Editor’s note: Michael Schuman is a freelance travel writer whose articles have been published by multiple publications across the United States. Portions of this article are also featured at Chicago Tribune, SunSentinelnewsday.com.
President John F. Kennedy is forever etched in our minds as a charismatic man with movie star looks, a paragon of youth and energy. So it might be hard to believe that this coming Memorial Day, May 29, is JFK’s 100th birthday. The best places to learn about the 35th president are in and around Boston and Dallas, the cities at the borders of his nearly mythical life.
Many expect Kennedy’s birthplace, officially John F. Kennedy National Historic Site, to be a mansion. The house at 83 Beals St., Brookline, Massachusetts, in a residential neighborhood, is roomy, and the Kennedys even had two live-in maids. But if you are coming here for the first time, expect modest, not ostentatious.
Visitors become familiar with the world of young Jack Kennedy before they set foot inside the house. For about 10 minutes on the front porch, an interpreter shows photos of the house and the neighborhood as it stood a century ago. It was the last house built for several years in this middle-class neighborhood. A vacant lot abutted it and the nearest trolley line was a 15-minute walk. An early photo depicts Jack and his older brother Joe Jr., dressed for Easter Sunday services. One can imagine that as soon as they returned home, they changed out of their stiff clothes and ran to play in the neighboring lot.
Objects, some original, in each room offer insight into day-to-day activity in the household. On Christmas, Rose Kennedy often sat in the living room at the princess grand piano, a wedding gift, leading the family in carol singing. During meals at the formal dinner table, also original, the kids were grilled on topics ranging from current events to basic geography. The youngest ate at a wooden, kid-sized table by a window until they were mature enough to sit with the grown-ups; a brotherly frosting fight one day at the little table didn’t help Joe Jr. and Jack expedite their quest to sit with the grown-ups.
Among the bassinet and clothes rack in the nursery are copies of two of young Jack’s favorite books, "King Arthur and His Knights" and "Billy Whiskers’ Kids," resting on a wicker chair. It was in the parents’ bedroom on the second floor that JFK was born. In Rose’s words, it was “in the bed nearest the window, so the doctor would have proper light.”
While the birthplace focuses on JFK the child, the presidential library and museum in Boston tell the story of his adult years, especially those spent in the Oval Office.
A period simulated street corner, quintessential "Main Street USA," is the initial attention-grabber in the gallery on the 1960 presidential campaign. Anyone who was alive then can’t help but smile when looking into the storefront window of Smith’s Appliances and see mid-century state of the art appliances such as an Osterizer blender, Toastmaster and Sunbeam coffee urns, a Columbia hi-fi system and a slew of clock radios.
One window down is a Kennedy campaign headquarters office. Buttons, brochures and bumper stickers are spread out on a table, but today’s kids will likely wonder about relics from the dark ages including the rotary phone and manual typewriter.
The television monitor is ubiquitous in the museum. JFK was the first president to successfully use television as a marketing tool. The Chicago television studio where the first and most famous of the Kennedy-Nixon debates took place is fully reconstructed, with the actual audio control and bulky television camera used by CBS affiliate WBBM-TV in 1960.
The Oval Office replication is set for a June 1963 presidential address on civil rights. A replica of Kennedy’s White House desk is here and just to its side is the familiar Kennedy rocking chair.
Displayed in the inaugural exhibit is a copy of his inaugural address, filled with evidence of last-minute editing. The most famous line of the inaugural speech originally read, “ ask not what your country will do for you.” You can see where Kennedy crossed out “will” and red-inked it with the word “can.”
The assassination is covered with a low-key display and employs the well-known news clip of Walter Cronkite choking over his words as he announces Kennedy's death. The fruition of Kennedy’s ideas? Check out the Legacy Gallery; highlights include a chunk of the Berlin Wall to newspaper headlines blasting, “Man Walks on Moon.”
The first reaction many have upon first seeing Dealey Plaza, site of the president’s assassination, is that it is smaller than they expected. A person of average health can easily run from the sidewalk bordering Elm Street to the stockade fence at the top of the grassy knoll in less than a minute.
Dealey Plaza’s most famous property, the former Texas School Book Depository, is today home to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. According to two official investigations, it was from this spot that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that killed Kennedy. The sniper's perch and the corner where the rifle was found are arranged to look as they did on Nov. 22, 1963.
Artifacts are sparse, but the museum offers an abundance of information about the Kennedy administration, the trip to Dallas, the murder and the ensuing investigations in the forms of written descriptions, photos and video. On an audio tape, guide-narrator Pierce Allman relates that the Kennedy years were optimistic ones. The president's youth and charisma appealed to young America and that period became known as Camelot. Whether it really was Camelot didn't matter. We thought it was.
Video footage including the motorcade, the shooting of Oswald and the funeral procession is shown in short clips in presentations with titles like "The Crisis Hours" and "The Nation and the World Respond."
The two official government investigations are detailed as are the many conspiracy theories. One ultimately reads, "Despite all the time and money spent on official and unofficial investigations, the Warren Commission's basic conclusion has never been disproved."
