JFK's assassination: Collecting memories of an awful day

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For years, Eric Leif Davin and Anita Alverio have asked people, well known and unknown, from around the country, where they were when they heard about JFK’s assassination. The project led them to write this story:

It was the day Camelot died. It was the real beginning of that turbulent decade known as the Sixties. It was Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

At first, most of us didn’t believe it. It was some sort of gruesome joke. Filmmaker Emile de Antonio was recuperating from a knee operation in the elegant New York estate of a friend, a mansion equipped with a French maid, a cook and elevators between floors. He answered the phone and recognized a fey voice. “O, Dee-eee,” it said. “You’ll never guess what just happened.” It was his friend, pop artist Andy Warhol.

“What is it, Andy?” he asked.

“The president’s just been shot.”

Thinking it was a typical Warhol joke he said, “C’mon, Andy ...”

“O, Dee, you’d better turn on the TV.” And he did.

* * *

Canadian musician Rick Danko, of the rock group The Band, also thought it was a joke. A week before, fellow Band member Levon Helm had awakened him, screaming hysterically, “The Russians have just nuked New York City!” When Helm woke him again in a Toronto hotel room, screaming that Kennedy had been killed, Danko told him to shut up and went back to sleep.

Musician David Bromberg heard about it when someone rushed into his history class at Columbia University shouting the news. Husbands and wives called each other at home or work. A stranger approached science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as he was studying a model of the Parthenon for a book he was writing and told him the president had been killed.

In Saigon, it was not yet dawn. Reporter David Halberstam, on assignment for the New York Times, was shaken awake by Horst Faas, his photographer friend. Faas told him he wouldn’t go out with him that day to shoot pictures on their routine helicopter patrol. “Why not?,” Halberstam asked.

“They shoot Kennedy,” Faas told him.

* * *

It was 50 years ago, but for anyone over a certain age, the day JFK was shot remains as clear and vivid as yesterday. For some, there was fear.

Radical writer Sidney Lens arrived at Amherst College in Massachusetts to discover that his scheduled speech had been cancelled. He called his wife to tell her he would be catching a plane home early and discovered that she had been besieged by calls from the media. Lens had been one of the founders of the pro-Castro “Fair Play for Cuba Committee.” Although Lens had never heard of him, Kennedy’s reputed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was said by the media to be a committee member. Reporters from the New York Times, Life, Time and the radio and TV networks wanted to know whether Oswald was, indeed, a member and what Lens knew about him.

“I just wondered,” Lens recalled, “whether the new president, Lyndon Johnson, would order a wave of arrests of suspects that night. If so, perhaps I should stay away from home for a few days to see what happens.”

Nevertheless, he decided to return home and await arrest there, if it came. At the airport, he sat next to a couple of fellow passengers and listened to their conversation. They described the most grotesque tortures imaginable to be performed upon Oswald and all those associated with him. Their foul mood frightened him.

Even those who had no reason to suspect a joke or to be afraid found the news difficult to believe. Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, then a secretary in a market research company, was at her typewriter when she heard the news. She had discovered that she could do her job in the morning and pretend to do it in the afternoon while actually working on her first novel. She put down her cup of coffee and gaped in disbelief. Then she thought, “Yes, well, that’s the kind of thing Americans do from time to time. They killed Lincoln and they shot a couple of other presidents, didn’t they?”

But to most of us, those other assassinations were ancient history, having little to do with the present, little to do with the America we knew. As Marion Damick of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union put it, “Foreign countries are used to that. But it isn’t something that happens in the United States. We’re more rational and civilized.”

But we weren’t. Suddenly, America was just like all other countries. And, at that moment, citizens of other countries seemed to feel a kinship with America.

* * *

Reactions abroad

Folk singer Pete Seeger was in Japan on a world tour. He and Kennedy were in the same class at Harvard, although their paths seldom crossed. Later, Mr. Seeger disagreed with Kennedy on most political issues. Yet in Japan and, later, in India and Africa, strangers saw Mr. Seeger merely as an American and stopped him on the streets to press their hands into his in sympathy. In Nigeria a man stopped Mr. Seeger’s wife in the marketplace and said over and over the only word he knew in English: “Kennedy.”

Author Michael Harrington and his wife were flying that day from Warsaw, Poland, to Milan, Italy. Kennedy had read Harrington’s book, “The Other America,” sometime in February or March and, moved by it, had started in motion what would later become Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” But Harrington didn’t know that at the time. He’d been in Europe since January and was out of touch with what was happening back home.

After unpacking in their hotel room, the Harringtons went downstairs to the dining room. The waiter quietly approached their table and said to them, “They have just killed Kennedy.” They had not been enthusiastic about Kennedy, but the news devastated them. “It was so strange to be in a foreign city,” Harrington recalled. “We so much wanted to be with fellow Americans. All the Americans in Europe were phoning each other that night.”

