DuJour Navigation

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Ethel Kennedy

A new HBO documentary on the Kennedy matriarch reveals some eye-opening details—even for Kennedyphiles

Ethel Kennedy is full of surprises. And the biggest surprise might be that the intensely private 84-year-old matriarch—RFK’s widow and one of the last direct links to Camelot—agreed to appear in Ethel, a documentary premiering tonight on HBO. To be fair, the filmmaker had a personal connection to the subject: The movie was made by Rory Kennedy, one of Ethel’s and RFK’s 11 children.

However, even Rory’s involvement didn’t remove all of Ethel Kennedy’s apprehensions. Having lived through some of the 20th century’s triumphs and tragedies, Kennedy was not keen on revisiting certain episodes. Indeed, her husband’s assassination is one topic that she chose not to discuss in the film.

Overall, the film is an overwhelmingly endearing portrait of a woman who raised 11—11!!!—kids, but Ethel still contains some juicy revelations. Here are DuJour’s five favorites.

1. Ethel Kennedy was—and is—a bit of a badass.

“She inherited a healthy disregard for authority in all its forms,” Max Kennedy says of his mother in the film. He’s not kidding. From tales of Ethel’s college hijinks—garnering so many demerits that she was forbidden to leave Manhattanville College’s campus for the Harvard-Yale game, she tossed the school’s demerit book in an incinerator and went anyway—to her run-ins with litigious neighbors whose hungry horses she liberated, the film exposes a daring, courageous side of the lady that we didn’t know existed.

2. The staunch Democrat was raised by Republicans.

While the Kennedys are known for their dedication to the Democratic Party, Ethel came from the Skakels, a well-to-do family of Republicans. Also, unlike her husband’s father, Ethel’s father, George Skakel, was a self-made man. He worked on the railroads—at one point, he earned only $8 per week—and eventually he started a coal company and became a stunning success.

3. A political race wasn’t the only kind of race she loved.

“Every morning at college, from 8:30 to 9, I read the odds about the racetrack,” Kennedy reveals in the doc. “If only my tests had been on the race horses instead of history.” Horses weren’t her only competitive passion. According to her kids, Ethel was never the type to let them win at a game, even touch football.

4. She was hell on wheels.

Despite all the things she was good at, Mrs. Kennedy really didn’t excel in one particular area: driving. Throughout the film, references are made to the number of tickets that she received—so many that her husband demurred from getting her government plates. The best anecdote of all: When a group of Italian journalists gave her a scooter, they watched her drive it out the door—and directly into a passing truck.

5. Kids weren’t her only brood.

Whether on Cape Cod or in New York, Ethel Kennedy’s residences were always packed—and not just with people. The family kept, at Ethel’s insistence, a plethora of pets: dogs, horses, goats, chicken and one seal (the creature was gifted to the Washington Zoo after knocking a young Kathleen Kennedy into the family swimming pool).