Ethel Kennedy

Ethel Kennedy Biography.com

Activist(1928–)
Ethel Kennedy is best known as the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, the former U.S. attorney general and New York senator who was assassinated in 1968.

Synopsis

Ethel Kennedy was born Ethel Skakel in Chicago, Illinois, on April 11, 1928. She met Robert F. Kennedy, known as Bobby, in the mid-'40s and the two married in 1950. The couple eventually had eleven children, with Ethel taking on the role of party host at the family's large Virginia home. John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, appointing brother Bobby U.S. attorney general. Bobby was assassinated eight years later, leaving Ethel to raise their children and continue a progressive political legacy as seen with the establishment of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights.

Background

Known as a political matriarch and the wife of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy, Ethel Skakel was born in 1928, in Chicago, Illinois, to parents George and Ann Skakel. Her father had worked his way up from being a railroad clerk, earning a meager wage, to eventually co-owning the prosperous Great Lakes Coal & Coke Co., a business launched in 1919. As a result, the Skakels became very wealthy, moving to Greenwich, Connecticut during Ethel's youth and settling into a huge country manor house. Raised with her six siblings, Ethel was also a competitive athlete. She went on to attend the elite Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, where she befriended fellow classmate Jean Kennedy .

Skakel and Kennedy became fast friends and eventually roommates at Manhattanville. She was introduced to Jean's brother, Robert, although he was initially romantically interested in Ethel's sister Pat. Nonetheless Ethel and Robert eventually started dating, with Ethel helping Robert with his brother John F. Kennedy's 1946 congressional campaign. 

Marriage to Robert Kennedy

After she graduated in June of 1949, Robert and Ethel's relationship grew serious. The couple became engaged in February 1950, and were married on June 17, 1950. As newlyweds they moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they lived until Bobby finished his last year at the University of Virginia Law School. Afterwards the family settled in Washington, D.C., where Robert began work for the Department of Justice. Their first child, Kathleen, arrived shortly thereafter on July 4, 1951. Joseph II would come the next year, followed by their third child, Robert, in 1954.

While Ethel was busy with new motherhood, her husband was managing his brother John's successful 1952 senatorial campaign. In 1953, he was appointed an assistant counsel of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, under Senator Joseph McCarthy. Though choosing to resign from the position later that year, Kennedy returned to the committee in 1954, eventually working as chief counsel and chairman. Then in 1957, he became chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field.

Public Life and Politics

While her husband climbed the political ladder in Washington, Ethel battled personal tragedy when both her parents were killed in a 1955 private plane crash. But Ethel, known for her bubbly and vivacious spirit, publicly showed little of her grief. Instead, she poured herself into taking care of her growing family—and helping her husband and in-laws run their political campaigns.

After the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Robert and Ethel bought Hickory Hill—a mansion in McLean, Virginia—from Robert's brother John to help house their growing family. Parties and gatherings at the 13-bedroom Hickory Hill manor were numerous, legendary and unbound under Ethel's energetic eye.

With a growing devotion to family politics, Ethel was among the Kennedys who campaigned for John as he ran for U.S. president. In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the election and appointed Robert to be attorney general.

Following John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, Ethel supported her husband while he campaigned for and won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Ethel was a likable presence, and her personality generally won over the public. Known for her no-nonsense, candid demeanor, she was also adept at handling the press. Despite reputed behind-the-scene family squabbles, she embraced her identity as a Kennedy and her lighthearted humor was a good match for the more serious Robert.

Tragic Assassination

Like his brother, Robert decided to enter the presidential race. Determined to win the 1968 election, Ethel and the rest of the Kennedy family geared up for the campaign trail. Ethel, three months pregnant with their 11th child, was again by Robert's side. But in that same year, 1968, immediately after he won the California Democratic primary, Robert F. Kennedy was shot repeatedly in a Los Angeles. He died the next day. In 1969, Sirhan Sirhan was convicted for Kennedy's murder.

Ethel and Robert's last child, Rory, was born several months after her father's murder. Ethel came to focus much of her time and energy on various social causes, most notably founding the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and working with the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Project in Brooklyn. 

However, in the 1980s and 1990s, she endured more personal misfortune. In 1984, her son David was found in a Palm Beach, Florida hotel room, where he fatally overdosed on drugs. Her grief was compounded in 1997 when another son, Michael, died in a skiing accident. And in 2002, her nephew Michael Skakel was tried and convicted for the 1975 murder of his then-neighbor Martha Moxley. He was released in 2013 when a judge decreed that he hadn't received an adequate defense, with prosecutors continuing to push for a reinstatement of the conviction.

Personal Life and Documentary 

Ethel's deep friendship with singer Andy Williams—who began to escort her to events after her husband's death—was scrutinized over time by media outlets. Many speculated about Williams's own rocky marriage and believed that he was having an affair. Williams and his wife would later divorce and he remarried another woman. In the end, with rumors of other relationships with footballer Frank Gifford and politician Hugh Carey, Ethel refused to remarry, citing her Catholic faith. The widowed Kennedy and Williams continued to remain platonic friends, which he had always maintained was the extent of their relationship. 

At the Sundance Film Festival, Rory Kennedy released a documentary on her mother's life in early 2012 entitled Ethel, which later found a home at HBO. More than two years later, Ethel Kennedy was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. In previous years Ethel had also endorsed Obama during his candidacy, stating that he reminded her greatly of her late husband.

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