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Ethel Kennedy

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Ethel Kennedy
Kennedy in 2018
Ethel Skakel

(1928-04-11) April 11, 1928 (age 96)
EducationManhattanville College (BA)
Political partyDemocratic
(m. 1950; died 1968)
RelativesKennedy family (through marriage)

Ethel Kennedy (née Skakel /ˈsk.kəl/ SKAY-kel born April 11, 1928) is an American human rights advocate. She is the widow of U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy, a sister-in-law of President John F. Kennedy, and the sixth child of George and Ann (Brannack) Skakel. Shortly after her husband's assassination in 1968, Kennedy founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, a non-profit charity working to reach his goal of a just and peaceful world. In 2014, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. She is the oldest living member of the Kennedy Family.

Early life and education[edit]

Ethel Skakel was born in Chicago, Illinois to businessman George Skakel and his former secretary Ann Brannack.[1] George was the founder of Great Lakes Carbon Corporation, now a division of SGLCarbon.[2] Her parents were killed in a 1955 plane crash.[3] She is the third of four Skakel daughters and the sixth-born of seven children.[4] George was a Protestant of Dutch descent[5][6][7] while Ann was a Catholic of Irish ancestry. Her nephew is Ciarán Cuffe, an Irish politician who served as a Member of the European Parliament.

Ethel and her siblings were raised in Greenwich, Connecticut. Ethel attended the all-girls Greenwich Academy, and graduated from the Convent of the Sacred Heart in the Bronx in 1945.[8] In September 1945, Ethel began her college education at Manhattanville College, where she was a classmate of her future sister-in-law Jean Kennedy.[9] She received a bachelor's degree from Manhattanville in 1949.[10]

Ethel first met Jean's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, during a ski trip to Mont Tremblant Resort in Quebec in December 1945. During this trip, Robert began dating Ethel's older sister Patricia, but after that relationship ended, he began to date Ethel. She campaigned for Robert's older brother John F. Kennedy in his 1946 campaign for the United States Congress in Boston, and she wrote her college thesis on his book Why England Slept.[8]

Marriage and family[edit]

Kennedy in 1968

Robert Kennedy and Ethel Skakel became engaged in February 1950 and were married on June 17, 1950, at the Catholic St. Mary Church in Greenwich.[11] The Boston Globe noted that the marriage "unites two large fortunes."[12]

After Robert graduated with his law degree, the couple settled in the Washington, D.C. area and Robert went to work for the Justice Department.[8] In 1956, the Kennedys purchased Hickory Hill, an estate outside Washington in McLean, Virginia, from Robert's brother John and his wife Jacqueline.[13] Robert and Ethel held many gatherings at their home and were known for their impressive and eclectic guest lists.[14] Ethel sold Hickory Hill for $8.25 million in December 2009.[15][16] The couple also owned a home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts on Cape Cod.[17]

In 1960, Ethel's brother-in-law John F. Kennedy won the presidential election, at which time he appointed Robert to the post of attorney general.[8] 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.[18]

On November 22, 1963, Ethel learned of her brother-in-law's assassination from her husband. She had answered the phone, identified the caller as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and handed the phone 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 her niece and nephew.[19]

In 1964, Ethel supported her husband while he campaigned for and won a seat in the United States Senate representing New York.[8] During the campaign, Robert was accused of "carpetbagging" and Ethel made light of the criticism by suggesting this slogan: "There is only so much you can do for Massachusetts."[20] She urged her husband to enter the Democratic primary for the 1968 presidential election. Biographer Evan Thomas portrayed her as Robert's "most consistent advocate of a race for the White House."[21]

Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy[edit]

Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was mortally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and died the following day at the age of 42. 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 the help they had given her and the Kennedy family.[22] Following her husband's assassination, Ethel publicly stated that she would never marry again.[23] For a time, she was escorted to dinners, parties, and the theater by singer and family friend Andy Williams.[24]


Joan Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy and Ted Kennedy in December 1968

