1. JFK & Me

Adapted from the memoir

HOME FREE: Adventures of a Child of the Sixties

By Rifka Kreiter

to be published May 16, 2017

In the spring of 1960, the street corners of Manhattan’s Upper West Side sprouted card tables with petitions to get Adlai Stevenson the nomination as the Democratic candidate for President.  Stevenson was the darling of my mother and the whole neighborhood, as he had been in ‘52 and ‘56.  I was recruited to help by canvassing door to door in the big apartment buildings, clipboard with petition in hand.   Despite our somewhat quixotic efforts, John F. Kennedy became the Democratic candidate.

Because of my participation in the Stevenson campaign, I once saw Kennedy in person.  My name must have been on some list of Democratic volunteers because, that September, I received an invitation to attend a Democratic fundraiser and rally to unify the party, to be held at the Waldorf Astoria.  It was the first time I had ever been to the Waldorf and I could hardly get over that to begin with.  I arrived late, clutching my invitation, gawking at everything and tiptoeing in awe around the plush-carpeted lobbies.  I expected to be thrown out at any moment.

In a balcony above the Grand Ballroom, I craned my neck to catch a glimpse, between the shoulders of the adults in front of me, of Kennedy on the stage far below.  Even from that far away I could feel the palpable shock of his charisma.  He was movie-star handsome.  His hair was redder than I’d thought and the glamour of his young wife, standing beside him in her perfectly tailored suit, enhanced that impression.  Truman and Eisenhower had been the only Presidents in my life.  This man was a totally different species.  Despite my passionate loyalty to Stevenson, I couldn’t help but be wowed by the Kennedys that night.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

It is November 22, 1963.   I’m working at the Julius Matthews Special Agency in a brand new office building at 757 Third Avenue, still only half occupied. This is my first full-time job, obtained a few weeks after graduating from the High School of Performing Arts last June.  The agency is in the business of selling advertising space for a variety of small-market newspapers, including the fledgling Gannett chain of six papers. The owner is a blond, suntanned man in button-down shirts and expensive suits.  Thanks to having dropped chemistry for typing during junior year, I am now secretary to one of the three sales reps.  My job consists of little more than screening his phone calls, typing a few simple letters, and making reservations at the Pen & Pencil Restaurant for his three-martini lunches.

I am covering the phones for the receptionist.  It’s Friday, payday, so I know Maureen may take some extra time for lunch with her friends from the Bronx.  I don’t mind.

Line one of the Monitor Board lights up and I depress the lever.

“Julius Matthews Special Agency…”

“Riqui?”  It’s my buddy Alice calling from home.  Her voice sounds funny.

“Yeah, Alice.  What’s wrong?”

“Kennedy’s been shot.  It’s on the news.”

Knowing Alice to be given to hysteria, I patiently reply, “Now Alice, if you listen again, you’ll see that you’re mistaken.”

“No, it’s true,” she insists.  “Walter Cronkite’s on.  He’s crying.”

“Alice…” I say doubtfully.

“Listen,” she shrieks, holding the receiver up to the television.  I hear the nation’s preeminent newscaster and father figure reporting, his voice cracking:  “…35th President of the United States died at 1 P.M. Central Standard Time….”

“My God,” I say, stunned.

I arrange to meet Alice right after work.   I hang up and tell the other secretaries.  Everyone else is out to lunch.   Just then, Maureen walks in and confirms the news that has by now spread through the streets.  On Third Avenue, New Yorkers are in tears.

That night, Alice and I go to the movies.  The Riverside, my old neighborhood movie house, is packed—it looks like there isn’t a single empty seat.  As we have done so many times when we cut out of school, Alice and I share a pint of cheap bourbon, which we pour into our Cokes out of a brown paper bag.  I have no idea what we are watching; I don’t think anyone else knows, either.

The TV was on all Saturday morning in my mother’s basement apartment in Brooklyn, just like it was everywhere else in America.  We followed the unbelievable events as they unfolded.  I couldn’t begin to take in what had happened.

I spent a lot of time on the phone with my friends.  Maxine, who had graduated from Performing Arts the year before me, told me that some friends of hers from Queens College were planning to drive to Washington that night; Kennedy’s body was to go on view on Sunday morning.  I arranged for me, Alice and Helen, another P.A. classmate, to ride with them.  I hoped that somehow this trip would help me break through the stubborn sense of unreality that enveloped me like a cloud.

We met that evening in the Queens apartment of this guy named Steve Hagen and hung out for a while, waiting for Bill, the other rider, to show up.  We set off at 10 o’clock.   Alice and Helen sat in the back and slept for most of the trip.  The car radio was dead so Bill and I sang all the way to D.C. to help keep Steve awake at the wheel.  Bill knew as many lyrics of the old standards as I did:  We sang Gershwin, Cole Porter, the entire score of “West Side Story,” and everything else we could think of.  Every once in a while, we’d remember why we were traveling and look at each other with fearful, amazed eyes.  Then we’d quickly start singing again.

It was still dark when we arrived in Washington at around 4 a.m. I had never been there before.  The monumental buildings seemed ominous to me.  There were many people around but an unnatural quiet pervaded the streets as we walked around the city before we went to find the line that was forming in back of the Capitol.  The doors to the Great Rotunda were scheduled to open at eight o’clock.   All kinds of people were on line: old and young, black and white.  Everyone spoke in hushed tones; I don’t remember what we talked about.  Alice, usually a non-stop talker, was abnormally silent, and Helen seemed to be in a fugue state.  I hadn’t slept for 24 hours.

