Picks and Pans Review: The Other Mrs. Kennedy

updated 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Jerry Oppenheimer

This unauthorized biography of Ethel Kennedy is sold as a drama of power, privilege and politics, but the story it sketches is one of high jinks and high living followed by devastating loss. Oppenheimer clearly hopes to outrage readers with his stories of excess at Hickory Hill, the Virginia home where Ethel lived both before and after her husband, Sen. Robert Kennedy, was assassinated. Although there is plenty of lavish spending, yelling at servants and pushing fully dressed guests into the swimming pool, Ethel's bad habits don't add up to much.

The reader walks away with a sense that Ethel Kennedy suffered much—losing not just her beloved husband but also her parents and brother (in airplane crashes) and a son (to a drug overdose)—and that as a widow left with 11 kids, she couldn't cope. Indeed, her own impulsive behavior, quick temper and insensitivity often made things worse. She would punish bad behavior, for example, by banishing her kids for days from the Hyannis compound.

No one in the Kennedy family would speak to Oppenheimer, and only a few members of Ethel's own clan, the wild and wealthy Skakels of Greenwich, Conn., opened up. Instead, the author relies heavily on interviews with the ex-wives of Kennedy intimates plus former employees, many disgruntled.

Because of the book's theme—that Ethel is basically a bad person—even her sterling traits are made to look like deficits. Oppenheimer argues that her fierce loyalty to the Kennedys comes at the expense of her relationship with her own troubled family. When the various Skakels run into difficulties, and this happens often, Ethel fails to call or does so only to express her worries that the mishaps will hit the papers and reflect badly on the Kennedys.

The Other Mrs. Kennedy lacks analysis of Ethel's motivations and character. Why did she have 11 children? Oppenheimer says she wanted to best Kennedy matriarch Rose. If so, why? And what are her relationships with her children like? Oppenheimer never says. The book, which Ethel's son Robert has called "an assassination by lies," is basically a litany of Ethel's supposed misdeeds, and the reader ends up feeling sorry for its much-maligned subject. (St. Martin's, $25.95)

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