Ethel is a feature length documentary about the remarkable life of Ethel Kennedy, told by those who know Ethel best: her family. Directed by her Emmy-Award winning daughter, Rory Kennedy, the film features candid interviews with Ethel and seven of her children. The film is a personal portrait of Ethel’s political awakening, the life she shared with Robert F. Kennedy, and the years following his death when she raised their eleven children on her own. Intimate, funny, and deeply moving, Etheloffers a rare look inside a political dynasty strengthened by family bonds, a compassion for others, and a wisdom forged from both hardship and triumph. The film is scheduled for broadcast on HBO in 2012.
Ethel Skakel Kennedy was born on April 11, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois to coal magnate George Skakel, a Protestant, and his devoutly Catholic wife, Ann Brannack Skakel. Ethel’s father, George Sr., started work as an eight dollars a week railroad clerk. He, along with some co-workers, built a small coal and coke business into a diversified privately owned enterprise, the Great Lakes Coal & Coke Co., which eventually became Great Lakes Carbon Corporation. As a result, the Skakels became extremely wealthy.In 1934, when Ethel was five years old, the family moved east, finally settling in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1936 where her father purchased a three-story, thirty-one room English country manor house on Lake Avenue where she was raised with her six siblings. Ethel attended the all-girls Greenwich Academy in Greenwich, and Convent of the Sacred Heart in the Bronx. In September 1945, Ethel began her education at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart. It was here that she was introduced to Jean Kennedy with whom she became fast friends and eventually roommates.
In 1945, 17-year-old Ethel was introduced to Jean’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy (Bobby) during a skiing trip to Mount Tremblant Resort in Quebec, Canada. At the time, Bobby was dating Ethel’s sister, Patricia Skakel. Eventually that relationship ended and Robert and Ethel started seeing each other.
Ethel campaigned for John F. Kennedy in his 1946 campaign for U.S. 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. Their first child, Kathleen, was born on July 4, 1951.
After Robert graduated with his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School, the family settled in the Washington, D.C. area and Robert went to work for the Department of Justice.
In 1955, Ethel suffered a personal tragedy when both her parents were killed when their private airplane crashed.
In 1956, the Robert F. Kennedys purchased Hickory Hill from Robert’s brother John and his wife Jacqueline. The 13 bedroom, 13 bath home was situated on six acres in McLean, Virginia.
In 1957, Ethel’s interest in politics was heightened after her husband became chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field. Two years later, she joined forces with other members of the Kennedy clan to campaign for Robert’s brother, John, during his run for the U.S. presidency. In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the election, at which time he appointed Robert to the post of attorney general.
Following the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, Ethel supported her husband while he campaigned for and won a seat in the U.S. Senate representing the state of New York. Like his brother, Robert also decided to enter the presidential race, but was assassinated in June 1968, immediately after he won the California Democratic primary. Six months after her husband’s death, Ethel gave birth to their 11th child, Rory.
During the late 1970s, with a renewed commitment to public service, Ethel focused much of her time and energy on various social causes, most notably the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Project. In 1984, she lost her son David who died from an accidental drug overdose and in 1997 her son Michael died in a skiing accident.
Ethel is the founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre which attempts to continue the works of Robert F. Kennedy through Human Rights Awards and Journalism Awards. She also co-chairs the Coalition of Gun Control, and is involved with other human rights organizations.
Robert and Ethel Kennedy are the parents of eleven children: Kathleen Hartington Kennedy Townsend (July 4, 1951); Joseph Patrick Kennedy II (September 24, 1952); Robert Francis Kennedy, Jr. (January 17, 1954); David Anthony Kennedy (June 15, 1955—April 25, 1984); Courtney Kennedy Hill (September 9, 1956); Michael LeMoyne Kennedy (February 27, 1958—December 31, 1997); Mary Kerry Kennedy (September 8, 1959); Christopher George Kennedy (July 4, 1963); Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy (January 11, 1965); Douglas Harriman Kennedy (March 24, 1967); and Rory Kennedy Bailey (December 12, 1968).
Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh child in the closely knit and competitive family of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. “I was the seventh of nine children,” he later recalled, “and when you come from that far down you have to struggle to survive.”
He attended Milton Academy and, after wartime service in the Navy, received his degree in government from Harvard University in 1948. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School three years later. Perhaps more important for his education was the Kennedy family dinner table, where his parents involved their children in discussions of history and current affairs. “I can hardly remember a mealtime,” Robert Kennedy said, “when the conversation was not dominated by what Franklin D. Roosevelt was doing or what was happening in the world.”
In 1950, Robert Kennedy married Ethel Skakel of Greenwich, Connecticut, daughter of Ann Brannack Skakel and George Skakel, founder of Great Lakes Carbon Corporation.
Robert and Ethel Kennedy later had eleven children. In 1952, he made his political debut as manager of his older brother John’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. The following year, he served briefly on the staff of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Disturbed by McCarthy’s controversial tactics, Kennedy resigned from the staff after six months. He later returned to the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations as chief counsel for the Democratic minority, in which capacity he wrote a report condemning McCarthy’s investigation of alleged Communists in the Army. His later work as Chief Counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee investigating corruption in trade unions won him national recognition for exposing Teamsters’ Union leaders Jimmy Hoffa and David Beck.
