Ethel Kennedy, Rory Kennedy
Updated: November 8, 2012 11:55AM
Ethel Kennedy is not the Kennedy whose name usually comes up when people are engaged in the endless process of celebrating or condemning what is inarguably America’s most famous family.
With neither the power of her husband, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, or her brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy, nor the glamor of his wife, Jacqueline, she remained “just outside the glare of publicity” according to a 1969 Time magazine cover story on her, which attempted to rectify that situation by pointing out she was the most admired woman in America and in many ways “the most remarkable member of her remarkable family.”
Despite Time’s efforts and no fewer than three biographies, Ethel Kennedy remains a not-quite-familiar figure. Even though I’m acquainted with her son, Chris, who until last year ran the Merchandise Mart, I knew practically nothing about her until Tuesday night, when a fascinating new documentary film on her life, “Ethel,” created by the youngest of her 11 children, Rory, debuted in Chicago. She was born here in 1928, to George and Ann Skakel — a wealthy Catholic couple and — the first of the film’s many surprises — staunch Republicans.
The family moved East when she was 5, and she met Bobby Kennedy on a ski trip both families took to Quebec in the winter of 1945 — an event buoyantly preserved in color home movies. The rich are indeed different from you and me, not only in that they have more money, but because they have better home movies, and one of the pleasures of this documentary is the rare peek into a happy time in Kennedy lore overlooked in histories.
The movie goes along parallel tracks, her husband’s rise — first as his brother’s campaign manager, then as a lawyer working for the Senate, eventually attorney general, then a senator — and the growth of their family.
This is not a warts and all portrait, but it does address some of the less comfortable aspects of Robert Kennedy’s career, particularly his time working for red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, which is cast as a mistake.
The two tracks intersect in surprising ways. There is toddler Kerry playing in her father’s office during the crisis of integrating colleges in the South in 1963 — he puts her on the phone to Department of Justice officials there, who seem to take it in stride. After seeing the deep poverty in the Mississippi Delta, RFK comes home to the splendor of their Virginia home, obviously shaken.
“Do you know how lucky you are?” he tells his children. “Do you know how lucky you are? You have to do something for our country. You have to give back.”
What makes this more than a pure exercise in history is the way the words of Robert Kennedy echo in our present moment, when the idea that the wealthiest in our country need to give anything at all back, whether taxes or effort or even sympathy, is under unashamed assault. Robert Kennedy talks again and again about the need for jobs, to instill hope, he crosses a racial barrier that was more obvious then, invisible but present now.
The family luck doesn’t hold, but ended June 6, 1968, when Kennedy, having just won the California primary, was assassinated in Los Angeles, and anybody expecting the film, which has Ethel Kennedy’s first interview in 25 years, to offer insight into that terrible midnight will be disappointed. The murder isn’t explored — no disturbing Life magazine photos, no horror-struck Ethel Kennedy, fingers splayed, trying to block the camera.
“Talk about something else,” she tells the camera, and the movie does — how, widowed at 40, with 10 children and the 11th, the future filmmaker, on the way, she tried to make sure they were raised to be good citizens.
One of the pleasures of the movie is seeing Ethel Kennedy in the present day, in her 80s, feisty and alert, and her surviving children, and the obvious fun of being a Kennedy.
The demand for information about the family is truly insatiable — hundreds of books, films, studies. Many are celebrations, others gleeful reiterations of scandal and gossip. “Ethel” tacks toward the celebratory, though it serves up its own version of the incredible. Asked if she was able to comfort her husband after the assassination of his brother, she says, bluntly, no, it was six months before they could talk about it.
My theory behind the country’s endless fascination with the Kennedys is that all families have their joys and tragedies, their before-the-fall moments of youth and grace and hopefulness, and the long years of coping with what life inevitably serves up. By focusing on this particular family, far more attractive, rich, and famous than ourselves, we not only enjoy wonder — the Kennedy household briefly included a seal in the swimming pool — but grapple with the thorny realities of our own lives. “Ethel” is a valuable, poignant film, not only for its insight into history, but for its intimate look at this unique American family. It premieres on HBO Oct. 18.