Monday, November 11, 2013

Life of JFK 2: A Star Is Borne

From the start, the Kennedys were relentless about appearing lovable. In 1958 as editor of Redbook, I got a phone call from Robert Kennedy, whom I had never met. After seconds of small talk, he asked about pictures I had been sent of his kids and their cousins at the beach. Was I going to use them?  When I said no, he responded cheerfully, "Maybe next time."

That was the Kennedy version of charm. Hanging tough was their idea of foreplay.

When I proposed a cover story about Jacqueline Kennedy, Evelyn Lincoln, JFK's secretary, called back. "Mrs. Kennedy," she said, "isn't sure she wants to do an interview for your magazine. She's still upset about the last story."

We tangoed. "Would you tell Mrs. Kennedy that a cover story about her during the primaries could only be helpful. I know she'll understand."

She did and we went ahead. What had upset her (read Bobby, she and JFK never bothered with grudges) was an earlier piece. After losing the vice-presidential nomination the year before, the Kennedys had gone into a full-court press for 1960. Our story had taken a hard look at JFK's record as a senator, including the judgment by a colleague that, in his votes on civil rights and stand on McCarthyism, the author of "Profiles in Courage" could have shown less profile and more courage.

At the cover shoot for the new story, I first met JFK. He came to the studio of Howell Conant on schedule, but his wife was very late. He passed time asking about Princess Grace. Conant was just back from Monaco photographing the former Grace Kelly--he had made her famous years earlier with a Collier's cover.

As Kennedy questioned Conant, it seemed more than idle chatter. Was he thinking about a compliant movie-star wife rather than the woman who was now keeping him waiting? Their marriage had been visibly shaky since JFK had gone off to Aristotle Onassis' yacht after the 1956 convention, leaving behind his pregnant wife, who had a miscarriage while he was away.

(That the Kennedys and Kellys were very aware of one another would become clear for me years later when Jacqueline Kennedy was musing about what her life would be like as JFK’s widow. That famously soft voice hardened as she said emphatically, “I don’t intend to become another Princess Grace!”)   

Then, for an hour, Kennedy sponged up everything I knew about New York politics and kept asking for more. I had never met anyone with such insatiable curiosity and grasp. He really wanted to know everything and knew so much himself in astonishing detail. Drained and running very late, I excused myself. Before I left, he looked past my shoulder and said, "What do you do if your wife is always late?"

"Senator," I answered, "you can't win. Overlook it, you're not worried something might have happened to her. Raise hell, you're a brute."

He considered this for a moment. "I'd rather," he said, jaw muscles tight, "be a brute."

In the proofs of that session (Mrs. Kennedy arrived soon after I left), anger was visible. Rather than a couple eager to move into the White House, they looked like condemned prisoners posing for a joint mug shot. They invited us to try again at their Washington home and Conant produced much better results. 

 Soon afterward, Kennedy’s secretary called. He would be in Manhattan and wanted to see the pictures. Should someone bring them to his hotel? I asked. No, his father’s office was in the same building as mine. He would just stop in.

Next day, JFK was leaning over my lightbox, looking at transparencies with a magnifying glass. Every once in a while he would smile and exclaim, “Excellent...This is first class, really first class.”

He left the office expressing pleasure, shaking a few hands on the way out. The cover was “first class,” another small step on his way toward an amazing Presidency.

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