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The Business of Tragedy

The JFK Assassination Industry

The major players aggressively tending the flame of John Kennedy’s memory ranged from Life magazine to Jackie Kennedy.

“Be thankful you weren’t alive in the 60s.” 

That’s the best I can do in the way of consoling words for young people who in the last two weeks have listened to their parents and grandparents reliving John F. Kennedy’s assassination for the umpteenth time.

 If the torrent of 50th anniversary articles, symposia,blog posts, TV documentaries and docudramas, historical reenactments, new books, and reissues has left you aghast at the bottomless self-involvement of your elders, please keep in mind that the deluge this month is nothing compared to the steady rain that fell on us almost every month between 1963 and 1967.

Remembering JFK became an industry in those years. The double murder of a U.S. president and his suspected assassin—within 48 hours of each other--multiplied expon-entially the number of angles that journalists, historians, self-appointed gumshoes, and total crackpots could pursue. The light that bounced off those shattering events, somehow mirroring each other, has many of us still trying to see straight and fit the pieces together in a logical pattern.

22 Days of JFK

Hating Kennedy

A look back at the voices who excoriated John F. Kennedy during his presidency gives perspective to the vitriol directed at Barack Obama today

This week, America was fixated on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Grief nourishes myth and a new CNN poll registers JFK as our most admired ex-president from the past half century.

His brief 1,000 days in the Oval Office loom large in American memory because of his abrupt loss; a psychic wound that shaped a generation, symbolizing a collective loss of innocence.

Perhaps inevitably, we buy into the idea that President Kennedy was as beloved in life as he has been in death. Of course, this was not the case.

There are always cranks and conspiracy theorists who nourish themselves on the bile that comes from hating the president of the United States. Some are just obsessive-compulsive hyper-partisans, some nurse groupthink grievances while others can be fairly classified as prejudiced or simply unhinged.

Nov. 22, 1963

The Afterlife of JFK’s Gravedigger

A famous Jimmy Breslin column drew attention to Clifton Pollard, a WWII vet who buried the president on two occasions at Arlington National. Now they both rest there.

The backhoe operator who dug not one, but two graves for John F. Kennedy is now himself buried a few hundred feet from the slain president.

Clifton Pollard’s digging of the first grave for Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery was memorably described by Jimmy Breslin in his famous “gravedigger” column. Breslin noted that Pollard earned $3.01 an hour and came in on his day off and considered the task an honor.

When the time neared for the funeral, a soldier ordered Pollard away from the area, saying it was too crowded. Pollard returned later and joined two other cemetery workers in covering the coffin by hand, shovelful by shovelful of the dirt he had dug up that morning. He came back that evening.

“After everyone left, and paid my respects,” he later told a reporter.

In Memory

Breslin’s Classic Columns on JFK

The legendary columnist captured the tragedy’s human side for a nation in shock and grief. Here, two American journalism classics: ‘A Death in Emergency Room One’ and ‘It’s an Honor.’

In the days after President Kennedy’s assassination, the legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin set the standard for literary journalism written in the wake of tragedy. His columns for the New York Herald Tribune became instant classics, precisely because he chose to cover the unexpected human stories at the heart, but on the periphery, of the breaking news.  Published here with Breslin’s permission are two of his iconic columns from those tumultuous days. “A Death in Emergency Room One” chronicles Nov. 22, 1963, from the attending emergency-room surgeon in Dallas. “It’s an Honor” has become a staple of journalism schools because Breslin sidestepped the media circus and covered the president’s burial from the perspective of the gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery. Taken together, these two columns are true short stories, history written in the present tense.  

‘A Death in Emergency Room One’

New York Herald Tribune, Nov. 24, 1963

By Jimmy Breslin

Witness to History

The JFK Conspiracy Killer

Hugh Aynesworth was present when President Kennedy was shot, when Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, and when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. He has spent his life debunking assassination theories.

