The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death makes me think of one of my earliest memories. I was four and a half when Kennedy was shot, and I remember it. Not because I even knew who he was. This memory is seared into my mind because it’s the first time I ever saw my mother, Joan, cry.
She was standing in front of our black and white Zenith television, weeping. I was upset, because she was upset.
Joan would have been 40 years old. A life-long Democrat, she was deeply affected by his death (though she was a long-time Adlai Stevenson supporter ). I think she must have empathized with Jackie’s plight as a young mother.
Kennedy’s time in the White House came to be known as “Camelot,” a reference King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.
Joan loved the stories of Camelot from an early age.
As she writes at age 16:
Sunday February 12, 1939
We are reading “Idylls of the King.” Ah—Launcelot! Remember when Mom and I used to play Launcelot and Guinevere and King Arthur and Galahad and Camelot and so forth to each other and nearly drove Daddy crazy with our old English tales.
Joan is not satisfied with the class discussion of Tennyson‘s poem.
Thursday Feb. 16, 1939
Today discussed King Arthur and Launcelot and Elaine in Readings in World Cultures. Oh, my Launcelot. Our class being very low-minded does not appreciate the spiritual quality of his nature. Which I do. Also the class being very sensitive resented Mr. Denton’s theory (aided by notes) that Arthur represented Soul – with a capital “S”—and Guinevere Sense—with same. Oh well—our class is quite, quite—oh well. Mr. Denton calls Queen Guinevere Gwen. Oh well.
“Elaine the fair, Elaine the lovable
Elaine the lily maid of Astolat.”[i]
All our class is doing it now.
It really is quite rhythmical.
We were trying to figure out Elaine’s age as long as Launcelot was 3 times it. Dr. Dentil says, “Early teens”—front half of class claims 16, back half 13—no decision.
I feel so very deeply for King Arthur at the end—all the work he came to do ruined—his kingdom lost—the best loved of his knights proved treacherous, his queen unfaithful. There in the moonlight of the ruined temple lies lies. A broken temple and a broken man—and the weird white light wafting down upon him. And he goes into the mysterious sea at last, from which he came. Perhaps he does personify Soul: — No one knows where he came from nor whither he goeth. When young, he took the sword inscribed on one side: “Take Me”—on the other, “Cast me down.” He had taken it up. Now he had cast it down. And the white moonlight glimmered on the unbroken stretch of sea. And Sir Belvidere walked sorrowing away.
Of course, the story of Camelot in American history causes many to be sorrowful.
Joan returns to think about Camelot a month later.
Sunday March 11, 1939
I’ve got my black sweater with gold chain and my hair is piled high on my head and tumbling down in back.
And, as I’ve been reading John Erskine’s “Galahad,” I’ve been pretending I was Guinevere and once Elaine. “Elaine the Fair, Elaine the loveable, Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat.” But mostly Guinevere—and just once the other Elaine (of Corbenic—remember!).
Joan returns to her early love of Camelot in her last published book, written with my brother Bob. It is an oral history of the 1960s and is called From Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (Oxford University Press, 1987). You’ll notice who is pictured on the cover, front and center.
As they write in the introduction of the book, “The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and the subsequent killing of his assassin two days later, was a watershed in the consciousness of the Sixties. An outpouring of sorrow during the days of mourning and a sobering national self-examination followed. Was there something violent about our country? Something uncontrollable, unpredictable?” (From Camelot to Kent State, page xix).
Jackie Bolden, later a teacher, describes how she reacted to Kennedy’s assassination. “I was working in my office at the Air Force, and we had a radio on, and we heard the news. It was just devastating. I tried to call my husband at the National Institutes of Health, but those were government lines, and you’d pick up a phone and all you’d get was bzzz-bzzz-bzzz.
We left the office and it seemed like everybody wanted to gather around the White House. It was so crowded, all the way from the Capitol building down to the Lincoln Memorial. People were crying. I was crying, everybody was crying.
When I finally got home, I made the decision to go down to the Rotunda and be with everybody–just to be there and to say this was a shame, how sorry I am, how sad for the family.”