There was a haunting familiarity to the scene at Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville, Mass., last Jan. 3. The time had come for yet another Kennedy funeral, this one for Michael, sixth child of the slain Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel. Only 39, he had been killed, freakishly, on an Aspen ski slope. Now, at rest in his rose-and-lily-blanketed coffin, Michael seemed the latest fated player in the Kennedy saga: Public service as head of a nonprofit energy company had been followed by scandal—an alleged extramarital affair with his children's teenage babysitter—then early death.
From his pew near the front of the church, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo—whose son, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, is married to Michael's sister Kerry—watched as friends and family assumed their customary roles in grief's ritual. Gazing on Michael's mother, Cuomo, 66, couldn't help but recall that June day 30 years ago when Robert Kennedy was buried. "It was the same Ethel Kennedy, apparently impassive, controlled," he says. "She must have been terribly, terribly wounded, but she showed no evidence of it. I suspect when she's at mass and alone in a pew that she allows herself a tear. But she won't allow herself a tear with you. She doesn't make her problem your problem. It's probably harder in her life than anyone else's to find the evidence that God is good. Yet she believes it."
Stoic. Such is the prevailing image of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, 70, who in the past half-century has raised 11 children and shouldered a burden of loss rivaling that of her late mother-in-law, Rose Kennedy: her parents and a brother killed in separate plane crashes, her husband and his brother murdered and two sons dead—the first, David, from an apparently accidental drug overdose at 28 in 1984. How has she held herself together? Those close to her say it's largely a matter of faith. "She goes to mass every day of her life," Kerry Kennedy Cuomo says of her mother. "She prays on her knees before church, prays before every meal and prays on her knees before going to bed."
And she knows no idle moments. After Michael's death, Ethel managed her grief in her typically active manner—swimming, playing golf (several times a week) and immersing herself in a whirl of charity work. As her husband's flame-keeper, Ethel is the founder and guiding spirit of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, which funds humanitarian projects and promotes human rights around the world. Lately she has involved herself in raising money for the Earth Conservation Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that sponsors environmental cleanup programs.
"She's the greatest source of strength to all of us," says her oldest child, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, 46, Maryland's lieutenant governor. "She's filled with love. She makes people feel special. She has a terrific sense of humor. She's a doer."
To most people, though, Ethel Kennedy is an elusive figure, obscured by her glamorous late sister-in-law Jacqueline. Not for nothing did Jerry Oppenheimer title his recent biography of Ethel The Other Mrs. Kennedy. It is an often unflattering portrait, summoning all the old stories: Ethel striking a cabbie who she claimed overcharged her, playing childish pranks (like dumping beer on Neil Diamond at a benefit), returning clothing already worn to the store where she bought it, terrorizing the help and lashing out at anyone critical of her family. Truman Capote once called her "the most highly competitive and insanely jealous human being I have ever met." In gentler terms, Frank Mankiewicz, Robert Kennedy's press secretary, explains, "Ethel does not forgive easily."
To be sure, Ethel is also the glue that binds the family together through every crisis, be it Chappaquiddick or nephew William Kennedy Smith's 1991 rape trial. "She's more a Kennedy than the Kennedys," says author Dominick Dunne, who covered the Smith case. And Washington, D.C., writer and über-hostess Sally Quinn thinks Ethel has softened over time. "She has changed from the old days and become more open, mellow and friendly," says Quinn. "She likes to tease and be teased—that's a Kennedy trait."
Surely no loyalty outstrips her enduring devotion to her husband's memory. "She takes her widowhood very seriously," says Mankiewicz. Ethel has been linked to a number of men—notably Andy Williams and, long before his marriage to Kathie Lee, Frank Gifford (whose daughter Vicki would marry Michael). But these were friendships. "I don't believe," says Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Kennedy's sister-in-law, "she ever thought any other man was as good as Bobby."
