It was a family vacation that Ethel Kennedy, 50, will never forget—but for all the most infuriating reasons. As is the clan custom, she headed for Aspen, Colo. this season with the five youngest of her 11 children. They put up in an elegant rented house a mile from town, while Ethel's in-laws, the Ted Kennedy and Steve Smith broods, were at the Lift One condo. The reason, reportedly, was that Ted and Steve wanted to keep a safe distance from Ethel's high-spirited gang.

Still, the nationally leaked story that she couldn't get reservations at the Aspen Inn was a mischievous fabrication, possibly by political prankster Dick Tuck. "Dear Mrs. Kennedy," the innkeeper's rebuff letter purportedly began: "We received your request for rooms and we are afraid that we are unable to comply. It isn't because your children stopped up all the toilets last year, causing them to overflow and drain down on the maître d's office, ruining his reservation book...And it is not because a couple was held captive in their room while your children staged a four-hour snowball fight...It's because there is no room at the inn."

Yet if that were all a canard, the rest of Ethel's hassles with the Aspen townsfolk were for real. They began at National rent-a-car, which couldn't deliver on the four-wheel-drive vehicle she said she had reserved. When she pushed the matter all the way to the company president, Joe James, in Minneapolis, the owner of the franchise went out and bought an $11,000 Jeep Wagoneer.

Then there was the matter of the ski patrolman who curtly ordered skiers, including some of the young Kennedys, not to try the treacherous "Jackpot" run at dusk. Upon hearing about the patrolman's orders, Ethel schussed off—right down the demanding black diamond ridge.

Matters got worse on Christmas morning, when Ethel instructed her Moroccan housekeeper, Laziza Lahoussien, to produce a dinner with all the trimmings for 20 at 6 p.m. When the family headed for the lifts, the housekeeper set out to shop. To her dismay, she found that every grocery store in Aspen was closed and that all the best restaurants in town had been booked. Laziza made her panicky way to Le Cuisinier, Aspen's leading caterer, at 2:30 p.m., just as co-owner Dean Small was preparing to close and leave for his own Christmas dinner. "The woman was going bonkers, and I decided to do what I could," claims Small, whose partner served as private chef to the Nelson Rockefellers. "But I said it would cost extra because of such short notice." She agreed, and Small began a desperate search for the items on Ethel's list: he scrounged a 13-lb. rib roast (for $76) from one restaurant, green beans et al from others, using taxis because his company van had broken down. Working frantically, Small and his assistant cooked the food, baked fresh French bread, pecan diamond petits fours and Linzer torte, and delivered the repast by Ethel's deadline.

The grateful housekeeper signed the bill, but the next afternoon Ethel was on the phone in high dudgeon. "I tried to discuss the matter with her," says Small, "but she was very rude, coarse and abrasive. She said she refused to pay the $535 bill. At that point I told her I was sorry she felt that way, and she'd hear from my lawyer."

Then the clan returned East, leaving the case to be adjudicated in the Aspen court and gossip mills. The consensus seemed to be that Ethel can be imperious and her children undisciplined but that celebs do tend to get charged top dollar. Meanwhile, hoaxster Tuck spilled that the Kennedys would be back at Aspen in April, this time probably augmented by some of Ethel's other adventurous kids who spent Christmas rafting in Colombia. "I teased her," Dick tattled, "and asked her whose name she'd use to get the reservation." Ethel's own people, however, say she won't return to Aspen this Easter. 'Tain't funny, Tuck.