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Childhood memories of JFK's assassination

Liz Smith

I asked my good friend Walter Owens, the writer-editor of Vanity Fair magazine, for permission to print his childhood memories of the JFK assassination, which he wrote last year to mark that earth-shattering event. On the eve of that solemn, history-making anniversary, I give you his thoughts of Nov. 22, 1963.

"NO one wanted to be left behind. And then, 51 years ago today, all of us were," Walter wrote.

When my father, a loud man of infectious enthusiasms, moved us from Montreal to Dallas in 1961, he said we'd be living next door to Mickey Mantle. We did, sort of. But the real thrill was that we were now living in a country led by the most urbane, glamorous, and witty president in history.

Fifty-one years ago today, my father was on his way to a lunch at the Dallas Trade Mart, where John F. Kennedy was to give an address. I doubt the births of his five children excited him as much as the possibility that he might shake hands with Kennedy that afternoon.

Whenever my father was home, the air was full of talk of "promise" and "opportunity" and "can-do" and "pragmatism." You could not be a young boy in our house and not think you ought to grow up to be like Kennedy. Once, stepping into the shower in the middle of the day, my father advised me "You know Kennedy showers three times a day." (Never mind the possible extramarital reasons either of them may have had for midday showers.) We had moved to Dallas so my father could run the largest downtown development in the city's history. I barely remember that being mentioned.

I was in class at St. Marks School of Texas when Kennedy was shot. In the early afternoon of November 22, 1963, my mother picked me up from school. The radio was on. I don't remember what was said, but I remember being very sad -- and not knowing exactly why this was so different from the feeling I had when they were packing up the summerhouse at the lake. I suspect now that in my child's mind, I was sure that the death of this man Kennedy was, in some way, the death of something in my father.

I remember only the black-and-white images on television in the days that followed. My loud father was silent. In line at the school cafeteria, some of the boys said they were happy about the assassination. My mother told me they were only repeating what their parents said. Later, she liked to boast that I had brawled with the sons of the "Texan Kennedy Haters." (I hadn't. She was confusing them with sons of "the Texan Racists," whom I had scrapped with.) My mother's finishing school in Switzerland had done nothing to prepare her for Dallas society in the 1960s, and she did little to accommodate what she called "the vulgarity" of the place. Fifty-one years later, mention of Dallas still brings the color to her face.

But my Canadian father loved America as only a striving and talented provincial could. Kennedy's promise that all men could be free, that even the moon was within reach, gave the country -- powerful, yet still young and crude compared to the ones it had just rescued from barbarism, and uncertain in the face of the new nuclear threat it faced overseas -- the elan it needed to face the future with a belief in its capacity for greatness. Kennedy was on the move. None of us wanted to be left behind.

Thank you, Walter!

MIKE Nichols and I had just had a seemingly healthy exchange of emails so I am surprised and devastated by his departure on last Wednesday night.

All I can say is he was a unique and unusually gifted human being. How well I remember 4-29-88 when he and Diane Sawyer were married. They had 26 years of happiness.

I kept framed in my apartment The New York Daily News front page and the headline "Solid Gold Nichols."

(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)

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