FBI agent who became bodyguard to Robert Kennedy and loved a late-night Dublin drink, writes Liam Collins
BILL Barry was Robert Kennedy’s unarmed bodyguard the night he was assassinated in the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, shortly after winning the Democratic Party primary in California, during the early stages of the 1968 presidential campaign.
Seconds after the shooting, on June 5, Barry leapt on the killer Sirhan Sirhan punching him twice in the face as footballer Rosey Grier, decathlon champion Rafer Johnson and journalist George Plimpton wrestled him to the ground.
Despite the event which ended the dream of another Kennedy in the White House, Barry remained part of the Kennedy family inner circle and was particularly close to Robert’s widow Ethel and his sister Jean Kennedy Smith.
He was a frequent visitor to Ireland, particularly during Kennedy Smith’s tenure as US ambassador, usually in the company of Bill Flynn, the wealthy Irish-American head of Mutual of America, who was deeply involved in the peace process. Although he stayed in the Berkeley Court, Barry was particularly fond of an ‘after hours’ drink in Hynes pub in Baggot Street — and was so enamoured of the subterfuge involved that one night he was found knocking on the window when the pub was still officially open.
The publican Dessie Hynes dedicated the ‘Bill Barry Room’ on the premises in his honour.
William G Barry, who died on Friday, October 5, at the age of 91, was raised in Brooklyn, New York, joining the US navy at the age of 17 and served during World War Two. Afterwards he went to Kent State University, Ohio, where he met his future wife Mary Lou and graduated in 1951 with a degree in political science.
After a spell as a policeman he was appointed as Special Agent with the FBI. His close ties with the Kennedy family began with a chance encounter when Bobby Kennedy, then Attorney General, visited the FBI office in New York.
The two men hit if off and Barry was assigned to the young AG during his visits to the city. “Robert Kennedy detected a kindred spirit in many ways, including scepticism about J Edgar Hoover (head of the FBI),” said the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jnr. Hoover loathed the Kennedys in general and when he learned that Barry had taken holidays to be Robert Kennedy’s driver during his successful campaign to become a senator for New York in 1965 he had him transferred to Mobile, Alabama.
Two months later, after 14 years’ service, Barry quit the FBI and set himself up as a security consultant, using his extensive Kennedy and Irish-American connections.
When Robert Kennedy decided to seek the presidential nomination he became his personal bodyguard and a member of the campaign’s inner circle. On the night of the shooting Kennedy was persuaded by the television networks to watch the results come in at the Embassy Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, where they had set up their equipment.
Their exit was chaotic and while Barry and another aide held the kitchen doors open Sirhan Sirhan appeared from behind an ice-making machine and gunned down Kennedy and injured two others.
“He (Kennedy) was going to live his life and not be constantly fearful of what might happen, he only accepted as much protection as he got because he liked me,” said Bill Barry afterwards. “It’s been the most upsetting thing in his whole life, he tried to get over it but it’s affected every aspect of his life,” said his wife.
After the assassination, Bill Barry returned to security work and became president of Smith & Wesson Consultancy, vice-president of Bankers Trust and Franklin National Bank and was an officer of Reliance Group Insurance. In 1976 prominent Irish American, Governor Hugh Carey, appointed him chairman of the New York State Racing Commission.
A keen sportsman, he had boxed in the navy and was a dedicated follower of the ‘Fighting Irish’ Notre Dame Football team and a handball champion. He took a keen interest in Gaelic games when he was in Ireland. He was also close to other prominent Irish-American figures, including the late Tom Moran.
“If someone wanted a short list of experts on corporate security and international terrorism, Bill Barry would be on it, he just knew everybody everywhere,” said one business associate.
His family lunch in Neary’s pub in New York on St Patrick’s Day was legendary as were the 4th of July gatherings at his home outside New York.
He was also a house guest at the Ted Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Florida, the night William Kennedy Smith was alleged to have raped 29-yearold Patty Bowman after he and his uncle Ted met a number of women in the Au Bar that Good Friday night.
When Palm Beach police called to the Kennedy compound the following morning it was Bill Barry who opened the door. Police later said he told them he didn’t know where the two Kennedys were — even though they were sitting down to Sunday lunch inside the house.
Barry maintained that it was a misunderstanding and he would not have misled police officers. “We’re a police family,” he said, “I was a policeman, my brother was a policeman and my son is one. I know they have a difficult job to do,” he said in an interview.
In the event, William Kennedy Smith was acquitted of the charges.
Last week, Robert F Kennedy Jr paid tribute to Barry on social media: “RIP Bill Barry,” he wrote. “My father’s favorite G-man. His bodyguard during the last campaign and a beloved friend to our family.”
Bill Barry is survived by his wife of 65 years, Mary Lou, and his seven children. His funeral took place last Wednesday in West Nyack, New York, with prominent Irish figures sending their condolences.
GRIEF: Bill Barry hangs his head after the Los Angeles shooting of Robert Kennedy in 1968. Photo: Getty Images/Bettmann
KINDRED SPIRITS: Robert Kennedy and Bill Barry hit it off when they met in the FBI office in New York