14 Surprising Facts About Robert F. Kennedy

George Freston/Getty Images
George Freston/Getty Images

Most Americans will know Robert F. Kennedy as the younger brother of our 35th president, a U.S. attorney general on the vanguard of civil rights, the junior Senator from New York who fought against poverty, and a Democratic candidate for president in 1968. Sadly, his life was cut short by an assassin 50 years ago today, on June 5, 1968, after celebrating his California primary victory at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Here are 14 little-known facts worth remembering about RFK.

1. HE WORKED FOR SENATOR JOE McCARTHY, AND ALMOST HAD ROY COHN'S JOB.

RFK's father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the former U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, had asked Senator McCarthy to appoint his son as chief counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy opted instead for Roy Cohn, who had helped convict atomic bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951. RFK was named assistant counsel in December of 1952, but resigned the following summer. In early 1954, he rejoined the committee when the Democrats appointed him minority counsel.

2. HE MAY HAVE PREVENTED A RIOT AFTER MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. WAS KILLED.

On April 4, 1968, RFK was campaigning in Indianapolis, Indiana when he heard that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. He told a largely African-American crowd at his campaign stop the news, and in a personal, improvised speech [PDF], defused some of the tension that in other cities led to violent riots. "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

3. HE WASN'T ABOVE A BAR FIGHT.

RFK was known to have a hot temper. "Shortly after his 21st birthday, Kennedy celebrated by buying his first beer. Soon he was buying rounds for everyone in the bar," Evan Thomas writes in Robert Kennedy: His Life. "Some of the patrons began singing 'Happy Birthday' to someone else, and Kennedy, inebriated for the first time in his life, became enraged at their ingratitude. He smashed a beer bottle over one man's head and refused entreaties by [Kenneth] O'Donnell to apologize."

4. HE INSPIRED JERRY SPRINGER (THE MAN, NOT THE SHOW).

Before Jerry Springer became the host of his eponymous show, he served as the mayor of Cleveland and unsuccessfully ran for Congress—events that might not have happened if it weren't for RFK, then the Senator from New York. In 1968, during RFK's campaign for president, Springer met the candidate at a dinner meeting and was impressed by his desire for social change. Springer signed up for the campaign, and after Kennedy's assassination, kept the slain candidate's mission alive in his career in public service.

5. HE DEBATED RONALD REAGAN IN 1967.

On May 15, 1967, the giants of the left and right met on CBS News. The topic: "The Image of America and the Youth of the World." Students from around the world who were studying at British universities submitted the questions from London.

"To those unfamiliar with Reagan's big-league savvy, the ease with which he fielded questions about Vietnam may have come as a revelation," Newsweek gushed. "Political rookie Reagan ... left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended." A 2007 article in the conservative-leaning magazine National Review commented that "Kennedy himself conceded defeat to Reagan, telling his aides after the debate to never again put him on the same stage with 'that son-of-a-bitch.' Kennedy was heard to ask immediately after the debate, 'Who the f—- got me into this?' Frank Mankiewicz was that aide." Later, Mankiewicz would announce Kennedy's death in the early hours of June 6, 1968.

6. HE WAS THE FIRST TO CLIMB MOUNT KENNEDY.

In 1965, on an excursion sponsored by the National Geographic Society, RFK and a team of climbers reached the summit of the 14,000-foot Canadian mountain. He had no previous climbing experience. Up to that point, Mount Kennedy was the highest unclimbed peak in North America. It had been named after President John F. Kennedy months earlier.