The Harringtons left their hotel and, as with the Seegers, strangers approached them by the score on the streets to express their sorrow. They made their way to the Milan office of the Associated Press. Everyone there was Italian, but the staffers cleared a desk for the Harringtons and brought the news to them first as it arrived. The next day, led first by the Communist Party, all the myriad political parties of Milan displayed gigantic posters on their headquarters expressing their sympathy with America.

* * *

A personal connection

Perhaps one reason Kennedy’s assassination hit so hard was because it was the first national tragedy that the nation shared as it happened. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was reported after the fact. But Kennedy’s death was painfully experienced by the entire nation minute by minute.

In New Jersey, Alberta Arthurs, of New York’s Rockefeller Foundation, was a new parent with a son the same age as John-John, Kennedy’s son. A neighbor ran over with the news. “Then she and I and our little children huddled in front of the television set and just watched and watched with a kind of horrible fascination,” she said.

Pittsburgh architect Harry Grant recalled, “We kept getting reports that he wasn’t dead ... then he was ... then he wasn’t ... then he was again. The next day I stayed home and watched television. I saw Jack Ruby kill Oswald,” he said.

Albert McLean, former dean of Point Park University, also watched the murder of Oswald. He was both appalled and fascinated. “I’d never seen anyone killed, and it was extremely unnerving,” he said. “But I also realized that I shared this experience with millions of other Americans who, because of television, were also right there with me on the scene. We were conscious of participating in history at the very instant it was being made.”

For many, there was also a personal identification with Kennedy. Marilyn Levin, former director of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, recalled that “we were coming out of the Eisenhower years. They were so boring. Suddenly, everything just seemed to sparkle, like we were in Wonderland. Kennedy made people my age care about the country for the first time.”

Kennedy was everything Eisenhower was not. Handsome. Sophisticated. Charismatic. Especially for the young, it was difficult not to be attracted by the glamour of the Kennedy image. “The first time I ever admitted I wore a size 10 shoe,” recalled Charlene Hunter-Gault, “was when I found out Jacqueline Kennedy also wore size 10.”

Ms. Hunter-Gault, who's black, is a former correspondent and anchor of the MacNeil-Lehrer news program. She had seen real possibilities for racial justice in the Kennedy White House. “The Kennedy boys weren’t as strong on Civil Rights as they could have been,” she recalled. “But they made you feel there was a potential for all of us. I mean, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ I really believed that. I bought that. John F. Kennedy, at that point, was a part of my dreams.”

When she heard the news of Kennedy’s death in Dallas, she was nursing her 7-day-old baby girl. “I was crushed,” she said. “I went totally to pieces, and I broke down. My mother had to take my child away from me.”

Mary Alice Gorman, co-owner of The Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, remembered that her life suddenly felt out of control. “Somehow,” she said, “that moment marked me and my peers. We realized that Daddy was gone, that nothing could be counted on forever, that even the president, the most powerful man on earth, wasn’t in total control.”

Harrington, who died of cancer in 1989, agreed. “I think everyone, at that point, felt their own mortality,” he said. “Everyone is frightened of cancer, of accidents, of the precariousness of life. And to have a handsome and charismatic young man at the height of his powers and with a seemingly endless vista of accomplishments opening before him suddenly cut down by an assassin’s bullet ... Perhaps more than most leaders, Kennedy symbolized vitality and life. And on that day, he became a symbol of death — our death.”

Indeed, as if there was some mystic union between leader and led, between the president and the nation, life ceased. Work stopped. Shops and schools closed. Workers and students were sent home. Historian Philip Foner was researching a book in the Library of Congress. The library closed and, like everyone else in Washington, Foner went home.

So universal was the expectation that the nation’s life, like the president’s, would cease that Asimov, the science fiction writer, was surprised to learn that his scheduled speech before a New York Mensa group the night of the assassination was still expected. “I was not in a mood to talk,” he said, “but I told them I would show up, just on the off chance that people would be there. But I really didn’t think anyone would come.

“Well,” he continued, “the hall was filled! What I hadn’t realized was that people wanted to not only escape the brutal reality of the TV news, but also to be with other people, to cluster. So, I gave my talk. But I felt I had shamed myself by doing so and, for a decade thereafter, I observed my own memorial to that day by refusing to give a speech on Nov. 22.”

Mr. Seeger paused for a moment while recalling his young classmate. “It’s strange,” he said. “My uncle, Alan Seeger, was killed in the First World War. He wrote a poem shortly before he died which Jack Kennedy admired tremendously and memorized.” And then Mr. Seeger recited his uncle’s poem, also from memory: “I have a rendezvous with death/ At midnight in some flaming town/ When spring trips north again this year...”

Mr. Seeger paused for a moment before continuing. “I guess that day in Dallas was a rendezvous with death for all of us,” he said.

Eric Leif Davin (davin@pitt.edu) and Anita Alverio (alverio.a@gmail.com) are freelance writers from Bloomfield.

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