By Betsa Marsh
A brusque hand through the hair, a brilliant flash of teeth and a Brahmin accent that somehow turned “Cuba” into “Cuber.” He seemed a mythical creature arisen from some Olympus, with just enough self-deprecation to be human.
Can it really be a century since John Fitzgerald Kennedy roared into the world?
His presidency will always be unfulfilled promise, but no one can challenge that charisma, wreathed in sadness more than 50 years after his death.
But there’s only celebration for this centennial, both at his birthplace in Brookline, MA, and his Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. New exhibits sweep through one of history’s most tumultuous centuries, pivoting around John Kennedy.
At the JFK Library and Museum, “JFK 100: Milestones & Mementos” marks his life with 100 precisely chosen artifacts.
“Each of the 100 has a strong, physical connection to the President,” said Curator Stacey Bredhoff. “It will have the cumulative effect of getting to see this man from several different aspects.”
Of course, it begins at the beginning, with a darling photo of baby JFK. His childhood unfolds in Brookline, then later at Choate School in Connecticut. Kennedy kept a scrapbook, “and it’s really revealing to see him as a teenager,” Bredhoff said. What, the scrapbook asks, is his favorite song? “Love is the Sweetest Thing,” recorded in 1932 by crooner Al Bowlly. Favorite poem? “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” by Alan Seeger, a Harvard grad who joined the French Foreign Legion and died in France in 1916. “He was drawn,” Bredhoff said, “to that fatalistic viewpoint.”
But there was certainly time for fun. “He did well in subjects that interested him,” Bredhoff said, “but he was often in trouble. He was the ringleader of a little group called The Muckers, and they were pranksters.”
Things got a bit more serious at Harvard, and deadly serious in the Navy. Lt. Kennedy commanded PT 109, when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in 1943. Kennedy and 10 of his 12-man crew were eventually rescued after a week at sea and stranded on an island.
The museum shows a logbook from PT 109, and a tattered flag that was replaced a month before the boat sank.
“In my seven years here at the library,” Bredhoff said, “I’ve learned more about his World War II experience and genuine heroism. He lost two of his crew and he had no romantic notions about war.”
Postwar, Kennedy turned to politics, serving in Congress and the Senate. His mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, and his sisters hosted endless campaign teas, and Henry Cabot Lodge, who lost the 1952 Senate race to Kennedy, lamented “He floated into the Senate on an ocean of tea.”
“He was very restless and always wanted to be where the action was,” Bredhoff said. Soon, Kennedy was focused on the presidency, and “JFK 100” has a suitcase he used to crisscross the country in the run-up to the 1960 election. “It’s an old, beat-up-looking brown leather suitcase,” Bredhoff said with a chuckle.
Finally, Kennedy won the White House, and all the hallmarks of his tenure are there: The Space Age, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights.
On the personal side, Bredhoff chose a few of his ties, along with cool sunglasses and cufflinks.
John Jr. and Caroline grin from framed family photos. “There are two chestnuts the children picked up from the lawn of the White House and gave to their father,” Bredhoff said. And a crayon drawing of flowers on White House letterhead that Caroline created when she was five or six.
“Going to the museum is quite an emotional experience, particularly for people who remember his life,” Bredhoff said. “There’s a real poignancy to it.”
As Bredhoff and her team planned JFK 100, one of the central tenets was “the authenticity of the materials.” Throughout the museum, visitors see Kennedy in action and hear his voice. “It’s designed to be a dynamic experience.”
Even with 100 new artifacts on display, “we cannot know a whole person. But with this exhibit we get a few more pieces of the puzzle.”
How might JFK be remembered in the next 100 years? That’s one of the central threads of a new orientation film and exhibit at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, the President’s birthplace in Brookline, MA.
John Kennedy was born about 3 p.m., May 29, 1917, in his parent’s upstairs bedroom.
The new film pulls from Kennedy’s speeches, “relating some of the things he said to growing up in the house,” said Jason Atsales, Lead Park Ranger. The new exhibit spotlights themes of Kennedy’s administration, such as conservation, space, civil rights and the legacy of the New Generation.
“The purpose of the house was not really to educate when it was opened in 1969,” Atsales said, “but as time goes by, fewer people remember him or his presidency.”
The birthplace mission may be expanding, yet Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s first marital home remains untouched. Mrs. Kennedy returned to the home in 1967, redecorating it to her memories from 1914–20—there were no interior photos.
“Some things we recognize as not historic to this home,” Atsales said. “There are five kids in the photo on the piano, and they only had four kids [here].” But after Mrs. Kennedy gave the house to the nation in 1969, the National Park Service “decided it was her house, and she remembered it best.”
Sadly, those first four children had already met tragic fates: Joe Jr., born 1915, died in a 1944 airplane crash during World War II; Jack was assassinated in 1963; Rosemary, born 1918, was incapacitated after a lobotomy and in a school for exceptional children until her death in 2005; and Kathleen, born 1920, died in a 1948 plane crash in France. Robert Kennedy, born 1925 after the family left this house, was assassinated in 1968, as Rose Kennedy worked on JFK’s birthplace.
“She endured through so much,” Atsales said, “to age 104. “She said it was her faith and being so busy that kept her mind off grief. This was a project that kept her going.”
When you go
“JFK 100: Milestones & Mementos” continues through May 2018 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum; visit jfklibrary.org.
The John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site has unveiled a new orientation film and exhibit, John Fitzgerald Kennedy: The First One Hundred Years. For information on the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, visit nps.gov/jofi.
For more JFK 100 events: nps.gov/jofi/planyourvisit/jfk-100.htm.
John F. Kennedy was born in this Brookline home about 3 p.m., May 29, 1917. Betsa Marsh photo
JFK shared the nursery with his older brother, Joseph Jr., in their parents’ first home in Brookline, MA. Later, they moved into the boys’ bedroom to make room for sisters Kathleen and Rosemary. Betsa Marsh photo
The christening dress was given to Rose Kennedy by her mother-in-law, who had it made by Franciscan nuns in East Boston. The Kennedys’ nine children wore it, as did JFK’s son, John Jr. The Irish bonnet, also a gift, is covered with shamrocks. Betsa Marsh photo
Joseph Jr. and John shared the child’s table in the dining room on Beals Street, Brookline. Their monogrammed silver napkin rings and porringers seem to be ready for the next meal. Betsa Marsh photo
JFK PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND CENTER
A view from the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Betsa Marsh photo
The U.S. flag in the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Betsa Marsh photo
This wind-tattered flag was replaced by a new one on PT 109 in July 1943, one month before it was sunk. It’s one of the few artifacts left from the boat. Betsa Marsh photo
JFK took this hard-working suitcase with him as he prepared for the presidential campaign of 1960. “In the past 40 months, I have toured every state in the Union and I have talked to Democrats in all walks of life,” he said in announcing his candidacy. Betsa Marsh photo
John Jr. and Caroline presented their father with horse chestnuts (buckeyes) they’d found on the White House lawn. Caroline also drew him flowers on White House letterhead.
A baby photo of JFK. 1918 Alfred Brown Kennedy Family Collection John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
JFK at Choate High School in Connecticut. 1934 John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Kennedy at Harvard, working on his book, “Why England Slept.” 1940 John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Kennedy with his family at Hyannis Port, Squaw Island, on Aug. 14, 1963. Cecil Stoughton White House Photographs John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Curator Stacey Bredhoff selected a tie clasp, tie and sunglasses from the president’s personal belongings for JFK 100. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum