Jackie, Ethel, Joan

Women of Camelot


By J. Randy Taraborrelli

Read by Beth Fowler

Formats and Prices


$18.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around November 1, 2005. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Jacqueline Bouvier. Ethel Skakel. Joan Bennett. Three women who married into America’s royal family and became forever linked in legend.

Set against the panorama of explosive American history, this unique story offers a rarely-seen look at the relationship shared among the three women — during the Camelot years and beyond. Whether dealing with their husbands’ blatant infidelities, stumping for their many political campaigns, touring the world to promote their family’s legacy, raising their children, or confronting death, the Kennedy wives did it all with grace, style and dignity.


Begin Reading

Table of Contents

A Preview of After Camelot

Photo Insert

Copyright Page

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at permissions@hbgusa.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.


Considering the many hundreds of books published about members of the Kennedy family over the last forty years, it's surprising that no author before me has attempted an in-depth examination of the relationships among the sisters-in-law, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, and Joan Bennett Kennedy. While it had been long assumed by some observers that no connection existed among the three women, I always believed that their lives—as well as those of their families—were so completely transformed by marrying three of Joseph P. Kennedy's sons that there would at least be some interesting interplay among them. And if there were no relationship at all, I decided, then the reasons for such estrangement could also prove to be interesting. As it turned out, much to my fascination, they related to one another very much like sisters—sometimes lovingly, sometimes contentiously.

The concept behind this book has been an interest of mine for many years, dating back to January 1980 when, as a Los Angeles magazine reporter specializing in African-American pop culture, I was given the unusual assignment to write a series of articles about the Kennedy family's relationship with that of Martin Luther King Jr.'s for a magazine called Soul (which I would later edit and publish). As part of my research, I not only interviewed King's widow, Coretta Scott-King (excerpts of which are included in this text), I also conducted a number of personal interviews and had many conversations with longtime Kennedy family friend and unofficial historian Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings. At first I found Lem to be a difficult and conflicted person, but I later learned that his complexities were the result of his loving but often ambivalent relationship with the powerful Kennedy family. As a college roommate of John Kennedy's and constant companion to many family members, he was a fountain of information for me and—as I found out after conducting hundreds of interviews with others—he was accurate in just about every observation he ever made about any of the Kennedys.

He told me one story that I didn't use in the text of this book, but it illustrates the kind of relationship he had with Jack and Jackie.

Lem was a big fan of Greta Garbo's, whom he had once met at the Cannes Film Festival. "I was obsessed with her," he told me, "and couldn't stop talking about her for quite some time. Jackie told me she was sick of hearing about her. I couldn't blame her."

The President and First Lady decided to play a practical joke on Lem. They invited Greta Garbo to the White House for a private dinner. They also invited Lem. When he showed up, he found his idol, Garbo, casually sitting with Jack and Jackie, talking and laughing as if they were old friends (which they weren't). Lem was astonished. "Why, Greta! Oh my gosh. How are you?" he said excitedly. After the actress had sized Lem up from head to toe as only Greta Garbo could, she turned to Jackie and, in her most imperious tone, said, "Who is this man?" (Many years later, in the 1980s, Jackie would tell her secretary and close friend Nancy Tuckerman that she herself was fascinated by Garbo, so much so that she once followed her through the streets of New York for ten blocks "before she finally lost me.")

When Lem died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-five in May 1981, the Kennedys paid tribute to him at his funeral. "Yesterday was Jack's birthday," Eunice Kennedy Shriver said in her moving eulogy. "Jack's best friend was Lem, and he would want me to remind everyone of that today. I am sure the good Lord knows that heaven is Jesus and Lem and Jack and Bobby loving one another." At the time of our interviews, though, it seemed that Lem Billings's status in the family was in jeopardy as a result of personal disagreements. "I think they hate me now" is how the emotionally charged Billings put it to me. "I doubt they ever appreciated me. To the Kennedys, the line between love and hate is not only thin, it's blurred. But love knows many paths," he concluded, "and always finds its way back to the right heart."

I was deeply touched by Lem Billings's devotion to the Kennedys, troubled by his strained relationship with them, and also inspired by his optimism that somehow it would all work out for the best. I quickly became intrigued by his recollections that—politics aside—the Kennedy family was like most large families, in that loving relationships often gave way to conflict and then usually—or at least hopefully—to reconciliation.

I decided to research and then write an in-depth article about Jackie, Ethel, and Joan. My intention was that the resulting feature would be candid enough to relay the kinds of stories that would be identifiable to anyone who has ever watched as his or her own family, regardless of wealth or status, grew and its members interacted with one another during difficult times. After just a few interviews with key people in the Kennedy circle, the story of the three sisters-in-law quickly began to emerge.

