Kennedy, Ethel (1928—)

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Kennedy, Ethel (1928—)

American philanthropist and wife of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Born Ethel Skakel in Chicago, Illinois, on April 11, 1928; sixth of seven children of George Skakel (a coal magnate) and Ann (Brannack) Skakel; attended the Dominican Day School, Larchmont, New York; attended the Greenwich Academy, Greenwich, Connecticut; graduated from the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Maplehurst, the Bronx, New York, 1945; Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, New York, B.A., 1949; married Robert F. Kennedy (b. 1925, a U.S. senator), on June 17, 1950 (assassinated on June 5, 1968); children: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (b. 1951, lieutenant governor of Maryland); Joseph Patrick Kennedy II (b. 1952, spent six terms in Congress); Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (b. 1954, is an environmental lawyer with Riverkeeper, a conservation group based in New York's Hudson River Valley); David Kennedy (1955–1984, died of drug over-dose); (Mary) Courtney Kennedy Hill (b. 1956, a human-rights activist); Michael Kennedy (1958–1998); (Mary) Kerry Kennedy Cuomo (b. 1959, who works for Amnesty International and the R.F.K. Center for Human Rights); Christopher Kennedy (b. 1963, a businessman); Matthew Maxwell T. Kennedy known as Max Kennedy (b. 1965, was assistant district attorney in Philadelphia); Douglas Harriman Kennedy (b. 1967, a reporter for Fox News Channel); Rory Kennedy (b. 1968, an award-winning documentary filmmaker).

Ethel Skakel Kennedy was the sixth of seven children of George Skakel, head of the Great Lakes Carbon Corporation, one of the largest privately owned businesses in the country, andAnn Brannack Skakel , a massive woman (over 200 pounds), whose world revolved around her social activities and the Catholic Church. When Ethel was five, George Skakel decided to move the executive offices of his company East, and the family lived in Larchmont and Rye, New York, for several years before purchasing the 30-room furnished mansion on Lake Avenue in Greenwich, Connecticut, that had previously been owned by Frances Simmons , the widow of the heir to the Simmons' mattress fortune. While the largely Protestant residents of Greenwich did not particularly welcome the boisterous Skakel family, Ethel seemed to be an exception. Sent by her mother to the prestigious Greenwich Academy, she assimilated quickly and made friends easily. "Ethel was so open and so honest that everybody adored her," said classmate Pan Jacob , "She was successful because she was so natural about herself." Though Ethel was only an average student, she was good at sports and an excellent equestrian. She owned several horses and rode at Greenwich's exclusive Round Hill Club, where she won most of the competitions, but she was also known to break Club rules and do anything on a dare.

Aside from their strict religious training, the Skakel children, by most accounts, were indulged and undisciplined. "They had money but they didn't have anything else," said Jacob. "There was no structure.…It was an abstract painting as opposed to a formal painting, more surreal than Rembrandt; a Jackson Pollock world where everything was exploding; where there was no cohesiveness." In her exuberance and love of pranks, Ethel most resembled her brothers, Jim and George, who apparently held the neighborhood hostage with their antics. "Those Skakel kids would get up to ninety miles an hour in nothing flat and tear all over the place, very likely shooting large-caliber pistols out of the widow at the same time," recalled Ken McDonnell, a friend of the boys at the time. "They were always looking for trouble." Ethel, when she was old enough, also drove her red convertible recklessly and at high speed, sometimes turning off the lights at night and driving around in the dark.

For her final two years in high school, Ethel attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Maplehurst, in the Bronx, where she was the first to flaunt the rules and lead the after-dinner high jinks. Despite her reputation as a trouble-maker, Ethel seriously embraced the spiritual training she received as part of the convent's curriculum. Active in the school's Christopher Club, a social-action and missionary group, she was even interested in religious life at one point. "Ethel was certainly not religious in the pious sense," recalled Mother Elizabeth Farley . "She was too lively. But she had a lot of faith, and inherited a lot of faith, and influenced others with her faith."

