George Sr. started work as an $8 a week railroad clerk. He, along with some coworkers built a small coal and coke business into a diversified privately owned enterprise, the "Great Lakes Coal & Coke, Co." which eventually became "Great Lakes Carbon Corporation" involved with oil and heating fuel. After a few years, the Skakels became extremely wealthy, and possibilly as wealthy as the Kennedys.
Growing up, their house was always filled with priests and nuns, or with clients and partners of her fathers business interests. Ethel was the sixth of seven children. Her siblings are; Rushton, George, Jr., James, Georgeann, Patricia, and Ann.
In 1934, when Ethel was 5 years old, the family moved east. They stayed in rented mansions in Monmouth Beach, New Jersey, and Larchmont and Rye, New York. They finally settled in Greenwich, CT. in 1936 where her father purchased a three-story, thirty one room English country manor house on Lake Avenue.
Ethel was educated at Greenwich Academy, and Convent of the Sacred Heart in the Bronx. Ethel graduated from this school in 1945. In September 1945, Ethel began her education at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart located in Harlem. It was here where she was introduced to Jean Kennedy where they became fast friends and eventually, roommates.
Through Jean she met Bobby during a skiing trip to Mont Tremblat, Quebec, Canada during the winter of 1945. Bobby was dating Ethel's sister, Patricia Skakel. That ended and he and Ethel got together. Ethel campaigned for JFK in 1946, and wrote her college thesis on his book "WHY ENGLAND SLEPT" (she got an "A"). Bobby and Ethel became engaged in February 1950 and married on June 17, 1950. Ethel and Bobby moved to Charlottesville where they could live while Bobby wound up his last year of law school at UVA Law School. Their first child arrived shortly there after.
On October 4, 1955, Ethel's parents died when their old corvair plane when it supposedly ran out of fuel. Her brother George also died in a plane crash in 1966, his widow Pat died shortly there after, leaving several children.
Ethel was devasted after Bobby died in 1968, and was expecting her 11th and final child when he was killed.
Ethel is the founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center which attempts to continue the works of Robert F. Kennedy through Human Rights Awards and Journalism Awards. Ethel co-chairs the Coalition of Gun Control with Coretta Scott King. Ethel has also helped Pat Lawford with Very Special Arts charity, Eunice's Special Olympics, ran the RFK Tournament, been involved with the RFK Human Rights Center, attended the JFK Library benefits among other annual events. Lately she has been raising money for the Earth Conservation Corps. In 1992 she traveled with Michael and Courtney to Eastern Europe, where they donated medical equipment. In 1997 she went to Kenya to promote democratic reforms.
Ethel is a very devout Roman Catholic amd attends church on a daily basis. She continues these works by inviting orphaned children to her home, and holding luncheons for Women Shelter victims.