May 14, 1984 12:00 PM

The image is etched in public memory. A woman dressed in black, kneeling at her husband’s grave, clutching a rosary, her children arrayed about her. Ethel Kennedy has repeated that ritual every year on the anniversaries of her husband’s birth and death. This time, though, she knelt and prayed for her son David. And this time the emblematic image seemed less mythic, more human. The rite, which once marked the endurance of ideals, now expressed grief and frailty and mortal loss beyond recovery. Her son was dead, some said, of the same bullet that killed her husband, and neither she nor anyone had known how to change his longtime dying.

Profoundly religious, Ethel had accepted her husband’s death in June 1968 as “God’s will.” Indeed, returning from California after the tragedy, she had moved down the aisle of the plane, propping pillows under the heads of friends, kissing them, telling them not to grieve. Arriving in New York, it was she who made most of the funeral arrangements—planning the seating, suggesting roles for Leonard Bernstein and Andy Williams, finding places for the children to stay.

The month after the funeral the weather was magnificent on Cape Cod where she had gone to find peace. Ethel saw that as a heavenly sign. She told friends she was sure Bobby had made it so to help her through that difficult time. There was something indomitable about Ethel, and in a subsequent Gallup Poll she was named the country’s most admired woman. Even before her loss had swelled the nation’s sympathy, back when Bobby was Attorney General, she had won a mother of the year award. With her boisterous brood of 11 attractive children, enough to field a team in football, the game they played with such ardor, she represented this generation’s version of the Kennedy myth.

Part of the family credo is never to cry in public, always to look strong. Ethel—who, as one friend says, is “more Kennedy than thou”—has upheld that tradition. Now, with the pathetic death of her fourth child, the facade of invincibility has cracked. In a way, that might be a hopeful legacy of the tragedy, for it is clear now that within the family the legend has exacted a ghastly price.

More than any other Kennedy wife, Ethel, now 56, dovetailed smoothly into the clan. Considering her upbringing, it’s no wonder. The Skakels were not so very different from the Kennedys—a large, active, wealthy Roman Catholic family. George Skakel, Ethel’s father, started as an $8-a-week railroad clerk, a job he eventually parlayed into the Great Lakes Carbon Corp., one of the top 500 privately held businesses in the country. Ann Brannack Skakel, Ethel’s mother, was an immense woman who topped her husband by several inches and weighed more than 200 pounds. As devout as Rose Kennedy, she attended Mass every morning, praying for her husband, an obstinate Dutch Protestant.

The outstanding Skakel trait was a weird bent for practical jokes, a characteristic passed on to Ethel’s older sons. (At David’s joyless 13th birthday party a week after RFK’s assassination, for instance, Bobby Jr. spiked the kid’s milk with Ex-Lax.) A favorite Skakel prank was to herd guests into a station wagon for what was billed as a “tour of the estate.” They would then careen wildly down the hill behind the house, turning at the bottom and plunging into a small pond. One holiday George Jr., the Skakels’ second son, sent all his friends Christmas seals—live baby seals. Another time, family stories have it, he shot a moose which was standing on an ice floe in a river, stripped naked, swam to the animal, cut off its head with a hatchet and swam back with his trophy.

As the sixth of seven children, Ethel was used to her older brothers tearing up their Greenwich, Conn. neighborhood and sniping with air rifles at boys who came to take her out. The Skakels were at least as rambunctious as the Kennedys and were touched as frequently by disaster: Ethel’s parents died in one plane crash, her brother George in another, and George’s widow later choked to death while eating.

Ethel met her future husband through his sister Jean, a classmate at Manhattanville College in New York. Both Robert and Ethel were religious, strongly competitive, fiercely loyal and moralistic, dividing the world up into those who wore white hats and those who didn’t. “I’m not sure they were alike in the beginning but she tried to make herself like him,” says an admirer. “He was No. 1 in her eyes and her real reason for existing.”

Ethel was not at all cerebral, but she was sure of herself and of what she wanted at a time when Bobby was uncertain and ill at ease with women. Ethel saw that Bobby’s “moral sense” derived from his idea of himself as one of the “downtrodden” in the family. (Bobby was the only Kennedy son who identified more with his mother than with his father.) She saw his need to become the center of responsibility in the greater family, to replicate the idealized Kennedy clan of his youth by having numerous children. Ethel became an equal partner in that dream. It was natural for her to name their first two children after Bobby’s dead sister and brother, Kathleen and Joe.

