Ethel Skakel Kennedy (born April 11, 1928) is an American human-rights campaigner and widow of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Kennedy is the third of four daughters and sixth child of George and Ann Brannack Skakel, and was a classmate of her future sister-in-law Jean Kennedy Smith at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart. She is one of two surviving Skakel siblings and the longest-lived. She and her husband married in 1950 and had eleven children. Their house, Hickory Hill in McLean, Virginia, was the scene of exclusive parties.
Shortly after her husband's death, she founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, a nonprofit charity working to realize RFK's dream of a just and peaceful world. In 2009, Ethel Kennedy was among the chief mourners at the funeral of her brother-in-law Ted Kennedy. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Kennedy in 1968
April 11, 1928
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Convent of the Sacred Heart
|Alma mater||Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart|
|Spouse(s)||Robert Francis Kennedy (m. 1950; d. 1968)|
Ethel Skakel was born in Chicago, to businessman George Skakel (1892–1955) and secretary Ann Brannack (1892–1955); her parents were killed in a light plane crash. She was the Skakels' third daughter and sixth child of seven, having five older siblings, Georgeann (1918–1983), James (1921–1998), George Jr. (1922–1966), Rushton (1923–2003), and Patricia (1925–2000), and one younger sister, Ann (b. 1933). George was a Protestant of Dutch descent while Ann was a Catholic of Irish ancestry. Ethel and her siblings were raised Catholic in Greenwich, Connecticut. George Skakel was the founder of Great Lakes Carbon Corporation, now a division of SGLCarbon. She attended the all-girls Greenwich Academy in Greenwich, as well as the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan.
In September 1945, she began her college education at Manhattanville College, where she was a classmate of Jean Kennedy. Ethel first met Jean's brother Bobby Kennedy during a ski trip to Mont Tremblant Resort in Quebec in December 1945. During this trip, he began dating Ethel's elder sister, Patricia. After Kennedy and Patricia's relationship ended, he began dating Ethel. She campaigned for his elder brother Jack Kennedy (1917–1963) in his 1946 campaign for the United States Congress, and wrote her college thesis on his book Why England Slept.
Robert Kennedy and Ethel Skakel became engaged in February 1950 and were married on June 17, 1950, at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her wedding dress and bridal party gowns were created by noted New York City fashion designer Mamie Conti. As newlyweds, the couple moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they lived while Robert Kennedy finished his last year at the University of Virginia Law School. The couple had eleven children; Kathleen, Joseph, Robert Jr., David, Courtney, Michael, Kerry, Christopher, Max, Douglas, and Rory. Rory was born after Senator Kennedy was assassinated.
After Robert F. Kennedy graduated with a 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 Kennedy was asked by his family to manage his brother John F. Kennedy's successful 1952 Senate campaign in Massachusetts.
Throughout the 1950s, he worked for the federal government in investigatory roles for the United States Senate. 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, Courtney. This enormous 13-bedroom, 13-bath home was situated on 6 acres (24,000 m2) in McLean, Virginia.
Robert and Ethel Kennedy held many gatherings at their home and were known for their impressive and eclectic guest lists. Journalist Roger Mudd recalled meeting Beatle 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 M. Schlesinger, Jr., who found himself thrown into the pool fully clothed where Ethel Kennedy was also already swimming fully clothed.
In 1962, President Kennedy assigned Ethel and Robert to tour fourteen countries within a 28-day goodwill trip. Though the trip was said to be informal, the host countries viewed her and Robert as stand-ins for the President and First Lady.
On November 22, 1963, Ethel learned of President Kennedy's assassination from her husband. She had answered the phone, identified the caller as J. Edgar Hoover and handed the phone over to Robert, who then informed her of the shooting. The FBI Director had never called the Attorney General's home before. Ethel was reportedly devastated by the assassination and worried for President Kennedy's children.
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was mortally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan and died early the next day. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning. Ethel sent Johnson a handwritten note on June 19, thanking him and his wife, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, for their helping of her and the Kennedy family. In 1969, Sirhan was convicted of Robert F. Kennedy's murder and sentenced to death. In 1972, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after the California Supreme Court invalidated the state's death penalty as it existed at that time.
Following her husband's assassination, Ethel Kennedy publicly stated that she would never marry again. She was pregnant with her 11th child when he was killed, and she gave birth to their daughter Rory on December 12, 1968. For a time, she was escorted to dinners, parties and the theater by singer and family friend Andy Williams. She continued to live at the family home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Virginia, until December 2009, when it was sold for $8.25 million.
In 1968, Ethel Kennedy founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, dedicated to advancing human rights through litigation, advocacy, and education. The Center is a nonprofit charity that issues annual awards to journalists, authors and individuals around the world who have made a significant contribution to human rights in their country.
In February 2001, Kennedy visited Rodolfo Montiel and another peasant activist at their jail in Iguala, presenting Rodolfo with the Chico Mendes Award on behalf of American environmental group Sierra Club.
In March 2016, Kennedy was among hundreds who marched near the home of Wendy's chairman Nelson Peltz in Palm Beach, Florida, as part of an effort by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm workers' group, to convince the company to pay an additional one cent per pound of tomatoes to increase the wages of field workers.
During the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries, Ethel Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama. She publicly supported and held fundraisers at Hickory Hill for numerous politicians that included Virginia gubernatorial candidate Brian Moran. Kennedy hosted a $6-million fundraising dinner for Obama at Hickory Hill in June 2008. The $28,500-a-plate dinner was headlined by former Democratic presidential candidate and DNC chairman Howard Dean.
Ethel Kennedy was among the chief mourners at the public funeral for her brother-in-law Ted Kennedy on August 29, 2009. At the funeral Mass, Ethel Kennedy and her sister-in-law Jean Kennedy Smith (Ted Kennedy's sister) placed the pall on the casket.
Ethel Kennedy agreed to be in a documentary about her life; the documentary was directed by her last child, daughter Rory. The film, titled Ethel, is a personal portrait of Ethel Kennedy'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; it features candid interviews with Ethel and seven of her children intercut with historical footage and personal videos.
In August 2014, Kennedy nominated President Barack Obama to do the Ice Bucket Challenge as part of an effort to raise funds and awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease). Obama declined to perform the fundraising stunt, but expressed appreciation to Kennedy and made a monetary donation to the cause.
Also in 2014, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her dedication to "advancing the cause of social justice, human rights, environmental protection, and poverty reduction by creating countless ripples of hope to effect change around the world."