Robert and Ethel Kennedy had 11 children over nearly 18 years of marriage: Kathleen, Joseph, Robert Jr., David, Mary Courtney, Michael, Kerry, Christopher, Max, Douglas, and Rory,[23] who was born after Senator Kennedy was assassinated.[25] Kathleen served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003,[26] Joseph was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the 8th congressional district of Massachusetts from 1987 to 1999,[27] and Robert Jr. is running for president in the 2024 United States presidential election.[28][29][30][31] Her grandson, Joseph Kennedy III, also served in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Massachusetts's 4th congressional district from 2013 to 2021. Two of the Kennedys' sons, David and Michael, have died; David died from a drug overdose in 1984, and Michael was killed in a skiing accident in 1997.[8]

Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights[edit]

Ethel Kennedy founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (now known as Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights)[32] in 1968.[33]

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 the American environmental group, the Sierra Club.[34] 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.[35]

As of September 2018, Kennedy's daughter Kerry was president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.[36]

Later life[edit]

Ethel Kennedy in 2000

In 1992, Kennedy and her son Michael made a cameo appearance on the NBC sitcom Cheers in Boston.[37][38]

During the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries, Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama.[39] She publicly supported and held fundraisers at Hickory Hill for numerous politicians that included Virginia gubernatorial candidate Brian Moran.[40] 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.[41]

In 2012, Kennedy appeared in a documentary about her life, directed by her youngest child, daughter Rory. The documentary, entitled Ethel, covers Kennedy's early political involvement, her life with Robert F. Kennedy, and the years following his death when she raised eleven children on her own. It features interviews with Ethel and her children interspersed with family videos and archival photos.[42]

As of 2019, Kennedy resides at the Kennedy Compound in Massachusetts.[43] She is a practicing Catholic who often attends mass.[44]

Legacy and awards[edit]

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan honored Kennedy with the Robert F. Kennedy medal in the White House Rose Garden.[45] In 2014, a bridge over the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., was renamed the Ethel Kennedy Bridge in her honor, in recognition of her advocacy for environmentalism and social causes in the District of Columbia.[46] Also in 2014, Kennedy 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."[47][48]