She already had the ferocious win-at-any-cost Kennedy mentality. Just as her husband, when quarterbacking in touch football on the lawns of Hyannis Port, kept adding quarters to a game until his team won, so Ethel had a tendency in tennis to call close balls out. She was a vociferous critic of two other Kennedy brides—Jackie and Joan—for their reluctance or inability to join wholeheartedly in the roughhousing and game playing of the clan.

She was always fiercely in Bobby’s corner, even when he himself was not. In 1968, when he was agonizing over whether to challenge LBJ for the Presidency, Ethel argued that he should. In one climactic meeting she looked over at speechwriter Ted Sorenson, who opposed Bobby’s candidacy, and said cuttingly, “Why, Ted! And after all those high-flown phrases you wrote for President Kennedy!” At a crucial moment in that meeting, she and the kids rolled down a banner from the upstairs window reading “Kennedy for President” and put The Impossible Dream on the record player. It subsequently became the campaign theme.

Ethel always took the matter of competition more seriously than her husband. “If it was going to ruin a child’s day, RFK would back off,” a frequent guest notes. Bobby specialized in dinner-table forums, that hoariest of dynastic rituals. “He wanted his kids to know, for example, who Ho Chi Minh was,” family friend Chuck McDermott told reporters Peter Collier and David Horowitz. “He would ask the question, and there would be silence. Then he would say, ‘Joe, who is Ho Chi Minh?’ You could cut the air with a knife. Joe would stammer and say, ‘the Emperor of China.’ After a series of these, there’d be, ‘Well…I really think you ought to have the answers to these questions tomorrow night.’ ” Ethel, meanwhile, would catechize the children in the car on the way back from church, quizzing them on the sermon in the Mass. One friend of Bobby Jr.’s remembers feeling “terrible” when she failed to answer properly and Ethel told her, “You’re slow.”

Another Hyannis Port neighbor, Paul Kirby, told Collier and Horowitz of sailing under skipper Ethel, who was racing her sister-in-law Eunice Shriver. “We were neck and neck rounding a buoy at one point, and Ethel was unbelievably intense on rounding this buoy,” says Kirby. “If we didn’t, we were all going to die.” Kirby failed to fulfill her orders, and the other boat passed the buoy first. “She said, ‘Paul Kirby, that was your fault. You get off this boat!’ ” he recalls. “Here we are a mile and a half out to sea. I was a little kid. I got up, actually, and then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not jumping out here!’ ”

With Bobby’s death, Ethel’s life seemed to unravel. It was in large part a problem of too many children to raise. “She’s never been a great disciplinarian,” a friend explains. “She never made the kids toe the mark. At Hickory Hill [the white Georgian mansion that serves as the family stronghold in McLean, Va.] two children would get up for breakfast at 6, two more at 7, and so it went. The house was in constant turmoil.” One cook, asked to prepare 11 different breakfasts and 11 different lunches, didn’t last the day. “Hickory Hill?” he asked. “They ought to call it Horror Hill.” The servants in the Kennedy household passed through as if in a revolving door. Ex-secretaries exchanging war stories referred to Ethel derisively as “Mommy.”

Ethel got a reputation during this period for erratic behavior. She would buy an expensive dress at a fancy store, wear it for a night on the town, then return it, claiming it didn’t fit properly. She asked a caterer for a “rush job” for Christmas dinner, then stiffed him for the bill, causing him to sue. She played music so loudly that her neighbors called the police. Though she was pregnant with Rory, she became even more competitive at tennis, once banging her head on the court in furious frustration during a doubles match.

She was simply too deep in her own grief to be sensitive to the growing concerns of her teenage sons—Joe, Bobby and David. All their lives they had been encouraged to be high-spirited. As kids, their shenanigans had been innocent enough. By the gate of the Hyannis Port compound, for instance, they had sold “Kennedy sand” for $1 a bag to star-struck tourists. For a quarter a throw they had answered “Kennedy questions” (“What does Jackie eat for breakfast?”). Now, they no longer needed to hustle. Financially independent, thanks to a family trust fund, they were increasingly beyond Ethel’s control. “Ethel is 100 percent for her children in some areas,” says one pal. “But she doesn’t understand them always, and what she doesn’t understand, she doesn’t want to hear about.”

As problems mounted there was an angry quality in her handling of the headstrong older boys. She sometimes seemed bent on molding them into replicas of their illustrious father and uncles. In the process she created a family ambience so thick with tension that one of Bobby Jr.’s girlfriends once said, “I never witnessed a civil conversation between Bobby and Ethel.” Joe would hide out in the stable at Hickory Hill, seeking sanctuary from Ethel. “Almost anything could trigger a fight between them,” Joe’s friend Chuck McDermott told Collier and Horowitz. “She would scream at him for 10 or 15 minutes, without letting up, and tell him to leave, which he did. Later, it would be like it never happened.”

