The other Mrs. Kennedy
The late Jackie O might get more props, but her sister-in-law Ethel was a style icon in her own right — and a hilarious hostess, to boot
In the HBO documentary “Ethel,” the octogenarian widow of Bobby Kennedy, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, tells her daughter, Rory, who produced and directed the film, “Nobody gets a free ride . . . it might not last.” No one knows that better than Ethel, the Kennedy clan matriarch, who has experienced immense tragedy and heartbreak — just this year, she has been through the suicide of her daughter-in-law Mary and her daughter Kerry’s controversial car crash in Westchester County. As the film screens across the country, including at the Hamptons International Film Festival’s Summer Docs series on Aug. 31 before airing on TV in October, Ethel’s biographer, JERRY OPPENHEIMER, takes a look at her life and legacy.
To most of the free world, First Lady Jackie Kennedy was the glittering, ruling star of Camelot, but the real Washington “glamour girl” was her sister-in-law, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, a quirky fashion trendsetter and madcap party-giver, the mate of Bobby Kennedy and mother of their brood of 11.
Today, Ethel is the de facto matriarch of America’s royal family, a woman who has had an incredible life of immense joy and overwhelming sorrow. Her husband was assassinated in 1968 as he campaigned for the presidency, gunned down like his brother, Jack. She faced the heartbreaking deaths of two sons — David, her fourth-born, from a drug overdose in 1984, and Michael, her sixth-born, in a skiing accident in 1997 — and was eyewitness to most Kennedy triumphs, scandals and tragedies.
It was her stoicism and her staunch Catholic beliefs that got her through it all — before she married Bobby, she had seriously considered becoming a nun. Ethel, who still goes to Mass every day and wears a gold cross, firmly believes that her beloved husband and deceased sons are in heaven.
On April 11, she celebrated her 84th birthday — still as vivacious as ever. And later this year, the grand dame of the clan will star in the aforementioned HBO documentary, filmed by Rory Kennedy, with whom Ethel was pregnant when Bobby was murdered.
Just 35 days after Ethel’s birthday, she faced the latest anguish to envelope her branch of the Kennedy clan — the May 16 suicide by hanging of her daughter-in-law, Mary Richardson Kennedy. The mother of two of Ethel’s 33 grandchildren, Mary was the estranged second wife of Ethel’s third-born, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was in the process of divorcing her.
Ethel and Mary shared a similar gregariousness, with a fondness for having lots of friends, pets and parties. Mary was much beloved by Ethel, and the matriarch was devastated by her death.
Then, last month — on Friday the 13th — there was yet another shocker, as the so-called “Kennedy curse” continued. Ethel’s seventh-born, 52-year-old Kerry, one of Mary’s longtime friends, was nearly killed when, driving erratically, she slammed her car into a tractor-trailer. Charged with driving under the influence of drugs, she pleaded not guilty, claimed she had suffered “a complex partial seizure” and denied drug and alcohol abuse. A subsequent toxicology report showed Ambien was in her system.
Before she became “more Kennedy than Kennedy,” Ethel was a Skakel from Greenwich, Conn., a family as wealthy, outrageous and scandal-riddled as the Kennedys, with heavy drinking and philandering common. Ethel’s nephew, Michael Skakel — son of her brother, Rushton — is currently in prison for the 1975 Halloween night murder in Greenwich of a pretty 15-year-old neighbor, Martha Moxley.
Like the Kennedy patriarch, Joe, Ethel’s father, George, was a shrewd entrepreneur. He had found a way to turn coal dust into an immense fortune on the eve of the Roaring ’20s. Her tall, heavy-set mother, known as “Big Ann,” was much like the Kennedy matriarch, Rose — deeply religious, and a major benefactor of the Catholic Church.
Ethel, the sixth of the Skakel brood of seven, faced her first heartbreak when her beloved parents were killed in a plane crash in 1955.
But despite all the adversity she’d faced, it was Ethel’s zany persona that won Bobby Kennedy’s heart.
The two were introduced by Jean Kennedy, Bobby’s sister, and Ethel’s close chum at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, in Harlem. (A former ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith is the only living child of Rose and Joe.)
When Ethel graduated in June 1949, her yearbook described her as “alive with mischief,” and noted that a weekend at the Skakel mansion was “hilarious and unique.”
Life at Hickory Hill, the fabled Kennedy estate in McLean, Va., would be much like Ethel’s childhood home — lots of kids, pets (including a seal) and parties — after she and Bobby married on June 17, 1950, with the pope’s blessing and a fountain spewing champagne.
The Skakels, rabid conservative Republicans, and the liberal Democratic Kennedys, never got along. Ethel, who became a staunch and loyal Kennedy, rarely sided with her own family.
“They thought I was a little communist,” she bitterly reveals in the film.
After Jack Kennedy’s inauguration and Bobby’s appointment as attorney general, Ethel became Washington’s premier party-giver — the hostess with the mostest. Hickory Hill became party central, with the fun and mayhem produced and directed by Ethel.
She famously pushed fully clothed White House dignitaries such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. into the family pool, sparking headlines and an angry decree from her brother-in-law, the president, to halt the embarrassing high jinks. “Ethel was childish and self-indulgent,” Schlesinger’s then-wife, Marion, observed years later. “. . . extravagant and excessive.”
But Ethel couldn’t have cared less.
“It would be easy to make Washington social life a full-time job,” she declared. “I like people and parties.”
One of those on Ethel’s party list who rubbed her the wrong way, however, was her sister-in-law, First Lady Jackie..
