The 60th Anniversary of the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | November 22, 2023

November 22, 2023
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United States President John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally and Nellie Connally minutes before the assassination. United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division.

Don’t. 

Don’t go. 

It didn’t have to be like this.

He’d been warned. 

He wouldn’t, he couldn’t, listen. 

At 46, he had died so many times, nearly; thought himself, or thought by others, dead: he was fearless, now, when it came to losing his life.

In a motorcade, with a rifle, they could get him anywhere, he said. 

Dallas, they warned, was a “City of Hate.” 

Stevenson, the Ambassador to the U.N., just back from there – mobbed, assaulted, spat upon – warned  him. Don’t go. 

Stanley Marcus, the eponymous owner of Neiman-Marcus and the city’s leading citizen, warned him. Don’t go. 

Senator Fulbright, a segregationist from Arkansas, warned him too. “I wouldn’t go there,” he told JFK, “Don’t you go.” 

Even Kennedy’s father-in-law tried to warn him. “Jack shouldn’t go,” he said, “Too much hate and extremism.” So he called the Oval Office – the President was out – and got Jacqueline instead. Don’t go.  

She said she’d talk to the Secret Service about security. He replied, “I fear you’ll really hate it down there.” She laughed. “I’m sure I’ll hate every goddamn second of it.” 

Disasters, in proportion to their enormity, are made tangible, and so venerated, by the smallest of things. A relic –  the word comes from the Latin verb relinquere – means to “leave behind, or abandon.” Here are a few everyday things left behind, abandoned, by President John F. Kennedy, from the last night and last morning of his life,  before he was assassinated in a motorcade, with a rifle, in a place everyone warned him, don’t go.

1. The Room Key to the Suite at the Texas Hotel Where President Kennedy Spent His Last Night

Key

  1. A notched and grooved, usually metal implement that is turned to open or close a lock.
  2. A determining factor in accomplishing or achieving something
  3. Something that provides access to or understanding of something else

-The Free Dictionary, https://www.thefreedictionary.com/

What remains to be said about the Kennedy assassination? He was vibrant; someone shot him; the world mourned. All the rest is bookshop fodder. 

Generations of historians, forensic scientists, memorialists  -and, even to this day, crackpot theorists – have looked at every fact, angle, and aspect of what happened when, on November 22nd, 1963, at 12:29:45 p.m. Central Standard Time, a 1961 midnight blue Lincoln Continental Limousine traveling at 11.2 miles per hour made its way across latitude 32° 48′ 10.638 longitude -96° 46′ 11.7228.

The limo roof was off, the rear seat raised,  the occupants clearly visible. A former Marine sharpshooter 265 feet away and six floors above viewed the car and its passengers through a 4-power telescopic sight affixed to his mail-order $19.95 6.5×52mm Italian Carcano M91/38 bolt-action rifle. It had a six-round magazine. He fired three shots. In :08.4 seconds, the brightest presidency of the 20th century went dark.

On the day before his death, Jack Kennedy was ebullient – mostly.  His back, which perpetually pained him, felt great. He was getting along with wife who, in testament to this unusual marital harmony, was traveling with him on a political trip. The only irritant was his Texan vice-president, embroiled in that state’s internecine warfare – but the crowds greeting Kennedy had been so overwhelming large and enthusiastic, even Lyndon Johnson’s squabbling and sulking sunk into the background.

November 21st, 1963 saw President and Mrs. Kennedy make a pre-1964 campaign trip from Washington D.C. to three cities in Texas: San Antonio, Houston, and Fort Worth. They rode in 6 motorcades; were cheered by hundreds of thousands of people;  did the things presidents running for re-election do – dedicated a medical center, dined with a newspaper publisher, attended a reception, made speeches to the League of United Latin-American Citizens, Mrs. Kennedy’s in Spanish – and all day, everywhere, shook hands.  Kennedy, apart from his wife, spoke at a congressman’s banquet, and too, had a heated argument with Lyndon Johnson.

