Conversations With Kennedy

IMG_5902Ben Bradlee, then a reporter for Newsweek, and John Kennedy, senator and then president, were good pals.  Their wives, Toni and Jackie, were pals as well.  This book is full of incredible detail.  The night of the 1960 West Virginia primary, Kennedy and Bradlee go to a DC movie theater and see a porn:

This wasn’t the hard-core porn of the seventies, just a nasty little thing called Private Property, starring one Katie Manx as a horny housewife who kept getting raped and seduced by hoodlums.  We wondered aloud if the movie was on the Catholic index of forbidden films (it was) and whether or not there were any votes in it either way for Kennedy in allegedly anti-Catholic West Virginia if it were known that he was in attendance.  Kennedy’s concentration was absolute zero, as he left every twenty minutes to call Bobby in West Virginia.  Each time he returned, he’d whisper “Nothing definite yet,” slouch back into his seat and flick his teeth with the fingernail of the middle finger on his right hand, until he left to call again.

[regrettably a newer actress, “Catie Minx,” makes further research here come to a circuitous end.]

How much did JFK drink?

Normally he sipped at a scotch and water without ice, rarely finishing two before dinner, sipped at a glass of wine during dinner, rarely had a drink after dinner, and he almost never had a drink in the middle of the day.


says an impressed Bradlee.  From a footnote:

Kennedy was justly proud of the uncanny ability of the White House telephone operators to find anyone, anywhere, at any time of the day or night.  Once, he dared Tony and Jackie and me to come up with a name of someone the operators couldn’t find.  Jackie suggested Truman Capote, because he had an unlisted telephone number.  Kennedy picked up the telephone and said only “Yes, this is the president.  Would you please get me Truman Capote?”  – no other identification.  Thirty minutes later, Capote was on the line… not from his own unlisted number in Brooklyn Heights, but at the home of a friend in Palm Springs, Calif., who also had an unlisted number.

A recurring theme:

Philosophically, Kennedy worried out loud about the widening gap between the people who can discuss the complicated issues of today with intelligence and knowledge, and those he later referred to as “the conservative community.”  It is a theme that fascinates him, and one to which he returns time and time again: a kind of Dialogue of the Deaf, growing and disturbing, between the comparative handful of people truly knowledgeable about the increasingly complex issues our our society, and the great majority who just don’t understand these issues and hide their lack of understanding behind old cliches.  (He made an important speech on this subject at Yale University.  It was never far from his thoughts.)

How much did JFK swear?:

Jackie’s question, “What is a Charlie-Uncle-Nan-Tare, for heaven’s sake?” [re: reporter Dick Wilson] went unanswered.  (Kennedy’s earthy language was a direct result of his experience in the service, as it was for so many men of his generation, whose first serious job was war.  Often it had direct Navy roots, as above when he used the signalman’s alphabet.  He used “prick” and “fuck” and “nuts” and “bastard” and “son of a bitch” with an ease and comfort that belied his upbringing, and somehow it never seemed offensive, or at least it never seemed offensive to me.)

May 29, 1963, the President’s birthday party, a cruise on the yacht Sequoia down the Potomac:

Kennedy has not gotten the word that the “twist” is passe; any time the band played any other music for more than a few minutes, he passed the word along for more Chubby Checkers [sic].  he was also passing the word all night to the Sequoia’s captain.  Apparently through an abundance of caution in case he wasn’t having a good time, Kennedy had ordered the skipper of the Sequoia to bring her back to the dock at 10:30 PM, only to be ordered back out “to sea” – which meant four or five miles down the Potomac.  This happened no less than four times.  Four times we moored and four times we unmoored.  The weather was dreadful most of the evening, as one thunderstorm chased us up and down the river all night, and everyone was more or less drenched.  Teddy was the wettest, and on top of everything mysteriously lost one leg of his trousers some time during the night.

September 12, 1963, Kennedy in Newport:

The president arrived thirteen minutes late, timidly carrying a felt hat. I had never seen him wear a hat, but he told us “I’ve got to carry one for a while… they tell me I’m killing the industry.”


November 23, 1963:

The sledgehammer news that President Kennedy had been shot came to me while I was browsing through Brentano’s bookstore on my lunch hour.

Six months earlier, over dinner at the White House:

It’s so hard to answer the question, “What’s he like?” about anyone interesting, with all the contradictions in all of us.  “That’s what makes journalism so fascinating,” the president commented, “and biography so interesting… the struggle to answer that single question, “What’s he like?”


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