Later, RFK was zinged by his brother Ted in a quote given to UPI: "I wish to point out for the record he is not the first Kennedy to climb a mountain. I climbed the Matterhorn in 1957, which is higher, and I didn't need the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

7. HE TRIED TO TALK LBJ OUT OF THE VP JOB HE'D ALREADY ACCEPTED.

With RFK as his campaign manager, John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination for president in 1960 with just enough votes, despite a last-ditch effort by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson and his supporters to stop him. To smooth relations in the party, JFK asked Johnson to be his vice president—and, according to RFK, Johnson shocked the Kennedy campaign by accepting. "Now what do we do?' JFK supposedly asked his brother. Although historians differ as to his motivation, RFK went to Johnson's hotel room to talk him out of it, but that awkward move only intensified the animosity. Finally, JFK called Johnson to say he really did want him on the ticket, and that Bobby didn't know what he was talking about.

8. HIS HOUSE WAS A ZOO.

In August of 1962, The New York Times wrote about Attorney General Kennedy's dog Brumus, who was a regular visitor to the Justice Department. (The article states he is "a Labrador dog," but other sources claim he was a Newfoundland.) "He usually stays at home with the children," Kennedy told the paper. "But the children are away on vacation and he gets very lonely. So I bring him down here and get pretty girls to take him for walks." In addition to Brumus (spelled Brumis in some accounts), The Times mentions the rest of the Kennedy family pets: "two other dogs, ponies, horses, geese, a burro, a sea lion, Hungarian pigeons, 20 goldfish, rabbits, turtles and a salamander."

9. HE REPEATED THE THIRD GRADE.

An unauthorized biography of Ethel Kennedy, RFK's wife, relates an event at which she revealed her husband's elementary school shortcomings. "In Berlin, at the German-American community school, Ethel urged a group of third-graders not to be discouraged if they did not always do well at their lessons. 'After all, Bobby had to repeat third grade,' she said brightly," author Jerry Oppenheimer wrote.

10. HE WAS ONE OF AMERICA'S 10 OUTSTANDING YOUNG MEN OF 1954.

Time listed the honorees named by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, which started off with 29-year-old RFK. The chamber praised his work as the minority counsel of Joe McCarthy's Senate Subcommittee on Investigations (see #1), and specifically for "assembling the facts which persuaded owners of 242 vessels not to trade with Iron Curtain countries."

11. HE AND TED EMBARRASSED THE FAMILY AT JFK'S WEDDING.

"At his brother Jack's wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier in September 1953, Bobby had behaved like a naughty teenager, stealing a policeman's hat," Thomas writes in Robert Kennedy: His Life. "Joe Kennedy was furious. He summoned Bobby and his co-conspirators, his brother Teddy and some younger cousins, and gave them a lecture about disgracing the family name."

12. HE'S BEEN PORTRAYED BY EVERYONE FROM MARTIN SHEEN TO ANDREW McCARTHY.

Martin Sheen, in The Missiles of October, and Andrew McCarthy, in the TV movie Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, are just two of the many actors to play RFK. Lesser-known stars include Stephen Culp (Thirteen Days and Norma Jean & Marilyn), Zeljko Ivanek (TV movie The Rat Pack), John Shea (1983 miniseries Kennedy; Martin Sheen played JFK in this one), and Robert Knepper (The Women of Camelot).

13. HE SHARED AN INTEREST IN STAMP COLLECTING WITH FDR.

Eleven-year-old RFK was a budding philatelist, a hobby he shared with then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Your dad has told me that you are a stamp collector and I thought you might like to have these stamps to add to your collection. I am enclosing a little album which you may find useful," Roosevelt wrote to Bobby on July 12, 1935. "Perhaps sometime when you are in Washington you will come in and let me show you my collection."

Bobby replied, "I liked the stamps you sent me very much and the little book is very useful. I am just starting my collection and it would be great fun to see yours which mother says you have had for a long time. I am going to frame your letter and I am going to keep it always in my room." The letters are now in the National Archives.

14. SOME SAY HE GOT AROUND.

Like with his brother, the trashier histories of RFK link him romantically to several prominent figures, such as Marilyn Monroe, Candice Bergen, sister-in-law Jackie, and even ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. But these stories are debated, because many of the so-called witnesses were either second-hand storytellers or had a beef with the Kennedys.

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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