When she entered Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in September 1945, Ethel quickly became part of the "in" crowd, the girls with money who filled their free time with shopping and club hopping in New York City. Given an unlimited amount of spending money, Ethel became a world-class shopper, filling her closet with the finest apparel from swanky Fifth Avenue shops and sometimes spending thousands of dollars on a single dress. Ethel's college roommate was Jean Kennedy (Smith) , and it was through Jean that Ethel met and began dating Robert F. Kennedy. Ethel hardly seemed a likely match for the shy, introspective Bobby Kennedy, but, according to Jean, he adored her. "He needed her because he was much less out-going—more thoughtful and serious," she said.

Following her graduation in 1949, Ethel had serious doubts about a future with Bobby, and went through a brief period of intense introspection. By Thanksgiving, however, her confidence was restored, and she never again wavered in her devotion to Bobby, even though the Skakel and Kennedy families were never close. The couple married in a splendid ceremony on June 17, 1950, and following a three-month honeymoon, set up housekeeping in a small house in Charlottesville, Virginia, their home while Bobby finished his law degree at the University of Virginia. Ethel, who at the time of her marriage had vowed to have more children than her mother-in-law, the late Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy , gave birth to her first child, Kathleen Kennedy (Townsend) , in July 1951, and had a child on the average of every 15 months thereafter, until her last, daughter Rory Kennedy (number 11), in 1968. During the early 1950s, the Kennedys lived in Georgetown, in close proximity to Bobby's work in Washington. The first of the tragedies that would come to dominate Ethel's life occurred on October 3, 1955, when both her parents were killed in a plane crash on their way to Los Angeles. Dazed, but possessing a stoicism that would become a trademark, Ethel flew to Connecticut with Bobby for the enormous funeral which was attended by hundreds of friends and business associates.

By the end of the Eisenhower era, Bobby Kennedy had obtained the high-profile post of chief counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (the Senate Rackets Committee), and Ethel had come into her own as the chic and energetic wife of the young crime buster. The constantly expanding family finally settled into their own home, a McLean, Virginia, estate (Hickory Hill), the former residence of Jacqueline Kennedy and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Bobby's brother. Around the same time, Bobby's father Joseph P. Kennedy made them a gift of a summer home near his own at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Ethel, by all accounts, ran her household the same way that her mother had run hers, with no discipline and no controls. Boston Globe writer Tom Oliphant, a long-time family friend and a frequent visitor at Hickory Hill, recalls that just walking into the house could be a life-altering experience. "You could be tripped by a kid or a dog or hit by anything from a football to a glass of lemonade." According to Jerry Oppenheimer, author of The Other Mrs. Kennedy, Ethel had a laissez-faire approach with the children. "I just don't believe a child's world should be entirely full of 'don'ts,'" she said. "We think it's possible to have discipline and still give the children independence without spoiling them." Ethel's life, however, was so full that she had little time to spend with the children, and they were most often left in the care of hired help.

In September 1959, Bobby resigned as chief counsel of the Senate Rackets Committee to join his brother Jack's campaign for the presidency. Ethel turned out to be a first-rate campaigner herself, criss-crossing the country on her brother-in law's behalf and winning the admiration of the press corps who dubbed her "Miss Perpetual Animation." Upon winning the election, Jack rewarded his brother with the Cabinet post of attorney general. Over the next eight years, Ethel would become the most visible and popular woman in Washington next to First Lady Jacqueline, and, except for the White House, Hickory Hill would become the most famous residence of the Camelot years.

According to Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Hickory Hill was where the "New Frontiersmen" met for serious intellectual seminars and was also the scene of exuberant parties, over which Ethel presided as mistress of ceremonies. "She imported the Lester Lanin orchestra for dances and brought in Harry Belafonte to teach them all the twist. She used live bullfrogs as a centerpiece for a St. Patrick's Day dinner; she put distinguished Cabinet members in closets with attractive secretaries during impassioned games of hide-and-seek; invited Robert Frost to dinner and gave out paper and pencils

to guests for a poetry-writing contest." Perhaps the most notorious of the Kennedys' soirees were the "people-dunking" parties, during which some of the best and brightest of the Administration—presidential adviser Arthur Schlesinger, for one—found themselves in the Kennedy swimming pool fully clothed. While Schlesinger was a great fan of Ethel and viewed the dunkings as great fun, others were less enthusiastic, including Schlesinger's then wife, Marian Cannon Schlesinger . "Ethel was childish and self-indulgent," she wrote years later. "She created a certain atmosphere of fun and games as it were, and everything was done on a lavish scale. It was like a great big party all the time, extravagant and excessive, too much of everything. Everyone was attracted to Ethel, but that was because of Bob's p-o-w-e-r."

