Why Ethel Kennedy Would Have Forgiven Robert F. Kennedy Anything – Including Possible Affairs

A new book looks into the life of Robert F. Kennedy

Photo: Courtesy Random House

Robert F. Kennedy – best known to his family and friends as Bobby – still continues to be a figure of public fascination, nearly 50 years after his assassination.

A new book, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of A Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye, shares new insights on the late Senator’s tragically cut-short life. Tye spoke with Bobby’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, 88, about the events that shaped his life.

PEOPLE spoke with Tye about some of the biggest revelations from the book – and what the people in Bobby’s life had to say about them.

1. Bobby most likely had affairs – but Ethel was his one true love.
Like the rest of the Kennedy men, Tye says Bobby was a “flirt” and believes Bobby did have affairs throughout his marriage – possibly including Lee Remick and Kim Novak. A big reason for any potential infidelity? The Kennedy family culture, Tye tells PEOPLE.

“Bobby Kennedy came from a family where marital infidelity was not necessarily a virtue, and wasn’t practiced a whole lot,” he said.

Despite the influence of his family, Tye says Bobby was most likely the Kennedy male who was least likely to stray.

“He was probably the most puritanical and probably the most sanctimonious of Joe Kennedy’s boys,” Tye says.

It all comes back to love for and relationship with his wife, Ethel, who Tye spoke with while writing the book. Bobby, he says, was more faithful than any of the other Kennedy men.

“There’s a reason that Ethel has lived with these rumors for 50 years and has stopped listening to or reading about them,” he says. “What she cared about is not only did Bobby always come home, but that he came home to her and the kids.”

“He hugely loved Ethel Kennedy,” Tye says. “They’re one of the great romances of American politics.”

The affection between the two was mutual – so much so that, on Ethel’s end, she would have forgave any transgression her husband committed.

“She was so in love with him, she would have forgiven him anything.”

2. He was friends with Joseph McCarthy – and attended his funeral.

Despite their differing politics, there was a level of respect between the two famed politicians (McCarthy was the Republican senator who famously led a communist “witch hunt” in the 1950s) that has been “airbrushed” out of Bobby’s life, Tye says.

Tye says that in his discussions with Ethel, she acknowledged her husband’s “close friendship” with McCarthy in a way that people have been “denying forever.”

Early on in his career, Kennedy worked for McCarthy for seven-and-a-half months.

“He believed in what McCarthy was doing then,” Tye says, calling Bobby a “cold warrior.” “He believed that he was one of the few guys out there who had the courage to go after communism in an era where he thought this was a huge threat.”

When McCarthy died in 1957, Kennedy attended his funeral, but did so without any attention. He sat in a back row in the balcony and asked reporters not to mention his attendance.

“It was Bobby Kennedy showing that he was loyal to a guy who gave him a break,” Tye says.

3. It was Bobby who took JFK’s death hardest – but it took a bit before it really hit him.
When his family – and the entire country – was in a state of mourning after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it was Bobby who was the family’s rock in the storm – initially.

“The one that held it together in the Kennedy family and in America, more quickly and longer than anybody, was Bobby Kennedy,” Tye says.

But Bobby’s strong facade only lasted so long. As the rest of the world was beginning to move on, the depth of what had happened truly hit him, and he sunk into a deep despair, that would likely today be considered clinical depression.

“He had lost his best friend, the reason for everything he had done [that was] important professionally,” Tye says.

His grief, he says, was perhaps even more intense than JFK’s widow, Jackie Kennedy. He filled his office with photos of his late brother, lost weight, had trouble sleeping and frequently visited John’s grave at Arlington Cemetery.

“His life was, in large part up until then, in service to his brother.”

4. It can’t be confirmed if Bobby had an affair with Jackie Kennedy – but Tye says they understood each other in a deep way.
There’s long been talk of a rumored affair between Bobby and and Jackie, which Tye says his own research can’t confirm. But there’s no doubt that in the years after his brother’s death, he and Jackie understood each other on a deeper level because of their shared experience.

“I think he felt that the one person that could understand just how deep his grief was, if anybody could, it was Jackie Kennedy,” Tye says. “It was definitely special.”

“The one person he could be consoled by was Jackie Kennedy.”

Of whether their close friendship ever turned romantic or sexual, Tye says: “I could well have been, but it could well not have been.”

Their relationship also grew closer as Bobby saw himself as a “surrogate father” to Jackie’s kids John Jr. and Caroline, and felt he had to “hold Jackie’s hand” in the years after JFK’s death.

“There’s no doubt in the world that they had a very special consoling of one another in that time.”

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of A Liberal Icon by Larry Tye will be released on July 5.

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