When she first appeared on the public stage, Ethel Skakel Kennedy had a Hollywood-starlet glamour and a sunnier, more exuberant spirit than her cooler and elegant sister-in-law, Jacqueline, the First Lady she once seemed destined to follow into the White House. She was irreverent, fearless, funny, and famously fecund: In a clip from the pre-PC ’60s, she is introduced by talk-show host Jack Paar on his widely watched TV show as “the lovely little girl here, mother of seven, who has given birth to her own precinct.” (He redeemed himself later, calling her “one of the world’s 10 most admired women.”) She also might almost be called the forgotten Kennedy, because she has ducked the spotlight for decades—no easy feat in the most closely watched and written-about family in American history. But more than 40 years after Robert F. Kennedy ran for president, Ethel Kennedy, his widow and mother of a famously rambunctious and socially conscious brood of 11, is finally, albeit reluctantly, getting her due in the documentary, Ethel, directed by her youngest child, Rory. “I think everyone fantasizes about the questions we wanted to ask our parents,” Rory Kennedy, now 43, says in a phone interview. “We don’t all have the time and opportunity to get that closure.”

Until Ethel, Rory, often in collaboration with her writer husband, Mark Bailey, had focused on such social issues as AIDS, domestic abuse, poverty, and human rights. Her Ghosts of Abu Ghraib won an Emmy in 2007; Killing in the Name, about terrorism, was nominated for an Oscar in 2011. Ethel took about a year to complete, debuted at Sundance in January, and has been shown at a handful of other film festivals, including at Berkshire and Nantucket; it will be aired on HBO in the fall. For Rory, it was a chance to tell a personal story about her mother’s relationship to RFK and to her children. “Because I was born six months after he died, I never knew my father,” says Rory at the start of the film. “I was raised by my mother.” But because her mother’s life was so intimately tied to one of the most significant periods in American history, covering the civil rights movement and inner-city riots, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of not only RFK but JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., the documentary became more than that.

The film received a standing ovation at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why. As well as being icons of liberal reform, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, with their combination of witty charm, eloquence, and sex appeal, framed by their photogenic families, still light up the screen. In 1968, RFK was widely expected to carry the Kennedy standard back into the White House. Seeing the crowds surging around the candidates, and the national mourning after the deaths of the two brothers only five years apart, recaptures an era of both great optimism and deep national division, permanently etched—“where were you when…?”—in the memory of anyone who lived through that tumultuous time.

The film is also a reminder of Ethel Kennedy’s personal courage; standing only a few feet from her husband when he was shot point-blank by Sirhan Sirhan, Ethel, then three months pregnant with Rory, pushed through the crowd crying for a doctor, then returned and kneeled near him to comfort him.

It might seem odd that with such a treasure trove of material at home, a successful filmmaker didn’t make it easy. “Why should I have to answer all these questions?” she asked. “Well, we’re making a documentary about you,” Rory answered. In the film, Ethel laughs. “Such a bad idea.”

Fortunately, as Rory points out, she also had siblings to interview, “and there are a lot of them.” The interviews took place over five days at the family compound in Hyannis Port in 2011, but for the finished 97-minute film, Rory edited some 100 hours of newsreel and archival film, family photos—“Mummy had 16,000 photographs at Hickory Hill alone we had to go through”—and home movies. “It was great to see a lot of it,” she says of the archival film. “At least, mostly great.”

Although the Kennedy and Skakel families had much in common—both were wealthy, outdoorsy, very religious Irish-Catholic families—they differed in several crucial ways. The Kennedys were already established Democratic powers in Massachusetts; Ethel’s father, George Skakel, was a self-made millionaire. The Kennedys considered themselves “part of the social landscape [and] embraced the crowds,” as Chris Kennedy puts it, while the Skakels were conservative Republicans who “weren’t interested in being part of something larger.”

Under Rose Kennedy’s formidable influence, according to Ethel, the Kennedys, whether in Brookline or Palm Beach, sat down to dinner at 7:15, “and it did not mean 7:16.” The Skakel establishment in Greenwich, Connecticut, on the other hand, was famously chaotic. “At our house, you never knew whether supper would be at five or 10.” Their different upbringings were apparent: “While Daddy liked to stick to the rules, Mummy liked to bend them,” Rory says in the film. “Mummy’s a Skakel,” agrees Chris Kennedy, “and as such she inherited a healthy disregard for authority in all its forms.”

