Camelot's Last Lady

The last of the Kennedys who so dominated the politics of the 1960s, Bobby’s widow, named “the most admired woman in America” after his assassination, still tools around the Cape in a flashy convertible and helps keep the clan together.

Paul Schutzer, Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

The last of the Kennedys who so dominated the politics of the 1960s, Bobby’s widow Ethel Skakel Kennedy, named “the most admired woman in America” after his assassination, still tools around the Cape in a flashy convertible and helps keep the clan together.

For Ethel Skakel Kennedy, yet another funeral is on her calendar—that of her beloved brother-in-law, Ted.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the widow of Bobby Kennedy and the sister-in-law of Jack Kennedy, who is also the mother of children who met untimely deaths, drove from her home in the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., to Cape Cod Hospital to visit her dying sister-in-law, Eunice. A few days later, she grieved and prayed as Eunice was laid to rest, surrounded by the survivors among her 11 children.

Always the staunchest defender of the faith through all of the clan’s triumphs, tragedies, and scandals, Ethel was often described to me as “more Kennedy than Kennedy.”

Now, once again, Ethel will be offering her prayers. With Ted gone, Ethel will also become Camelot’s last lady. At 81, the woman labeled “America’s most admired woman” by the Gallup poll after Bobby’s death is still active and feisty, tooling around the Cape in a flashy convertible.

“Ethel’s staunch Catholic upbringing and her belief in God has carried her through,” a close Kennedy family friend told me as plans were being made for Teddy’s funeral. “Ethel’s the epitome of the survivor." Although former Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith is the last living child of Joe and Rose Kennedy, it's Ethel who once vied for the White House and gave birth to a passle of politically engaged offspring, said the friend, adding: "She’s now the last of the true-blue breed from Camelot.”

The Daily Beast's Complete Kennedy Coverage: Tributes, Photos, and Videos Hickory Hill, the McLean, Virginia, home, where the vivacious Ethel and her politically ambitious husband raised a new generation of Kennedys, was put up for sale in the early 2000s for $25 million. The house is in need of major renovations, and the sale price was later dropped to $12.5 million, but no sold sign has yet been posted.

Always the staunchest defender of the faith through all of the clan’s triumphs, tragedies, and scandals, Ethel was often described to me, when I was writing her biography in 1994, as “more Kennedy than Kennedy.”

Just ask Roger Mudd. The former CBS anchor, a longtime tennis partner of Ethel’s who was once among the media heavies welcome at the eclectic salon at Hickory Hill, told me how he had been “blacklisted” by “Ethie,” as her pals know her.

When Bobby was shot and lay bleeding on the kitchen floor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, it was Mudd who pulled Ethel through the shrieking crowd to be at her dying husband’s side. But despite their close bond, Ethel went ballistic in 1979 when Mudd anchored a hard-hitting special, CBS Reports: Teddy, about the senator’s presidential aspirations. Ethel and the family had thought it would be great pre-campaign publicity. After all, Mudd was a friend, and Teddy’s people had just turned down Barbara Walters, despite Walters’ reported assurance to Eunice, who was supporting her request, that, as Eunice assured Ethel, “We can check out the questions [with Barbara] in advance.”

Mudd offered no such assurances and fiercely interrogated Teddy about his role in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick a decade earlier. CBS even lashed a camera on the front fender of a car and drove the precise route Teddy did on that tragic night. It made for great television, and Teddy later remarked: “That son of a bitch ambushed me.” Yet he remained friendly with the newsman. Not so Ethel.

“Ethel never told me she was pissed off,” Mudd told me years later, “but I never got invited back to Hickory Hill again. I now regard Ethel as very single-minded, loyal to the point of almost frenzy. The minute I gave signs of not being on the team, I was off the team.”

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Ethel Skakel was a sprightly little blonde of 22, born into immense wealth, when she married Bobby on June 17, 1950. And from that day forward she was a ferocious defender of all things Kennedy.

In fact, Ted sought her counsel shortly after the accident at Chappaquiddick, huddling with Ethel and the family lawyer about whom to contact for advice among Washington’s power elite. One of her first calls from the compound in Hyannis Port was to Robert McNamara. “Come up here, Bob,” she pleaded. Ethel “didn’t know what to make of it, she didn’t know what to believe,” a friend told me during my book research.

It also fell to Ethel call the Kopechnes, the dead girl’s parents—a painful and delicate task that Teddy should have handled but declined. “She talked about faith, how it could help. She said, ‘We will be at the funeral,’” Mary Jo’s father said. Three days later, Ethel sat beside Teddy and his then wife, Joan, at a little church in the dreary mining town of Plymouth, Pa. Teddy wore a neck brace, and a woman stood in the crowd with a sign that read “Kennedy for President, 1972.”

Ted had a close, almost sibling-like relationship with Ethel.

The youngest of the Kennedy brothers, he treated her like a zany older sister—something of a ditz and a mischievous devil. She once rode through the kitchen of Teddy’s home on horseback.

After Bobby’s death, Ethel was devastated, and Ted became a surrogate father to her brood: the four girls (Kathleen, Courtney, Kerry, and baby Rory) and the seven boys (Joe, Bobby Jr., David, Michael, Chris, Matthew, and Douglas). A couple of the boys had begun experimenting with drugs—David eventually died tragically of an overdose, and Bobby Jr. was arrested in a drug-related case. Teddy did his best to impose some order, but he wasn’t always successful. He had his issues to deal with: a failing marriage and a tabloid reputation for drinking and womanizing that after Chappaquiddick was hard to shake.

Ethel’s own family, the Skakels of Greenwich, Connecticut, also had its share of scandals and alcohol problems. After Bobby’s death, Ethel began drinking more (she was never a big drinker) and taking pills to deal with her emotional pain. “Even in the bathroom there were pictures of Bobby,” a close friend of Ethel’s told me. “There was a tape of love songs that she and Bobby liked that David Brinkley had put together…from her tub she could listen to the music and see all the photos. That bathroom was like a shrine.”

At one point, things got so out of control with Ethel’s brood at Hickory Hill that her sister-in-law Jackie refused to allow John Jr. and Caroline to visit or spend any time with their cousins. For years, up until Jackie’s death from cancer, the two women had an icy relationship.

Of all the Kennedy women, Ethel most disliked Jackie. Jackie thought Ethel was uncultured, and Ethel referred to Jackie as “the debutante,” remarking that the breathy-voiced diva declined to join in the roughneck Kennedy touch-football games “because she was afraid to smear her makeup.” She also made fun of Jackie’s long and slender feet. When Jackie told her she had once thought about becoming a ballerina, Ethel glibly responded, “With those clodhoppers of yours? You’d be better off going in for soccer.”

But all of that is in the past. Those of the Camelot era still possess indelible images of Ethel as a vigorous campaigner, an American Madonna surrounded by her brood and a grief-stricken wife cradling her husband’s head as he lay mortally wounded. Now she, along with Jean Kennedy Smith, is also Mater Familias to the grieving clan.

Veteran journalist Jerry Oppenheimer is the author of a biography of Ethel Kennedy, The Other Mrs. Kennedy: An American Drama of Power, Privilege, and Politics. His most recent book, Madoff with the Money, was excerpted in The Daily Beast.