We waited on that line for hours in an atmosphere that was totally surreal.  Time slowed to a trickle.  People were talking to each other about random things.  When it started getting light, some went off to bring back cups of coffee in cardboard containers.  Others listened to the news on transistor radios.  After a few hours, standing in line came to seem like an end in itself.  My mind still refused to grasp what had happened.  Such things just didn’t happen in America, which was strong and safe and good—everybody knew that.

What I hadn’t noticed in the preceding year and a half is how the spirit of Kennedy’s presidency had crept up on me, giving me hope for the future despite my habitual resistance to any kind of optimism.  The quality of intellect of the men he brought to Washington; the rejuvenating rhetoric; the New Frontier programs.  I had gotten goose bumps listening to his inauguration speech, especially when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” before it was a famous sound byte—before the whole world was filled with hollow sound bytes.

By the time the November morning turned from dark to gray, the line behind the Rotunda stretched back for a mile.  The D.C. police were not prepared for the thousands who had come to Washington. There were some scary moments when cars started passing through a road intersecting the loosely organized line of people.  Suddenly, the crowd behind us surged forward to make room for the cars.  I almost panicked when it seemed we might be crushed. After a while, the police got things under control as traffic systems were put in place.  Calm settled over the line once again.

At one point a middle-aged black man with a transistor radio started shouting, “Harvey’s been shot, Harvey’s been shot.”

“Who?” people murmured to each other.  “Who?”

By the time I realized that he meant Lee Harvey Oswald, it hardly seemed to make a difference.  I guess I was in a fugue state, too.  People talked in a desultory fashion about Oswald’s shooting for a while.  Then it became quiet again and the waiting continued.

Finally, the doors to the Capitol opened and the line started to move.  Inside the Rotunda, the stone floor and imposing space seemed to magnify the silence.  The coffin, directly under the huge dome, was surrounded by red velvet ropes and a guard from each branch of the service.  Each man in an ornate uniform stood motionless.  The mourners moved in steady, single file around both sides of the coffin.

I can still picture him lying there as I passed the coffin.  With his red hair and handsome face, JFK looked just as he did when I saw him at the campaign rally at the Waldorf three years earlier.   After the strange all-night vigil, the president’s death finally became real for me.  The deep hush of so many people—though many wept as they shuffled by in the large circle—and most of all seeing that face in its final repose, finally brought home to me that he was dead.  No one close to me had ever died before.  For the first time, as I saw that handsome, vibrant man lying there, the sense of walking in a dream was dispelled.  I started to cry.

As we exited the building, Bill came over and put his arm around me.  Standing at the top of the Capitol steps, I leaned into his chest and sobbed.

None of us wanted to stay for the funeral.  We just got back in the car and returned to New York.  For me, the purpose in going to Washington had been accomplished—the fog had been pierced; I accepted, or at least acknowledged within myself, what had happened.  I had seen him in his coffin.

This is what I’ve remembered through the years that followed.  However—as I discovered to my shock when I recently reviewed newspaper articles from that day—the coffin was never open.  It was closed and covered with the American flag.

The authorities had planned to close the doors to the Rotunda at 9 p.m. on Sunday.  However, due to the unforeseen number of mourners who came to Washington, including thousands of teenagers, it was decided to keep the casket on view as long as people came. By 2:45 a.m., 115,000 people had filed through the Great Rotunda.  Three hundred thousand lined the streets for the funeral on Monday, which I watched on television back in Manhattan Beach.

On Tuesday, November 26th, next to four columns of reportage on the funeral, The New York Times ran a front page article with the headline, “Johnson Affirms Aims in Vietnam—Retains Kennedy’s Policy of Aiding War on Reds….”

The ‘60’s had begun.

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6 thoughts on “1. JFK & Me

  1. Hi Riqui-ji …

    I’m glad to see you going ahead with this. It feels like an honest portrayal of the feelings and experiences you had at the time described in the selection. I remember precisely where I was when this hit the news and my feelings at the time … so I relate to what you wrote.

    All my best wishes for you to continue with this project which I am aware has great importance for you.

    Love, stephen

  2. Great idea to write a blog! I had such a much flatter experience of the assassination and since reading your blog, I’ve been trying to figure out why. It is probably due in part to my mother’s distain for celebrity worship (the whole Camelot thing) and also my increasing involvement with leftist politics. In any event, your blog made me think about my own experience, exactly what good writing is supposed to make the reader do! Congratulations!

    Love, Susan

  3. Hi Rifka,
    So nice to reconnect with you and read this great piece. I especially loved the phrase “the palpable shock of his charisma” which captured so much. Maybe we’ll talk more soon!
    Ellen (from the 2013 Algonkian Pitch Conference)

  4. Hi Rifka, I was teaching in Harlem at a Junior High school when this happened. This was a time when the Black Panthers and the “Five Perecenter’s,” a highly violent group that evolved from The “Black Muslims,” that were killing police and white business owners still in Harlem, were influencing the whole Harlem neighborhood. It wasn’t a safe place to be teaching, especially for a White Jew. And yet when the news was released that President Kennedy was killed, my entire 8th grade class, which were all boys, began to cry. It so much touched my heart and ultimately did much to diffuse racial tension, not only in the school, but throughout the community and the whole world. He was that much loved. Thank you for your beautiful and poignant account of that event. Love and blessings, Alan Gompers

    1. Rifka, I enjoyed reading your entry and look forward to more, and Alan, also very much enjoyed reading your reply. I was in kindergarten when Kennedy was shot. I came home that day and found my mother weeping at the kitchen sink. That is all I remember of the event.

  5. Rifka, you are the only person I know who went to Washington to view Kennedy’s body.
    I remember being outside my HS after the news broke.
    I’m pretty impressed that you remember your thoughts and feelings about the assassination and your trip to Washington, especially since I can’t remember what happened to me yesterday!
    It’ s a very well-written story and I thank you so much for sharing it with me.
    Keep on writing!

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