By 1963, Jack's brother Edward "Ted" Kennedy had been elected to the U.S. Senate, and Bobby appeared to be headed for a governorship of his own and then the presidency. Ethel was at the height of her popularity; women throughout the country copied her chic little dresses and read her advice on motherhood and healthy living that she regularly dispensed in the popular magazines and Sunday supplements. But life was about to change drastically for the Kennedys, and for the entire nation.

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas, an event of such magnitude that every American who was alive at the time remembers exactly where they were when they received the tragic news. Ethel and Bobby Kennedy were having lunch near the pool at Hickory Hill with two of Bobby's associates when the call came through from FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover that the president had been mortally wounded. The death of the 46-year-old president plunged the country into a deep despair that was mirrored through his brother Robert. Ethel, resolute in her faith, held up stoically. "He's in heaven looking down on us," she told her sister after the funeral. "Bobby and I will be with him one day ourselves. We will all be together." Bobby, however, was completely shattered. A journalist friend who saw him a few weeks after the assassination described him as "crushed beyond hope, mentally, spiritually, and physically." It was Ethel who pushed Bobby back from a dark depression, and friends generally agreed that without her he might have been lost forever in his grief. By 1964, he had resumed normal activities and had announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat from New York. Though pregnant with her ninth child, Ethel threw herself into his campaign, becoming more self-assured with each speech and enjoying a new-found power. During the nine weeks before election day, she appeared at more than a dozen rallies and hosted nine "at-homes." Bobby won the election overwhelmingly, and six days after his swearing in ceremony, January 10, 1965, Ethel gave birth to another son, Max Kennedy.

Although the Kennedys purchased an apartment in the United Nations Towers, Ethel continued to spend most of her time at Hickory Hill, where she hosted huge parties for friends and galas for charity. Oppenheimer notes that during this period, Ethel began making headlines by showing up at official functions in trendy fashions of the 1960s known as "Mod"—short, short skirts, vinyl shifts, and Courrèges boots. While most found her behavior characteristic, her close friends apparently viewed it as something more. "They had started to interpret her growing flamboyance as a shield for what they saw as insecurity and resentment—," he wrote, "insecurity about her abilities, resentment at the limitation of her role as a Kennedy wife."

In July 1966, Ethel received the happy news that she was pregnant with number ten, the number that would push her over Rose's record. Beginning in September, however, she experienced a round of tragedies that dominated her existence for 20 months. Two months into her pregnancy, her brother George Skakel was killed in a plane crash. His widow Pat Skakel and her four children were just putting their lives back together when the older daughter was involved in an automobile accident that took the life of a young friend. Shortly after Ethel gave birth to Douglas Kennedy in May 1967, Pat Skakel died of asphyxiation cause by a piece of meat lodging in her larynx. A month following Pat's funeral, in what many viewed as poor timing, Ethel threw her largest party yet at Hickory Hill to celebrate her 17th wedding anniversary. Three-hundred guests—including a Hollywood contingent comprised of Andy Williams, Carol Channing , Jack Paar, and Kirk Douglas—attended the affair, at which Peter Duchin's orchestra provided the dance music. The party, which lasted until dawn, was the last wedding anniversary Ethel and Bobby would celebrate.

While Bobby agonized over his historic decision to run for President, Ethel encouraged him and did her best to squelch any naysayers. During his campaign, which lasted 85 days, Ethel, once again pregnant, hit the trail, supported by a retinue of personal assistants to help with her clothes and hair, and to care for the unruly brood on the home front. On June 4, 1968, Bobby Kennedy had just won the California primary, and Ethel was in a jubilant mood when she left with him for the downtown Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel, where he would make his victory speech. Following his speech, Bobby was being escorted through a pantry area to the Colonial Room, where he was to meet with a journalist. Ethel had just stopped to talk with some of the kitchen help, when 24-year-old Sirhan Bishara Sirhan stepped around a tray rack shouting and wielding a revolver. Before anyone could register what was happening, he shot eight bullets into Robert F. Kennedy's head. In the pandemonium that followed, Ethel, dazed and shocked, attempted to comfort her fallen husband who was immediately transported to Good Samaritan Hospital, where shortly after midnight on June 6, he was pronounced dead.

