"High Hopes" Exhibition Comes to the Oregon Historical Society in Portland
The centenary of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is being celebrated at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland. An exhibition, opening March 25th under the banner "High Hopes: The Journey of John F. Kennedy,” is expected to be of special interest to at least the three-quarters of Americans who rate Kennedy the best president of modern times. On loan to the exhibit from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation are 22 pieces: some well-known, some iconic, some revelatory, some plain poignant. They date from 1942, with JFK requesting sea duty on a PT vessel, to a last thing signed on November 22, 1963 to, even, something from beyond the grave: a letter dated the day after his funeral. That incredibly rare "ghost letter" is our focus here.
I think that I should have known that he was magic all along... - Jacqueline Kennedy, on the first anniversary of her husband's death, 1964
Frank Sinatra’s "High Hopes" was big in 1959, the song bigger by far than the movie in which it was first heard. It was a jaunty, upbeat, infectious song - a perfect campaign theme for young Jack Kennedy. So a friend re-wrote the lyrics, Frank Sinatra sang them, another friend conducted, and in February 1960, the 45 rpm record "High Hopes With Jack Kennedy" became the Kennedy campaign's soundtrack, all the way through the primaries to the closing number of the famous Inaugural-Eve Armory Ball show. But if "...High hopes, he's got high hopes, nineteen sixty's the year for his high hopes" were the first song lyrics associated with the charismatic Kennedy, the lyrics of "Camelot" would be the last. It was JFK's favorite song, and the concluding couplet, his favorite part: “Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” His widow, Jacqueline, four days after his burial, told a biographer about how he would listen to the song before bed, and how she believed it reminded him of the stories about King Arthur he so loved as a boy. "You must think of him as this little boy, sick so much of the time," she insisted, "reading in bed, reading history, reading the Knights of the Round Table..."
Camelot - that elegiac and magic moment in American history when, legend decreed, gallant heroes would do great deeds - may have begun, then, the very instant when the newly sworn-in president declared, midday on January 20th, 1961, in Washington D.C., that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." Suddenly it seemed as if everything old and grey in American life, was, that dazzling noon, replaced by the young and beautiful. For an electrifying 1000 days, the administration of John F. Kennedy would try to confront new challenges and right old wrongs - and with such flash and verve, that it brightened the country and, indeed the world. But no light burns forever - and on another noon, in Dallas, on November 22, 1963, it went black. Yet there was, just then, across the country, in the mail, a letter, carrying an eerie spark into the dark future.
Congressman Dan Flood of Pennsylvania was old-school, and a letter from the president on his birthday was the sort of thing it was savvy to send him: Flood liked attention from On High. Kennedy, about to leave on a political trip out west, took care to cover his eastern flank with this letter, and so signed and sent it to arrive with his "warmest congratulations" on Flood's 60th birthday, November 26th, 1963 - which would be, that awful year, the day after his own funeral.
President Kennedy, wont to wander around the West Wing and look at whatever was on a desk, occasionally grabbed a stack of unsigned letters - probably waiting to be signed by the presidential autopen machine - and walk off with them to sign himself. Whether this routine content letter was one such, or whether he took care to sign a letter to a powerful congressional ally himself, is unknown, but right before he left for Dallas, it is believed he signed at least more than this one post-dated letter. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library reckons there are a few; perhaps, even, perhaps, as many as a dozen. They have yet, however, to appear.~
November 26, 1963
Dear Congressman Dan:
Please accept my warmest congratulations on your birthday. I hope that this will be a happy and memorable occasion and that the years to come will bring you continued health and happiness.
JOHN F. KENNEDY. 1917 - 1963. The 35th President of the United States.
Typed Letter Signed, as President, with one word autograph salutation, 1 page, quarto, The White House, November 26, 1963; to "Dan", being Congressman Daniel J. Flood. Although dated November 26, Kennedy was as of that date, dead four days - and so this post-dated birthday message is extremely rare.
DANIEL J. FLOOD. 1903-1994. A flamboyant and long-serving Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania. He was censured for bribery and resigned from the House in 1980.
This rare letter and other Shapell Manuscript Foundation original autograph material will be on display at the Oregon Historical Society’s "High Hopes: The Journey of John F. Kennedy" exhibition in Portland, on view from March 25- November 12, 2017.
Of Related Interest: "High Hopes with Jack Kennedy," Kennedy campaign song, recorded by Frank Sinatra, February 1960.