Hickory Hill and the Kennedy Mystique

The McLean Mansion's most famous resident, RFK, was assassinated 50 years ago this month.

JFK on the lawn with a young Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in 1957. Photo by Douglas Jones/Look Photograph Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

John and Jackie Kennedy moved in on Oct. 15, 1955, happy that the house was conveniently located a mere mile from Jackie’s childhood home at Merrywood. Though the power couple’s tenure in McLean was brief, their year in residence coincided with some pivotal events. It was here that JFK penned Profiles in Courage (while bedridden after a debilitating back surgery), Jackie gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Arabella, and the young senator was nearly selected to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate—a moment that would ultimately sow his path to the Oval Office. Their presence also had a lasting impact on McLean’s physical landscape. When the federal government announced its intention to relocate the CIA’s headquarters to nearby Langley, the plan was to expand Chain Bridge Road into a four-lane highway to accommodate the influx of commuter traffic. This didn’t sit well with property owners who feared the construction would impinge on their meandering estates. JFK would later join other prominent citizens in a campaign to convince the state to build a whole new highway to divert commuters across what were then largely open fields. We can thank him for Dolley Madison Boulevard.

When John and Jackie moved to Georgetown in 1956, they sold the house to John’s parents—who, in turn, rented it to his younger brother Robert and Robert’s wife, Ethel.

At this point Hickory Hill, more than any other residence outside of Hyannis Port, came to represent the Kennedy mystique. Snapshots of Bobby, Ethel and their kids playing football in the yard, riding horses, chasing dogs and swimming brought life to sleepy McLean. Images of the happy family dominated national media coverage. Parties became the norm, including an annual spring children’s pet show that brought bears, elephants and even a few “pet rocks” to the property.

Bobby and Ethel Kennedy at home with their growing family in 1961. Photo by AP Images/Henry Griffin.

The house also became the site of the “Hickory Hill seminars,” where intellectuals such as Rachel Carson, John Glenn and, on the rare occasion, JFK himself (who by then was living in the White House) gathered to talk about education policy, the existence of God and psychology.

Bobby and Ethel, it seemed, were constantly adding onto their abode to make room for social obligations and their rapidly expanding brood, which eventually numbered 11 kids and several dogs, including Bobby’s favorite pet, a Newfoundland named Brumus.

The family’s high-profile presence also had its downsides. As U.S. attorney general, Bobby’s repeated efforts to pursue legal action against infamous Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa resulted in threats to the politician and his family.

“RFK had a convertible and he would ride around [McLean] with Brumus,” says historian Herrick. “[The Teamsters] were thinking about shooting him and they thought it would have been easy [to spot him] because he’s the guy in the car with a dog.”

On Nov. 22, 1963, Bobby was having lunch poolside when he received the call that his brother John had been shot in Dallas. Police and Secret Service agents immediately swarmed the property, fearful the violence might be part of a larger conspiracy, while Bobby, still in shock, reportedly paced the grounds with Brumus at his heels.

Four years later, Bobby would announce his own candidacy for president. By then, he and Ethel had bought the house from the elder Kennedys. Days turned into nights at Hickory Hill as he and his advisers crafted speeches and policy, only occasionally interrupted by a gaggle of kids coming to say good night to their father. One friend described the bedtime intrusions as “wall-to-wall pajamas.”

Only three months into his candidacy, with Ethel by his side, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Categories: Local History
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