My career as a reporter took a different turn when, in 1984, I signed with Doubleday and Company to write my first book, a biography of Diana Ross. Throughout the years, as I wrote a number of other books, I continued developing the story of Jackie, Ethel, and Joan Kennedy, hoping to one day find a publisher for the work. Like most things having to do with the publishing business, the timing had to be right, the research completed, and the publisher willing—all of which finally occurred after my eighth book, Sinatra: A Complete Life, was published in 1997. It was then that Warner Books publisher Maureen Mahon Egen agreed with my ICM agent, Mitch Douglas, that it was time to publish this work, which was originally titled The Kennedy Wives. Over a two-year period, Ms. Egen masterfully helped me shape the manuscript into the book you are now holding in your hands, Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot.

Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, and Joan Bennett Kennedy were strong and courageous women who, despite the many challenges presented them, still managed to lead full, joyous lives. Over the years that I dedicated myself to this work, I found their stories to be heartwarming and moving. This was truly a labor of love for me; I became personally attached to these women in a way perhaps only another biographer can relate to. It is now my hope that the reader will recognize just a bit of his or her own familial experience in the complex relationships among the Kennedy sisters-in-law because, power, politics, and money aside, people are still people, families are families… and most of us, at one time or another, have to work to get along with those we dearly love. In the end, at least in my view, it's always worth it.



Young Joan Bennett Kennedy gazed out upon a cold but clear Cape Cod morning from the veranda of the large three-story clapboard house owned by her in-laws, Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. Ignoring the many friends, family members, photographers, and Secret Service agents coming and going, rushing in and out of the house and slamming the screen door behind them, she quietly slipped into a knee-length wool coat before wrapping a silk scarf around her head. As she walked down the porch's few wooden steps, she tied the scarf below her chin to keep her blonde hair from being mussed by unpredictable ocean breezes. After a stroll across an expansive, well-manicured lawn, and then down a wood-chipped pathway, she found herself on the sandy coves where the Kennedys went to seek rare moments of privacy and reflection. Joan walked along the shore of wild dune grass and sand, and slowly headed for the breakwater.

It was November 9, 1960. In what would turn out to be the closest election race in American history once all the votes were tabulated, Joan's brother-in-law John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been elected thirty-fifth President of the United States. In fact, he had received only about 100,000 more popular votes than Richard M. Nixon, out of some 103 million cast, the equivalent of about one vote per precinct. This close call would find Jack ensconced in the most powerful office in the world—a lot to take in for any member of Kennedy's close-knit family but especially for Joan, the least politically inclined of them all.

As Joan walked along the beach, other family members celebrated Jack's victory in a fashion so typical of the Kennedys: by playing a raucous game of touch football in Rose and Joseph's sprawling, beachfront yard. William Walton, an old friend of the family who had assisted Jack in the campaign and who was now his and Jackie's house guest, was on one of the teams. He recalled, "That family had the meanest football players ever put together. The girls were worse than the men; they'd claw, scratch, and bite when they played touch football. Playing to win was a family characteristic. Jack, Bobby, Teddy, Peter Lawford, Eunice and Ethel… tough players, all."

"That's my brother Jack," Bobby said with a laugh as the new President fumbled the ball. "All guts, no brains," The President-elect, dressed in a heavy sweater over a sport shirt, tan slacks, and loafers, took a tumble. As he raised himself from the soft ground, his shock of auburn hair mussed and his blue eyes twinkling, he looked more like a high school student than the next leader of the Free World. The only reminder of his age—forty-three—and his aching back was the groan he let out as he got to his feet.

Joan, the youngest Kennedy wife at twenty-four, had arrived the night before from her home in Boston, without her boyishly handsome husband, Ted. He showed up in the morning by plane from the West Coast where, as the campaign's Rocky Mountain coordinator, he had been given charge of thirteen states—ten of which had been lost, including the most important, California, Joan had been up late. At midnight, she was still at Ethel and Bobby's with the rest of the family, monitoring election results. Exhausted, Jackie and Jack had already retired to their own home, though Jack kept popping over to his brother's throughout the early morning hours to get updates. When it looked as though a win was probable for her brother-in-law, Joan became caught up in the excitement and started calling Republican friends on the telephone to collect election bets. "Pay up," she told one chum in Boston. "I told you he'd win." (Later that morning it wouldn't look quite as promising for the Kennedys when Jack's lead began to dwindle, but eventually the slim margin would be decided in his favor.)