The name Ruth Paine is eternally connected to the assassination. Paine was friends with Oswald’s Russian-born wife, Marina. In November 1963, Marina was living at Paine’s house in the Dallas suburb of Irving. Lee regularly visited his wife and daughter on Fridays and stayed until the following Monday morning. But he made an unusual visit on Thursday, Nov. 21, staying the night with Marina in her room. Before leaving the house the next morning he removed his wedding ring and dropped it in a cup atop on a simple three-drawer dresser, similar to one there today.
The Ruth Paine House Museum opened to the public in 2013. What has given the basic ranch house most notoriety is its garage, cluttered and filled to bursting with tools, boxes, tires and a worn blanket similar to the one in which Oswald wrapped his rifle when he stored it there.
Visitors get to virtually meet the home’s residents in a high-tech way. Local actors play the parts of the Oswalds and the Paines via rear screen projection in two bedrooms and the garage. In one the actor playing Oswald states, “I am a Marxist but not a Communist.” In another, women in character as Ruth Paine and Marina frolic with their kids.
Because the Paine House is in a residential neighborhood, access to it is via a shuttle bus from a downtown Irving visitor center. Visitor center exhibits focus on both the Paines and life in the United States in the early 1960s. One can watch interviews with Paine conducted in 1963 and 2011. She believed in 1963 that Oswald acted alone and continues to believe so today.
After leaving the school book depository, Oswald boarded and quickly exited a city bus after it became mired in a traffic jam. He hailed a cab and asked the driver to drop him off five blocks from a rooming house at 1026 Beckley Ave., his residence at the time. Like the Paine House, the Oswald Rooming House Museum opened to the public in 2013.
Tour guide and owner Pat Hall is hardly a stranger here. Her grandmother ran the rooming house in 1963, and Hall and her brothers spent many afternoons here after school. Her memories of Oswald are as a “cordial” and “reserved” man. "If the stories are true about him hitting Marina, his only real character flaw was a short fuse. He wasn’t a monster (as he is sometimes portrayed). But he may have needed anger control sessions. He had a terrible childhood so he had problems.”
She remembers Oswald being wonderful with children, both his and others. Hall vividly recalls one occasion when Oswald broke up a fight between her 10- and 6-year-old brothers, “Mr. Lee was sitting on the front porch between them and said, 'You’re brothers. You have to care for each other. You have to love each other and never hurt another human being.’”
There are just two rooms to explore; the expansive living room filled mostly with original furnishings, and Oswald’s Spartan room, spacious enough for a single bed and the original wooden wardrobe closet where he kept his handgun. Hall’s memories come with the admission fee. She is happy to discuss life with the house’s most famous roomer.
Hall says she never tires of talking to visitors because everyone is different and has a sincere desire, in her words, “to get to the truth.” Unlike Paine, Hall believes Oswald may have been involved in the assassination but if so, he was part of a larger conspiracy, possibly up to and including Lyndon Johnson.
If you go
John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site , 83 Beals St., Brookline, Massachusetts, is open late May through Oct. 31 from 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., and closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission is free. (617-566-7937 or nps.gov/jofi)
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Columbia Point, Boston, Massachusetts, is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors ages 62 and over and college students with ID, $10 for youths ages 13-17 and members of the U.S. Armed Forces and free for children under age 12. (617-514-1600 or jfklibrary.org)
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, 411 Elm St., Dallas, Texas, is open Monday from noon-6 p.m. and Tuesday–Sunday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $16 for adults, $14 seniors over age 64, $13 for youths ages 6-19 and free for children under age 6. (214-747-6660 or www.jfk.org)
Note: To avoid overcrowding, the museum issues tickets on a timed-entry basis; advance purchase at www.jfk.org is recommended.
Ruth Paine House Museum, 801 W. Irving Blvd., Irving, Texas, accepts reservations for guided tours that run Tuesday-Saturday at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Admission is $12 adults, free ages 11 and under. (972-721-3729 or cityofirving.org/498/Ruth-Paine-House-Museum)
Oswald Rooming House Museum, 1026 N. Beckley Ave., Dallas, Texas, is open by appointment. Admission is $20 per person for the first 90 minutes; after that, $20 per hour for entire group. (469-261-7806 or oswaldroominghousetours.com)
Special centennial events:
John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts, is planning a full day of festivities on May 29 leading up to 3 p.m., the time of JFK’s birth. Included will be music, speeches, a birthday cake, commemorative postal service cancellations and cachets and more. For up-to-date information, contact nps.gov/jofi.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum will host a special exhibit, “JFK at 100: Milestones and Mementoes,” that will open in Boston in May and run for a year. The focus will be milestones in Kennedy’s life. Included will be everything from the flag from PT 109 to preparation notes for presidential addresses. A four-day weekend celebration is scheduled for May 26-29. Participants will include the U.S. Navy and the Peace Corps. For more details, contact jfklibrary.org.
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received an MFA in professional writing from the University of Southern California in 1977. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at [email protected].