The media coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been inescapable these past few weeks. Much has been made of our nation’s loss of innocence when Camelot came tumbling down, but if I had to choose a pivotal event that triggered my disenchantment in that era, it would be the Cuban missile crisis the year before, in October of 1962, when Kennedy and Kruschev played a game of brinksmanship that brought the world close to nuclear annihilation.
I was a junior at Barnard that fall, living in an apartment on West 110th Street a few blocks from the Columbia campus and deeply in love with the man who would later become my first husband. I didn’t own a television. With the limited programming available back then, I considered it hip to do without, and my extensive collection of jazz LPs more than sufficed for entertainment.
But I remember spending days with my boyfriend, glued to the radio, in a panic that the world was about to be blown to smithereens. Before it did, I was desperate to get married. Why this seemed so critically important, I can’t recall – I wasn’t religious, and we’d been lovers for over a year already. After nearly two interminable weeks, the crisis passed, and we remained single for the time being, but the emotional turmoil of that time remains vivid in my memory.
I was a senior by the time Kennedy was killed the following year. I came out of a medieval art history class, where I’d been looking at black and white slides of sarcophagi in a class taught by an elderly lady professor nicknamed “the Barnard coffin,” into the venerable marble halls of the lobby, where everyone was in an uproar about the shooting. I hurried back to my apartment; by the time I got there, he’d been declared dead.
I was shocked and saddened, but by then my “innocence” was already lost, and the assassination didn’t have the emotional impact of the Cuban missile crisis the year before. And I still didn’t own a television. As the child of two journalists, I was loyal to the print media, and the iconic still photos of the killing and its aftermath soon found their way into the imagery of my paintings.
Actually I had never expected to live till 1963. Like the rest of my pre-Boomer generation, I grew up with school civil defense drills, where we were taught to take shelter under our puny wooden desks, and with talk of bomb shelters and nuclear holocausts. Back in the late 1950’s, when there was talk of a World’s Fair planned for 1964 in New York City, I thought the idea was absurd – we’d all be nuked into oblivion by then. But the World’s Fair came to pass, and my husband and I visited as newlyweds.
So all this talk about the loss of Camelot innocence is nothing but doggy doo doo, in my opinion. Even so, there was a special aura about the Kennedys. Though I didn’t watch them on TV, I did see Jack Kennedy twice in person. In 1956, my mother and I were in the audience at the Democratic National Convention, because she was “Madly for Adlai” –
Stevenson, that is. JFK came very close to winning the nomination for Vice President, and his gracious concession speech made him an overnight sensation. Like so many others, my mother was instantly smitten by his eloquence and good looks, and she rightly predicted we’d be seeing a lot more of him.
My second sighting of Kennedy occurred in the Harvard Yard when I was a sophomore at Radcliffe. By now he was President, and word got out that he was on campus for a Harvard Board of Trustees meeting. A crowd gathered near the John Harvard statue outside Memorial Hall, and we were eventually rewarded by the sight of JFK descending the steps and waving a greeting before he was spirited away.
It was a cold winter day, as I recall, sunny with snow on the ground, with a thrilling sense of optimism and potential, and although the event isn’t graven in my brain like all the horrific images that came later, I prefer to remember Jack Kennedy the way he looked that day in the Harvard Yard.