At school, Ethel became best friends with Jean Kennedy, RFK’s equally adventurous younger sister. They were nearly “campussed”—prevented from attending the Harvard-Yale football game—because of demerits racked up for chewing gum, talking in assembly, and such. But they were determined to go to that iconic gridiron contest, so they stole the record book and threw it in the incinerator. (Rory found copies, which Ethel balks at.)

Both the Skakels and Kennedys were almost obsessively athletic; Ethel grew up competing in sailing and equestrian events. At that first ski resort meeting, Ethel challenged Robert to a race down the mountain, though Ethel won’t say who won. “Mummy is the single most competitive person I have ever known,” according to Kerry Kennedy—which is saying a lot, considering the rest of the family. (Author Laurence Leamer, whose tome The Kennedy Women is one of three books he penned on the clan, calls her “more Kennedy than the Kennedys.”)

But fierce athleticism and antics aside, Ethel was quite the public figure during the 1960s, often surrounded by her attractive brood. “She loved campaigning,” says Leamer, who describes her as a “volatile combination of idealism, ambition, and drive.” Not only was she routinely at RFK’s side on the campaign trail and on various television interview shows such as Paar’s, she was a vigorous campaigner for his brother JFK, first for his 1946 [Congressional] and 1952 Senate runs, and exhaustively during the 1960 presidential campaign. As impressively, she made sure the children understood what their father did, sitting with them in the front rows at his high-profile hearings as attorney general, investigating Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa for racketeering.

It was the family’s first taste of terror; Hoffa’s henchmen had thrown acid in the eyes of a New York Post reporter and threatened to do the same to Ethel’s kids. Kathleen, Maryland’s former lieutenant governor, remembers that for a time they were not allowed to leave school until Ethel came to get them. “That was one thing I didn’t really understand, the death threats she and my siblings faced,” Rory says.

But Ethel never hid the risks of public life from her children. Over the years, the entire family, not just RFK, was in danger, especially during the civil rights turmoil. National crises weren’t sugarcoated. During the Cuban missile confrontation, when nuclear war seemed imminent, the older children, used to being quizzed at the dinner table on current affairs, were canvassed on whether the family should leave Washington. (They said no, but son Joe says he had second thoughts.)

Inevitably, the film shifts more heavily to RFK, detailing his public career and the private life behind it. Ethel recalls the “six months of blackness” her husband, JFK’s closest advisor, endured after the president’s assassination. It was a despair she says she could not ease. But it becomes most moving, perhaps, as RFK emerges from his grief, begins to campaign for the US Senate seat from New York, and, although Ethel says he hated campaigning for himself, finds his speaking voice, pledging to “close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old.”

His movement energized the poorest blacks in Mississippi and the Hollywood glitterati. He disarmed journalists and enthralled voters, especially women, often crediting Ethel for his success. The film drops a curtain over much of Ethel’s private life after RFK’s funeral. When Rory asks her about the assassination, Ethel says only, “Can we talk about something else?”

“Her husband was her life,” says Leamer, who feels Ethel K ennedy has b een “undervalued” because she hasn’t taken on the sort of public role Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and even her socially activist children have. But that has been the result of such great challenges, says Leamer: “She’s had so many difficulties in her life, so much grief…and she was left to raise all those children.”

Part of this presumably explains Ethel’s reluctance to talk about the dark times. “All this introspection, I hate it!” she blurts out. But Rory disagrees: “She couldn’t be so deeply thoughtful and articulate if she hadn’t thought a lot about it. But does she go around the world talking about her feelings? No.” Eventually, Ethel took up some of RFK’s causes, battling poverty, linking arms with farm worker Caésar Chávez, etc.; and establishing the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. She takes no credit for her children’s successes.

Unmentioned in the film, Rory Kennedy says her mother so hates her given name, Ethel, that “she flinched every time [the film] was introduced.” Ethel has hosted the Hyannis Port golf tournament for more than 20 years to benefit the RFK Center. “About 15 years ago, she and Bill Murray were playing on a team together and he was late. He comes running up saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ and she thought he was apologizing for being late, so she says, ‘No worries.’” But with all these TV reporters and cameras around, he says, ‘I’m so sorry you have to live with that horrible name! I can’t even stand to call you that!’ And she burst out laughing. So he said, ‘You look like a Kate, I’m going to call you that.’”

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