, Edward M. Kennedy, for everything he’s got. His intent from start to finish was a forced illicit sexual intercourse and rape of your daughter, and since the acci-dent [there was a line break here necessitating the hyphen] was based thereon, he should be prosecuted and tried for murder. There were no mitigating circumstances. His TV speech was written for him by a dozen lawyers and speechmakers, and was not his own. The cheap two-bit hypocrite!
[underlining in original]
The letter was accompanied at auction by the original hand-addressed envelope postmarked July 31, 1969, in Los Angeles.
The SCP catalog advised prospective bidders, “The letter comes straight from the Kopechne family. A letter of provenance from Mary Jo’s cousin, William Nelson, is included. On July 18, 2019, the 50th anniversary of Mary Jo’s death, the Kopechne family felt it was time for this controversial letter to finally be exposed to the public.”
Georgetta Nelson Potoski was one of Mary Jo Kopechne’s cousins. William Nelson is Potoski’s son.
Including the 20 percent buyer’s premium, the letter sold at auction on May 2 for $12,545.
But it is authentic?
The letter was offered to Heritage Auctions for consignment in spring 2019. But Heritage had doubts about its authenticity and declined to put it up for auction. Then, in July 2019, Potoski and Nelson issued a joint statement announcing the existence of the letter to the Times Leader, a publication that describes itself as the “flagship of The Times Leader Media Group, a collection of print and digital products that cover the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metropolitan area.”
Thereafter, Gray Flannel Auctions put the letter up for auction. But the bidding closed on January 23, 2020, without the $5,000 minimum having been bid. Then SCP got involved.
SCP Auctions was founded in 1979 and is one of the largest auctioneers and private sellers of sports memorabilia and cards in the United States. Its past sales have included a Babe Ruth game-worn road jersey ($4,415,000); a set of three documents from 1857 entitled “Laws of Base Ball” ($3,263,246); and a T206 Honus Wagner tobacco card graded PSA NM-MT 8 ($2,800,000).
Where boxing is concerned, in November 2012, SCP auctioned off “The Angelo Dundee Collection” for more than $1,300,000. The gloves worn by Cassius Clay in his first fight against Sonny Liston and by Muhammad Ali in his first fight against Joe Frazier were included in the Dundee auction. Each pair sold for $385,848.
But SCP has not been free of controversy.
Craig Hamilton is the foremost boxing memorabilia dealer in the United States. Over the years, he has been retained by Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Heritage, and numerous other auction houses to document and authenticate memorabilia prior to auction.
Six years ago, Hamilton reviewed the 2014 SCP Summer Premier Auction. Fifty-nine boxing-related items had been sold. Some of them were cause for concern. For example:
* A pair of “Jim Jeffries fight worn Everlast boxing shoes, circa 1910” sold for $1,200. But as Hamilton noted, “The problem with that is, Everlast didn’t make boxing equipment in 1910. They started making it in 1917, long after Jeffries’ career was over.”
* A pair of “Willie Pep fight worn Everlast boxing gloves circa 1942” sold for $1,320. But as Hamilton pointed out, “These gloves were stamped ‘24 14,’ which indicates that they’re 14-ounce gloves. Pep wore 6-ounce gloves in fights.”
* A “fight worn boxing robe” from Gene Tunney circa 1926 sold for $15,052. “How do they know that Tunney wore this robe in a fight?” Hamilton asked. “Over the years, I’ve looked at every film of Gene Tunney in the ring that I could find. I have 200-to-300 photos of Tunney in the ring before and after fights. And I’ve I never seen him standing in the ring wearing a robe. Every image I’ve seen shows him wearing a towel over his shoulders, not a robe.”
“I’m not saying that SCP is dishonest,” Hamilton said at the time. “But there are times when its authentication procedures are a bit sloppy.”
That brings us to the Ali-Kopechne letter.
SCP says that the body of the letter and two signatures (“Muhammad Ali” and “Cassius Clay”) were authenticated by PSA/DNA and Beckett Authentication Services. But apart from that issue, there’s a question as to whether the thoughts in the letter represented Ali’s thinking or the thoughts of someone else who dictated the letter to him That’s important because the SCP catalog goes much further than saying the letter is in Ali’s hand. It ascribes the thoughts in it to him.
“Bold. Confrontational. Defiant. Valiant,” the catalog description begins. “These words describe Muhammad Ali to a tee. He was the ultimate instigator, in and out of the ring. And while his showmanship in the heat of battle may have come off as arrogant to some, The Greatest of All Time was a very self-aware man, cognizant of his environment and principled in his convictions. He knew a little about fighting the establishment as well. Considered an outcast by the government, he took it upon himself to stand up for other sociopolitical injustices. Just two weeks after the notorious 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, which left Mary Jo Kopechne mysteriously dead at the hands of a privileged white Senator from America’s most prestigious family, Ali aggressively came to the young lady’s defense and handwrote this passionate letter addressed to her grieving father.”
Indeed, the catalog copy goes so far as to state, “The Champ would not have added his original ‘slave’ name five years after converting to Islam unless he really wanted to pound home his passion for the message and make the Kopechne family absolutely certain that it was coming from him.”
As noted earlier, the letter was offered to Heritage Auctions for consignment in spring 2019. But Heritage had doubts about its authenticity and, after consulting with Craig Hamilton, declined to put the letter up for auction. Among the points Hamilton made to Heritage in telephone conversations and in writing at the time were:
(1) Ali would not have started a letter with the word “regarding.”
(2) Ali wouldn’t have used a word like “cocksmith” or called Ted Kennedy a “no good son of a bitch.” Nor would he have known Ted Kennedy’s full name.
(3) Ali wouldn’t have known what words like “illicit,” “mitigating,” “assert,” and “thereon” mean, let alone how to spell them.
