Thursday, October 01, 2009

JFK's Court Jester

Paul B. Fay Jr., who died this week at 91, was a crony so close that John F. Kennedy appointed him Undersecretary of the Navy over the protests of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The role of Red Fay, as everyone called him, in Kennedy's life was much more personal than political. Sons of Irish-American wealth who had met in the Navy during World War II, they bonded to the point that Fay was an usher at JFK's wedding and later served as a "beard" at his friend's inaugural ball by escorting movie actress Angie Dickinson, whom he had never met before, so the new president could dance with her.

Working with Fay to serialize sections of his book, "The Pleasure of His Company," after the assassination, I was struck by the role he played in Kennedy's life, a guy's guy with whom he could unbend from the pressures of the public role he had inherited when his older brother Joe was killed in World War II.

In Fay’s guileless memoir, JFK could be seen without his public relations face on. In a 1953 letter, when he was a freshman senator, he wrote to Fay: “I gave everything a good deal of thought--so am getting married this fall. This means the end of a promising political career as it has been based up to now on the old sex appeal. Your special project is the bride’s mother—-one fine girl--who has a tendency to think I am not good enough for her daughter.”

After being introduced to Jacqueline Bouvier, who greeted him in her usual soft-spoken hush, Fay told his old friend, “She’s a fantastic-looking woman, but if you ever getting a little hard of hearing, you’re going to have trouble picking up the transmissions.” Kennedy roared with delight.

Fay described a gathering of the Kennedy clan for Christmas, 1959. At a mention of money, Kennedy Sr. reacted, “fire blazing from his eyes.” The Founding Father launched a tirade: “I don’t know what is going to happen to this family when I die. No one appears to have the slightest concern for how much they spend.” After one of the sisters left the room in tears, JFK deflected the tension. The only answer, he said, “is to have Dad work harder.”

Before the book was published, Jacqueline and Bobby Kennedy pressured Fay to remove some sections that didn't square with the Camelot myth. He did, but "the bride" apparently was not placated. When Fay tried to donate his royalties to the Kennedy Library, she turned him down.

Still and all, to get a sense of John F. Kennedy as a man rather than a myth, Red Fay's account of their friendship is a good place to go.

1 comment:

Fuzzy Slippers said...

I love this! I adore that Irish Kennedy sense of humor, and you capture it beautifully here; I already miss that twinkle in Senator Kennedy's eye when he said, thought, or heard something amusing (and I only ever saw him on television). I'll certainly take a look at Fay's memoir.