The home movies focus on an apple-cheeked young woman beaming into the camera. She’s next to a man with a famous face, a face that still makes people wonder: What if?
What if Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had become president, as he was trying to do when he was assassinated on the campaign trail in 1968?
HBO’s “Ethel,” debuting Thursday, Oct. 18, is an intimate, loving portrait of the fun-loving, fearless woman who was the wife of Bobby Kennedy and mother of their 11 children. It was through the urging of Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, that filmmaker Rory Kennedy, who was born six months after her father was killed, turned the camera on her mother.
Now 84, Ethel, who shunned the spotlight for decades, reminisces. Rory draws on her family’s catalog of photos and home movies, interviews with her siblings, and news footage to create a beautiful portrait. The result is a revealing, at times heartbreaking, yet joyous celebration of her life.
Both Ethel and Rory sat down with Zap2it in Los Angeles for a candid conversation.
Zap2it: How difficult was it to persuade your mom to talk on camera, and how long did this take to make?
Rory Kennedy: I called my mother, and she said she would be willing to do this. It was one year between when we started shooting and when we had the picture. The home movies were in different places, plus it was not so organized, and there were 16,000 photos in my mother’s house.
Zap2it: The film reveals a daredevil side to you, Ethel, such as liberating abused horses and then being charged as a horse thief, and hopping on a scooter in Poland but hitting a truck because you didn’t know how to stop. Is there a history of maybe not thinking through the possible consequences?
Ethel Kennedy: (Laughing) It was Italy.
Zap2it: You seem comfortable in all sports. Which is your favorite?
Ethel: Whatever I am doing at the time.
Zap2it: The film mentions that you are fiercely competitive. Are you?
Ethel: Not fiercely — justifiably competitive.
Rory: My mother is the most competitive person I know �– in a great way.
Zap2it: You met Robert F. Kennedy on a skiing trip, which you and your college roommate, his sister Jean Kennedy, planned for the two families. Was it love at first sight?
Ethel: Yes. He was in front of the fireplace. We all met at Mont-Tremblant [in Canada]. It was great.
Zap2it: Did you tell anyone?
Ethel: I think it was pretty obvious.
Zap2it: Were you and Jacqueline Kennedy close?
Ethel: We were very friendly. We used to go to Mass together in the morning. When Jack and Jackie first met, they would go to our house for dinner. It was very nice.
Rory: When I was growing up, we’d go to Jackie’s house and do cookouts every summer.
Ethel: Years and years ago when Jack was alive, in Martha’s Vineyard there were parties.
Zap2it: The film mentions you driving the kids to school. Considering it’s tough when children are in two different schools, how did you do this with 11?
Ethel: There was a year when, after dropping all of the children off at their various schools, I would turn around and start picking them up.
Zap2it: And you picked up the children at school one day with a seal in the car! Where did you get a seal and why?
Ethel: I had three brothers, and they were kind of rugged individuals. My brother, George, gave it to the children at Christmas. We had everything, animalwise. We had many, many dogs.
Zap2it: How many?
Rory: Twenty-two at one point.
Zap2it: What do you think your husband’s presidency would have been like?
Ethel: I don’t really go there. I think a lot of people who have very difficult times making ends meet would have been more cared for, more looked after, more helped.
Zap2it: I have to ask you about your outrage over J. Edgar Hoover, and putting a message in the FBI’s suggestion box to get a new director.
Rory: She put it in the suggestion box, and [it] went back to the Justice Department and went back to Daddy (then the attorney general), and [Hoover] had someone bring the note to my father.
Zap2it: And Hoover’s reaction?
Ethel: He was not amused. Then don’t put out a suggestion box. (She shrugs.) It was one of those things.
Zap2it: What are you up to lately?
Ethel: I just went on a civil rights trip. I took 35 family members to meet with [congressman and civil rights leader] John Lewis. What a dreamboat! To be on the bus with him, all over Mississippi and Alabama, and he was telling the children the history of it, and to hear it from that wonderful hero and for him to even recall it. (Ethel grows quiet.) It’s almost November.