October 17, 2012
For anyone suffering Kennedy fatigue, think again. Ethel, a documentary about Bobby Kennedy’s 84-year-old widow made by her eleventh and youngest child, Rory, (who was born after her father’s death) is a grand surprise. What may be lost in objective distance is amply compensated for by the laugh riot of Ethel’s escapades recounted by her children, and illustrated with a treasure trove of archival photographs and family movies. Ethel, who hasn’t given an interview for 35 years, talks bluntly to her daughter about her experiences, beliefs, and times of unspeakable grief, before gamely moving on. Megan O’Grady interviews mother and daughter in our story from Vogue’s July issue
below. Ethel airs on October 18 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.
Bobby Kennedy’s famously reticent widow, Ethel, cracks wise and wickedly funny in a documentary by her youngest daughter, Rory.
What a messed-up subject for a documentary!” says Rory Kennedy with a groan as she sits down to discuss her new film on the sunlit patio of her rented house outside Los Angeles. Dressed in faded jeans, a navy shirt, and beaded sandals, she stops to give her bichon-mixes a rub before sipping a cup of tea. Almost three years ago, Kennedy and her husband, screenwriter Mark Bailey, who is currently working on a screenplay based on the Black Panther comic for Marvel Studios, rented out their Brooklyn town house and moved to the West Coast with their three children, aged four to nine, who attend public school nearby. “We’re just getting started,” Rory jokes, referring to her parents’ high threshold for chaos—and for breeding; Rory was their eleventh child. The one-floor house is airy and light, with white-painted floors, a cluster of cut hydrangeas in a vase, and badminton rackets propped against a wall; a wedge of sea is visible in the distance. It’s not quite Hyannis Port on the Pacific, but it has a low-key charm that reflects Rory herself.
At 43, she is a year older than her father was when he was assassinated in this city, six months before her birth. She has his keen, crinkle-cornered blue eyes, prominent white teeth, and directness of manner, but in subtler ways, she is her mother’s daughter. Ethel, Bobby’s feisty octogenarian widow, has remained low-profile but intensely politically active in the more than four decades since his death. Rory is warm and earthy, and among the more private of her siblings—Bobby, Jr., is a leading environmentalist; Kathleen
and Joe have held public office; Kerry is a human-rights activist. By contrast, Rory has operated largely outside the spotlight and behind the camera, making television documentaries on such issues as the AIDS pandemic, the repercussions of welfare reform, and Abu Ghraib. When she has been in the public eye, it has been mostly unsolicited, and provoked by tragedy: the deaths of her brothers David, in 1984, from a drug overdose, and Michael, in 1997, from a skiing accident Rory witnessed. It was en route to her wedding to Bailey, in 1999, that her cousin John Jr.’s plane crashed, also killing his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette (Rory and Bailey postponed the wedding and later married in Greece). In the past, when she’s promoted her work, she has refused to discuss her family.
Which makes the subject of her new film, airing this fall on HBO, something of a surprise: her fierce and famously reticent mother, Ethel, who hasn’t granted an interview in 35 years. Why would Rory suddenly decide to open the door on the past, as well as risk adding to the Kennedy mythology and courting charges of tendentiousness?
The idea for the film originally came not from Rory but from Sheila Nevins, HBO’s president of documentary films, who met Ethel some years ago at a film-festival screening of American Hollow, her daughter’s award-winning documentary about poverty in Appalachia, and found her “a blast! An incredibly interesting, rambunctious, irreverent, and reverent person.” Pushing aside journalistic notions of objectivity, Nevins notes, “All good documentary work is personal. You have to have some
tie emotionally or in your DNA to the subject you’re doing. What always interested me was the fact that Rory never knew her father, and I thought it would be so interesting to find out what she had learned about him. What better and more heartfelt conduit for that story than her mother, and who else was going to tell that story but Rory?”
Nevins was persistent, and Rory came around to the idea, finally phoning her mother, who promptly agreed. “Frankly, I never thought she’d do it,” she says. “I called her back and I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And she said, ‘Don’t ask me again! I made my decision, and if you keep asking me, I might change my mind.’ ”
Perhaps the bigger surprise in a Kennedy-saturated culture is just how fresh, moving, and entertaining Ethel is. The film is not a historical analysis of the Kennedys, nor is it a lurid exposé—the world certainly doesn’t need more of either. What it offers instead is a uniquely vivid lens, recounting history from the inside out and placing iconic moments in the context of the larger family narrative. It was the desire to capture this perspective that convinced Rory it was time to put her moth
er, at 84 still an astonishing ball of energy, in front of the camera. “Not only does she have her own viewpoint on some extraordinary events but also, she’s just such a character. She’s very funny; she speaks truth to power and stands up to authority. She’s got a lot of moxie.”
Before she became Mrs. Kennedy, Ethel was the athletic and puckish sixth child (of seven) in the Skakel family—who, like the Kennedys, were prosperous, Irish-American, and devoutly Catholic. (Unlike the Kennedys, however, they were Republicans.) It was at Manhattanville College that Ethel befriended Bobby’s sister Jean, and she met her future husband on a group ski trip to Quebec’s Mont Tremblant in 1945. “He was standing in front of a roaring fireplace in the living room,” Ethel recalls in the film. “What did you think when you saw him?” her daughter asks. “Wow,” she replies. “Pretty great.”
There were obstacles—Bobby initially preferred Ethel’s older sister, and Ethel toyed with becoming a nun—but they were wed in 1950. What followed appears, in home movies and photographs, many of which Rory herself had never before seen, to have been an especially privileged brand of pandemonium. At Hickory Hill, the Virginia estate they bought from Jack and Jackie, Bobby and Ethel presided over their own ever-expanding constituency—“You were pregnant for 99 months out of your life,” the filmmaker points out to her flustered mother—and a loosely penned menagerie of pets, which at one time included nineteen dogs, a herd of horses, and a pet seal named Sandy.
No one could accuse the Kennedys of poorly documenting themselves. In the course of assembling her material, Rory found a trove of archival research as she embarked on a treasure hunt that took her from the Kennedy library to Art Buchwald’s attic in search of her mother’s past. “She’s there on the campaign trail, she’s there for the Hoffa hearings. She’s there on Jack’s campaigns and my father’s. She’s there at the White House. She’s there at the inauguration. She’s just there. And yet she had all of us children! Who were also there.” One of the few spouses in history who actually enjoyed campaigning, Ethel often took her children, who were quizzed at dinnertime on current events and consulted on such matters as whether or not to leave Washington during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The images often evoke a painfully complicated nostalgia. “The picture of that first day when Jack moved into the White House . . .” reflects Rory. “. . . My father sliding down the banister and all the kids running through the place and jumping into the pool. It’s such a great moment, and I think it captures not only the hope my family felt but that the country felt. It was the beginning of this very hopeful time in our history.”