Chapter 27. Life in Camelot: Kennedy at Newport

 

John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1960. Coming off the relative peace and economic growth of the 1950s, Americans were ready for something new in politics. Kennedy with his youth and drive held out the promise of renewal. There was such great enthusiasm and high expectations around Kennedy that the brief period of his presidency has been referred to as Camelot. And it was indeed a Camelot in the sense that Americans believed they could accomplish almost anything. Looking back on that time, a time before the assassinations of John Kennedy himself, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, and before the divisiveness and pain of the Vietnam War, it does appear as a period of great hopes and dreams of near mythic proportions.

John F. Kennedy was the son of Joseph P. Kennedy. Joseph, son of a Massachusetts Irish political family, wisely invested monies from the liquor business to build a considerable fortune. Indeed, at one time he was at one time the twelfth richest man in the country.

Joseph broke with Catholic tradition to send his children to Boston's wealthy private academies and then on to Harvard. After graduation from Harvard John Kennedy served as an officer in the United States Navy. A Japanese destroyer literally sliced in two the PT boat he commanded. Kennedy showed such courage and resourcefulness in rescuing crew members that he emerged a war hero.

Kennedy ran successfully for Congress in 1946 from one of Boston's city districts. After two terms in the House, he won election to the Senate in 1952. In 1954, during a convalescence period following a back operation, he and several associates wrote the book Profiles in Courage, which profiled the lives of those who had shown extraordinary political courage.

Kennedy wanted someday to run for the presidency. Knowing the electorate prefers married men, this perennial bachelor started a serious hunt for a wife. At a dinner party in his Georgetown home, Charles Bartlett first introduced Kennedy to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1951. The two did not hit it off immediately. They dated occasionally, but not until Jack took his seat as a freshman in the Senate in 1953 did he start to pay more serious attention to Jackie.

Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, made a good selection when he chose Jackie. Society had not accepted the Kennedy family, partly because of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish bias. Kennedy never eliminated, but certainly alleviated, this bias by marrying into the Bouvier/Auchincloss families. The Bouviers, a family of French descent, had been in the New York Social Register since 1889. (Jackie's mother, Janet Lee, however, was all Irish Catholic). Likewise, the Auchincloss family had long been in the Social Register.

Jackie was born in 1929. When she was seven years old her parents had a trial separation of six month's duration, followed by a divorce in 1940. Her mother married Hugh D. Auchincloss in 1942. At age thirteen Jackie found herself living in different places: at the Auchincloss houses at Newport, Rhode Island and McClean, Virginia and the various residences of her father, Jack Bouvier.

Hammersmith Farm
Off Harrison Avenue, Newport, RI (Open daily 10-7, Memorial Day to Labor Day; daily 10-5, Apr to mid-Nov; last two weekends 10-5, Mar & Nov)

In 1887 John W. Auchincloss purchased ninety-seven acres of land that had once been granted to William Brenton, a surveyor for English King Charles I. The Tory Brenton family lost this property through confiscation following the Revolutionary War. R. H. Robertson of New York designed the house in the shingle style for the Auchincloss family.

John Auchincloss sold the place to his younger brother, Hugh D. Auchincloss. Hugh's son, Hugh Jr., married Janet Lee Bouvier, Jackie's mother. There were at one time seven children living at Hammersmith Farm: Jackie and her sister Lee; Hugh D. Auchincloss III (son by Hugh Auchincloss's marriage to Mya Charapovitsky); Tommy and Nina Auchincloss (son and Daughter by Auchincloss's marriage to Nina Gore Vidal--Gore Vidal the writer is a half- brother to Nina and Tommy); and Janet and Jamie (offspring of Hugh D. Auchincloss and Janet Lee Bouvier).

On the tour of the house the visitor sees Jackie's bedroom. It is a surprisingly simple room. There is a white painted desk and bedsteads with a view of Narragansett Bay. You will also see the guest room where Jack Kennedy stayed while courting Jackie.

In September 1953 Jack Kennedy married Jacqueline in St. Mary's Church in downtown Newport. Mrs. Auchincloss, Jackie's mother, prevented her father, who stayed in the nearby Viking Motel, from attending the ceremony. The wedding reception was held on the west lawn of Hammersmith Farm. At the house is the huge center hall stairs from which Jackie threw her wedding bouquet and the formal living room where the wedded couple stood on line receiving guests for two and a half hours.

In 1960 Kennedy went after the Democratic presidential nomination. He was immensely helped by the efforts of his family, both in terms of time and money. He entered seven widely separated state primaries and won them all. Nominated for the presidency on the first ballot, he persuaded the convention to accept Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson as his running mate. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 election, and assumed the office of the presidency in January 1961.

The new president was immediately faced with the Bay of Pigs Crisis. The decision not to provide air support to the anti- Castro forces that landed at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba, doomed the attack to failure. Kennedy recovered from this disaster by facing down the Soviets during the Cuban missile blockade. (The Soviet Union has been placing missiles on Cuban soil.)

With his great enthusiasm and leadership, the president became very popular with the American public. Jackie, with her good looks and charm, became even more popular. All this popularity, however, was not translatable into progress on the President's New Frontier programs. For instance, Republicans and Southern Democrats were able to bottle up his civil rights bill. Nevertheless, his support for civil rights encouraged the growth of the civil rights movement in this country.

During his term in office, the President visited Hammersmith Farm on a number of occasions. Available for viewing at the home is the Auchincloss master bedroom that the Kennedys used on their visits. The room has double beds with bedspreads that match the wallpaper, which is a actually stretched bedspread fabric.

Hammersmith Farm illustrates the differences between the backgrounds of the Kennedys and the Bouvier-Auchinclosses, for Jackie was a very different person from her husband. She was reclusive, while Jack loved people. One of her greatest loves was horses, while her husband was allergic to animals. Jack once complained to Larry Newman (reported in Ralph Martin's A Hero for Our Time) that he hated the place because there was nothing to do except watch a bunch of ponies and horses run around in the backyard.

Tragically, Kennedy's reign was cut short by an assassin's bullets in Dallas, Texas November 1963. Perhaps his death was not in vain for President Johnson was able to push through Congress a number of civil rights bills.

Other Sites

See the two chapters on the mansions of Newport.

 

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