by eve zibart | October 8, 2012 | People
Ethel herself received a standing ovation at the Nantucket Film Festival.
Robert, Ethel, and the kids on an outing to the Bronx Zoo in 1964.
June 8, 1968: Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral.
Ethel and her daughter Rory.
May 1968: The Kennedys greet supporters at the Oregon primary during the US presidential campaign.
America’s family at play.
Rory received the Nantucket Film Festival’s Special Achievement in Documentary Storytelling award for Ethel.
When she first appeared on the public stage, Ethel Skakel Kennedy had Hollywood-starlet glamour and a sunnier and more exuberant spirit than her cool, elegant sister-in-law, Jacqueline, the First Lady she once seemed destined to follow into the White House. Ethel was irreverent, fearless, funny, and famously fecund: In a clip from the pre-PC 1960s, she is introduced by talk show host Jack Paar on his popular TV show as “the lovely little girl here, mother of seven, who has given birth to her own precinct.” (He redeemed himself later, calling her “one of the 10 most admired women in the world.”)
She also might almost be called the forgotten Kennedy, because she has ducked the spotlight for decades—no easy feat in the most closely watched family in American history. But more than 40 years after Robert F. Kennedy ran for president, Ethel Kennedy, his widow and mother of a famously rambunctious and socially conscious brood of 11, is finally getting her due in a 97-minute documentary, Ethel, directed by her youngest child, Rory.
The Making of Ethel
“I think everyone fantasizes about the questions we wanted to ask [our parents],” Rory, 43, says in a phone interview. “We don’t all have the time and opportunity to get that closure.” While making the film, Rory says, she didn’t learn anything that shifted her relationship with her “mother or siblings, or surprised me emotionally.” But she admits the project gave her “a deeper understanding” of her family.
Until Ethel, Rory Kennedy, often in collaboration with her screenwriter husband, Mark Bailey, has focused her documentaries on social issues such as AIDS, domestic abuse, poverty, and nuclear power. Her film Ghosts of Abu Ghraib won an Emmy in 2007; Killing in the Name, a film about terrorism, was nominated for an Oscar in 2011. It was HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins who championed her latest project after meeting Ethel herself at the premiere of another of Rory’s films. Ethel, which took a year to complete, airs this month on HBO. It debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in January and has been shown at a handful of other film festivals, including Berkshire International and Nantucket, where Rory’s brother Doug presented her with the festival’s Special Achievement in Documentary Storytelling award.
Ethel received standing ovations at Sundance and Nantucket, and it’s easy to see why. As well as being icons of liberal reform, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy—with their combination of witty charm, eloquence, and sex appeal, framed by their photogenic families—still light up the screen. In 1968 RFK was widely expected to carry the Kennedy standard back into the White House. Seeing the crowds surging around the candidates and the national mourning after the deaths of the two brothers only five years apart recaptures an era of both great optimism and deep national division that is permanently etched (“Where were you when…?”) into the memory of anyone who lived through that tumultuous time.
The film is also a reminder of Ethel Kennedy’s personal courage. Standing only a few feet from her husband when he was shot point-blank by Sirhan Sirhan, Ethel, then three months pregnant with Rory, pushed through the crowd crying for a doctor, then returned and cradled Robert’s head. She, Jackie, his sisters Jean and Pat, and Jean’s husband, Stephen Smith, were with him when he died more than 20 hours later. Rory says she wanted the film to primarily be a personal story about her mother’s relationship with RFK and with her children. “Because I was born six months after he died, I never knew my father,” says Rory at the start of the film. “I was raised by my mother.” But because her mother’s life was so intimately tied to one of the signal periods in American history—encompassing the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of RFK, JFK, and Martin Luther King Jr.—the documentary became more than that.
It seems odd that with such a trove of material at home, a successful filmmaker with more than two dozen documentaries under her belt would wait so long to make this film. The main problem was that Ethel hadn’t granted an interview in decades, and Rory fully expected her to refuse. “I think she only said yes because I’m her daughter.”
And Ethel didn’t make it easy. “Why should I have to answer all these questions?” Ethel asked. “Well, we’re making a documentary about you,” Rory answered. In the film, Ethel laughs. “That’s a bad idea.”
Fortunately, as Rory points out, she also had siblings to interview, “and there are a lot of them.” The family interviews took place over five days at the family compound in Hyannis Port in 2011, but for the finished film, Rory went through some 100 hours of newsreel and archival film, family photos (“Mummy had 16,000 photographs at Hickory Hill alone that we had to go through”), and home movies. “It was great to see a lot of it,” she says of the archival film. “At least, mostly great.”
There are plenty of lighthearted, sweet, and even hilarious moments in the first part of the film. For one thing, Ethel tells Rory it was love at first sight when she saw Robert during a ski vacation in Québec. “What did you think?” asks Rory. “Wow!” replies Ethel. (Robert was dating Ethel’s sister Patricia at the time. “Ouch,” says Rory.)
"Mummy's a Skakel"
Although the Kennedy and Skakel clans had much in common—both were wealthy, outdoorsy, religious Irish-Catholic families—they differed in several crucial ways. While the Kennedys considered themselves “part of the social landscape [and] embraced the crowds,” as Christopher Kennedy puts it, the Skakels were conservative Republicans who “weren’t interested in being part of something larger.” Under Rose Kennedy’s formidable influence, according to Ethel, the Kennedys, whether in Brookline or Palm Beach, sat down to dinner at 7:15 pm, “and that didn’t mean 7:16.” The Skakel establishment in Greenwich, Connecticut, on the other hand, was famously chaotic. “At our house, you never knew whether supper would be at 5 or 10.”