  1. ^ Hunt, Amber; Batcher, David Kennedy Wives: Triumph and Tragedy in America's Most Public Family, p. 72, at Google Books
  2. ^ "Home : SGL Group – The Carbon Company". SGLCarbon. Retrieved November 24, 2014.
  3. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur Meier Jr. (2002). Robert Kennedy and His Times. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 87
  4. ^ "A Dynasty Strained". The New York Times. November 19, 2013.
  5. ^ David, Lester (1971). Ethel: The Story of Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy. World Publishing Company. p. 4.
  6. ^ Sheenan, Susan (November 3, 1969). "Heaven Still Has Pearly Gates, Angels, For Ethel". The Palm Beach Post. p. C-4.[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ Hilty, James (2000). Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector. Temple University Press. p. 54. ISBN 1-439-90519-3.
  8. ^ a b c d e f "Ethel Skakel Kennedy". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
  9. ^ McMullen, Troy (August 26, 2009). "The Last Kennedy: Jean Kennedy Smith". ABC News.
  10. ^ "Ethel Kennedy". Biography. May 25, 2021.
  11. ^ "On This Day: Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Skakel marry in 1950". IrishCentral.com. June 17, 2019.
  12. ^ Oppenheimer, p. 170.
  13. ^ Rasmussen, Frederick N. (April 10, 2004). "Ethel Kennedy selling Hickory Hill". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  14. ^ Leonard, Mary (October 21, 2003). "'Shock' over plan to sell RFK home". The Boston Globe.
  15. ^ Clymer, Adam; Natta, Don Van Jr. (July 11, 2011). "Family of Robert F. Kennedy Rethinks His Place at Library". The New York Times.
  16. ^ Gowen, Annie (December 1, 2013). "Tech entrepreneur's renovation of Hickory Hill signals new business guard remaking D.C." The Washington Post. Retrieved August 5, 2020.
  17. ^ Oppenheimer, p. 242.
  18. ^ Oppenheimer, Jerry (1994). The Other Mrs. Kennedy : An Intimate and Revealing Look at the Hidden Life of Ethel Skakel Kennedy. St. Martin's Paperbacks. p. 287. ISBN 9780312110406.
  19. ^ Oppenheimer, p. 352.
  20. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. (1978). Robert Kennedy and His Times. p. 668.
  21. ^ Thomas, Evan (2002). Robert Kennedy: His Life. Simon & Schuster. p. 23. ISBN 978-0743203296.
  22. ^ Califano, Joseph A. (2015). The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years. Touchstone. p. 304. ISBN 978-1476798790.
  23. ^ a b "Who is Ethel Kennedy? Facts you need to know". IrishCentral.com. June 28, 2018.
  24. ^ Brownstein, Bill (October 15, 2012). "A fascinating portrait of Ethel Kennedy". Montreal Gazette. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  25. ^ Anderson, Lisa. "A child of tragedy postpones her wedding". Chicago Tribune.
  26. ^ "Former President George H. W. Bush to vote for Hillary Clinton: Politico". CNBC. September 20, 2016.
  27. ^ "'Kennedy' Name Returns To Congress As Joe Kennedy III Wins 4th District". boston.cbslocal.com. CBS Local. November 6, 2012.
  28. ^ "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. files paperwork to run for president as a Democrat". CNN. April 5, 2023.
  29. ^ Garrity, Kelly (April 5, 2023). "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. running for president in 2024". Politico. Retrieved April 5, 2023.
  30. ^ "Statement of Candidacy". docquery.fec.gov. April 5, 2023. Retrieved April 5, 2023.
  31. ^ "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. files paperwork to run for president as a Democrat". CBS News. April 5, 2023.
  32. ^ "Ethel Kennedy Fast Facts". CNN. January 28, 2013.
  33. ^ Santel, James (December 16, 2014). "Introducing Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights". rfkcenter.org (Press release). Archived from the original on February 18, 2015. Retrieved June 10, 2021.
  34. ^ "Ethel Kennedy visits activists". The Irish Times. February 9, 2001.
  35. ^ "Ethel Kennedy leads farmworkers' protest near home of Wendy's billionaire chairman". Fox News. Associated Press. March 13, 2016.
  36. ^ Mays, Jeffery C. (September 19, 2018). "500 Women and Teenagers to Be Bailed Out From Rikers by Human Rights Group". The New York Times.
  37. ^ Oppenheimer, Jerry (1994). The Other Mrs. Kennedy : An Intimate and Revealing Look at the Hidden Life of Ethel Skakel Kennedy. St. Martin's Paperbacks. p. 652. ISBN 9780312110406.
  38. ^ "Cheers S11E10 Daddy's Little Middle Aged Girl cut". YouTube. Retrieved March 2, 2024.
  39. ^ "Ethel Kennedy Endorses Barack Obama". Barackobama.com. February 2, 2008. Archived from the original on February 6, 2008. Retrieved February 2, 2008.
  40. ^ Gardner, Amy (April 29, 2009). "Kennedy Matriarch to Host Moran Event". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on May 31, 2012. Retrieved June 7, 2023.
  41. ^ "$6 million dollar fundraising dinner for Barack Obama". New York Daily News. Archived from the original on December 30, 2011. Retrieved November 24, 2014.
  42. ^ "A Mother with Moxie: A New Documentary Explores the Life of Ethel Kennedy by Her Filmmaker Daughter". Vogue. October 17, 2012. Retrieved June 7, 2023.
  43. ^ Seelye, Katharine Q.; Martin, Jonathan (August 1, 2019). "Granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy Dies After Overdose at Family's Compound". The New York Times.
  44. ^ Carlson, Adam (April 13, 2020). "Kennedy Matriarch Ethel Turns 92 as Son RFK Jr. Shares Throwback Photos with Birthday Tribute". People. Retrieved June 7, 2023 – via Yahoo.com.
  45. ^ Weisman, Jonathan (July 24, 1999). "JFK Jr. visited White House at invitation of Nixon, Reagan". The Baltimore Sun. Archived from the original on September 18, 2015. Retrieved October 18, 2015.
  46. ^ DeBonis, Mike (May 21, 2014). "Ethel Kennedy Bridge is dedicated, at long last". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 24, 2014.
  47. ^ "President Obama Names Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom". whitehouse.gov. November 10, 2014. Retrieved November 24, 2014 – via National Archives.
  48. ^ "Obama awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to 18". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved November 24, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • Schlesinger, Arthur Meier Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002, ISBN 0-618-21928-5
  • Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot. Warner Books: 2000. ISBN 0-446-52426-3

External links[edit]