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JFK | Article

JFK: Intimate Memories of an Icon

Stories about the 35th president from those who knew him well.

Illustrations by Ste Johnson

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“He wasn’t very strong as a young person — he had a bad back for a long, long time. So he read and read and read everything: biography and politics and history… All that reading really paid off. And I think it was a wonderful thing, because he read a lot of history and he saw problems in an historical sense, that was difficult for other people to see.”  — Jean Kennedy Smith, Sister

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“He was, I have to say, a particularly good godfather. He was my brother Joe’s godfather, and I was always looking at the first editions of books and the scrimshaws and the prints that my brother Joe would get.

“There was total sibling envy, because my godfather was a Trappist monk, so I got fruitcake. I mean, many prayers, I’m sure. And fruitcake.”  — Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Niece

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“The first time I met John Kennedy was in the summer of 1946. I was about to go to college, and he was just starting to run for Congress. I was at a picnic with Clare Booth Luce, the playwright and wife of Henry Luce of Time magazine, at her place in Connecticut. She had been a champion of the student federalist organization that I had started in Scarsdale High School. And she said, ‘Young Jack Kennedy is going to come. I want you to really talk with him and get to know him.’ She said, ‘Old Joe thinks he’s going to be president, and I do, too’ — something like that.

“And at that moment, Jack Kennedy came in, a very good-looking girl on one side and another very good-looking young woman on the other side. And Clare Booth Luce tried to get him to sit down and talk to me about the idea of a Union of Democracies. And he wasn’t ready to sit down and talk to me about a Union of Democracies. He said, ‘No, we’re here to play tennis.’ And they went off to play tennis. I thought, well, he’s very charming and agile and probably a lightweight.”  — Harris Wofford, Advisor, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights


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“I thought it was a fascinating exercise to watch him in action. Part of it was just his stunning good looks, and the instant recognizability in Boston. The car would stop and before he was out, people were gathering. And it seemed to me that there was a sort of perpetual half smile on his face. It was there when he came to meet [our] Nieman class, and we’d try to throw tough questions at him. And certainly it was there when he would shake hands with people on the street, engage them in conversations. Everybody wanted to be close to him, wanted to talk to him, wanted to sort of just feel a piece of Joe Kennedy’s boy Jack.”  — John Seigenthaler, Journalist



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“In the middle of September, I was in Chicago, and I went to a rally and heard him speak on the back of a flatbed truck. And the fact that he would come to the south side of Chicago and pull this truck into a parking lot and get up and make a speech — I don’t remember what he said, but the fact that he was there, the fact that he was comfortable, the fact that everybody related to him, you got caught up in the charisma of the moment.”  — Andrew Young, Civil Rights Leader                                                                                                                                                                                      


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“On one occasion, there was a trip to a factory… There was a parking lot in the back, and we went in through a rear door. And I was right behind Jack, and it was the first time that I had noticed any visible discomfort in his stride. He took the steps up one at a time. And by that I mean one foot up and the other joining it, and his hand on the banister rail, all the way up. And suddenly it dawned on me, there’s a problem here. Of course, everybody knew about PT-109 and the war injury, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it was a surprise!”  — John Seigenthaler



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“He had been informed that they were in real trouble with the African American vote. I hadn’t been switched over to the civil rights part of the campaign; I was then on the speech-writing staff. But he saw me on the street—the first thing I know his red convertible came right by the corner where I was. He stopped and said, ‘Let me give you a ride.’ He was driving himself up to Capitol Hill. He said, in his very impatient way that I got used to, ‘All right now. In ten minutes, tick off the things I ought to do to clean up this damn civil rights mess.’”  — Harris Wofford



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“I remember [Hubert] Humphrey complaining that every time he went to a supermarket, he was confronted with all these magazines at the checkout counter. And whether it was Redbook, or Good Housekeeping, or The Saturday Evening Post, or Time, or Newsweek, here were the Kennedys on the cover, looking glamorous, both of them. And Humphrey said, ‘It’s very hard to compete with that kind of performance.’”  — Thomas Hughes, Aide to Senator Hubert Humphrey



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“[The day after the election], we went out and played touch football. My father came out and said, ‘It’s time for lunch.’ Whatever he wanted, he got, immediately. And he was a stickler for time. He said, ‘Hurry up, hurry up and go in there.’ So we went up to the porch. Jack and I were the last ones there. And he turned to me and said, ‘Doesn’t he know I’m President of the United States?’ I thought, that’s a perfect ending to a day.”  — Jean Kennedy Smith



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“He was willing to challenge people. And I think at the end of the day, each one of us wants to be challenged. We want to think that our life has a mission. He understood that psychological need for a spiritual quest, and reached out to it.

“It’s sort of ‘reach to the stars,’ you know, or ‘reach to the moon.’ It’s larger than yourself. It’s greater. It’s not just ‘be responsible in your own home or your community or country.’ It’s, ‘You can do something magnificent.’”   — Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

These stories are drawn from interviews conducted for the 2013 American Experience film JFK. They have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Published May 22, 2017.

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