Joan and Ted were parents of a baby daughter, Kara, born in February of that year. They had been married for a little over two years and were about to move from their first home—a modest town house in Louisburg Square, the most exclusive part of Beacon Hill—into a three-story, ivy-covered, redbrick house, one of fifteen others in a horseshoe-shaped enclave in nearby Charles River Square. Ted had actually wanted to move to California to get out of his brothers' shadow and away from the overwhelming Kennedy family influence. In fact, when he and Joan went there to look for a home, Joan enjoyed the West Coast so much she began to anticipate a contented life there, with the large family she hoped to one day raise in year-round California sunshine. However, much to her dismay, the Kennedy patriarch, Joseph, wouldn't hear of such a move. He suggested—insisted, actually—that the newlyweds return to the Washington area. As Joan would tell it, "And that was the end of that." She expressed amazement at Ted's compliance and the way he changed their plans without another word being spoken about it, even to his own wife.

A year and a half earlier, the family and its advisers sat down at Joseph Kennedy's dining-room table in his Palm Beach estate and, over a lunch of roast turkey and stuffing, decided that Jack would run for highest office. (Joan, who had just one sibling, once wondered aloud, "Why is it that large families always make big decisions while eating lots of food?") It was then that Ted abandoned any long-range goals for himself, at least for the foreseeable future. Though he had graduated from Harvard, had received his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School, and had been admitted to the Massachusetts bar, he and his father decided that he would not practice law. Rather, he would devote himself to active political work on behalf of his brother's presidential campaign. A month after their daughter Kara was born, a still-weak Joan joined Ted on the campaign trail, probably not because she wanted to but because she had no choice. Still recovering from a difficult pregnancy, she couldn't possibly have found the idea of dragging herself and her infant from one state to the next the least bit appealing. In fact, she would confide to certain friends of hers that she thought it was "unfair of the family to expect me to go." Joan didn't last very long on the campaign trail with Ted—and then, later, with Ethel—but certainly not for lack of trying.

The election of John Kennedy was an exciting milestone for the family, and of course, Joan joined in their enthusiasm. However, she must have had certain reservations. From the day she became engaged to Ted, her life was not her own. He and his family had overpowered her, from dictating the kind of wedding she would have to deciding where she would live—and that was before Jack had become President. Now that he had won the election and the family was even more influential, the Kennedys had more ambitious plans for Ted. So what would the future hold for her and her family? As she later put it, "I wondered if I would ever be who I really wanted to be, who I was inside, or would I have to conform in some unnatural way. With that family, I found out fast that if you didn't join in… you were just left out."


Out in the distant vista of space and sea, Joan saw a slender female figure standing on the beach, facing the rolling ocean. Long arms wrapped around herself and slim shoulders hunched forward, she appeared to be trying to keep the Nantucket Sound chill at bay. It was Joan's thirty-one-year-old sister-in-law, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

Wearing a beige raincoat, flat-heeled walking shoes, and a scarf around her hair, Jackie, too, had slipped away while the others played touch football. She rarely, if ever, participated in such family rough-housing. Luckily for her, she was nearly eight months pregnant and not expected to play sports, even by the always competitive, game-loving Kennedys. "She seemed completely dazed as people kept coming over to her to congratulate her, to talk about what had happened, to just share in the joy of it all," recalls Jacques Lowe, the family's photographer, who documented official as well as candid moments on that day. "It was too much to take. She needed to get away."

Jackie Kennedy was the kind of woman who lived her life fully, getting as much from each day's experiences as possible and savoring every moment along the way. While being the wife of a senator had obviously afforded her a certain amount of respect and prestige in which she had delighted, becoming the country's First Lady promised an even headier adventure. However, Jackie was known for her paradoxical personality. As would later become well known, she enjoyed recognition yet abhorred publicity. While she savored her celebrity, she expected her privacy and that of her family to be respected. True, she enjoyed money, power, and status, but she placed equal importance on practical female concerns of the day, such as raising her family and being a good wife.

By this time, November 1960, Jackie had one child, two-year-old Caroline, That morning, she prompted the tot to greet her father at breakfast by saying "Good morning, Mr. President." In seventeen days, Jackie would give premature birth to a boy at Georgetown University Hospital, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr., nicknamed "John-John" by the press. The baby would be so sickly at birth, it would be thought that he wouldn't survive. However, in time, he would grow to be strong and healthy, like most Kennedy stock. Just after his birth, Jackie would move from her home in Georgetown to a new one in Washington, the White House.

