HBO’s Ethel Kennedy documentary Ethel, debuting Oct. 18, is an intimate, loving portrait of the fun-loving, fearless woman, Ethel Kennedy, who was the wife of Bobby Kennedy and mother to their 11 children. It was through the urging of Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, that documentarian Rory Kennedy, who was born six months after her father was killed, turned the camera on her mother. Now 84, Ethel, who shunned the spotlight for decades, reminisces. Rory draws on her family’s catalog of photos and home movies, interviews with her siblings, and news footage to create a beautiful portrait. The result is an amazing, at times heartbreaking, yet joyous celebration of her life.
Both Ethel and Rory sat down with us at The Beverly Hilton for a candid conversation.
How difficult was it to persuade your mom to talk on camera and how long did this take to make?
Rory Kennedy: I called my mother and she said she would be willing to do this. It was one year between when we started shooting and when we had the picture. The home movies were in different places, plus it was not so organized, and there were 16,000 photos in my mother’s house.
The film reveals a daredevil side to you, Ethel, such as liberating abused horses, and then being charged as a horse thief, and hopping on a scooter in Poland but hitting a truck because you didn’t know how to stop. Is there a history of maybe not thinking through the possible consequences?
Ethel Kennedy: [Laughing.] It was Italy.
Your husband actually gift-wrapped Gene Kelly and surprised you with him. What was he [Kelly] like?
Ethel: He was so much fun. He was full of life and so a part of everything; he was great.
You seem comfortable in all sports. Which is your favorite?
Ethel: Whatever I am doing at the time.
The film mentions that you are fiercely competitive. Are you?
Ethel: Not fiercely. Justifiably competitive.
Rory: My mother is the most competitive person I know — in a great way.
You met Robert F. Kennedy on a skiing trip, which you and your college roommate, his sister Jean Kennedy, planned for the two families. Was it love at first sight?
Ethel: Yes. He was in front of the fireplace. We all met at Mont-Tremblant. It was great.
Did you tell anyone?
Ethel: I think it was pretty obvious.
Were you and Jacqueline Kennedy close?
Ethel: We were very friendly. We used to go to Mass together in the morning. When Jack and Jackie first met, they would go to our house for dinner. It was very nice.
Rory: When I was growing up, we’d go to Jackie’s house and do cookouts every summer.
Ethel: Years and years ago when Jack was alive, in Martha’s Vineyard, there were parties.
The film mentions you driving the kids to school. Considering it’s tough when children are in two different schools, how did you do this with 11?
Ethel: There was a year when, after dropping all of the children off at their various schools, I would turn around and start picking them up.
And you picked up the children at school one day with a seal in the car! Where did you get a seal and why?
Ethel: I had three brothers and they were kind of rugged individuals. My brother George gave it to the children at Christmas. We had everything, animal-wise. We had many, many dogs.
Rory: Twenty-two at one point.
What do you think your husband’s presidency would have been like?
Ethel: I don’t really go there. I think a lot of people who have very difficult times making ends meet would have been more cared for, more looked after, more helped.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Ethel: More of these wonderful children and grandchildren.
How many grandchildren do you have?
Ethel: Thirty-five, and one great-grandchild, and one on the way.
You have stayed out of the spotlight for a long time — why now?
Ethel: My life is as a mother. And I would rather the children be interviewed.
What are the best lessons you taught them?
Ethel: You would have to ask the children.
Rory: Mommy is such a role model in giving back and in how you can make the world a better place.
How old are your children, Rory, and are you carrying on this legacy?
Rory: 4, 7 and 9. Any opportunities to look out for other people and do volunteer work. And Father’s influence. I can see it in our family context and choices our siblings have made. My brother Max talks about the gift of a contributory life, not the obligation. It is not something we were told to do. How have they chosen to lead their lives? Kerry runs the RFK Center for Human Rights. Max works very hard on the Obama campaign. You can see it now in the next generation. Chris is feeding people. Joe’s low-cost heating oil.
What do you want people to know?
Ethel: All these searching, personal questions! Nothing about me personally. Just the idea of being a big, happy family and each of them making contributions. Sure, they are in a position to, but they do do it.
Rory: The film does capture a point of time in history.
Ethel: In the ’60s, you heard about peace, love and about people living in poverty. And you don’t hear publicly about people being outraged.
I have to ask you about your outrage over J. Edgar Hoover, and putting a message in the FBI’s suggestion box to get a new director.
Rory: She put it in the suggestion box and went back to the Justice Department and went back to Daddy [then the attorney general] and [Hoover] had someone bring the note to my father.
And Hoover’s reaction?
Ethel: He was not amused. Then don’t put out a suggestion box. [She shrugs.] It was one of those things.
What are you up to lately?
Ethel: I just went on a civil rights trip. I took 35 family members to meet with [civil rights leader] John Lewis. What a dreamboat! To be on the bus with him, all over Mississippi and Alabama and he was telling the children the history of it, and to hear it from that wonderful hero and for him to even recall it.
[Ethel grows quiet.] It’s almost November.
Ethel Kennedy documentary: Robert F. Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, 1961. photo: © Conde Nast Archive/CORBIS/courtesy of HBO
Ethel Kennedy documentary: Robert F. Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, 1968 Oregon primary. photo: © Clyde Keller /courtesy of HBO