Ethel Skakel was born in Chicago in 1928. Her father George had started work as a railroad clerk and managed to start a small coal and coke business with co-workers that quickly became the huge and successful Great Lakes Carbon Corporation. The family became extremely wealthy and moved to a 31-room English country manor house in Greenwich, Connecticut. Raised with her six siblings, Ethel had the best of everything and was a competitive athlete. She attended Catholic convent school where she became friends and roommates with Jean Kennedy, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy’s sister. Ethel helped Robert with his brother John F. Kennedy’s congressional campaign in 1946 and she also based her college thesis on John’s college-thesis-turned-book, Why England Slept.
Robert and Ethel married in 1950 and soon settled in Washington D.C., where Robert began work for the Department of Justice. They soon had one child and ten more followed. (Ethel was pregnant with her 11th child when Robert was assassinated.) Ethel kept herself busy with motherhood but always found time to help her husband and in-laws run their political campaigns and supported her husband’s rise up the political ladder in Washington. She was known for her outgoing, bubbly and vivacious nature.
After the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Robert and Ethel bought Hickory Hill—a mansion in McLean, Virginia to house their growing family. Here she held parties and gatherings for politicians, musicians, artists and actors. In 1960 she helped the Kennedy clan campaign for John F. Kennedy’s run for the presidency. John appointed Robert to his cabinet as attorney general.
Following John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, Ethel supported her husband while he campaigned for and won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Ethel was friendly and outgoing, thrived on her identity as a Kennedy, and was much liked by the public. Her lightheartedness and sense of humor made a good match for the more serious Robert.
“Ethel was very different from Jackie Kennedy in that she was incredibly outgoing, athletic and gregarious, almost larger than life,” says Kristin Booth. “I think Bobby fell in love with her because he was more of an introvert and she brought him out of his shell….She adored him and being Bobby’s wife was her first priority.”
Robert entered the presidential race and Ethel, along with the rest of the Kennedy family, worked on the 1969 campaign trail. She was by his side when he was shot in a Los Angeles hotel. Today, Ethel is the matriarch of the Kennedy family and is a grandmother to 23 children. She still lives in the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. She holds fundraisers for Democratic politicians and publicly endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008.
“She had an incredible family history. I was so entertained and excited by the research I did on Ethel. Her whole upbringing was fascinating…They had 25 dogs living in the house at one time and didn’t care if they chewed on the antique pieces her mother had spent a fortune on. They were pretty wild. Ethel rode her horse through the house once…and her brothers drove all their cars into a little lake and they made a bridge with the cars,” says Booth.
“There was not a lot of discipline in Ethel’s parents’ home and I suspect there wasn’t much discipline for Ethel and Bobby’s kids growing up either, but they had fun! If I was to pick Ethel’s motto, it would be ‘Have fun and live life to the fullest.’ She was impulsive, quirky and funny. Bobby would come home carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and she’d be like ‘Buck up Kid, let’s go have fun!’ …I think she supported and helped him more than he even realized,” Booth says.