WASHINGTON -- Hickory Hill, the sprawling white Georgian mansion in McLean, Va., that was the epicenter of Kennedy politics, dazzling parties, and raucous play in the Camelot years, was a fabled family retreat.
Friends, associates, and neighbors of Ethel Kennedy, the 75-year-old widow of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, yesterday mourned the news that she was selling the 13-bedroom, 13-bath house home on almost 6 rolling acres of prime suburban Washington real estate and moving to her home in Hyannisport.
"It's the classic empty nest, and Ethel must be kind of lonely," said Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy's former press secretary and longtime friend. "But it's still a shock; putting Hickory Hill on the market is like selling Mount Vernon."
Roger Mudd, a television journalist and frequent guest there, said the Kennedys' Hickory Hill made McLean a household word, although it is now also the home of Republican heavyweights Colin L. Powell, Patrick Buchanan, and William Kristol. "I don't think it will be possible to disassociate the Kennedy name from Hickory Hill. They are so inextricably linked," said Mudd, who remembers being seated next to Beatle John Lennon at one of Ethel Kennedy's parties.
The asking price on the house is $25 million, nifty appreciation on the property that Senator John F. Kennedy sold his brother in 1957 for $125,000. But to real estate agents in McLean, where million-dollar properties abound, this listing is priceless.
"It's a fabulous property and a little piece of history. I don't know what kind of price you can put on that," said Sue Huckaby of Weichert Realtors in McLean and one of the Washington, D.C., area's top real estate agents. "I'll bet there will be lots of interest in Hickory Hill."
There has always been a lot of everything at Hickory Hill: lots of children (Ethel and Robert Kennedy had 11); many pets, including exotic reptiles that lived in the basement and a miniature horse that showed up one Christmas morning in a baby's playpen; countless intellectuals and political strategists devoted to Bobby Kennedy; and a constant parade of athletes and celebrities who helped Ethel Kennedy raise money for her numerous charities and amuse her exuberant youngsters.
"This house is hellzapopping," Andre Malraux, the late French novelist and political activist, once said of Hickory Hill.
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his 1978 book, "Robert Kennedy and His Times," called the Kennedy mansion "the most spirited social center in Washington" in the 1960s. "It was hard to resist the raffish, unpredictable, sometimes uncontrollable Kennedy parties," Schlesinger wrote.
Indeed, Schlesinger, the slight, bespectacled Harvard professor knew firsthand. He got pushed into Hickory Hill's swimming pool, fully clothed, by Irma Lee Udall, wife of former US secretary of the interior Stewart Lee Udall. Ethel Kennedy was already in the pool, having dropped in fully clothed.
Kay Evans, a friend of Ethel Kennedy's for 40 years, said there were many memorable moments at Hickory Hill. She recalled the time ballet great Rudolf Nureyev showed up at the annual Hickory Hill pet show and took a ringside seat next to some players from the Washington Redskins football team. She remembered a Hickory Hill party attended by Judy Garland, who refused to sing until Robert Kennedy -- who could not carry a tune -- coaxed her into a duet of her famous "Trolley Song."
Hickory Hill was a magnet for powerful, important people, sometimes at their own risk. Kay Evans, widow of syndicated columnist Rowland Evans, said Amy Carter, President Carter's daughter, was nearly trampled by an elephant at one of the pet shows. Another time, the Kennedy children rigged up a zip wire from the top of Hickory Hill to the swimming pool and charged guests 25 cents to take the daring ride. One taker, Kay Evans recalled, was Vice President George H. W. Bush.
"I was always the worry wart," she said. "I didn't think it would be such a good thing to maim the vice president at Hickory Hill."
Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy lived at Hickory Hill in the year after their marriage in 1955.
But after the stillbirth of her first child, Jacqueline Kennedy found Hickory Hill too sad a place to stay. Years later, it was reported that she refused to allow her children Caroline and John to visit there because their cousins were too wild.