Jackie's greatest concern about becoming First Lady had to do with the scrutiny her new position was sure to guarantee her and her family. She had become aware of her duty to be accessible to the press—or at least appear to be that way—early on in her husband's campaign. When she watched Jack's historic debate against his opponent, Richard Nixon, on television in her Hyannis Port living room, she was joined by twenty-five reporters and photographers. They sat with her and took note of her every "oooh" and "aaah," in the hope of divining her opinion of his performance. "It was so dreary," she later recalled, using a favorite phrase.

Meeting with some of the female members of the Washington press corps in her Georgetown home was undoubtedly another memorable event for Jackie. A few had intimated that if she didn't invite them to her home, they might not be kind to Jack in their reporting. Jackie probably knew that once they had a chance to become more familiar with her, they would become allies. However, the prospect of their trooping through her private residence must have been repugnant to her. Like her sister-in-law, Joan, Jackie was obviously not happy doing things she didn't want to do, just to benefit her husband's political future, but for Jack and his family she would often be asked to subordinate her own desires. So Jackie had some of the more important female reporters over for tea and, true to form, proceeded to dazzle each one of them.

The media's euphoria about Jackie would not last long. Soon the press would be criticizing everything she did, from how much money she spent on clothing to how much time she spent away from the White House. Throughout her life she would engage in a love-hate relationship with the press, seemingly reveling in the fact that everywhere she went she was recognized and photographed, yet also acting as if she detested the attention, never revealing more of herself than absolutely necessary. After Jack was elected, Bess Truman said of Jackie, "I think she will be a perfect First Lady. But she drops a curtain in front of you. No one will ever get to know her." When Jackie brought her new German Shepherd puppy, Clipper, on a flight from Hyannis Port to Washington, a journalist sent her a note asking what she intended to feed the dog. She responded with one word: "Reporters."

The salty air and crisp breeze of the southern Cape had always seemed to invigorate Jackie Kennedy on her solitary walks along the beach during times of confusion. It was one of the few things she had in common with the other Kennedys—and one other Kennedy wife. Joan finally caught up with her sister-in-law. Sharing a smile, the two women walked together along the shore.


Bobby Kennedy cocked back his arm and sent a pass sailing off to his athletic wife, Ethel, "I've got it. I've got it," she hollered as she positioned herself right under the dropping football. Ethel's prowess in sports had always been a marvel. After catching the ball gracefully, she let out a loud "Yes sir, kiddo!" and then spiked it to the sand. She began jumping about, arms raised to the sky, hands shaking in the air, in her own victory dance. Certainly few were filled with more joy on this chilly November election day than Ethel Kennedy. If she had a care in the world, it wasn't obvious.

Not really a contemplative woman, Ethel Skakel Kennedy seemed always eager to meet her destiny head-on. She experienced life for all it was worth, much like Jackie. However, whereas Jackie (and, to a certain extent, Joan) needed meditative moments to analyze her problems, sort out inner turmoil, and then determine productive courses of action, Ethel surrendered all responsibility for her life to God. It was easier for her to handle unexpected circumstances that way, she had said, and it worked for her.

Thirty-one-year-old Ethel's brood already numbered seven: Kathleen Hartington, Joseph Patrick, Robert Francis, Jr., David Anthony, Mary Courtney, Michael LeMoyne, and Mary Kerry (two girls named Mary!), all born in the last eight years.

Ethel and Bobby lived in a rambling two-story home in a McLean, Virginia, estate known as Hickory Hill. The white-brick Georgian manor—which was once the Civil War headquarters of Union General George B. McClellan and now included stables, orchards, and a swimming pool—was always filled with children, friends, family, business associates, and anyone else who happened by. Ethel loved to entertain. Jackie and Jack had lived at Hickory Hill first; it was rumored that Joseph had given the six-acre estate to them as a gift, but Jack had actually purchased it himself. Jackie had planned to raise her children there; however, when she had a stillbirth in 1956, she no longer wanted anything to do with Hickory Hill. So after Jack lost a bid for the vice-presidential nomination in 1956, the couple moved back to Georgetown. Meanwhile, Ethel and Bobby bought Hickory Hill.

Ethel was complex. She could be as critical as she could be accepting, as heartless as she could be generous, as wicked as she could be loving. Moreover, even though the Kennedys were known to be competitive (and not only with outsiders but also against each other), her aggressive nature was a source of amazement even to family members. Jackie liked to say, "Ethel loves politics so much, I think she could be the first female president, and then, God help us all."

Whereas Jackie and Joan worried about the encroachment into their personal lives that would result from Jack's election—not only from outsiders, but also from the family itself—Ethel had no such concerns. She actually seemed to enjoy the intrusion. The more chaos in her life, the better; it seemed to make her feel involved, a part of important things. She would do whatever she had to do in the name of "Kennedy" because family loyalty was paramount to her. Hers was no ordinary family, either. The Kennedys held an important station in life, were influential in government, and had, as they say, "friends in high places." She once explained, "Whatever my problems were, they didn't matter. In the bigger picture, we were doing great things for the nation. How dare I complain about a lack of privacy?"

