Naive days of JFK era long gone

Posted Jan. 14, 2011, at 5:37 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:46 p.m.

The photos have almost that same historic quality as the Matthew Brady photos from the Civil War. It seems that long ago.

Vanity Fair this month has a 50th retrospective of the John F. Kennedy inauguration, with traditionally gorgeous photographs, especially of Jackie. I forgot how striking she was. I forgot how glamorous that time was. If you were 20 and hailed from West Roxbury, Mass., JFK wasn’t a president. He was one of us, for heaven’s sake. He was a god.

The Vanity Fair story, by Todd S. Purdum, contains interviews with scores of people who were there. Were we ever that young and innocent?

Kennedy walked the snow-covered streets of Georgetown before and after the inauguration. He flew to Washington on a scheduled airline. He flew to New York City on another commercial flight to canoodle with an ambassador’s wife just before the event, if you can believe Purdum.

It seems impossible now, but John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost attended. The youngest president ever was replacing the oldest president ever, Dwight Eisenhower.

It was reported that liquor flowed freely.

Frank Sinatra was in charge of entertainment and he came through. Columnist Murray Kempton described the group as “the most inescapably valuable collection of flesh this side of the register of maharani.”

The cast included Gene Kelly, Nat King Cole, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Milton Berle, Laurence Olivier, Sidney Poitier, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Durante and Harry Belafonte, with a shirt opened to his chest. Naturally, Bill Dana brought Jose Jimenez. Ethel Merman sang “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” — naturally.

Kennedy became the first president to dance with a black woman at an inaugural ball, according to Purdum.

“I learned a lot of swearwords I didn’t know existed from the lovely mouth of Ethel Merman,” remembered Dana, now 86 and still performing.

Sinatra performed “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

The star of stars, Sammy Davis Jr., was banned from the festivities, reportedly by Joseph Kennedy, the president’s father. It seems that the black entertainer offended many when he married a white starlet, May Britt. The concert and the $100 ticket were designed to pay off the Democratic Party campaign debt, a whopping $2 million. That amount is spent on a Wednesday afternoon in Iowa in today’s campaign.

Although Jackie was still recovering from the birth of John-John, Kennedy missed few parties. One was at the home of Florence Mahoney, later used as the set for the movie “The Exorcist.” (I still haven’t seen that one. Never will.)

Kennedy partied until 3:30 a.m. He was up at 8 a.m. and although he had a stated aversion to hats he donned a top hat to match his tuxedo. Ike donned the more traditional homburg and his wife, Mamie, said he looked like “Paddy the Irishman.”

In Boston we watched the televised event like it was a coronation. When “our” Cardinal Cushing delivered the invocation, smoke came out of the podium. We were horrified. Cushing admitted later that he thought it might be a bomb and “I am going to land over the Washington Monument.” Robert Frost, 86, with weakened eyesight, could not read his notes and simply recited a favorite poem from memory instead.

Then the young president delivered the classic “Ask not” speech as scores of aides argued over who wrote which memorable line. Kennedy attended each and every ball, as Jackie went home to rest.

Because of the unseasonable cold and snow, many people in the nation’s capital decided to watch the speech on television, promising to attend “the next inauguration.”

Of course, there was no next inauguration. Presidents now do not fly scheduled airlines, nor walk Washington streets by themselves. They certainly don’t ride in motorcades in open limousines. We have changed as a nation.

Fifty years. We are no longer young or naive. Now, a congresswoman gets shot in the head at a shopping center. What, exactly, have we become?

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