It was another Kennedy sister, Jean—Ethel's Manhattanville College classmate—who, during their 1945-46 freshman year, formally introduced her to Bobby. (Kennedy had already casually dated Ethel's sister Pat.) Raised in a raucous Greenwich, Conn., family headed by George Skakel, a coal magnate, Ethel grew into a vivacious and, at times, outrageous young woman. (In college, for instance, she became infatuated with a member of the Irish team at the International Horse Show in New York City. When he failed to return her interest, she stole into the stables and splashed his horse with green paint.) Kennedy, however, was smitten. "He adored her," says Shriver. "He needed her because he was much less outgoing—more thoughtful and serious. She was not what I would call introspective." Married in 1950, the Kennedys later moved to Hickory Hill, a McLean, Va., estate soon overrun by rambunctious offspring. The family's fabled, and noisy, joie de vivre made the post-assassination pall all the more shattering. "The silence almost hurt," recalls Kennedy cousin Kerry McCarthy.
Some believe that Ethel lost control of her brood after Bobby's death. "They ran rampant," says Barbara Gibson, Rose Kennedy's longtime secretary. "It was nothing to see the little ones, like Max and Rory, up on the roof. You'd worry that someone was going to fall and kill himself."
"Walking into that house 25 years ago meant you were taking your life in your hands," recalls Boston Globe writer Tom Oliphant, a family friend. "You could be tripped by a kid or a dog or hit by anything from a football to a glass of lemonade." But Max Kennedy, now 33, says his mother imposed her own brand of discipline, based on healthy competition. "If we were out sailing, we'd have more fun than anyone else in the harbor," he says. "If we were memorizing a poem, we'd try to memorize as best as we possibly could. I could recite Hamlet's first soliloquy right now, which I memorized in sixth grade."
Still, there were agonizing problems. In 1973, future congressman Joe Kennedy, then 20, was charged with reckless driving when his Jeep overturned, leaving David's girlfriend Pamela paralyzed below the chest. Now 43 and divorced, Pamela Burkley recalls that Ethel, who had been chilly before the accident, visited her almost daily in the hospital. Joe still calls regularly. "I'm sure he just feels bad," says Burkley, assistant director of a disabled persons' rights group in Hyannis. "And he should." A recovered addict, Burkley witnessed the descent of David and Bobby Jr. into drug use. When the boys were high, she recalls, Ethel often barred them from the house as punishment.
"She was beyond anger," confirms McCarthy. "She was devastated that they would insult her and their father's memory." Bobby Jr. eventually kicked his habit and is now an environmental lawyer and activist. But David, who had hoped to be a writer, remained troubled. "He was lost, in essence, from the time his father died," McCarthy says. Ethel sent him repeatedly to rehab, and live-in detox experts were even retained to help him. "To lose him after all that just broke her heart," McCarthy says.
Over the next decade, though, Ethel saw her other children blossom. Even Burkley admires her. "You can only surmise she did well," she says. "Despite their screw-ups, they're all committed to public service, and they're all sincere about it."
In recent years, Ethel's own good works have been more conspicuous. In 1992, with Michael and her daughter Courtney, she toured Eastern Europe, where they donated medical equipment. In late 1997 she went to Kenya to promote democratic reforms. Last fall, during Chinese President Jiang Zemin's state visit, Ethel appeared at a mass rally across from the White House protesting human rights abuses in Tibet and China.
Other causes are closer to home. On special occasions, Ethel opens Hickory Hill to homeless women from Washington, D.C.'s Mount Carmel House shelter. "Mount Carmel saved my life," says Iris Johnson, 41, a recovering addict. "Never did I imagine I would be going to the Kennedy home for tea." On Thursdays in summer and fall, Ethel entertains youngsters from St. Ann's home for orphaned and abandoned children. Still, says Christopher, "my mother's life work is her children."
Recently, Ethel helped Max Kennedy prepare Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, a collection of Robert's journal entries, speech excerpts and favorite quotations. "Whenever I meet someone who grew up without a father or a mother, there's immediately a sense of something shared," says Max, who was 3 when Kennedy was slain. Thirty years later, as Ethel and her children flourish and sometimes falter, their world is still defined by that loss. "Obviously I've had a life of enormous privilege and opportunity," says Max. "But the essential fact of that life is the absence of this man. There's not a single day that any member of my family wouldn't trade all that privilege and opportunity to have our father back."
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