If she had to host reporters for lunch, Ethel would lie awake the night before—not fretting the occasion, as Jackie or Joan would have done, but anticipating every moment, anxious to do her best to represent her husband and his family in the best possible light. She would be sure to know the right meal to serve, the perfect outfit to wear, the appropriate thing to say. In the end, the success of the event would be not only a victory for the family but a personal one as well, giving her a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

In fact, the preceding evening, at just before midnight, Ethel Kennedy was in her bedroom, dressed in brightly patterned wool slacks, holding an impromptu press conference with reporters from Time and Life magazines. The journalists had been staying in Rose and Joseph's servants' quarters for the last couple of nights.

"Are you happy, Ethel?" one writer asked her.

"Oh, I sure am," she answered enthusiastically. "It's terrific. This is the day we've been waiting for, the happiest day of our lives." After a few more questions, Ethel told the press to "go on downstairs and get some food. Go ahead, help yourself." She loved the press, and in return, the reporters loved her.

As far as her father-in-law's dictates were concerned, Ethel would gladly live where he wanted her to live, say what he wanted her to say, and do what he wanted her to do—not grudgingly, but willingly. It all seemed a joy to Ethel. It wasn't that she lacked an identity; she was a Kennedy wife, she was proud of it, and that was her identity. Though she had been up late the night before with the family, that didn't stop her from doing her duty and rising at 6:30 A.M. to fix a breakfast of ham and eggs, rolls, and coffee for the eleven guests staying at her home. "The maids are all out," she explained, as her visitors devoured the meal. "So I did the best I could."

"You know, in November [1962], I think Bobby may run for governor of Massachusetts," Ethel had told Jackie a couple of weeks earlier at a family dinner. "If he does, he's bound to win. Then after that, it'll be one step at a time, until we're in the White House."

"Does Bobby know of these plans?" Jackie asked her sister-in-law. Jackie had been given to understand that he would become Jack's Attorney General. After all, Bobby had devoted the better part of recent years to his brother's campaigns and had been the skilled manager of his presidential run. A tireless worker, he gave uninterrupted eighteen-hour days to Jack's race, so much so that Ethel was concerned he would have a breakdown. Throughout the night before, Bobby sat in front of the television screen, his eyes red-rimmed and hollow, monitoring the returns, while everyone else—even Jack—went to bed.

Ethel answered Jackie's question: "Bobby and I discuss everything," she said. "You see, we happen to be close that way. It's nice, that kind of closeness in a relationship."

Ethel's probable implication was that Jackie had no influence over her husband's plans, whereas Ethel mapped out every one of Bobby's career moves in tandem with him. "Well," Jackie responded, "hopefully you will also discuss any plans with Grandpa [Joseph]. Because, as you and I both know, he's the one who will have his way in the end. Not you. Not Bobby, Grandpa."

… and the Secret Service

Like all of those in the Kennedy family, Jackie, Joan, and even, to a certain extent, Ethel treasured the privacy of their family lives—what little privacy they had while living in the public eye. However, the entire family realized that the spotlight was about to intensify, now that their beloved Jack was the nation's Chief Executive.

Already the family compound of homes was surrounded by not only reporters but also the Secret Service agents responsible for John Kennedy's security and for that of his family. Sixteen of these dark-suited, officious-looking men had arrived at seven that morning with full knowledge of the backgrounds of not only family members but their employees as well. Each agent walked about the compound greeting people as if already having made their acquaintance when actually—at least in most cases—no introductions had been made before this day.

Like all First Ladies, Jackie would be assigned her own Secret Service agent, Clinton (Clint) J. Hill, who would be at her side whenever she ventured forth, whether in this country or abroad. In time, just by virtue of their constant association, "Dazzle" (his Secret Service code name) would come to share a special friendship with "Lace" (Jackie's code name). Still, it was typical of Jackie's sense of formality that she would always refer to him as "Mr. Hill." She also made certain that her children addressed the agents responsible for their well-being in the same fashion.


On Sale
Nov 1, 2005
Hachette Audio

J. Randy Taraborrelli

About the Author

J. Randy Taraborrelli is a respected journalist, a recognizable entertainment personality, and in-demand guest on many television programs including Today, Good Morning America, The Early Show, Entertainment Tonight, and CNN Headline News. He is the bestselling author of thirteen books.

Learn more about this author