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, meaning the property cannot be subdivided. It was bought in 1955 by then-senator John Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, but in 1957 they swapped homes with Robert and Ethel Kennedy.
John Kennedy 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 US 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.
Dabbiere, 58, is the chairman of OneWatch 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 a reporter 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 e-mail dated June 16, 2010, ‘‘the purpose of this e-mail 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.’’