"From the moment Bobby was shot until he was buried, Ethel rarely left his side," wrote Oppenheimer. "In his death, as in his life, her sole wish was to be with him." On the flight back to New York, Ethel sat near his coffin, falling into a fitful sleep against it at one point. Many who were present at the time, marveled at her composure, including her obstetrician who said it was almost impossible to tell that she had just survived a trauma. Ethel also remained strong and controlled throughout the ordeal that followed. In arranging the funeral mass, held at St. Patrick's Cathedral, she insisted that it be uplifting rather than grim. "If there's one thing about our faith," she told one of the priests, "it's our belief that this is the beginning of eternal life and not the end of life. I want this Mass to be as joyous as it possibly can be." On the 21-car funeral train which carried Bobby back to Washington for burial, Ethel made her way up and down the aisles, greeting friends and joking on occasion. Most of the time, however, she sat next to the casket with a rosary in her hand. An accident in Elizabeth, New Jersey, during which two mourners who were on the northbound tracks to get a better view of the Kennedy train were killed by an oncoming New York-bound express train, delayed the train's arrival in Washington by five hours. It was close to midnight before the final graveside ceremony for Robert Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery was over.

In much the same manner as her mother-in-law Rose Kennedy, Ethel endured the assassination of her husband with a stoicism born of deep religious faith. Friends, who rallied around to ward off the depression they were sure would overcome her, were surprised by her calm demeanor, although some noted sudden mood swings and an edge to her voice that had not been there before. Ethel spent the summer at Hyannis then returned to Hickory Hill to await the birth of her last child, who arrived slightly past her due date on December 12, 1968. Ted Kennedy, upon whom Ethel now relied as a surrogate father to her children, was with her at the hospital and helped her name the child Rory. Back home following the birth, Ethel's problems with the children grew. Many felt that without Bobby's influence, she completely lost control of them. "They ran rampant," said Barbara Gibson , Rose Kennedy's longtime secretary. "It was nothing to see the little ones, like Max and Rory, up on the roof. You'd worry that someone was going to fall and kill himself."

The older children, who felt the impact of their father's death more keenly, dealt with their pain in more complex and destructive ways. In 1970, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., was charged with possession of marijuana but escaped conviction because it was a first offense. Ethel threw him out of the house, an act of anger and frustration that would become habitual. (Bobby, Jr., eventually licked his drug problem and became an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council; he also teaches law at Pace University.) In 1973, future congressional representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, then 20, was charged with reckless driving when the jeep he was driving overturned, leaving Pamela Kelley , a longtime friend of the Kennedys, paralyzed below the chest. Though found guilty of negligent driving, Joe was let off with a $100 fine and a scolding from the judge. (For many, it was a replay of the Chappaquid-dick incident in the summer of 1969, when Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of the accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and received a suspended two-month jail sentence and a year on probation.) David Kennedy, who had always been the most sensitive and troubled of the brood, turned to drugs to quiet his pain, quickly graduating from marijuana to heroin. Over the years, Ethel sent him to countless rehab centers and even employed a live-in detox expert, but nothing helped. On April 24, 1984, just shy of his 29th birthday, David was found dead in a Palm Springs hotel room, apparently the victim of a cocaine overdose. Once again Ethel displayed remarkable strength, telling friends that she believed her son had joined his father in heaven. There was a private funeral service for David at Hickory Hill, after which he was buried alongside his grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, at the family plot at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Through the years, Ethel's name has been linked romantically with a number of men, but she never remarried. In the early 1970s, the gossip columns linked her to singer Andy Williams, who, with his first wife Claudine Longet , had been pals with the Kennedys during the 1960s. Although the couple dated for a time, a romantic relationship was evidently more a media invention than a reality. Ethel subsequently dated Look magazine's Warren Rogers, also an old friend, and New York attorney William vanden Heuvel, a longtime aide of Bobby's. Other supposed suitors included New York governor Hugh Carey, ABC news and sports executive Roone Arledge, and sportscaster Frank Gifford. But Oppenheimer believes that it was all a game, that Ethel was devoted to Bobby's memory. "She talked to him constantly, and she never removed her wedding rings. At a hockey match to benefit retarded children in Madison Square Garden in 1974, six years after Bobby's death, Ethel shook hands with a blind child. When he asked her whether she was Rose Kennedy, Ethel answered, 'No, I'm Ethel, Bobby's wife.'" Ethel also turned Hickory Hill into something of a shrine, keeping numerous pictures of Bobby on the walls and tabletops. "The ghost of Bobby haunted Hickory Hill," commented one friend. "How in the world any man ever thought they could win her and compete with Bobby Kennedy's spirit, I'll never know."