Five hours spent in the air, two-and-a-half in motorcades, the rest primarily politicking: that was the last full day of John F. Kennedy’s life. When, past midnight,  he arrived at the Texas Hotel for their overnight stopover in Fort Worth and walked into their three-room suite, number 850, both he and his wife were exhausted. They were so tired, in fact, that they didn’t notice the original art on the walls: Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso. A local group of patrons, wishing to make the Kennedy’s visit memorable – and their sleepy city, look sophisticated – installed for the night an exhibit of locally owned artwork, replete with a catalogue. The President, his right-hand trembling with exhaustion, went to bed with stomach cramps. Mrs. Kennedy slept in a small room facing a parking lot and neon signs – but at two in the morning, feeling uneasy, she slipped into her husband’s room, woke him, and found comfort.

On the morning of November 22nd, and due to leave for Dallas, the Kennedy’s noticed the artwork on the walls. They were astonished. The President immediately called to thank the woman (a staunch Republican) who had organized the private, and welcoming, exhibition. He told her how much it meant to him and his wife; how beautiful the paintings were; how he appreciated all the effort that so many had made. Then Mrs. Kennedy took the phone to proffer her thanks. She didn’t want to leave, she said: it was all too beautiful to let go of so quickly. Then they were gone, and just a little later, to another motorcade, and three shots.

This is the key to Suite 850, on the eighth floor of the Texas Hotel in Fort Worth, where John F. Kennedy spent his last night alive.  It marks, as much as any artifact, the end of a full day, and sleep at last.

2. A Photo From The Day Of His Death: President Kennedy, Flanked By Vice-President Johnson, Gives A Speech

At a little past 7:20 on the morning of November 22nd 1963, two men were preparing to drive the 15 miles into Dallas for work. The passenger placed a long brown paper package on the rear seat. “What’s the package, Lee?” the driver asked. “Curtain rods,” Lee replied.

Some 35 miles away, another man was also preparing to go to work. In a hotel suite of the venerable Fort Worth Texas Holel, he dressed for the day – a task which required, first, a labyrinthine application of ace bandages to a back brace that left him sitting, and standing, ramrod straight. He shaved, received the President’s Intelligence Checklist – it had yet to be renamed the Presidential Daily Briefing – and checked the crowds outside in the drizzle. Some 5,000 working men and women had been waiting in the parking lot for hours to hear him speak. President Kennedy was  delighted: he would need their votes in 1964.

Lee and his brown paper package, meanwhile, had by then arrived at work. The Texas School Book Depository Company, a seven-story brick building, faced Dallas’s Dealy Plaza – a kind of grassy vehicular park serving, proudly, as the gateway to the city.  Lee carried the package inside.

By 8.50 a.m., President Kennedy was standing atop a bedecked flatbed truck in the Hotel Texas parking lot, speaking into a microphone. Behind him stood Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Texas Governor John Connoly, Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, and a Texas State Senator, Don Kennard 

As Kennedy addressed the crowd, teasing about his wife’s non-appearance – “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes longer, but, of course, she looks better than we do when she does it” – everything seem more than fine. He was exultant. “Here in this rain, in Fort Worth… we are going forward!” It was the start of a wonderful day.

Lee, hired as a stock boy, should have been busy fetching books, mostly up and down from the sixth to first floor. That morning, though, he only worked on one order. Someone thought they saw him up on the sixth floor, noonish, near the easternmost freight elevator. He was kicking and shoving cartons around.  

To what end Lee Harvey Oswald was assembling a sniper’s nest, the world would soon know.

3. A Last Thing Signed: John F. Kennedy Autographs a Dallas Newspaper on the Morning of His Murder There

On his way back into the hotel from his speech in the parking lot, JFK stopped to chat, outside, with various well-wishers. He then re-entered the hotel, intent on addressing a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast in the Grand Ballroom; along the way, however, he detoured to speak to Governor Connelly and Senator Yarborough. It was at his point – within a 10-minute window – that a chambermaid, Jan White, encountered the President and his Secret Service detail in a hallway. She asked him to sign a newspaper she had with her. Kennedy read her name on her name tag, and inscribed the photograph of himself and Mrs. Kennedy, on the front page of the November 22, 1963 Dallas Morning News, “To Jan White – John Kennedy.”

