A portrait of the 'other' Mrs. Kennedy

Monday Book Review

January 30, 1995|By Blaine Taylor

THE OTHER MRS. KENNEDY/Ethel Shakel Kennedy: An American Drama of Power, Privilege, and Politics. By Jerry Oppenheimer. St. Martin's Press. 540 pages. $24.95.

THIS IS an unnecessarily cruel, vicious biography of a woman who has never run for public office. Not content to attack the late Kennedy husbands, it seems that writers now must assail their widows as well. Kennedy lovers will hate it, and Kennedy haters will love it.

The book has particular relevance for Marylanders, however, since Ethel Kennedy's eldest child, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is now the Free State's first female lieutenant governor, and thus a likely future gubernatorial contender.

Ethel Kennedy's public image perhaps is frozen in time on that June night in 1968 when she knelt over the body of her mortally wounded husband, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, who had just won the California presidential primary.

Bobby Kennedy had been Ethel's main focus in life along with their many children (the oldest son is Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Boston), and his death provides the dividing point of this book. It is Mrs. Kennedy's widowhood that is particularly examined here, and in scathing detail.

RFK was not Ethel Kennedy's first choice for a mate, according to the author, whose previous biographies include one of Barbara Walters. She had her eye on John F. Kennedy initially, Mr. Oppenheimer says.

After she married Bobby, he writes, "Ethel all but disowned her own very rich, very scandalous family, the Skakels. Desperate to win favor with her in-laws, she would do anything to keep her own family's secrets from seeing the light of day, and there was a lot to hide -- including adultery, arson and even suspected murder."

As for Bobby, he was unimpressed with the Skakels, stating once, "If I wasn't married to Ethel, I wouldn't give those micks the time of day."

Mr. Oppenheimer claims that, "Contrary to popular myth, Marilyn Monroe was not Bobby's only extramarital fling. According to one of Ethel's friends, 'just like Jack, Bobby thought nothing to doing the wives of friends. He felt honor-bound to have a sample of them, and never gave it a second thought. These women were like a great silver tray of canapes, and when Bobby felt like popping one in his mouth, he did.' "

The night Bobby was shot, Mr. Oppenheimer tells us, "Ethel, along with members of the Kennedy clan, decided in a sad, secret meeting to pull the plug on Bobby's life-support system because he had been brain dead for hours, a fact that has been kept from the public."

Another public image of the Kennedys Mr. Oppenheimer attempts to deflate was of their visit to Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., just after Dr. King was shot in April 1968.

Mr. Oppenheimer gratuitously contrasts this image with an unrelated vignette: "Married to the most famous liberal politician in the world, Ethel's treatment of household help was appalling. Because of Ethel's uncontrolled rages, the staff called [the family home] Hickory Hill 'Horror Hill.' In one incident, Ethel berated a newly-hired maid: 'You stupid [a racial epithet]! Don't you know what you're doing?' she screeched."

Mr. Oppenheimer has more to tell. "Besides her household help, many of whom feared and despised her, Ethel's tyrannical manner also extended to strangers such as cab drivers and policemen, sometimes getting her into trouble."

Mr. Oppenheimer claims Ethel once tore up a parking ticket in front of a police officer, then refused to show up in court. She was fined nonetheless. Her attorney paid it.

Mr. Oppenheimer describes another incident in which Ethel slapped a maid who brought her the wrong item. He cites an "inside source" for this information.

One issue the author dwells on was Ethel's alleged reckless spending, which he says troubled the Kennedy family. "Rose Kennedy was constantly after Ethel about her spending, " he writes. "The two women used the same expensive perfume -- Lui. 'She doesn't buy it by the ounce,' said the Kennedy matriarch. 'She buys it by the quart.' "

For her part, Mr. Oppenheimer notes, Ethel was determined to become "more Kennedy than the Kennedys," specifically in having more children than Rose. In that, she succeeded.

Ethel's rocky relationships with her sons are public knowledge by now, and all are again chronicled here, in wearisome detail. This is character assassination at its worst, but at least it is not fawning praise, like Lester David's 1970s-vintage biography.

I met Mrs. Kennedy twice, once in 1972 in Washington at a Ted Kennedy speech, and again in Towson during her daughter's unsuccessful 1986 congressional campaign against Helen Bentley.

On both occasions, she was very gracious and seemed hardly to have aged at all in 14 years; she will survive this book, too.

Towson free-lance writer Blaine Taylor has written about the Kennedys since 1968.

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