texasmonthly.com: How did you first hear about the possibility of Johnny Kenedy’s body being exhumed?
Gary Cartwright: There were a number of newspaper stories about the Kenedys and the Fernandez family in the Austin American-Statesman and other newspapers starting in January when Judge Guy Herman first issued an order to exhume the body. Pamela Colloff, another Texas Monthly senior editor, had also gathered some material on the subject and put me in touch with a former TM intern now working at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times who had some firsthand knowledge of what was happening in Kenedy County. Pam has a great knack for pitching a story idea, and her pitch was so compelling that I realized I’d better stake claim to this story before she jerked it away from me.
texasmonthly.com: Did you ever visit Sarita at a time when it was not so desolate? Have you seen photos of the place during its “French Riviera of Texas” days?
GC: I had probably driven past Sarita before, without knowing it. If you drive U.S. 77 from Kingsville to Brownsville, you pass right by Sarita, but all you can see from the highway is a blinking yellow light and a water tower off in the distance. But no, I never saw it during its prime. In the early 1900’s, when the railroad first reached Sarita, there was a small land boom as promoters tried to lure people from the frigid Midwest to what they were billing as “California Texas.” For various reasons—including the constant threat of hurricanes—it never took off. The little town of Riviera, which is five miles north of Sarita, was founded by a speculator from St. Paul who thought Baffin Bay, which separates the northern part of the Kenedy ranch from a section of the King ranch, looked like the French Riviera. He built a fancy hotel on a wide boulevard lined with palm trees and a dance pavilion that extended out over the bay. A hurricane in 1916, I think it was, wiped him out. You can still see part of the foundation of the hotel in the community of Riviera Beach, and some of the pilings from the old pavilion still stick out of the water. I have seen the French Riviera, and believe me, it looks nothing like Baffin Bay.
texasmonthly.com: Who or what were your main sources in gathering this extensive history?
GC: A book titled If You Love Me You Will Do My Will, by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, told the story of Sarita Kenedy East (and, by extension, the entire Kenedy family), and it was probably my best source. There were several other books, including TM writer-at-large Don Graham’s wonderful history of the King ranch, Kings of Texas, that were helpful. Then I found a treasure trove of information at the Kenedy Ranch Museum of South Texas, in Sarita. A number of third and fourth generation vaqueros and their families still live in Sarita, and they were all interested in being interviewed—at least those who spoke English.
texasmonthly.com: How long did it take to compile the time line?
GC: The book on Sarita Kenedy East that I just mentioned had a family history chart, and I located another chart at the museum in Sarita. Also, the Austin law firm that represents the Fernandez family had done extensive research on the Kenedy family and had a lot of information that it made available to me. The lawyers for the Kenedy foundation and the Kenedy trust were helpful too. I took me four or five weeks to absorb everything to the point where I could make sense of it. Senior executive editor Paul Burka, who edited the article, has a talent for organizing complicated family histories—he also edited a similar article I did on the Waggoner ranch last fall—and he helped me enormously.
texasmonthly.com: Is it difficult to write a story with such a great deal of background information?
GC: It is indeed difficult to write this kind of story. Sometimes you have so much information that you get lost in the mass of it. I have learned to take it slow and to rewrite many times until it becomes clear in my mind. On the other hand, this story was easier than some because (with the exception of the lawyers) there were no living antagonists to negotiate. I hate getting caught between two embattled parties, which it often the case in journalism.
texasmonthly.com: In your story, Ray Fernandez says his quest is about “my mom and our family.” Do you believe that?
GC: Yes, I believed Ray completely. He was almost painfully honest. At first I was cynical—I’m always cynical when there is a great deal of money at stake—but Ray had such a strong emotional commitment to his family and to solving the mystery of his heritage that my doubts were quickly resolved.
texasmonthly.com: Why is the Kenedy ranch so important to Texas?
GC: This was one of the great ranches of Texas, smaller than the King ranch next door but in some ways more traditionally Texas. The Kenedy family was instrumental in bringing the railroad to South Texas.
texasmonthly.com: If you could have interviewed just one of the deceased Kenedys, whom would you have picked? Why?
GC: Sarita Kenedy East interested me more than the others. She was a tough, strong-willed woman, yet in many ways vulnerable. She apparently felt comfortable moving among the families of her vaqueros and went out of her way to help them. She must have been something of a cowgirl, able to ride and shoot and drink whiskey with the best of them. She was also a devout Catholic, as were many of the people I met in South Texas, and proud of her Mexican heritage. I think it would have been fun to share a glass of whiskey with Sarita and to talk about ranch life.
texasmonthly.com: What did most of the people you encountered think about exhuming Johnny Kenedy’s body?
GC: People in Sarita seemed divided on the subject. Many of them objected on religious grounds: One does not disturb the dead. But some of them thought that digging up the body and testing it for DNA was the only fair thing to do. I think many of them had empathy with Maria Rowland, the Kenedy maid who gave birth to that child back in 1925.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think Elena Kenedy knew about Ann? Do you think Johnny Kenedy is Ray’s grandfather? If so, what evidence is most convincing to you?
GC: Yes, I’m convinced that Elena knew about Ann. As one of the lawyers said, “a wife knows.” And my hunch is that DNA tests will prove that Johnny was the father. Other DNA tests from Kenedy family members indicate a strong possibility that Ann was a Kenedy. Nobody knew about DNA in 1925, but today it’s our best evidence in numerous legal cases.
texasmonthly.com: Are there many historians who focus on South Texas?
GC: Many books have been written about the King ranch, which, to many Texans, is South Texas. But there are few books about the Kenedy ranch or the other big ranches down there. Researching this story was my first close experience with South Texas and I loved it. It remains wild and desolate and in places looks much as it must have looked hundreds of years ago. I used to think South Texas was Padre Island, but I know better after doing the Kenedy ranch story.