Fifty years after his assassination, President John F. Kennedy’s legend endures. Noted author and historian Thurston Clarke reexamines the last months of the president’s life to show a man in the midst of great change, both in his family and in the key issues of his day: the cold war, civil rights, and Vietnam, finally on the cusp of making good on his extraordinary promise. JFK’s Last Hundred Days presents a gripping account that weaves together Kennedy’s public and private lives, explains why the grief following his assassination has endured so long, and solves the most tantalizing Kennedy mystery of them all—not who killed him but who he was when he was killed and where he would have led us.
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December 31, 1962
What makes journalism so fascinating, and biography so interesting [is] the struggle to answer that single question: “What’s he like.”
—John F. Kennedy
Elaine de Kooning, a garrulous, promiscuous, hard-drinking Greenwich Village bohemian who had flirted with communism and championed the death-row inmate Caryl Chessman, came to the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach on the morning of December 31, 1962, to paint a portrait of President John F. Kennedy for the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. The artist William Walton, a close friend of the president and First Lady, had recommended her because he knew that Kennedy was too restless to tolerate a formal sitting and expected that de Kooning, who was known as “The Fastest Brush in the East,” could finish a portrait after a single session. After years of working in the shadow of her estranged husband, the famous abstract artist Willem de Kooning, she had earned a reputation as a figurative expressionist who could capture the essence of a subject in the vivid colors and bold brushstrokes of abstract art, and Walton and the Truman Library trustees were undoubtedly expecting a portrait like her celebrated take on the painter Robert De Niro, Sr. (father of the actor Robert De Niro), praised by one dealer as “a stunning resemblance that expresses so much character in a nearly abstract painting.”
She arrived to find Kennedy huddled on the patio with reporters and had trouble picking him out. She had expected, she said, the “gray, sculptural” man of the newspaper photographs. Instead, he was “incandescent, golden” and “bigger than life,” no taller than the other men, but inhabiting “a different dimension.” She had planned on making some quick sketches and finishing the portrait in the temporary studio she had established in an abandoned West Palm Beach theater. But after a morning with him, she decided he was too intriguing and changeable a subject for a single sitting to suffice and stayed four days. She perched on a ladder above him, sat on a stool opposite him, or stood at an easel, watching as he nervously riffled through papers, patted his hair, and crossed and uncrossed his legs. Phones rang; aides hurried across the flagstone patio; his son, John Jr., tossed pebbles into the swimming pool; and his daughter, Caroline, appeared and stood next to de Kooning with her own easel, sketching him until he came over and drew a cat on her pad.
De Kooning drew him sitting and standing, full face and in profile, arms akimbo or folded over his chest, wearing dark glasses or squinting into the sun. She was a handsome and lively woman whose wit was as quick as her brush. They joked, flirted, and he threw a leg over the arm of a chair, putting his crotch at the center of her sketch and asking, “Is this pose all right?”
“Well, it’s supposed to be an official portrait,” she said.
He smiled and held the pose.
She thought, I’ll take what I get, and kept working.
She papered the theater with sketches, charcoals, and watercolors, and worked late into the night. The more she drew him, the more he fascinated her, and frustrated her attempts to capture his essence in a single portrait. She began working on several canvases at once. She was intrigued by his “transparent ruddiness,” how his smile and frown both appeared “built-in to the bone,” “the curious faceted structure of light over his face and hair,” and the way this contributed to his “extraordinary variety of expressions.” She was mesmerized by his eyes—“incredible eyes with large violet irises half veiled by the jutting bone beneath his eyebrows”—and liked the way he instinctively assumed “the graceful positions of a college athlete.” She told friends she was “in love with his mind” and captivated “by the idea of such a gallant, intelligent, handsome man leading the country and the world.” She also admitted falling “a teeny little bit in love with him.”
She returned to New York with dozens of sketches and uncompleted portraits. Soon there were more. She realized that she had seen only one facet of him while his staff saw another, as did a public that saw him only on a two-dimensional television screen or in a photograph. She began sketching him when he appeared on television, and clipping his photographs from newspapers and magazines, tacking them to her walls and using them as models for more drawings and oils. Soon she was painting only him.
