Many viewed the death of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 as the loss of the last great leader. Assassins’ bullets had taken the lives of his brother, President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All three men led the struggle against discrimination and poverty, though to varying degrees.
The story of Bobby Kennedy’s life has been told many times: How he became tough and competitive to hold his own among his eight siblings. How his brother named him the youngest U.S. attorney general in history. Then how he evolved into a compassionate populist, an advocate for poor minorities and working-class white people. And finally, how he died at 42 while running for president of the United States.
He thought he’d be killed, not his brother. He learned about John F. Kennedy’s assassination while having lunch at home in Virginia. His reaction:
I thought they’d get one of us, but Jack, after all he’d been through, never worried about it…. I thought it would be me.
But here are nine things you may not have known about Bobby Kennedy.
1. Bobby Kennedy, New Yorker
He didn’t really grow up in Boston. In 1927, when Bobby Kennedy was two, his father moved the family to a New York City suburb to escape anti-Irish discrimination. Joseph P. Kennedy, though, would become one of the richest men in the United States. (Someone commented he was the only person driven out of Boston in his own railway car.)
The Kennedy family lived in Bronxville, N.Y., until 1938. Then, President Franklin P. Roosevelt appointed Bobby’s father U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and the family moved to London.
Later, of course, he ran and won a race for U.S. Senate from New York in 1964, amid charges of carpetbagging.
2. Not Much of a Student
Before entering college, though, he had enlisted in the Navy. In 1944, he started his naval training at Harvard and then relocated to Bates College.
3. Barroom Brawler
He got into a bar fight when he turned 21, the first time he ever drank too much. Shortly after his birthday, he celebrated by buying a beer in a bar. Then he bought the house a round. When the patrons began singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to someone else, he smashed a beer bottle over one of their heads.
He got into another bar fight at 30, when as a Senate lawyer he rode undercover with New York City police officers. When a drunk insulted him in a bar, Bobby Kennedy asked him to step outside and hit him in the face, breaking his nose.
He collected stamps. So did Franklin Roosevelt. In 1935, Roosevelt learned Bobby Kennedy was a fellow philatelist and sent him some stamps from his collection. FDR’s letter read,
Your Dad has told me that you are a stamp collector and I thought you might like to have these stamps to add to your collection. I am also enclosing a little album which you may find useful.
Perhaps sometime when you are in Washington you will come in and let me show you my collection.
5. Ronnie Beat Down
Bobby Kennedy lost a debate to Ronald Reagan, then governor of California. On May 15, 1967, the two men debated the Vietnam War on television. Reagan believed Bobby Kennedy had gotten him fired as host of the television program, GE Theater, and so he studied hard for the debate.
In the end, Ronald Reagan humiliated Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy stormed out of the studio and said to an aide, “Never again put me on the stage with that son of a bitch.”
6. Spiritual Rivalry
He dated Ethel Skakel’s older sister for two years before dating Ethel. Ethel had fallen in love with Bobby Kennedy at first sight, but then had second thoughts. When Bobby started dating Ethel after he got dumped by her sister, she thought she wanted to become a nun.
“How do you compete with God?” he asked, but he won the contest.
7. Bobby Kennedy, Amateur
He had no rock climbing experience when he became the first person to ascend Mt. Kennedy, named for his brother after he was assassinated. He joked that his experience amounted to little more than climbing to the top of the stairs at home and shouting for help. In April 1965, Bobby Kennedy broke away from his climbing team and reached the 14,000-foot summit himself as National Geographic photographers took photos.
His brother Ted told UPI:
I wish to point out for the record he is not the first Kennedy to climb a mountain. I climbed the Matterhorn in 1957, which is higher, and I didn’t need the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
8. Bobby Kennedy vs. Jimmy Hoffa
He hated Jimmy Hoffa, and Hoffa hated him. Bobby Kennedy spent seven years trying to convict the Teamsters Union president for corruption. They once tried to one-up each other about how many push-ups they could do. Hoffa claimed 35, but Bobby Kennedy claimed he could do more.
Hoffa said Bobby had a weak handshake and deliberately misspelled his name ‘Bobbie.’ As Hoffa later recalled, “I used to love to bug the little bastard.”
As chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee, Bobby Kennedy dragged Hoffa before hearings in an effort to nail him on perjury charges. As Attorney General he formed a special ‘Get Hoffa’ squad within the Justice Department. In 1964, Kennedy’s Justice Department finally did get Hoffa with a conviction for jury tampering.
9. Clairvoyant, Sort Of
He predicted Barack Obama’s presidency in 1961, but he was off by seven years.
That year, Bobby Kennedy told an audience,
The Irish were not wanted there [when his great-grandfather came to Boston]. Now an Irish Catholic is president of the United States … There is no question about it. In the next 40 years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has.
He made the same prediction in 1968, and he was spot on then.
This story was updated in 2021. Photos of Bobby Kennedy courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.