Hugh Aynesworth has the strange distinction of being the only person present at the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the apprehension of Lee Harvey Oswald by Dallas police at the Texas Theater, and the murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby two days later.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Aynesworth was a 32-year-old reporter for the Dallas Morning News. His beat was science and aviation, and he had no assignment that day. So on his lunch hour he wandered over to Dealey Plaza to see if he could see the presidential motorcade. When gunshots rattled across the plaza, Aynesworth went to work, interviewing bystanders and trying, like everyone else, to figure out what had just happened. He stayed close to a motorcycle cop and listened in on the police radio broadcasts. Hearing that a policeman had been shot and assuming that it might have something to do with the assassination, he headed off to hunt down that crime scene, winding up at the movie theater where he witnessed the police arrest Oswald. On Sunday morning, he got to the city jail shortly before Ruby shot Oswald.

In his latest book, November 22, 1963: Witness to History, Aynesworth vividly recreates that chaotic weekend and its ever more baroque outcome, and he does it so well that we forget we’ve been through this a thousand times. Not many of the 40,000 books published about the assassination can be called indispensable. This one can.

That weekend in 1963 irrevocably changed Aynesworth’s life. He would go on to become a Newsweek bureau chief and write books about serial killers, but after 1963, the assassination became the story to which he would return again and again. He has spent, by his own reckoning, almost half his career tracking down and debunking conspiracy theories.

Jackie Kennedy

Art Rickerby/Time & Life Pictures, via Getty

The Chanel outfit Mrs. Kennedy was wearing when her husband was killed was constructed in a New Yorker’s tailor shop—and my dad, a Jewish Polish immigrant, helped sew it.

To this day, many people are under the mistaken impression that the pink suit Jackie Kennedy wore that day in Dallas when JFK was assassinated 50 years ago was Chanel and made in France. Actually, the first lady wanted to make sure the outfit was made in the USA, so it was an exact copy of a Chanel suit, made in Manhattan.

She could never have known the significance of that symbolic gesture. But I do. My father was one of the tailors who made the outfit.

Jankiel Horowicz (they renamed him “Jack” when he got to New York) was a tailor for the Polish army before being deported to the concentration camps. Upon his liberation in 1945, the U.S. military set him up with a tailor shop in a small town in Bavaria. (The U.S. military liaison was a young Yiddish-speaking Army worker named Ed Koch, but that’s a story for another day.) My father developed a reputation for being an expert tailor, and soon his clients included high-ranking U.S. military officers stationed in Germany.

In 1952, my father, his wife, and his daughter immigrated to New York. Based on his stellar reputation, he was able to join the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, then one of the largest unions in America. Eventually, he was hired to be a “finisher” and sample maker for Oscar de la Renta, whose shop was on 39th Street between Broadway and 7th Avenue. It was across the street from Dubrow’s cafeteria, where we’d often meet him after work. Then we’d walk down to Macy’s, which at the time had a butcher shop on the ground floor where we’d buy meat.

Final Days

The Essential JFK Books

Kennedy Assassination

AP

Of the countless books written about JFK’s death 50 years ago, these are the only five that count—from the boiling hate pot of Dallas to definitive debunking of all the conspiracies.

Oswald’s Tale
By Norman Mailer

One of the rare books by Norman Mailer that got good reviews and sold poorly. British critics were more enthusiastic than their American counterparts. Mailer’s attempt to make Oswald if not sympathetic at least human did appall many on this side of the Atlantic. But Andrew O’Hagan praised Mailer’s fictional account of “Oswald’s struggle to become a man—to become an important and effective male character—as the foundation of much of his adult distress …” Allen Massie found Mailer’s Oswald, “both likeable and repulsive; to be pitied and feared. He is in many ways … like the young Hitler revealed in Mein Kampf.”

oswalds-tale-mailer-bookcover

‘Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery’ by Norman Mailer. 864 p. Random House Trade Paperbacks. $13.94

Mailer disappointed numerous conspiracy theorists by coming to the conclusion that, as Mailer’s biographer J. Michael Lennon put it,  Mailer chose “no conspiracy, and a complex Oswald; a man dealt a bad hand, in no way heroic, but bold, idealistic in a twisted way, and sympathetic.”

Whodunit?

The Craziest JFK Conspiracies

From the Secret Service agent whose gun went off accidentally to alien abduction, here are 12 experts’ favorite conspiracy theories about who killed JFK and why.

