When the family of Robert Kennedy in 2009 decided to sell its famed “Hickory Hill” estate in McLean, Va., the late senator’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, told each of her children to pick one item from the property to take with them. Daughter Kerry Kennedy picked a four-foot-high urn planter from the front yard as a family heirloom to be relocated to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass.
When the Kennedys moved out in the spring of 2010, the new owner resisted giving up the urn, Kerry Kennedy said. He suggested that he would be willing to part with it in 10 years and put the agreement in writing and signed it. Kerry Kennedy said she was willing to wait because she was moving to New York City and didn’t have room for it.
Ten years later, Kennedy is living in Hyannis Port and asked Hickory Hill owner Alan Dabbiere for the urn. And though Dabbiere wrote to her in 2010 that in 10 years “you are free to take the urn,” he is now refusing, Kennedy said. So Kennedy sued Dabbiere on Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., for breach of contract.
“It belonged to the people who are so important to me,” Kerry Kennedy said Friday. “I’m going to put it in Hyannis Port, where my children live, my mother lives, all of my family comes every summer, so they can have this connection to our family’s history.”
Dabbiere said he initially agreed to relinquish the urn under the mistaken belief that it had been brought to Hickory Hill by Jackie Kennedy in the 1950s and was part of her family’s history. When he learned that the urn was there long before the Kennedys purchased the property, Dabbiere said, “As a steward of the property’s long and rich history it is my belief the urn should stay with the property.”
Hickory Hill, built on about 5.6 acres in 1870, has nine bedrooms and 11 baths, a tennis court and a pool, and is designated as a National Historic Landmark. It was bought in 1955 by then-Sen. John Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, but in 1957 they swapped homes with Robert and Ethel Kennedy, then building what would become a family with 11 children.
JFK had purchased the home from the estate of recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who also served as a prosecutor during the Nuremberg war-crimes trials and as U.S. attorney general. Jackson also claimed the urn as private property, a letter from 1941 shows. That means it is not a permanent part of Hickory Hill, said Kerry Kennedy, a lawyer and longtime human rights activist who is the head of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization.
Kerry Kennedy, 60, is the seventh of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s children, born in 1959 and raised at Hickory Hill. The home became a renowned gathering spot for politicians, authors and cultural icons, both before and after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968. It also was the place where Kerry Kennedy said she “learned my uncle had been killed,” when she was a 4-year-old, and “cried in when my father was killed.” She said it was “where I learned to play football, the kitchen I learned to bake in . . . the tree I planted when I started my first day of work on human rights.”
Dabbiere, 58, is the chairman of OneTrust and formerly led AirWatch, both companies that manage privacy and security for the computers and mobile devices of both government agencies and private organizations. He launched massive renovations on Hickory Hill soon after he took possession in 2010 and tried to shield his identity as the owner of the property, placing it in the name of AirWatch’s CEO and telling Patch.com reporter Bobbi Bowman in 2011, “I have gone to great lengths not to have my name associated” with Hickory Hill.
Dabbiere entered into a contract with Ethel Kennedy to buy the home in December 2009 for $8.25 million, according to Fairfax real estate records. Before the sale, according to the lawsuit, “Ethel Kennedy gave all ownership rights and title to the urn that was located at Hickory Hill to her daughter, plaintiff Kerry Kennedy.”
Dabbiere agreed to lease the home back to Ethel Kennedy until May 2010, when she moved out. Kerry Kennedy said that when she went to Hickory Hill to get the urn, Dabbiere “refused to allow me access. He falsely claimed it was his property.”
Kerry Kennedy said in an interview that she had “an exhausting and expensive series of negotiations involving lawyers” with Dabbiere and that he agreed to turn it over “in exchange for being able to showcase it on his yard for 10 years.” She said she was moving to New York City at the time and would have had to put it in storage, so she agreed to the delay.
“Kerry,” Dabbiere wrote in an email dated June 16, 2010, “the purpose of this email is to memorize (sic) our conversation that the Urn in the front of Hickory Hill will remain as your property and we give up any rights to it conveying with the property and in exchange you agree that the Urn will stay in its current place for 10 years from today’s date – June 16th, 2010. At that time, you are free to take the urn.”
Kennedy said she began reaching out to Dabbiere in May of this year and told him, “Please, don’t go back on your word. Return my urn. He told me to hire a lawyer.”
The suit filed Friday includes a 1964 photo of the Kennedy family, then with eight children, with the urn in the background. The suit estimates that the urn is worth more than $75,000, the minimum needed to file a federal claim.
The urn “is the symbolic representation of her family’s lives at Hickory Hill,” the suit states. “It was something her parents treasured because it was one of the few things they had that had also belonged to President Kennedy, and Ms. Kennedy has treasured the Urn as a special and symbolic artifact of her family’s life and unique history.”
The suit maintains that the email sent by Dabbiere to Kerry Kennedy has the effect of a binding contract. “The contract is reasonable,” attorney Donald B. Mitchell Jr. wrote, “certain, legal, mutual, and supported by valuable consideration.”
“I believe this is a personal matter between me and Kerry,” Dabbiere said in an email Saturday. He said that when he sent the email to Kennedy in 2010, “I was told by Kerry that the urn had been in the family of her ‘Aunt Jackie’ (Jackie Bouvier Kennedy) when she grew up and was from Jackie’s childhood home. This history was the key reason I agreed to convey the urn back to her after I believed it had conveyed to me with the property.”
Dabbiere added, “I recently confirmed that the urn had been on the property long before the Kennedy family purchased the home through a photo from the (Justice Robert) Jackson Library. When I discovered this I contacted Kerry with these facts.” He said the urn should stay at Hickory Hill. “I believe this is a mutual mistake of fact and consequently the email agreement to convey the urn back to Kerry is in question. I believe this is a situation where the courts can and will decide fairly based on the facts,” he said.
“Mr. Dabbiere is wrong,” Kennedy responded. “When the urn arrived at Hickory Hill is irrelevant; there is no mutual mistake of fact that would void our contract.” She said the letter from Jackson “confirms that the urn was always personal property and did not convey when he purchased Hickory Hill. Given Mr. Dabbiere’s extensive changes to the exterior of Hickory Hill, including removing dozens of old trees and adding an entire new wing to the home, his claim that retaining the urn is consistent with stewardship of Hickory Hill’s history is unconvincing.”