A Birthday Present for RFK

October 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

With the release of the new HBO documentary “Ethel,” there has been much in the press lately about Gene being a birthday present for Ethel Kennedy.

Lou Lumenick reported the episode in a January 19, 2012 article for the NY Post, titled “Ethel Kennedy’s starry birthday surprise from RFK,” and quoted son Joseph Kennedy from the film: “At one point, Daddy and Uncle Steve [Smith] went outside to a car, and they pulled out a guy who was wearing a tuxedo and wrapped up all in ribbons with a big pink bow. They laid the guy down at Mom’s feet.’’ According to Kennedy and Lumenick, when Ethel Kennedy unwrapped him, it was legendary dancer Gene Kelly. “He grabbed Mommy and danced her around the floor,’’ Joseph Kennedy continued. “It was a birthday present she would never forget.’’

According to Gene, he was a present for Robert Kennedy not for Ethel. As Gene told me in an interview I recorded back in 1988, “It was Robert Kennedy’s birthday and Ethel, his wife, knew that he and I had become fast friends. He didn’t know I was in the east—in New York City, to be exact. She called me there and asked if I would come down to his birthday party. She said, “What kind of gag can we do?” because it would be a big surprise for him. We figured out together—I don’t know whose idea it was—that I would come as his ‘present.’ We bought a huge amount of cellophane and a lot of red ribbon and she sent the car up with their big, black chauffeur, who’d been with the group for years and was strong. He was like a football tackle or guard. He could lift a car if he needed to. And just as we got about fifty feet away from the turn-off into the house at the end of the gates, he came back and we wrapped that whole cellophane around me and he tied me up like a bundle and drove up to the front door. And then he picked me up in his arms and walked me in. There were all these people: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and David Brinkley. He brought me into the center and he said, “Happy Birthday to you,” and he set me down on Bobby Kennedy’s lap. Of course Bobby was not only breaking up with laughter, but he ripped off the cellophane to be sure I didn’t smother. I stood up then and I did a little quick dance and hugged him and that was his birthday present. We just did silly things like that.”

The date was November 20, 1963. Gene spent the night at “Hickory Hill,” the Kennedy’s residence at 4700 Chain Bridge Road in McLean, Virginia. He and the Attorney General stayed up late, talking into the early hours of the morning. Gene returned to New York on November 21. The next day, he was rehearsing a number he was to perform at a surprise party for Jackie Gleason that night when he learned the news that his friend President John F. Kennedy had been shot. He caught a flight home to California hours later. As he said to the author Sam Summerlin, “All we did was watch television and mourn.”

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