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas and Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the crime. Depending on whom you ask, however, that may be either all we really know about the assassination or all there is to know. No crime in American history has inspired as much debate—or as many books—as the events of November 22nd, 1963. Not all conspiracies are created equal; we asked twelve scholars of the crime of the century for the most unbelievable theories they’ve ever heard.

The secret service agent whose gun accidentally goes off and kills the president. Its just unbelievable. In the first place, no one heard his gun go off. There were nine other people in that limousine, and they didn’t hear a gun go off. You normally would, if you’re sitting one or two feet from someone and their gun goes off. The notion that he fell backward, and the gun went off and just happened to hit the president in the same place Oswald had been aiming at, but had happened to miss a second earlier. To show you how not credible these sorts of theories are, at one time or another, conspiracy theorists have accused 42 groups, 82 assassins, and 214 people by name of being involved in the assassination.

Correspondence

Jackie’s Letter to Khrushchev

About a week after JFK was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ‘on one of the last nights I will spend in the White House.’

Washington, December 1, 1963.

Dear Mr. Chairman President,

I would like to thank you for sending Mr. Mikoyan as your representative to my husband’s funeral.

Nikita Khrushchev and Jackie Kennedy

Nikita Khrushchev and Jackie Kennedy share a light moment during the summit meetings in Vienna between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev in Austria in June 1961. (Underwood Archives/Getty)

A Mother in History

Mrs. Oswald Was Creepy Company

She was manipulative, abrasive, and mercenary to a fault. To know his mother was to feel some small sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald.

It was a surreal moment. The widow of Lee Harvey Oswald was telling me her reaction to reading an account of her husband’s funeral, written by her late, long-estranged mother-in-law. “I dropped a tear or two,” Marina Oswald said softly in her Russian accent. The two most influential women in Oswald’s life, his wife and his mother Marguerite, had not spoken with each other for years before Marguerite’s death in 1981. But I was in touch with them both, and Marguerite once asked me to help her get a story about Lee’s burial published. I later shared it with Marina.

Hearing Marina’s emotional response to the article struck a nerve, reminding me that the traumatic public events of November 1963 were also profoundly personal tragedies for the Kennedy, Oswald, and Ruby families. Until 1976, I was just one more American with a crystal clear memory of where I was the moment I heard the news. It was my fifth-grade hall monitor who uttered the stunning words, “Kennedy’s been shot.”

But a dozen years later, I was a broadcast journalist at ABC, working with Geraldo Rivera. He had just made headlines and gotten a footnote in the history books by showing the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination on television for the first time, and he asked me to produce a follow-up program that would feature anyone from the Oswald or Ruby families willing to talk.

Oswald’s widow and brother were not interested in appearing on TV, but his mother Marguerite was—for a price. Since Rivera’s production company owned his “Good Night America” newsmagazine show, I was told I needn’t abide by ABC News standards, and could offer Marguerite up to one thousand dollars. It was checkbook journalism at its finest.

A lot can be discovered by poking through someone’s desk. Get to know JFK a little better with a peek at some of the artifacts he collected while in the Oval Office.

You Don’t Know Jack

JFK’s Weak Body, Strong Spirit

Kennedy was one of the sickliest American presidents, wracked with chronic back pain—but his metaphorical spine in standing up to the war hawks was unparalleled.

The … [hawks] … always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and their split-second timing, but it never works out. No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.

John F. Kennedy (October 1962)

For the first quarter-century or so after JFK’s murder in Dallas, insensitive cynics sometimes remarked that having been assassinated was a great posthumous career move for Kennedy. They were wrong. The bizarre, still incompletely solved, assassination has focused succeeding generations on the Kennedy fluff factor—all the hearsay and gossip involved in establishing JFK and his relatives as the unofficial American “royal family.” Dallas has merged with Graceland. JFK might just as well have been Elvis.

President John F Kennedy

U.S. President John F. Kennedy walks on crutches as he leaves his limousine to board the presidential yacht "Honey Fitz" for a cruise down the Potomac River with Japanese Prime Minister Ikeda, in Washington on June 21, 1961. (AP)

After JFK

What Oswald’s Mother Told Me

Tracked down in 1977, Marguerite demanded a payday before talking about her son and showed off her ‘library’ of JFK assassination books. Plus, Bob Schieffer remembers his own run-in.