Walton visited her studio in early November 1963 to find photographs and sketches of Kennedy scattered across the floor, and the walls covered with so many of her studies that she had to climb a ladder to reach them all. Thirty-eight oils between two and eleven feet high and in various stages of completion leaned against walls and sat on easels. He was larger than life and smaller, youthful and athletic, mature and reserved, wearing a two-button suit or polo shirt, standing or sitting in the eye of a hurricane of vibrant colors. After running out of space, she had papered her living quarters with more sketches and photographs so that whenever she cooked, ate, took a bath, used the toilet, or made love, she saw him. A photograph shows her surrounded by photographs, drawings, and oils, as if trapped in a maze of mirrors reflecting and re-reflecting his image. It was testimony to the difficulty and vastness of the task she had assumed: capturing the essence of one of the most complicated and enigmatic men ever to occupy the White House.
The playwright Robert Sherwood once spoke of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “heavily forested interior.” Kennedy’s was, by comparison, the heart of the Amazon. His friend and groomsman Edmund Gullion spoke of “a shrinking from ostentation or display or for revealing himself or letting go with his emotions that doesn’t give the chronicler much to go on.” Laura Bergquist of Look, who understood him better than any other female reporter, believed that no one “knew the total of him” and called him the “prismatic president” because of the way he cultivated people to serve different needs and play different roles. When she asked, “What does it feel like to be president?” he had nervously rubbed his ankles, fingered his tie, jumped up from his rocking chair, and paced around the room before saying, “Let’s go on to another question. I’m not very good at that couch talk.”
Ted Sorensen, who had been his principal aide and speechwriter for ten years but seldom socialized with him, decided that “different parts of his life, works, and thoughts were seen by many people—but no one saw it all,” adding, “He sometimes obscured his motives and almost always shielded his emotions.” After observing him during the 1960 campaign, the author Norman Mailer concluded that his most characteristic quality was “the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others.” The journalist Charlie Bartlett, who had introduced him to Jackie, said flatly, “No one ever knew John Kennedy, not all of him.”
Because he compartmentalized his friends and family, parts of him remained hidden even to those who thought they knew him best. His brother Bobby was his attorney general and de facto assistant president, but when he and the former cabinet member Abraham Ribicoff went sailing off Palm Beach after Dallas, Ribicoff was shocked to find that he knew things about Jack that Bobby did not. The experience confirmed his sense that Kennedy was a “very introverted man” who had “kept a lot of things to himself,” and had “only exposed different facets of himself to different people.” He even bewildered Jackie, who called him “a simple man, yet so complex that he would frustrate anyone trying to understand him,” and “a romantic, although he didn’t like people to know that.” She concluded that “to reveal yourself is difficult and almost dangerous for people like that [the Kennedys]—I’d say Jack didn’t want to reveal himself at all.”
His fondness for secrecy contributed to his elusiveness. He took French lessons and swore his teacher to silence because he wanted to “surprise the world.” He sent a friend abroad as a clandestine emissary without informing the State Department, and asked a neighbor in Hyannis Port to run a parallel campaign organization, telling him to communicate via a post office box and coded address so that his secretary Evelyn Lincoln could give it to him directly, and “nobody else’s eyes will get to see it.”
His contradictory qualities were another barrier. He was a brass-knuckles politician and an idealist whose rhetoric encouraged nobility and sacrifice; a reckless driver but a cautious politician; a man who disliked close physical contact, even with his best friends, but who had a voracious sexual appetite. He was known for his wit and humanity, and for being chilly and remote. He gave the impression of being comfortable in his own skin, but he abhorred solitude. More than most presidents—more than most middle-aged men—he was a work in progress, a moving target for anyone trying to capture him on a canvas or in prose. The literary critic Alfred Kazin decided his most essential quality was “that of the man who is always making and remaking himself,” and called him “the final product of a fanatical job of self-remodeling.”
