John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1917-1963

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November 28, 1963, Vol. IX, No. 6

JFK, 1917-1963

By Suzanne Kiplinger

All of us will remember where we were at 2 o'clock Friday for the rest of our lives. There is a sense in which it was not so much a public event as something which happened to each of us. For a generation of children, it was a first encounter with death. "Do you know what happened to Gwen?" asked my four-year-old when I got home late that afternoon. She told me wondering, about "a naughty man," the President, and the tears of the neighbor who had taken care of her. It did, indeed, "happen to Gwen" -- as it did to me, to you, and to my little daughter.

Early that afternoon I had been in a room 20 stories up in a mid-Manhattan building, when the man to whom I was talking was interrupted by a telephone call which told him of the shooting, but not the death. He rushed to get a small transistor radio, which he put on the table between us. We listened, tears standing in our eyes. Nothing was definite, and neither of us felt like continuing our discussion. I took the elevator down the 20 floors to the street; realizing I was around the corner from St. Patrick's Cathedral, I went there to see if an announcement had been made. I entered at one of the side doors near the high altar. Already people were beginning to come; the nave at the Fifth Avenue entrance was crowded.

Four priests in black cassocks were kneeling at the altar, one of them announcing over the public address system that the condition of both the President and the Governor was serious, and asking for prayers. Then all four of them filed out to a room at the rear left of the altar. In the short interval that followed, many more people came hurrying in, women not even waiting to find a covering for their heads, only crossing themselves, and kneeling to wait. In a very few minutes the four priests appeared in the doorway of the room, conferred, and walked back in. All four knelt again, facing the altar. They glanced briefly at each other, then faced the crucifix as the eldest picked up a microphone. There was a clicking and bumping on the loudspeakers as he lifted it to his mouth. "We have just received word," he said in firm tones, "that the President has died."

...I stayed a few minutes, then walked down the nave toward the center doors, where Rockefeller Center's huge vulgar Atlas wierdly confronts the crucifix. As more and more people poured in, there was still no display of emotion: women's eyes were wide and wet, many men seemed to have all expression wiped off their faces -- on a few there was a look of intense, restrained pain, almost of internal injury without blood. Everyone seemed stripped of the usual layering of personality. Somehow this event had shaken pretense, ambition, cupidity, and anxiety out of us all. Well-dressed, beautifully groomed women shed all air of seductiveness like an ill-fitting coat, and walked rapidly and red-eyed up the aisle. Protestants, many of them men, came in and, passing the holy water, stood awkwardly at the back of the church, heads bowed, giving John Fitzgerald Kennedy their respects in his own church. Most startling to me were men I saw here and there in the crowd, clearly Madison Avenue types: like everyone else, they seemed to feel an obligation to honor a physically courageous leader with no outward show of grief, but their eyes were wide and anguished, mouths set, faces blank. Slim and elegant, they almost ran into the cathedral and, flinging down attache cases and Brooks Brothers coats, incredibly fell to their knees. This was no Sunday piety: the strangeness of these faces was so great that one could only conjuncture some confrontation with self. Was it that they had identified with Kennedy's wealth, grace, power, and possessions, and that now they were also confronted with his death? I don't know.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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