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Critic's Notebook: The day I met Ethel Kennedy

The weight of family history takes on a personal scope during an interview with Robert Kennedy's widow and their daughter Rory, whose HBO documentary gives her mother the spotlight.

October 14, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Ethel and Rory Kennedy at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.
Ethel and Rory Kennedy at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

I go to the Beverly Hilton to interview Ethel Kennedy, the subject of a new HBO documentary, "Ethel," which airs Oct. 18. The film is by her youngest daughter, Rory.

I walk through the door and there she is, straight up and picture perfect, and for one heart-stopping, utterly unanticipated minute I am 4 years old again, watching my father sob in our living room. He was always a big man, quiet and calm, but now his glasses are on the floor and his face is in his hands and the sound he makes is frightening enough to send me out the front door and onto a neighbor's lawn.

This is the first truly vivid memory of my life. The day Sen. Robert F. Kennedy died. And now, here is his wife, offering me her hand.

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She is a small woman but solid, especially beside Rory, who is tall and slim with those Kennedy eyes and the family smile. Ethel looks precisely like what she is — a well-dressed 84-year-old grandmother (and great-grandmother) who put on lipstick, some good jewelry and a smart ensemble to do something she isn't especially keen on doing because her daughter asked her to.

She has bright and watchful eyes and she smiles at me, thanks me for coming. The first mouth-drying minute extends to a second minute and I am convinced that I will not be able to do this, to sit and calmly ask any of the questions I so cavalierly jotted down.

No, I am just going to sit here and stare at Ethel Kennedy while the tattered tapestry of my childhood unhitches itself from storage and unrolls inside my head.

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It is impossible to overstate the role the Kennedys played in the lives of families like mine, Irish Catholic Democrats who saw the Kennedys as symbols of social revolution. Not just the final rending of all those No Irish Need Apply signs that haunted my grandparents' memories, but a new breed of young politicians who demanded, from themselves and those around them, a life of service.

The Kennedys spoke of our moral obligation to help the poor and that responsibility extended to government. The faithful adults of my early memories — public school teachers, liberal priests and Peace Corps volunteers — all believed. To lose Jack was bad enough; for Bobby to follow so quickly and horribly was overwhelming. In our house, every president lived in the shadow of an alternative reality — what would this country be like if Bobby Kennedy had lived?

All of which came rushing back to me, with inconvenient intensity, within the cream-colored walls of the Beverly Hilton.

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Fortunately, if you have done a thing often enough, there is part of the brain that takes over when other systems are failing. So for a few minutes I was able to conduct an interview while pretending I wasn't having an incomprehensible emotional breakdown in front of Ethel Kennedy, and soon enough I wasn't.

Ethel is a woman of few words, both in the documentary and in person. She answers questions directly but simply and is happy to defer to Rory, a successful filmmaker, who talks quickly and smoothly

clearly trying to make this day, in which there would be many interviews and a press panel to follow, as easy on her mother as possible.

While she does not deny that the timing of the film's television release — weeks before Election Day — is not terrible, Rory says that resurrecting her father and the politics he espoused was not why she committed to the film. Not at all. Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films and with whom she has often worked, had suggested it.

Rory had previously shied away from chronicling her family, but she very much wanted to share her mother with the world. She did not think, however, that Ethel, who has turned down interview requests and book proposals for decades, would agree.

But she did. Because "Rory asked me to," she says now. "And you can't say no to Rory."

Having seen the film, this is easy to believe. It is a joyful, loving and fascinating back-window view of an iconic family at a time of great social turmoil and political divisions, many of which remain today.

Not surprisingly, the most heart-wrenching moment comes when the family discusses the assassination. Ethel cannot, and her animated face goes still, almost blank. And though the narrative continues, with much focus on her strength, she does not come back until the chronology catches up to Rory's birth.

"I was born," Rory says.

"Yes," Ethel answers, her eyes lighting up, "that was the joy of my life."

This is close to where the documentary ends. Although Rory's initial impetus had been to showcase the woman she has only ever known as a single mother, the film focuses almost exclusively on Ethel's life with her husband, moving inexorably toward the day of the 1968 California primary and the Ambassador Hotel.

"When I started looking through the archival footage," Rory says, "I realized that she was always there."

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