Ethel Kennedy loved to be the center of attention, but she couldn’t compete with her sister-in-law, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Ethel was outdoorsy and fun, devoted to her husband Robert F. Kennedy and eventually mother to 11 rambunctious children.
Jackie was something else, and their relationship was sometimes strained. Ethel called Jackie ‘the Debutante.’ Jackie called Ethel ‘a baby-making machine – wind her up and she gets pregnant.’
Ethel Kennedy Throws a Party
Ethel Kennedy was born April 11, 1928, in Chicago, the sixth of seven children of George and Anne Skakel. Her father was a self-made millionaire, her mother came from a poor South Side Irish Catholic family.
The Skakels moved east when Ethel was five, finally settling in a 31-room mansion in Greenwich, Conn., in 1936. The rowdy Irish brood never quite fit in with the WASPy snobs of Greenwich.
Ethel shared her mother’s devotion to Catholicism. She was an indifferent student but excelled at sports. She attended Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, where she became friends with Jean Kennedy, the second-youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s nine children. Ethel Skakel met Bobby Kennedy on a ski weekend with Jean. She became Ethel Kennedy when they were married in June 1950.
As they approached their third wedding anniversary, Bobby, a newly minted lawyer, was working for the federal government in Washington, D.C. Bobby’s older brother, John F. Kennedy, had just been elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.
Ethel Kennedy had already given birth to two children, but that didn’t stop her from throwing parties. She would later be known for wild affairs in which guests in evening clothes were thrown into the swimming pool.
Ethel Kennedy decided to hold a St. Patrick’s Day party in 1953 and invited Bobby’s older brother. Jack Kennedy asked if he could bring the new woman he was dating, Jacqueline Bouvier. Ethel called Jackie and told her the same thing she told all her guests: Wear black.
Most of the guests drove or took a cab to the party, and they all dutifully wore black. Jack Kennedy arrived on crutches. Jackie showed up last -- in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. Underneath her black fur she wore a black evening gown embroidered with silver thread, a pearl necklace and earrings.
Jackie held court by the fireplace, then excused herself with ‘a dreadful headache.’ She made it a point, though, to say goodbye to each dazzled guest before leaving in her chauffeured car.
During the White House years, Ethel Kennedy sometimes filled in when Jackie couldn’t – or wouldn’t – fulfill a social commitment. Once Jackie begged off a ‘meet-and-greet’ with White House visitors, and Ethel hosted the event instead. Jackie went off to play tennis. Her press secretary lied through her teeth to Ethel, saying Jackie wasn’t feeling well.
It was during the Kennedy presidency that Ethel’s madcap parties at her home in McLean, Va., made news. She would let loose a live chicken on the dining room table or push presidential advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., into the swimming pool. Jack and Jackie Kennedy rarely went to Ethel’s parties.
After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy consoled Jackie – to such an extent many believed they were carrying on a romance.
Ethel Kennedy may have thought so too. Her sister-in-law, Eunice Shriver, was quoting as saying to her, "Well, what are you going to do about it -- Bobby's spending and awful lot of time with the 'widder.'" Ethel said nothing in response.
After Bobby Kennedy was killed in 1968, Ethel’s children became even more unruly. Things got so bad that Jackie wouldn’t let John and Caroline visit or spend time with their cousins.
This story was updated in 2017.