(4) Ali couldn’t have spelled “hypocrite” or “Kopechne.”
(5) Ali wouldn’t have known what a colon is.
(6) It’s improbable that Ali would have written “via air mail” on the envelope. Nor could he have spelled “Berkeley Heights” correctly.
Also, Hamilton doubted that Ali would have double-signed a letter like this in 1969 as “Cassius Clay.”
Hamilton had no reason to question that the letter was sent to the Kopechne family. But on May 22, 2019, he wrote to Chris Ivy (director of sports auctions for Heritage), stating, “The writing does resemble that of Ali. The issue is the content. There really is no way Ali decided to sit down, on his own, and write this letter. If he actually wrote it, someone had to dictate it to him and spell the words for him. Is it possible? You can never say never about anything. Unlikely, yes. It just isn’t him. I couldn’t write a letter saying I thought he wrote it. I leave open the possibility someone had him do it and helped him do it. That, in my view, is the only way it happened. He just was not capable of writing that letter independently. If you run it, in fairness to a buyer, I think you have to point that out.”
In the interest of disclosure, I should add that Hamilton asked me what I thought of the Kopechne letter before he responded to Heritage. I was not paid for sharing my thoughts with him.
On May 3 of this year, speaking about the letter, Hamilton repeated his previously-expressed reservations and told The Ring, “The authenticators say Ali wrote it. If that’s their opinion, okay. But then SCP should have put in an explanation saying that, while Ali might have written the letter, it’s possible that he didn’t create it.”
But that’s not what SCP did. Far from inserting a note of caution in the catalog, SCP doubled down on the import of the letter insofar as it purports to relate to Ali’s state of mind at that time.
In that regard, Hamilton states, “They wanted to show that Ali created this out of some great anger and sat down and wrote this diatribe expressing all these thoughts he never expressed anywhere else, using all those words he probably didn’t understand and certainly couldn’t spell. I find it impossible to believe that it happened that way. Give me another example in Ali’s entire lifetime when he sat down and wrote something that remotely resembled this letter in content or language.”
It’s possible that someone stood over Ali, dictated every word of the letter, and told him how to spell the big words. But that person would have had to tell Ali how to hyphenate “accident.” And the big words look like they were written in a flowing hand which is inconsistent with someone dictating the spelling to the person who is doing the writing.
Also, the SCP catalog copy states in bold type, “A very significant addition to this letter that Ali included in the envelope was an invitation to an anti-Vietnam War demonstration held 8/17/1969 outside President Nixon’s summer home in San Clemente, CA. This logically places Muhammad Ali in Southern California when the letter was written and mailed, meaning he must have flown into L.A. three weeks or a month before attending this peace rally in Orange County.”
But an August 18, 1969, New York Times article about the rally makes no mention of Ali being in attendance. It’s possible that a study of the historical record would reveal whether or not he was in Los Angeles on July 31, 1969 (the day the letter is dated and postmarked).
If not Ali, who would have gone to the trouble of creating this document in 1969 and mailing it to the Kopechne family? Someone who despised Ted Kennedy and wanted to make life as difficult as possible for him.
On May 4, this writer emailed Brendan Wells (SCP’s auction director) and asked to speak with him regarding the letter. Wells requested that I send him my questions in advance, and I forwarded the following to him:
(1) Other than the handwriting analysis by PSA/DNA and Beckett, did you take any steps to determine whether Muhammad Ali was in fact the author of the letter? And if so, what were these steps?
(2) Prior to putting the letter up for auction, were you aware that Heritage Auctions declined to accept the letter for auction in 2019?
(3) What is the basis for the statement in the auction catalog that Muhammad Ali attended the August 17, 1969, demonstration in Orange County?
That evening, Wells responded with a short email stating that the letter “passed Beckett and PSA/DNA” and that, “Out of respect to both the winning bidder and consignor (Kopechne family members), we will decline further comment.” [parenthesis in original]
It’s hard to understand how answering questions regarding the authenticity of the letter would have been disrespectful to the Kopechne family and winning bidder.
There’s no record I’m aware of that Ali spoke out publicly regarding Ted Kennedy’s conduct in the aftermath of Chappaquiddick. I do know that, in later years, Muhammad spoke fondly of Kennedy. And there was a photograph of Ali and Kennedy together in the senator’s office beside a pair of boxing gloves that Ali inscribed to Kennedy with the hope that the gloves would help him in the fight to knock out injustice.
So for now, let’s give the final word to Khalilah Ali (known in 1969 as Belinda). Belinda was Ali’s second wife. They were married in 1967, two months after Ali was criminally convicted for refusing induction into the United States Army.
On May 5, The Ring asked Khalilah about the letter.
“It’s ridiculous,” Khalilah responded. “Ali loved the Kennedys. He thought they were good people and he said they cared about black people. There’s no way he would have written anything like that because he didn’t think it. And even if he thought it; let’s be real. Ali didn’t write letters like that. Ali couldn’t write letters like that. This was a guy who had trouble getting through high school. He was smart in a lot of ways, but writing wasn’t one of them. If he needed a serious letter, I wrote it for him to sign. But I never ever wrote a letter like this. I’ll say it again. Ali didn’t write stuff like this. Ali couldn’t write stuff like this. It’s absurd. Do you remember when Howard Cosell called Ali ‘truculent,’ and Ali said he didn’t know what ‘truculent’ means? And now you’re telling me that Ali knew words like ‘mitigating’ and ‘illicit.’ No, sir. No way. If Ali wanted to send something to this woman’s father, he would have drawn a little heart on an index card and signed it ‘Love, Muhammad Ali.’ Except he wouldn’t have known how to find the father.”
Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected] His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.