Their different upbringings were apparent: “While Daddy liked to stick to the rules, Mummy liked to bend them,” Rory says in the film. “Mummy’s a Skakel,” agrees Christopher, “and as such she has a hearty disregard for authority in every form.”
Some of the most delightful revelations in the film concern Ethel’s penchant for acquiring unusual pets (including a zebra, a coatimundi, and a seal, in addition to pigs, chickens, cows, goats who wandered into the living room to eat the flowers, and more than a dozen dogs and horses) and her lack of housewifely skills (according to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., she once tried to fry bananas in Vaseline), which are in stark and hilarious counterpoint to her considerable athletic abilities. Both the Skakels and Kennedys were almost obsessively athletic; Ethel was “a natural” who grew up competing in sailing and equestrian events. At that first ski resort meeting, Ethel challenged Robert to a race down the mountain, though Ethel won’t reveal who won.
“Mummy is the single most competitive person I have ever known,” attests Kerry Kennedy—which is saying a lot, considering the rest of the family. (Author Laurence Leamer, whose The Kennedy Women is one of three books he wrote about the clan, calls her “more Kennedy than the Kennedys.”) With RFK she clearly met her match, though: Robert, whose son Robert Jr. describes him as “the runt” of the family who had to try harder, was so determined to get his letter in football at Harvard that he played in the Harvard-Yale game with a cast on his broken leg. In those iconic images of carefree hordes of Kennedys playing football, skiing, or heeling around Hyannis Port, Ethel is always right in the middle of the fray, and after RFK’s death, she was the one who taught her youngest children to keep up.
But fierce athleticism and antics aside, perhaps the most startling fact, at least to younger audiences, is just how public a figure Ethel—surrounded by their attractive brood—was during the 1960s. “She loved campaigning,” says Leamer, who describes her as a “volatile combination of idealism, ambition, and drive.” Not only was she routinely at RFK’s side on the campaign trail, and on various television interview shows such as Paar’s, she was also a vigorous campaigner for his brother JFK, first for his 1946 Congressional and 1952 Senate runs, and later exhaustively during the 1960 presidential campaign. Just as impressively, she made sure the older children understood what their father did, sitting with them in the front rows at his high-profile hearings as attorney general, investigating Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa for racketeering.
It was the family’s first taste of terror; Hoffa’s henchmen had thrown acid in the eyes of a New York Post reporter, and he threatened to do the same to Ethel’s kids. Kathleen remembers that for a time they were not allowed to leave school until Ethel came to get them. “That was one thing I didn’t really understand—the death threats she and my siblings faced,” Rory says. “It was very real [for them] and very scary.”
But Ethel never hid the risks of public life from her children. Over the years the entire family, not just RFK, was in danger, especially during the civil rights turmoil. National threats weren’t sugarcoated. During the Cuban missile crisis, when nuclear war seemed imminent, the older children, used to being quizzed at the dinner table on current affairs, were canvassed on whether the family should leave Washington. (They said no, but Joe says he had second thoughts.)
Inevitably, the film shifts more heavily to RFK, detailing his public career and the private life behind it. Ethel recalls the “six months of…. blackness” that her husband, JFK’s closest advisor, endured after the president’s assassination, despair she says she could not ease. But it becomes most moving, perhaps, as RFK emerges from his grief, begins to campaign for the US Senate seat from New York, and—although Ethel says he hated campaigning for himself— finds his speaking voice, pledging to “close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old.” His movement energized both the poorest blacks in Mississippi and the Hollywood glitterati. He disarmed journalists and enthralled voters, especially women, often crediting Ethel for his success. He’s seen standing on car trunks and reaching from stages, his followers snatching at his clothing and screaming his name “like he was a Beatle,” marvels his daughter Courtney. And Ethel is right there, right up to that night—indicated only by a blackout in the film—at The Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles. When Rory asks her about the assassination, Ethel says only, “Let’s talk about something else.” Instead, the film shows the weeping crowds in New York lining the tracks to see his funeral train to Washington, DC.
The film drops a curtain over much of Ethel’s private life after RFK’s funeral. “Her husband was her life,” says Leamer, who feels Ethel Kennedy has been “undervalued” because she hasn’t taken on the sort of public role that Special Olympics founder Eunice Shriver and even her social activist children have. But that has been the result of such great challenges, says Leamer: “She’s had so many difficulties in her life, so much grief… and she was left to raise all those children.” And Ethel herself was reluctant to talk about the dark times. “All this introspection, I hate it!” she blurts out. But Rory disagrees: “She couldn’t be so deeply thoughtful and articulate if she hadn’t thought a lot about it. But does she go around the world talking about her feelings? No.” Eventually, Ethel took up some of RFK’s causes, battling poverty, linking arms with farm worker César Chávez, and establishing the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights; but she takes no credit for her children’s successes, attributing them to “the other gene.”
There is one more endearing fact about Ethel—and Ethel. Although it isn’t mentioned in the film, Rory Kennedy says her mother so hates her given name that “she flinched every time [the film] was introduced.” She tells a funny story about the Hyannis Port golf tournament her mother has hosted for more than 20 years to benefit the RFK Center: “About 15 years ago, she and Bill Murray were playing on a team together, and he was late. He comes running up, saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ She thought he was apologizing for being late, so she says, ‘No worries.’ But with all these TV reporters and cameras around, he says, ‘I’m so sorry you have to live with that horrible name! I can’t even stand to call you that!’ And she burst out laughing.”
photography by clyde keller/courtesy of HBO (oregon); john campbell/new york daily news archive via getty images (family), ken regan/courtesy of hbo (ethel); andrew delory (rory in nantucket); time & life pictures/getty images/courtesy of hbo (at play); filmmagic (rory and ethel); ron galella/wire image (funeral)
November 16, 2018