Their clan headquarters may have been in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, but the true center of the Kennedy political dynasty in the Fifties and Sixties was Hickory Hill, the Virginia home of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. It was a "wild, informal mixture of a children's playground, upbeat discotheque, and a humming political headquarters," described one regular visitor. Invitations to Hickory Hill were highly coveted, and no place better expressed the personality of its owners.
A Growing Family
The beautiful property in the rolling countryside just outside of Washington, D.C., had served as the Union Army headquarters of General George B. McClellan during the Civil War. Bobby bought the estate from his older brother, Jack in 1956, shortly after Jacqueline had suffered a devastating miscarriage. Bobby's family clearly needed the room, as Ethel was pregnant with the fifth of her eleven children.
Lunch for 20
Adding to the crowd was a steady stream of colleagues, friends, and assorted dignitaries who always seemed to be about. "I don't know how Ethel tolerated it, frankly," says Nicholas Katzenbach, one of Kennedy's assistant attorneys general. "Because Bobby would call up at the last minute, and say uh, 'Ethel, I'm bringing out uh, 10 of us, 12 of us, 20 of us, uh, can you fix some lunch?' And we'd spend the afternoon discussing some problems."
Kids and Pets
One of the first things any visitor noticed was the sheer number of children and animals running around the place. "There were lots of kids," remembers one of them, Kathleen Kennedy Townshend. "There were plenty of horses, many dogs, chickens, geese, goats. It was a menagerie... my brother Bobby collected reptiles. And actually the turtle was in the laundry room. The sea lion was in the swimming pool."
No visit to Hickory Hill could be complete without some kind of sporting event, particularly one of the legendary games of Kennedy touch football. Family members were notoriously competitive, and played by a rulebook of their own. "If you were going out for a pass, you had to fly," recalled sportsman and writer George Plimpton. "Bobby was sour if you missed one." At least he never bit Plimpton on the ankle, as Ethel once did. "The whole idea was to relax in a violent fashion," summed up Gerald Tremblay, a law school friend of Kennedy.
A Thousand and One Questions
Besides competitiveness, another Robert Kennedy trait in evidence at Hickory Hill was curiosity. He and Ethel surrounded themselves with accomplished people from all walks of life -- scientists, entertainers, academics, athletes, politicians -- and grilled them all equally. "A thousand and one questions," remembered John Glenn, who was asked what it was like to feel weightless while orbiting earth.
Fraternity Party Meets Intellectual Salon
Even guests at the frequent parties the Kennedys threw were fair game. "A Hickory Hill party was an odd mixture of high sophistication and childish hijinks. Dinner guests might include the Russian ambassador to the United States and the Secretary of State," according to biographer Evan Thomas. "But there was a pretty good chance somebody gets thrown in the swimming pool. So it was a weird mixture of kind of fraternity party, and high-minded salon."
Robert Kennedy was so eager to learn that he asked Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger to organize a series of seminars at Hickory Hill. The lectures, organized around dinner and drinks, attracted upwards of sixty people who heard from leading thinkers from a variety of disciplines. Afterwards the Kennedys would lead the questioning, sparing nothing. With a few exceptions, "Hickory Hill Academy" was such a success that Washington society matrons soon began to hold seminars of their own.
Interestingly, one person who rarely visited Hickory Hill was John Kennedy. Most observers agree that the president preferred less strenuous settings in his off-hours. He was by nature less of an earnest self-improver, and may have frowned on the rowdier aspects of the place. Speechwriter Richard Goodwin, who knew both men, says that "that whole openness that it had, and the kind of rollicking, family atmosphere that it had, clearly reflected Bobby."