Inconsistency was her failing. According to another friend of Joe’s, “If your room wasn’t clean, Ethel would have you walk up and down the stairs carrying whatever you’d left on the floor 50 or 100 times.” Yet she herself would pile the kids’ freshly washed clothes on the floor in an unsorted heap. Nothing belonged to anyone in particular; none of the socks were matched, but if in the morning she found a stray dirty sock belonging to, say, Joe, she would have him go up those stairs 50 more times.

Affection extended was always subject to quick withdrawal. “She’s a very complicated, intense person,” says a close friend of Bobby Jr.’s. “When her kids fall down, she’s there. She’s an angel of mercy. But nobody can sustain an angel posture for very long. When David was hospitalized [for drug problems] the first time, you’ve never seen a hospital room filled with more sunshine, with more guests, with more steaks brought in, more round-the-clock visits by any mother, more laughs, more videocassettes, more anything. There was this great bulk of kindness, and then she would depart and be gone.”

The kids feared the so-called “wrath of Ethel.” At times, when the demands on her became too much, she would order the older boys out of the house. Yet they remain doggedly devoted to her. A friend of Bobby Jr.’s remembered an incident in Aspen, Colo., where the family had gone to ski. “A guy made a quick turn near Ethel, who got flustered and fell down. Bobby and Michael and Chris Kennedy were a couple of hundred yards up. This was in 1982. Bobby wasn’t a kid. He was a 27-year-old man. They immediately took off after this guy. They chased him up into the woods, knocked him down and started pounding. She said, ‘My Dobermans!’ It was a funny kind of clan loyalty.”

The three older boys were in and out of schools in the late ’60s and 70s. All were rebellious, Bobby perhaps most so. Headmasters could not discipline them any more than their mother could. In the summer of 1969 Ethel banished Bobby from the house, and he went to live in a tent in a neighbor’s backyard. The immediate cause had been his relationship with Kim Kelley, which outraged Ethel’s strict Catholic view on premarital sex. The previous fall had seen the beginning of Bobby’s serious troubles. He had been swept up by the counterculture, identifying with the anti-Establishment enthusiasm of the Children’s Crusade, which his father had been trying to mobilize. He was constantly at odds with the powers-that-be at Millbrook, a prep school in Upstate New York. In May 1969 he was expelled. In August 1970 he was arrested for buying a joint of marijuana from an undercover agent on Cape Cod. Ethel chased Bobby out of the house, catching him and throwing him into the bushes, screaming, “You’ve dragged your family’s name through mud!” To the press she presented a different face. “Bobby is a fine boy,” she said. “We have always been proud of him and I will stand by him.” Bobby subsequently ran away. He went out West, hopped freights, panhandled on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

“Eleven children is a lot of children,” says a Kennedy acquaintance in Washington. “When you have that size family there are difficulties. It is impossible for one person to pay attention to the emotional needs of 11 people.” This observer points out that “some of those kids are outstanding, very nice people. Kathleen is enormously bright, hardworking, low-profile—dedicated to her father’s memory. She’s a lawyer, kind of an earth mother.” Joe, “an extremely likable young man,” now is running a fuel oil business that aids the poor. A year after his bust for possession of heroin, Bobby is somewhat of a question mark. “But Michael,” says the observer, “is everybody’s favorite.” As for David, another Washington acquaintance maintains that Ethel always tried to help him, dragging him to the tennis courts and pushing to get him involved. “She was always trying to draw him out,” he says. “She never gave up on the kid, but there were times of despair. He would go back to the habit, and she would throw up her hands and ask, ‘What can we do about David?’ ”

And who will look after Ethel? “Today she is a basket case,” says one neighbor. “She is on sedatives. Only two kids still live at home. She is alone most nights. She is a very active person and very disorganized. She has never been reflective. Over the years her focus has been so much on her husband, I don’t think she is capable of turning to something else.” Friends say that remarriage was always out of the question. “She is still married to Bobby,” says one friend. “She believes he is up in heaven looking down on her.” Even with her husband’s support, it would have been difficult raising 11 children, including three energetic boys just entering adolescence. Without him, the center was gone, and the cheerful pandemonium of Hickory Hill became a treacherous whirlpool. Clinging to the memories of happier times, 15 years after her husband’s death, Ethel was still driving Bobby’s old white convertible, bearing his RFK license plate. “Her problem is that she still lives for Bobby,” one observer says sympathetically. “She didn’t ask to be a widow.”

Written by WILLIAM PLUMMER, reported by correspondents in Los Angeles and other bureaus

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