“I’m unique, one of a kind,” Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother told me. “I’m the only one in the whole world who’s the mother of the man accused of killing a president. A president! Why else would you come see me?”

Kennedy Assassination

Mrs. Marguerite Oswald visited the Texas School Book Depository Building in Dallas on March 12, 1964, from where, police say, her son, Lee Harvey Oswald, fired the shots that killed President Kennedy. (AP)

It was a sweltering July day in 1977, more than a decade after the deed that cemented Marguerite Claverie Oswald’s place in history. We were sitting across from each other at her dining room table, in a small but immaculately kept brick house on a working-class street in Fort Worth, Texas. She was a stout, lively woman, a week from 70, peering at me sharply through butterfly glasses. She wore an apple-green housedress and her graying beehive hairdo was unyielding against the blasts of a chugging air conditioner.

The subject, as usual with Mrs. Oswald, was money. Why wouldn’t I—then a cub reporter for Crawdaddy magazine, writing about a made-for-TV drama on the JFK assassination being filmed 30 miles away in downtown Dallas, the scene of the crime—agree to pay her for an interview? She deserved to be compensated. “Why should I give interviews for free?” she demanded. “For three years, I did it for free. I’ve done my duty. I don’t need the publicity. I have no control over what they write about me. But at least if I’m taken advantage of, I know I’ve been paid. That’s my solace,” she said.

gallery

JFK, Behind the Scenes

While the nation was still grieving JFK’s assassination, she used an influential magazine profile to rewrite her husband’s legacy and spawn Camelot.

Few events in the postwar era have cast such a long shadow over our national life as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy fifty years ago this month. The murder of a handsome and vigorous president shocked the nation to its core and shook the faith of many Americans in their institutions and way of life.

Kennedy

Getty

Those who were living at the time would never forget the moving scenes associated with President Kennedy’s death: the Zapruder film depicting the assassination in a frame-by-frame sequence; the courageous widow arriving with the coffin at Andrews Air Force Base still wearing her bloodstained dress; the throng of mourners lined up for blocks outside the Capitol to pay respects to the fallen president; the accused assassin gunned down two days later while in police custody and in full view of a national television audience; the little boy saluting the coffin of his slain father; the somber march to Arlington National Cemetery; the eternal flame affixed to the gravesite. These scenes were repeated endlessly on television at the time and then reproduced in popular magazines and, still later, in documentary films. They came to be viewed as defining events of the era.

In their grief, Americans were inclined to take to heart the various myths and legends that grew up around President Kennedy within days of the assassination. Though the assassin was a communist and an admirer of Fidel Castro, many insisted that President Kennedy was a martyr to the cause of civil rights who deserved a place of honor next to Abraham Lincoln as a champion of racial justice. Others held him up as a great statesman who labored for international peace.

Our Project

Fifty years ago this month, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Starting on November 1, The Daily Beast will devote 22 days of coverage to this event. We will include stories about the present day (how does Dallas plan to observe the anniversary?), about the people who were present, about the Kennedy legacy, and about what JFK might have accomplished had he lived. There will be Kennedy letters and photo galleries, and stories about conspiracies and the impossibility of conspiracy. But more than anything, there will be questions, because on this topic there are never any clear answers.

Never-Before-Seen JFK Footage

As the president's motorcade rolled through Dallas, about one minute before his assassination, a man named Andre Leche filmed from the crowd. The footage was only found this year.

The Weekend That Never Ended

The Weekend That Never Ended

In the first installment of our 22 days of JFK project, we look back 50 years to the terrifying few days when two deaths destroyed the innocence of a generation.

My Dad’s Magic-Bullet Theory

My Dad’s Magic-Bullet Theory

Despite science repeatedly confirming the Warren Commission’s single-bullet theory, Americans continue to see it—and its author, Arlen Specter—as part of a dark coverup.

JFK Tapes Released

What did President Kennedy ask General Eisenhower about Cuba? What did he tell NASA was his top priority? Secret recordings to be published in 'Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy' Tuesday reveal rare insight into the thoughts of an American president.

Politics