It seems unlikely that Kennedy – at the impromptu address in the parking lot; at the breakfast; on the very short flight from Fort Worth to Dallas;  working the fence at Love Field; or in the motorcade – had many (or any) opportunities to sign letters or give autographs after he inscribed this newspaper. Of all the things he might have autographed last, in fact, a newspaper headlining his visit, would seem fitting. It told the story, right up to the minute, of his trip. Why he went – “Split State Party Continues Feuds”, “Yarborough Snubs LBJ”; how it was going – “Storms of Political Controversy Swirls Around Kennedy on Visit; what was coming – “Love Field Braces for Thousands.”  Then too, that the most powerful man in the world, whose 1,000 day presidency was a symbol of transformative promise, could have written his last words to a woman who cleaned hotel rooms, was a gesture, and an irony, that Kennedy may well have appreciated most.

4. Invitation To Texas Breakfast with John F. Kennedy On The Day of His Assassination, November 22, 1963

The crowds had been cheering wildly, all day, whenever they saw the President. They had just waited three-and-a-half hours in the rain for him to emerge from his Fort Worth hotel. “There are no faint hearts in Fort Worth!” he’d told them, to yet more huzzahs. At the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Texas, a few minutes later, the Chamber of Commerce Breakfast guests waited for him to join them strained on tiptoes, excited, as he glided in from a kitchen entrance. In another ten minutes all two thousand of them would leap to their feet, cheering, when Mrs. Kennedy, clad in a pink suit and matching pink pillbox hat, joined them. In his speech to the group Kennedy joked “Two years ago I introduced myself in Paris as the man who accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I’m getting somewhat that same sensation…” Above the cheering, he added, grinning, “Nobody cares what Lyndon [Vice-President Johnson] and I wear…” A little after 10 a.m., the Kennedys had made it back upstairs to their hotel suite.

But by 10:30 they had flown away; by 11:40 they had touched down at Love Field in Dallas and at 11:55, their motorcade was finally underway.

This ticket is to the November 22, 1963 Chamber of Commerce breakfast at which Kennedy spoke, and Mrs. Kennedy appeared.  As such, it is a relic of the beginning of the end.

~

1. [John F. Kennedy: Assassination] Skelton-Type Key to Suite 850 on the 8th Floor of the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth; no date or place. The head is stamped “The Texas Fort Worth” on one side and “850” on the verso.

Suite 850 was where President John F. Kennedy, accompanied by his wife, spent his last night alive, November 21-22, 1963. This key may or may not be the one used by the President’s party.

2. [John F. Kennedy: Assassination] Photo, black and white, oblong folio, taken by Gene Gordon – a photographer at the Fort Worth Press – of President Kennedy speaking from a bedecked flatbed truck in the Hotel Texas parking lot Fort Worth, Texas on the morning of November 22, 1963.

Also depicted, standing behind the President, are Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Texas Governor John Connoly Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, and Texas State Senator, Don Kennard.

3. Newspaper, Signed, as President, being the front page of the November 22, 1963 (morning) edition of the Dallas Morning News; 1 page, elephant folio [app. 14.5 x 22.5 inches], signed in Fort Worth, Texas though datelined, in print, Dallas. Inscribed in blue ballpoint – across a photo of himself and Mrs. Kennedy in Texas – to a Fort Worth hotel chambermaid, Jan White. Of extreme rarity on this day and quite possibly, a last – if not the last – thing JFK signed. Used with the permission of Shapell legacy partnership.

4. [John F. Kennedy – Assassination] Ft. Worth Breakfast Ticket. 3 3/4″ x 2 3/8″ card-stock ticket for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce “Breakfast with President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy Friday, November 22, 1963, Grand Ballroom – Hotel Texas.”

This ticket was acquired by Fort Worth attorney Donald C. Bubar, charged by the Chamber of Commerce with assisting the Secret Service during the event.  

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