Though the periods of tranquillity in Ethel's life continued to be overshadowed by calamity in either her Skakel family, or that of the Kennedys, she was generally there when the call went out to circle the wagons. "She's more a Kennedy than the Kennedys," writes author Dominick Dunne, who covered William Kennedy Smith's 1991 rape trial, at which Ethel was in frequent attendance. But there are good times, too, and much to be proud of. The majority of Ethel's children are happily settled in productive careers, and many are married with children of their own, providing Ethel with a slew of grandchildren.

In later years, Ethel devoted more time to charitable causes, which included overseeing the $10 million Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, established shortly after her husband's death to fund journalistic and humanitarian endeavors. In the years immediately following Bobby's death, she became active in some of his causes, including the grape pickers' movement of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chávez in California, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, and the political campaigns of John Glenn in Ohio and John Lindsay in New York. For years, Ethel has also supported the Special Olympics, the Kennedy family's favorite charity. Since the early 1990s, through the auspices of the RFK Center for Human Rights in Boston, founded by Ethel's daughter Kerry Kennedy (Cuomo) , she has also been associated with various human-rights and humanitarian causes. In 1992, with her son Michael and her daughter Courtney Kennedy Hill , she toured Eastern Europe, where they donated medical equipment, and in late 1997, she traveled to Kenya to promote democratic reforms. On the occasion of Chinese President Jiang Zemin's state visit in the fall of 1998, she joined a mass rally across from the White House protesting human-rights abuses in Tibet and China. Closer to home, she supports Washington's Mount Carmel House shelter for homeless women and the St. Ann's Home for orphaned and abandoned children. She also assisted her son Max in preparing Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, a volume containing Robert Kennedy's journal entries, selected speeches, and favorite sayings. Max, who was three when his father was slain, still misses his father. "Obviously I've had a life of enormous privilege and opportunity," he says. "But the essential fact of that life is the absence of this man. There's not a single day that any member of my family wouldn't trade all that privilege and opportunity to have our father back."

In January 1998, Ethel lost yet another son, Michael, through a tragic accident. In the middle of a scandal—an alleged affair with his children's teenage babysitter, he careened into a tree while skiing in Aspen. In light of her overwhelming losses, Ethel's resilience and strength almost mystifies those who know her. Former New York governor Mario Cuomo, whose son is married to Kerry Kennedy, attended Michael's funeral and found himself recalling Robert's funeral 30 years earlier. "It was the same Ethel Kennedy, apparently impassive, controlled," he said. "She must have been terribly wounded, but she showed no evidence of it. I suspect when she's at mass and alone in a pew that she allows herself a tear. But she won't allow herself a tear with you. She doesn't make her problem your problem. It's probably harder in her life than anyone else's to find the evidence that God is good. Yet she believes it."


Collier, Peter, and David Horowitz. The Kennedys: An American Drama. NY: Warner Books, 1984.

Jerome, Richard. "Tale of Two Women: Guardian of the Flame," in People Weekly. Vol. 49, no. 24. June 22, 1998, pp. 44–55.

Oppenheimer, Jerry. The Other Mrs. Kennedy. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

suggested reading:

Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot. NY: Warner, 2000.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Kennedy, Ethel (1928—)

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