Ethel Kennedy

Ethel Skakel Kennedy (born April 11, 1928) is the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, who served as Attorney General of the United States and a United States Senator for the state of New York.


Early life

Ethel Skakel was born in Chicago on April 11, 1928 to Ann Brannack, a Roman Catholic of Irish descent, and George Skakel, a Protestant of Dutch descent.[1] Ethel was raised as a Catholic in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her father was the founder of the very successful Great Lakes Carbon Corporation, now a division of SGLCarbon.[2] She attended the all-girls Greenwich Academy[3][4] in Greenwich, as well as the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan. In September 1945, Ethel began her collegiate education at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart (then located in Manhattan), where she became friends and roommates with Jean Kennedy. Skakel later married Kennedy's brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

Kennedy family and marriage

Ethel met Robert F. Kennedy during a ski trip to Mont Tremblant Resort in Quebec, Canada during the winter of 1945. At the time, Robert was dating Ethel's sister, Patricia. That relationship ended and Ethel and Robert started seeing each other. Ethel campaigned for his brother, John F. Kennedy, in his 1946 campaign for United States Congress, and wrote her college thesis on his book Why England Slept.

Bobby and Ethel became engaged in February 1950, and were married on June 17, 1950 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenwich. Ethel's wedding dress and bridal party gowns were created by noted New York City fashion designer Mamie Conti. As newlyweds, Ethel and Bobby moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they lived while Bobby finished his last year at the University of Virginia Law School. Their first child, Kathleen, was born on July 4, 1951. After Bobby graduated with his law degree, the family settled in the Washington, D.C. area and Bobby went to work for the Department of Justice. That path did not last long, as Bobby was asked by his family to manage John F. Kennedy's successful 1952 Senate campaign in Massachusetts.

Throughout the 1950s, Robert Kennedy worked for the federal government in investigatory roles for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations with anti-Communist Senator Joe McCarthy, and as chief counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management.[5] In 1956, the Kennedys purchased Hickory Hill from Bobby's brother John and his wife, Jackie. They needed a larger house, since Ethel was pregnant with their fifth child. This enormous 13 bedroom, 13 bath home was situated on in McLean, Virginia.

In contrast to John and Jackie Kennedy, Robert and Ethel held many get-togethers at their home. Whether it was a pool party or a formal dinner party, the guest list was impressive and eclectic. Journalist Roger Mudd remembers meeting John Lennon at one such party. Other notable invitees included the Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, entertainer Judy Garland, dancer Rudolf Nureyev and historian Arthur Schlesinger, who found himself thrown into the pool fully clothed where Ethel was also already swimming fully clothed.[6]

The Kennedy children added to the wild atmosphere at Hickory Hill. Notoriously, Robert Jr. had a zoo in the basement. It was not unusual to see reptiles, a seal, an anteater, miniature ponies and even an elephant on the grounds.[7] Jackie found the children so wild that she did not allow Caroline and John Jr. to play with their cousins.[6]

Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

Just after midnight on June 5, 1968, Ethel's husband was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan. He died 26 hours later. Ethel and her children were devastated. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning. In 1969, Sirhan was convicted of Robert F. Kennedy's murder and sentenced to death. In 1972, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after the California Supreme Court invalidated that state's death penalty as it existed at that time.


Since 1968, Ethel was escorted to dinners, parties and the theater by singer Andy Williams, a family friend. She has said she would never marry again. During the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries, Ethel endorsed Illinois Senator Barack Obama[8] (as did her children Max and Rory, though another three, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Kerry Kennedy, at first publicly endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton, in mid-2007). She has also publicly supported and held fundraisers for numerous other politicians, including Virginia gubernatorial candidate Brian Moran at Hickory Hill.[9] Ethel was among the chief mourners at the public funeral for her brother-in-law Edward M. Kennedy on August 29, 2009, placing the pall on his casket at the Mass along with her sisters-in-law Jean Kennedy Smith and Victoria Reggie Kennedy.

Children of Robert and Ethel Kennedy

Name Birth Death Age Cause of death Occupation Spouse
Kathleen Hartington Kennedy Townsend July 4, 1951 Living 60 Lieutenant Governor of Maryland (1995–2003) David Lee Townsend
Joseph Patrick Kennedy II September 24, 1952 Living 59 U.S. Representative (1987–1999) Sheila Rauch (divorced); Anne Elizabeth "Beth" Kelly
Robert Francis Kennedy, Jr. January 17, 1954 Living 57 environmental attorney Emily Ruth Black (divorced); Mary Richardson
David Anthony Kennedy June 15, 1955 April 25, 1984 28 drug overdose ambition towards journalism
Mary Courtney Kennedy Hill September 9, 1956 Living 55 former representative of the United Nations AIDS Foundation Jeffrey Robert Ruhe (divorced); Paul Hill
Michael LeMoyne Kennedy February 27, 1958 December 31, 1997 39 skiing accident Attorney Victoria Gifford
Mary Kerry Kennedy September 8, 1959 Living 52 Attorney Andrew Cuomo (divorced)
Christopher George Kennedy July 4, 1963 Living 48 President of Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. Sheila Sinclair Berner
Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy January 11, 1965 Living 46 Attorney Victoria Anne Strauss
Douglas Harriman Kennedy March 24, 1967 Living 44 Journalist Molly Elizabeth Stark
Rory Kennedy Bailey December 12, 1968 Living 42 Film director and producer Mark Bailey


Further reading
  • Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, Robert Kennedy and His Times, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002, ISBN 0618219285
  • Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot. Warner Books: 2000. ISBN 0-446-52426-3