The death of Bobby Kennedy

The death of Bobby Kennedy

The truth and the Hollywood fiction

By Ivor Davis 12/07/2006

I was reluctant to see Emilio Estevez’s new movie, Bobby, about the night Senator Robert Kennedy was murdered in the Ambassador Hotel, for a couple of reasons.

The first was that the director seems to have rounded up a veritable “who’s who” of show business to play 22 different fictional characters who, for an assortment of reasons, happen to be at the Ambassador Hotel that summer’s night in June l968 as Kennedy is there awaiting the result of the California Presidential primary.

Estevez’s cast is an old pals’ lineup that includes Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, her husband, Ashton Kutcher, Christian Slater, Elijah Wood, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy and Lindsay Lohan — of all people.

Oh, sure, there are heavyweights like Emilio’s father Martin Sheen, Anthony Hopkins (one of the movie’s producers) and Harry Belafonte. But, frankly, the whole exercise reeks of one of those “Look who I got to appear in my movie” vanity productions. The second reason I hesitated to see the film was the fact that shortly after midnight on June 5, l968, when Sirhan Sirhan unloaded his gun at Kennedy, I was there, standing at the entrance to the hotel kitchen.

It was nearly 40 years ago, but the new film has forced me to revisit that awful night. At the time, I was the West Coast correspondent of The London Daily Express and I and my fellow members of the Express team were covering the Presidential campaign, gathering material for a book we were writing about the election. (It was eventually published in l969 under the title Divided They Stand.)

I had been following the New York Senator on the campaign trail, traveling with him on a whistle stop train from L.A. through California’s vast agricultural hinterland to San Francisco, and now we were back in Southern California for the climax of the primary election.

Shortly before midnight, we gathered in the hotel’s Embassy Ballroom as Bobby, looking tired but happy, prepared to make his acceptance speech.

Just before he stepped in front of the microphone, I exchanged a few pleasantries with Alistair Cooke, the respected BBC radio correspondent, and author/ producer of the popular program in England Letter from America. He later became well-known in the U.S. when he hosted PBS’ Masterpiece Theater. He was covering the campaign for the BBC.

The balloon-filled ballroom was packed as Kennedy, flanked by his wife Ethel, delivered a brief victory speech to the cheering supporters. He knew that having California in his pocket as a Kennedy state would be a powerful tool as he continued on to seek the Democratic nomination on the path to beating Richard Nixon. “Now on to Chicago — and let’s win there,” he said as he turned to leave the podium.

Then, surrounded by a large entourage, he left the stage. Ethel, pregnant with their 11th child, was close behind (the Kennedys had been staying at their friend director John Frankenheimer’s home in Malibu), followed by assorted handlers: Bobby’s late brother Jack’s press secretary Pierre Salinger, his own press secretary Frank Mankiewicz and prominent politicos, like California powerhouse Jess “Big Daddy” Unruh. The group also included the ex-football players Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, then a Kennedy bodyguard, and Kennedy pal, decathlon champion Rafer Johnson. They, along with television and print media, left the stage and headed laboriously back into the kitchen on the way out of the hotel. It had been a long exhausting day and the Kennedys were anxious to get some rest.

It was just past midnight as I slowly moved toward the kitchen about 20 paces behind the pack.

Suddenly I heard balloons bursting — six or so short pops. Milli-seconds later, I heard a woman scream — then more panicked shouts and screams. I instinctively pushed forward to get a better look.

Through the half-open kitchen door, I saw sheer bedlam in the crowded room, although I still didn’t understand what exactly was going on.

I saw Harry Benson, the Daily Express photographer who was covering the story with me, and he was about 15 paces ahead. He was furiously taking pictures. There was a great mass of moving bodies, some standing, some lying on the floor. Through the wall of people, I saw the back of a woman kneeling on the floor. It was Mrs. Kennedy.

Still not knowing what had happened, I tried to step through the half-open kitchen door to ask our photographer Benson what was going on.

As I pushed through, a handsome man in a crumpled business suit and tie suddenly barred my way.

“Don’t move,” he shouted.

I tried to ignore him. All I knew was that if something important was happening, I was obligated to follow through. That’s what I was there for.

“I’m coming through,” I said pushing forward in an effort to see what was happening. The man in the suit wouldn’t budge. He grabbed me by my shirt collar.

“Stop,” he screamed. I tried to push past him but he kept a vice-like grip on my shirt. I kept going and he kept holding and my shirt ended up ripped from collar to sleeve. (The man was Stephen Smith — Kennedy’s brother in law and one of his top political aides.)

As we struggled, I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Kennedy who was crying hysterically. There were several bodies prone on the floor.

“He’s been shot” someone yelled.

It was only at that moment that I realized those popping balloons were gunshots. The rest of that night was a nightmare full of questions: Who was dead? Who was alive? Who had the gun? Nobody knew. It was impossible to comprehend.

“What’s happening to this country?” an American colleague wailed, his hands cradling his head in despair. The Kennedy curse continued.

We rushed some 20 blocks to Central Receiving Emergency Room and then, an hour later, to Good Samaritan Hospital where the wounded Kennedy, who we learned had been shot in the head and neck, could be treated by a neurosurgeon.

The shocked press corps struggled to piece together the meager facts. Kennedy was alive, but in surgery.

Who had seen what? How many guns? How many bodies? It was panic and confusion about what had happened.

There were reports that said others had been rushed to the ER, but in those early morning hours there were only rumors. A suspect had been apprehended on the spot. The wire service had photos of him being led away.

As we watched the dawn break from our hospital vigil, we were told that Kennedy was in critical condition.

A few miles away from the Ambassador, Sally, my wife of seven months, was frantic. She had been watching the election returns at the home of a friend in Beverly Hills. A staunch supporter and volunteer for Eugene McCarthy, who had won a vital primary race against Kennedy in Oregon, she had been glued to the TV as the bulletins came nonstop.

In those early hours, the reports were sketchy: A writer covering the campaign had been killed or wounded. No names. Nothing was clear.

The plan had been for me to pick her up after the victory speech and we would then return home to our house in Los Angeles.

But for hours she had had no word from me. This was long before the era of cell phones.

While I should have found a coin phone, I was caught up in the story. London was eight hours ahead — and I was already filing my eyewitness story for the front page — and didn’t think to reassure her of my safety.

It was around 6 a.m. by the time I finally called her. She had spent the night on our friend’s couch and, once I told her that I was fine, she informed me that the Ambassador Hotel was well provided with public telephones and next time I should learn how to use them. Meanwhile, I stayed at the hospital. The news was grim: It felt like a death watch.

It was.

Some 24 hours later — at 2 a.m. on June 6, Frank Mankiewicz walked into the hospital’s gymnasium, which had been turned into a makeshift press room. Robert Francis Kennedy who many thought was going to be the next President of the United States — at 42 — was gone forever.

And, oh yes, what about Bobby that all-star movie?

While the assassination is the inevitable climax of the movie, writer/director and star Estevez has remarkably recreated what I remember of the Ambassador Hotel’s ambience and atmosphere in the late-night hours of that fateful night. Still, audiences might be confused by the fact that, according to the film version, some of those 22 interlocking fictional characters who surround the main action are wounded by the gunfire. A pure invention.

Estevez has deliberately merged trite fiction with the awful fact.

While the movie’s concept is an entertaining one that holds one’s interest, and Estevez has cleverly merged grainy archival footage of the actual night of the shooting with his own film, when all is said and done, I kept wondering whether such an earth-shattering real story deserved to be enmeshed in a soap opera.

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