New books on the market focus on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. )
For baby boomers and their elders, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, was a sad historical marker, a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy that stopped the nation in its tracks for several days.
It was probably the first time there was almost round-the-clock news coverage of an event, with disheveled TV anchors reporting the news as it happened — live news cameras broadcast the murder of his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Dallas businessman Jack Ruby as Oswald was led through a hallway by police.
Over the years there have been many books written about the assassination, with a whole subgenre devoted to conspiracy theories. Because of the impending 50th anniversary of the president’s death, a mountain of new books has been published.
Author Bill Minutaglio was only in the third grade when Kennedy was assassinated, but when he moved to Dallas and became a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, he was intrigued to find that the window by his desk looked out on the assassination site. He was surprised that outside, he could step right into Elm Street, onto the very spot where Kennedy’s car was passing when he was hit.
“I was befuddled that it wasn’t hermetically sealed and under some sort of cone of respect,” Minutaglio said at last week’s Metro Detroit Book & Author Luncheon in Livonia. “There seemed to be a mixture of shame and ambivalence in Dallas about the assassination. But how do you address something like that?”
Minutaglio thought a lot about the assassination over the years, and wondered if there was any angle that hadn’t been explored. Finally, he hit upon one. “I always felt that there was something in the shadows, that Dallas itself was a protagonist in the story,” he said.
And so Minutaglio researched and wrote “Dallas 1963” (Twelve) with Steven L. Davis. The book gives a vivid sense of the social and political currents in early ’60s Dallas that led to things like the “mink coat riot” in the foyer of a fashionable Dallas hotel, when well-heeled, anti-Kennedy locals surrounded Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, spitting and shoving at them.
Then there was Dallas oilman H.L. Hunt, who financed fliers, booklets and radio shows denouncing Kennedy. “The world’s richest man (Hunt) wanted Kennedy out of office and wanted to rewrite the Constitution so that rich people had seven votes, and the poorest people had no votes at all,” Minutaglio said. “There was a real toxic brew of extremism in Dallas — Kennedy didn’t realize what was awaiting him there.”
There are boatloads of books about the assassination, and the late president’s life and times.
But despite the reams of copy about the Kennedys over the years, some facts have become muddied with time. Several in the new crop of books offer the detail that Jackie Kennedy was wearing a pink “Chanel suit” on Nov. 22, when in fact it was a high-end copy of a 1961 design by Coco Chanel. She had been asked not to wear Parisian couture so as not to offend the American fashion industry.
There are some things that may be clearer to the constant reader than to the author. Australian author/detective Colin McLaren wonders about an incident early during the fatal motorcade, caught on TV news film, when a reluctant Secret Service agent was ordered by his superior to stay away from the president’s limousine, where he might have protected him. But it was well known that the president did not like agents perched on his vehicle or trotting too close to him, obscuring the crowd’s view.
To get even deeper into it, author James Swanson writes that the interaction between the agent and his boss was actually a joke, with the agent pretending to defy the president’s wishes.
Here are some of the more recent books on the subject of the Kennedy assassination:
“End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy” by James Swanson (William Morrow). James Swanson, author of “Manhunt,” a moment-by-moment account of the Lincoln assassination, has given JFK’s killing a similar treatment, with a fastidious eye for detail. Swanson traces the steps of Kennedy and his associates, of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and innumerable others involved in the events of the day. He offers up some startling moments, such as when Dallas County Coroner Earl Rose and Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman have a stand-off over whether Kennedy’s body will remain in Dallas for an autopsy or be flown immediately back to Washington in Air Force One. Although his loyal agents won and physically brushed their way past the state and county officials, Swanson asserts that in the long run, the lack of a local, immediate autopsy helped taint the investigation into Kennedy’s death and give rise to years of conspiracy theories. Author Swanson will appear Nov. 18 at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn (see box).
“JFK: The Smoking Gun” by Colin McLaren (Hachette Australia). So many others have written about the assassination, why not one of Australia’s top detectives, now retired and with time to spare? McLaren pored over the unexpurgated Warren Commission, as well as witness reports and evidence (such as JFK’s complete autopsy) not seen or considered by the commission. He was troubled that many of the president’s key Secret Service agents were exhausted from being out drinking late the night before, and the “smoking gun” reference in the title is about the smell many bystanders reported after Kennedy was shot — a key attribute of the AR-15 assault rifle that Secret Service agents used. McLaren believes a mistake may have been made by the president’s guardians — a fatal one.
“The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy” by Larry Sabato (Bloomsbury USA). This is a book by an avowed Kennedy fan who believes that Kennedy’s lingering influence is justified. Sabato writes about how the slain president has affected policies and presidents up to the present time.
“Nov. 22, 1963: Ordinary and Extraordinary People Recall Their Reactions When They Heard the News” by Jodie Elliott Hansen and Laura Hansen (St. Martins Press). Jodie Hansen started writing letters to (mostly) famous people in the early ’80s, asking them where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, when they heard the news. This book is a compilation of the letters she received from newsmakers, including Liz Carpenter, who as a staffer for Lyndon Baines Johnson was in the motorcade that day; Red Wings Hall of Famer Gordie Howe; author/chef Julia Child; comedian Bob Hope; actress Mary Tyler Moore and many others. Actor Richard Widmark described how the shooting of “Cheyenne Autumn” was halted, and he spent the rest of the day comforting director John Ford, a close friend of the Kennedys.
“JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President” by Thurston Clarke (Penguin Press). Historian Thurston Clarke believes President Kennedy had grown tremendously in office and was on the verge of finally fulfilling his early promise when he was killed. Clarke builds his case with a minute-by-minute account of Kennedy’s final months.
“If Kennedy Lived — The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History” by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam Adult). Billed as“An Alternate History,” this is veteran political commentator Jeff Greenfield’s take on how history would have been different if Kennedy survived Dallas.
“Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief: Letters, November 1963” by Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis (St. Martin’s Griffin). As the title states, this book is made up of condolence letters sent to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of the president’s assassination. The letters range from the famous — Winston Churchill, Lauren Bacall, Josephine Baker — to the non-famous: children who were touched by her plight.
John F. Kennedy Lectures: Special Evening Programs
7 p.m. Nov. 18 at The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn.
Panel includes author and newscaster Dan Rather, author/historian Douglas Brinkley, and author James Swanson, who wrote “End of Days.” They will discuss the events of Nov. 22, 1963.