The animosity went both ways.
Back in the day, the two Kennedy wives had a nonstop, all-claws-bared catfight, not mentioned in her documentary. Elegant Jackie, with her pillbox hats and Givenchy gowns, thought of the touch-football-playing, aggressive tennis jock Ethel as crass, crude and boorish. And Ethel viewed Jackie as a pretentious, girly-girl twit.
Jackie cattily intoned that Ethel, the mother of all those kids, was nothing more than “a baby-making machine — wind her up and she becomes pregnant.” She couldn’t fathom that the very fertile Ethel’s goal was to surpass mother-in-law Rose’s progeny of nine, and she did so, by two.
From the moment they met at a Georgetown party, Ethel and Jackie shot daggers at one another. Tomboyish Ethel — a champion equestrian who once galloped through the Elsie de Wolfe-decorated first floor of the Skakel family mansion on her favorite steed, yelling, “Yahoo!” — couldn’t stomach Jackie’s graceful style, turned up her Irish nose at her and devilishly bad-mouthed her.
When Jackie mentioned that she once considered becoming a ballerina, Ethel pointed to her size 11 feet and roared, “With those clodhoppers of yours, you’d be better off going in for soccer!” She referred to Jackie derisively as a “debutante,” called her “Jacque-leen,” which, Ethel roared, rhymed with “queen.”
She imitated Jackie’s signature breathy voice to gales of laughter from her other Kennedy sisters-in-law, with whom she had closely bonded, and she poked raucous fun at her for refusing to join in the clan’s rough-and-tumble touch-football games.
Jackie savored chopping up Ethel with those in her exclusive circle, among them Truman Capote, who also wasn’t very fond of Bobby’s bride.
“She has the mindset of a vulture . . . She’s the most highly competitive and insanely jealous human being I have ever met,” he once declared. “Jackie would give a party . . . a week later Ethel felt obligated to throw a shindig . . . Anything Jackie did, she could do better.”
There came a time when Jackie all but distanced herself from Ethel and her wild brood, refusing to let her kids, John Jr. and Caroline, associate with them.
Besides throwing parties, Ethel was a dyed-in-the-wool fashionista who introduced the miniskirt and other kicky fashions to a conservative and staid capital.
With her tanned legs, cute figure and the chic little dresses and gold jewelry she wore, she quickly became a fashion icon.
And she secured that image with the help of a little-known Georgetown dressmaker, Mrs. Norman Paul, known as Madame Paul, whose shop was called Saint-Aubin de Paris.
Women’s Wear Daily soon noted the young Kennedy wife’s fashion influence, and gushed that she was “the All-American Girl . . . who buys good American clothes and wears them well with innate breeding and good taste.”
Madame Paul adored Ethel because she had simple tastes and was easy to fit. “She had a very strong little body, with little breasts,” she observed. “She was not frilly.”
But when it came to paying for style, Ethel could be a penny pincher. If she saw something she liked in Vogue, she asked Madame Paul to make her a knockoff. Years later, the dressmaker acknowledged, “I didn’t do exactly the same, but something similar.”
When Ethel showed up at a function wearing what appeared to be a Chanel suit, a sharp-eyed women’s-page scribe reported that it was a Madame Paul knockoff. Other designers she favored were Mollie Parnis, Christian Dior and Oscar de la Renta. In a number of cases, she got the goods by using her influence as a Kennedy: She wrangled designer dresses for cost, plus 10 percent, through New York City fashion brokers.
As a close friend noted, “Ethel felt you were a fool if you bought clothing at retail.”
After she was widowed in 1968 and named “the most admired woman in America,” a devastated Ethel had to oversee her brood of 11, but lost control. She began drinking wine and downing sleeping pills, and two of her sons, David and Bobby Jr., became seriously involved with hard drugs.
During that terrible period, Hickory Hill became known to some as “Horror Hill.” Ethel also had to contend with Kennedy family overseers like Steve Smith, Jean’s husband, who ran the clan’s Park Agency. He began to keep a tight rein on her extravagance; in one spree, she bought a Mary McFadden dress in five different colors, and half a dozen luxury belts at Bergdorf’s.
She found a way around the fiscal censorship: shop, wear and return at stores like Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, in Washington. Items sometimes came back damaged or missing pieces.
At a chic Chevy Chase, Md., boutique, she bought a $750 Oleg Cassini to wear at an event at which she was photographed. The assistant manager who sold Ethel the dress saw the photo in the newspaper and clipped it out.
Soon after, one of Ethel’s servants nervously arrived at the shop with the dress boxed for return, with Ethel’s message that it had never been worn.
“I thought to myself, what gall that woman has,” declared the saleswoman later, adding that the dress looked like a “limp rag.” She sent it back with a “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” note, stating, “We are not a second-hand store,” and attached the incriminating clipping, with the compliment, “It happens to look wonderful on you.”
Ethel Skakel Kennedy, who might have been first lady if events had turned out differently, never paid for the dress, and was banned from the shop. A true comic-tragic original, she is one of the last of the clan’s most famous generation. To most, though, she’ll be poignantly remembered as the grief-stricken American madonna photographed cradling her husband’s head as he lay mortally wounded almost a half-century ago.
Jerry Oppenheimer is the author of “The Other Mrs. Kennedy, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, An American Drama of Power, Privilege, and Politics.” He is currently writing a book about Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Oppenheimer’s biography of the Johnson & Johnson dynasty will soon be published.