In 1960 he was the tireless and effective manager of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. After the election, he was appointed Attorney General in President Kennedy’s cabinet. While Attorney General he won respect for his diligent, effective and nonpartisan administration of the Department of Justice.
Attorney General Kennedy launched a successful drive against organized crime, and convictions against organized crime figures rose by 800% during his tenure. He also became increasingly committed to helping African Americans win the right to vote, attend integrated schools and use public accommodations. He demonstrated his commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School: ”We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court school desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law.”
In September 1962, Attorney General Kennedy sent U.S. Marshals and troops, under the orders of President Kennedy, to Oxford, Mississippi to enforce a federal court order admitting the first African American student James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. The riot that had followed Meredith’s registration at “Ole Miss” had left two dead and hundreds injured. Robert Kennedy collaborated with President Kennedy in proposing the most far-reaching civil rights statute since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed eight months after President Kennedy’s death.
Robert Kennedy was not only President Kennedy’s Attorney General, he was also his closest advisor and confidant. As a result of this unique relationship, the Attorney General played a key role in several critical foreign policy decisions. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, he helped develop the Kennedy Administration’s strategy to blockade Cuba instead of taking military action that could have led to nuclear war. He then negotiated with the Soviet Union on removal of the weapons.
Soon after President Kennedy’s death, Robert Kennedy resigned as Attorney General and, in 1964, ran successfully for the United States Senate from New York. His opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, labeled Kennedy a ”carpetbagger” during the closely contested campaign. Kennedy responded to the attacks with humor. “I have [had] really two choices over the period of the last ten months,” he said at Columbia University. “I could have stayed in—I could have retired. [Laughter.] And I — my father has done very well and I could have lived off him. [Laughter and applause.] … I tell you frankly I don’t need this title because I [could] be called General, I understand, for the rest of my life. [Laughter and applause.] And I don’t need the money and I don’t need the office space … [Laughter.] … Frank as it is—and maybe it’s difficult to believe in the state of New York I’d like to just be a good United States Senator. I’d like to serve.” Kennedy waged an effective statewide campaign and, aided by President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide, won the November election by 719,000 votes.
As New York’s Senator, he initiated a number of projects in the state, including assistance to underprivileged children and students with disabilities and the establishment of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to improve living conditions and employment opportunities in depressed areas of Brooklyn. Since 1967, the program has been a model for communities all across the nation.
These programs were part of a larger effort to address the needs of the dispossessed and powerless in America—the poor, the young, racial minorities and Native Americans. He sought to bring the facts about poverty to the conscience of the American people, journeying into urban ghettos, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and migrant workers’ camps. ”There are children in the Mississippi Delta,” he said, “whose bellies are swollen with hunger … Many of them cannot go to school because they have no clothes or shoes. These conditions are not confined to rural Mississippi. They exist in dark tenements in Washington, D.C., within sight of the Capitol, in Harlem, in South Side Chicago, in Watts. There are children in each of these areas who have never been to school, never seen a doctor or a dentist. There are children who have never heard conversation in their homes, never read or even seen a book.”
He sought to remedy the problems of poverty through legislation to encourage private industry to locate in poverty-stricken areas, thus creating jobs for the unemployed, and stressed the importance of work over welfare.
Robert Kennedy was also committed to the advancement of human rights abroad. He traveled to Eastern Europe, Latin America and South Africa to share his belief that all people have a basic human right to participate in the political decisions that affect their lives and to criticize their government without fear of reprisal. He also believed that those who strike out against injustice show the highest form of courage. ”Each time a man stands up for an ideal,” he said in a 1966 speech to South African students, ”or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Kennedy was also absorbed during his Senate years by a quest to end the war in Vietnam. As a new Senator, Kennedy had originally supported the Johnson Administration’s policies in Vietnam, but also called for a greater commitment to a negotiated settlement and a renewed emphasis on economic and political reform within South Vietnam. As the war continued to widen and America’s involvement deepened, Senator Kennedy came to have serious misgivings about President Johnson’s conduct of the war. Kennedy publicly broke with the Johnson Administration for the first time in February 1966, proposing participation by all sides (including the Vietcong’s political arm, the National Liberation Front) in the political life of South Vietnam. The following year, he took responsibility for his role in the Kennedy Administration’s policy in Southeast Asia, and urged President Johnson to cease the bombing of North Vietnam and reduce, rather than enlarge, the war effort. In his final Senate speech on Vietnam, Kennedy said, “Are we like the God of the Old Testament that we can decide, in Washington, D.C., what cities, what towns, what hamlets in Vietnam are going to be destroyed? … Do we have to accept that? … I do not think we have to. I think we can do something about it.”
On March 18, 1968, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., ”an uproarious campaign, filled with enthusiasm and fun … It was also a campaign moving in its sweep and passion.” Indeed, he challenged the complacent in American society and sought to bridge the great divides in American life—between the races, between the poor and the affluent, between young and old, between order and dissent. His 1968 campaign brought hope to an American people troubled by discontent and violence at home and war in Vietnam. He won critical primaries in Indiana and Nebraska and spoke to enthusiastic crowds across the nation.
Robert Francis Kennedy was fatally shot on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California shortly after claiming victory in that state’s crucial Democratic primary. He was 42 years old. Although his life was cut short, Robert Kennedy’s vision and ideals live on today through the work of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Ethel broadcast on HBO at 9pm on October 18th. It is now available on HBO GO and HBO On Demand.
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