When Kennedy was a young man his father frequently told him, “Can’t you get it into your head that it’s not important what you really are? The only important thing is what people think you are!” He took this advice to heart, perhaps too much. Mailer wondered if his “elusive detachment” signified “the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.” Bergquist detected a vulnerability and insecurity, “not simply because he was part of the upward-mobile Irish, but because I think he recognized himself as an image that had been manufactured. And the question came up: ‘Who loves me and wants me for myself, and who loves me for what they think I am, and what I can do?’” While attempting to seduce a young Pulitzer Prize–winning historian in 1953 he had leaped up from a sofa, grabbed her by the shoulders, and exclaimed, “I’m sad; I’m gay; I’m melancholy; I’m gloomy—I’m all mixed up, and don’t know how I am!”
De Kooning’s obsession may have bordered on madness, but her approach was sound. She understood that to discover the essence of a man who compartmentalized his life, you had to look into all his compartments, and to paint a portrait of a prismatic president, you had to view him through every prism. The following attempts to do with words what she was attempting with paints: to view John F. Kennedy through every prism and search through all his compartments during the crucial last hundred days of his life—days that saw him finally beginning to realize his potential as a man and a president—in order to solve the most tantalizing mystery of all: not who killed him, but who he was when he was killed, and where he would have led us.
August 7–14, 1963
PROLOGUE TO THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS
Even though people may be well known, they still hold in their hearts the emotions of a simple person for the moments that are the most important of those we know on earth—birth, marriage, and death.
WASHINGTON, CAPE COD, AND BOSTON
John F. Kennedy’s second son was born twenty years to the day after the Navy rescued Kennedy from the group of Pacific islands where he had been marooned for five days after a Japanese destroyer rammed his torpedo boat, PT 109, slamming him against the cockpit wall and killing two crewmen. The medal that he won for “courage, endurance, and excellent leadership” and “extremely heroic conduct” during these five days, and John Hersey’s account of his heroics in TheNew Yorker, became the early engines of his political career. He answered questions about his exploits with a self-deprecating “It was involuntary, they sank my boat,” but he arranged things so that seldom a moment passed without his eyes resting on some reminder of PT 109. When he looked across the Oval Office he saw a scale model of the boat on a shelf, and when he looked up from his papers he saw on his desk the coconut shell onto which he had carved his SOS: “Nauro Isl Commander—Native knows Pos’it—He can pilot 11 alive—Need small boat—Kennedy.” When he emerged from his helicopter at the family compound in Hyannis Port he heard his nieces and nephews chanting, “In ’forty-three, they went to sea! / Thirteen men and Kennedy! / To seek the blazing enemy!” and saw on the beach the dinghy he had christened PT 109½. Twice a day he swam the breaststroke in the White House pool, the same stroke he had used while towing a badly burned crewman through shark-infested waters for five hours, gripping the strap of his life preserver in his teeth. Every morning he fastened his tie with a metal clasp shaped like a torpedo boat with “PT 109” stamped on its bow, and because he had given copies of this clasp to his friends and aides, he saw it whenever they walked into his office. All of which may explain why Kennedy’s friend and fellow World War II naval veteran Ben Bradlee is certain that when Evelyn Lincoln hurried into the Oval Office at 11:43 a.m. on August 7, 1963, to report that Jackie had gone into premature labor on Cape Cod, there was “no way on God’s earth” that he did not think,My child is being born twenty years to the day after I was rescued, a coincidence providing an additional emotional dimension to a day that would be among his most traumatic.
Jackie had been scheduled for a cesarean section at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Hospital in September, but because John Kennedy, Jr., had arrived prematurely almost three years earlier, the Air Force had prepared a suite for her at the Otis Air Force Base Hospital. Kennedy had asked her obstetrician, John Walsh, and her White House physician, Janet Travell, to vacation on the Cape that summer. He called Travell before flying to Otis, and she reported that Walsh had taken Jackie to the hospital and was preparing to perform an emergency cesarean. Jackie would be fine, she said, but a baby born six weeks prematurely had only a fifty/fifty chance of surviving.
