In many ways, he was the last man standing, straddling a mythic family mantle of fame and a vaunted career of political service, all the while wearing the crown of Camelot decades after its heyday.
His family was American royalty, conjuring visions of handsome brothers tossing a football in an age of innocence, long before Watergate laid bare the sins of ego and power on the presidency.
Click here to see a timeline of Mr. Kennedy's life.
In death, the senator's death brought to a close a storied political era -- of assassinations, Jackie O, Palm Beach, Chappaquiddick -- and a lifetime of both tragedy and public service.
He was a rich, sailing, East Coast blue blood, well-connected and much dissected, who could have walked away from Washington long ago yet didn't. While his personal foibles and his celebrity sometimes outpaced his significant work in Congress, Mr. Kennedy lived the life in public service that he and his brothers, John and Robert, accepted as their lot in life.
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Mr. Kennedy was hailed as "a natural heir to a legacy," an "indispensable patriarch," a surrogate dad to a litany of fatherless Kennedy children and, for those who knew him, a "rock" on which his clan leaned -- even as it was diminished by notoriety and heartache. Some now argue that living up to the Camelot myth was too heavy a burden, even for a man accustomed to repeated loss.
Born the youngest of nine children into a politically connected Irish-Catholic family, he stood in the shadow of gifted brothers and carried the pressure of his scion father, Joseph, whose namesake and oldest son died in a World War II plane crash in 1944. What followed was a succession of woes involving his siblings, whose own histories carried great drama and sparkling promise.
Ted Kennedy graduated from Harvard but not before he was kicked out for cheating. He joined the Army for two years to redeem himself before returning to campus to earn a degree. He was in the middle of the class academically at the University of Virginia law school, where he met his first wife, Joan.
That troubled marriage reached a tragic peak when his car tumbled off a bridge in Chappaquiddick. He managed to break free in the water but his female passenger, a campaign aide for his brother, died alone in the murk. He failed to report the accident to police until a day later, a crime and lapse of judgment that were forgiven by future congressional constituents -- he kept his seat in Congress for decades. But he never won the office he most craved -- the presidency, which his brother John held for less than a full term.
And yet the nation could not get enough of not only Ted, but all of the players with his family name, including Kennedy relatives such as Maria Shriver, married to movie star Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who lost a bid for Maryland's governor; and the late John F. Kennedy Jr., who never ascended in politics, but whose wedding and deadly plane crash garnered the celebrity news spotlight for years.
"The press has has a fascination with that family -- a lurid obsession that was the equivalent of political porn -- following them through the alcoholism, the Palm Beach rape allegations [surrounding Mr. Kennedy's nephew William Kennedy Smith], the accidents, the drugs and the drugs," said William McKeen, an author and professor who studies the intersection of journalism, history and popular culture. "Ted Kennedy fought his own battle of excesses but when things were at their worst, he was often at his best."
Mr. McKeen recalled attending an event as a young reporter with Mr. Kennedy campaigning in Indiana in 1972 on behalf George McGovern and then-Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., who was facing a tough re-election bid.
"The crowd was there for Kennedy," Mr. McKeen remembers as the famous brother upstaged the very folks he was stumping for. "What a pro. I thought, 'This dude oozes politics from his pores.'"
But even as Mr. Kennedy's oratorical skills shined, he was just a few years beyond his ill-fated car accident, and it was too soon for him to have rehabilitated himself publicly for a presidential run. Mr. Kennedy later campaigned for higher office but lost the Democratic primary to upstart Jimmy Carter.
But unlike his brothers and sisters, some of whom had died suddenly, in war, by accident or by assassination, Mr. Kennedy had a longer time to reconcile himself to his position. As it turned out, he became the liberal lion of the Senate, both loved and hated by voters depending on their points of view, but respected among his peers in Congress.
The chink in the family image armor took another blow when Jacqueline Kennedy, long viewed as the bereaved and stylish widow -- the queen of Camelot -- married a Greek tycoon, Aristotle Onassis, angering some who had hailed her family devotion as iconic. Although she was the epitome of style and dignity for many, her remarriage, to a foreigner, was a signal that the Camelot utopia was fading into the sunset of real life.
Of his siblings, Ted Kennedy lost one brother to war, a sister to a plane crash and two brothers to assassination, and a sister was institutionalized after a failed lobotomy. Mr. Kennedy himself was injured in 1964 in a private plane crash that killed the pilot and a political aide. Five years later, he had that infamous Chappaquiddick car crash that killed Mary Jo Kopechne.
In 1973, his son Edward Kennedy Jr. lost his right leg to cancer while Joseph P. Kennedy II had a car accident that paralyzed his female passenger.
One of the most gut-wrenching of the family tragedies came in 1999 when John F. Kennedy Jr., the former president's son, along with his wife and sister, perished in a plane crash off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Ted Kennedy's sister, would pass away just days before Ted Kennedy succumbed to brain cancer early Wednesday.
"It is tragic that Ted is not well enough to be fighting for his signature issue, health care," laments Robert Watson, a professor of American Studies at Florida's Lynn University. "So many members of Congress have been show horses, but Ted's record of work -- has been prolific and without rival. He has shown remarkable resilience in remaining not only relevant but on top of his game throughout all the tough times. In this way, he is the epitome of the Kennedy family, a family that as many have noted, seems cursed but a family also defined by mystique and a burning passion for public service."