Lisa: Carolyn, today let’s dish on Ethel Kennedy. What were you telling me about her anger?
Carolyn: She loved Bobby so. She urged him to run for the presidency in 1968 and then, of course, he was assassinated. Jackie (Kennedy) had said that the same thing that had happened to Jack (murder) would happen to Bobby, but Ethel wouldn’t listen, and Jackie was right. But Ethel was the chief component in having Bobby run. She was extremely ambitious for Bobby. When Bobby started to run, Jackie said, “Oh, we’ll be in the White House again!”
And Ethel said, “Who is this we?”
Ethel’s anger was displaced when Bobby died. She was more Kennedy than Kennedy. Kennedys were always told not to show anything but courage to the outside world. Ethel couldn’t show the world that she was in private anguish over the loss of her beloved Bobby after he died. So she had displaced anger that she vented on her oldest sons: Joseph, Bobby Jr., and David – David had a drug problem but that had a lot of reasons to it. Bobby Jr. and Joseph got the worst of her wrath.
She pretty much let those kids run wild. She made them not want to be at home because she was raging. They became homeless in Hyannisport and Hickory Hill. They didn’t have a place to sleep at home. She sent them away the summer Bobby died. They were unwelcome at Ethel’s house. Some of the Kennedy elders kept their children away from Ethel’s kids because they were so wild. Ethel lived an unexamined life.
Carolyn: She never said I’m so angry, I’m so sad. She whaled into her older sons. She beat them with a hair brush. She sublimated her sadness. She had a black rage. For example, years earlier, when she found out that (actor) Paul Newman had become a supporter of Kenneth Keating of New York, a rival of Bobby Kennedy’s, she got mad. On a pretext, she invited Paul to play a friendly game of tennis with her.
LaDonna Harris witnessed the match:
“From the moment they got on the court, Ethel wouldn’t let up on Paul. Ethel has an unhealthy kind of competitiveness, a masculine kind of meanness. She told him he was a lousy player. She teased him nonstop….He just didn’t know how to deal with it. He finally walked off the court. He had tears in his eyes.” (1)
Carolyn: Ethel had a quirky sense of humor. She used live frogs for centerpieces at her dinner parties. People got pushed into swimming pools at her parties.
I think she called Lyndon Johnson Uncle Cornpone. I think she looked for weaknesses in others and then hurt them with it. I think the whole point here is that Ethel had displaced anger, her early years – she grew up in an atmosphere of too much liquor, bad upbringing – they let them run wild. They drove fast. Had a lot of money. She was ruthless. Bobby, too. But he was kinder. He liked children and animals. But not Ethel. She was cruel. Bobby was spiritual. He had a good side; he was a fine father. His kids somewhat fell apart when he died because they needed his nurturing. Bobby was the nurturer; that’s it.
(1) Oppenheimer, Jerry. The Other Mrs. Kennedy. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994)