If there was ever a time when Kennedy could imagine beating these odds, it was the summer of 1963, a splendid season that his brother Bobby recalled being “the happiest time of his administration.” On June 28 he had given his Ich bin ein Berliner oration, a stirring summation of the difference between democratic and totalitarian states (and probably the finest speech delivered by an American president on foreign soil), to a quarter of a million Germans filling the future John F. Kennedy Platz. After Air Force One took off for Dublin he told Ted Sorensen, “We’ll never have another day like this one as long as we live,” but he was soon describing his visit to his ancestral villages in Ireland as the three happiest days of his life. The day after returning from Europe he went to Hyannis Port for a Fourth of July he called “the greatest weekend of my life.” After disembarking from his helicopter he had embraced Jackie, surprising reporters who had never seen them hug or walk arm in arm. The weather had been superb, three sparkling summer days. He felt healthier than he had in years, “bursting with vigor,” according to Dr. Travell. He took long swims, flew kites with John off the back of the Honey Fitz, the presidential cabin cruiser, and because his chronic back pain had largely vanished, played golf for the first time since 1961. He screened a film of his Irish trip on three straight evenings, and when he could not persuade anyone but his brother Ted to sit through it again they watched it alone, prompting his former Navy buddy Paul (“Red”) Fay to complain, “All we are getting here still is his Irish visit. . . . Jack brings the conversation back round to it and invariably shows the film which I have now seen for the sixth time.”
Excerpted from "JFK's Last Hundred Days"
Copyright © 2014 Thurston Clarke.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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What People are Saying About This
The three-months before President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas were frenetic times: civil rights, Vietnam, Berlin and reelection were on his mind. Thurston Clarke's JFK's Last Hundred Days does a marvelous job of reliving Camelot's fragile promise. Clarke is a masterful storyteller and able researcher. This book sings. Highly recommended. —Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of Cronkite
Christian Science Monitor's 10 Best Books of July
A Daily Beast "Brainy Beach Read"
"A real page-turner… makes for a great and stimulating vacation read… deftly weav[es] together the private, personal, and intimate with the public, the political, and the-then-secret public and political, makes one want to keep reading to find out even more of the scoop."
"[A] compelling portrait of one of the towering figures of 20th-century America."
—Christian Science Monitor
"A fascinating analysis of what was… and what might have been."
"Demonstrates that three often painful years in office had taught Kennedy valuable lessons… Clarke delivers a thoroughly delightful portrait."
"Camelot devotees will relish insider details, from descriptions of an obviously depressed Vice President Johnson 'growling at anyone who disturbed him' to dismissive jabs at Sen. Barry Goldwater taken from the president’s official diary."
"A graceful, bittersweet chronicle… Clarke clearly admires Kennedy but does not ignore his flaws… an absorbing narrative."
"Thurston Clarke has done the seemingly impossible: he has found a revealing new angle of vision on John F. Kennedy that brings the president and his times back to vivid life. This is excellent narrative history."
—Jon Meacham, New York Times bestselling author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
“Clarke makes the drama, the excitement, and the dark side of Camelot seem like only yesterday—indeed, you feel as though you’re right there, in the Kennedy White House, at Hyannis Port, and aboard Air Force One with JFK, today.”
—Strobe Talbott, President, Brookings Institution
"A fascinating, close-up look at the final dramatic months of a young president's life. Thurston Clarke's portrait of Kennedy is masterful in this compelling convergence of history and biography."
—Bob Herbert, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and former Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times
"The three-months before President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas were frenetic times: civil rights, Vietnam, Berlin and reelection were on his mind. Thurston Clarke's JFK's Last Hundred Days does a marvelous job of reliving Camelot's fragile promise. Clarke is a masterful storyteller and able researcher. This book sings. Highly recommended."
—Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of Cronkite
Thurston Clarke has done the seemingly impossible: he has found a revealing new angle of vision on John F. Kennedy that brings the president and his times back to vivid life. This is excellent narrative history. —Jon Meacham, New York Times bestselling author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Clarke makes the drama, the excitement, and the dark side of Camelot seem like only yesterdayindeed, you feel as though you're right there, in the Kennedy White House, at Hyannis Port, and aboard Air Force One with JFK, today. —Strobe Talbott, President, Brookings Institution