John F. Kennedy was born 97 years ago today, on May 29, 1917, in a second-floor bedroom in the family home in Brookline, Mass.
He traveled far from that bedroom, of course. As president, he became a symbol of vigor and hope to millions of Americans, though subsequent revelations about his health and private life have somewhat darkened that image for posterity.
His last birthday celebrations were replete with the glamor later conveyed by his administration’s “Camelot” nickname. Strictly speaking, there were three. The first was a Democratic Party fundraiser billed as “New York’s Birthday Salute to the President." It was held on May 23 in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In brief remarks, JFK said that the dinner’s $1,000 price tag was simply the admission price attendees paid to join "one of the most exclusive clubs in America." He also noted that his generally pro-business predecessor Dwight Eisenhower was down the hall receiving an annual man-of-the-year award from the steel industry.
“Last year I won the award and they came to Washington to present it to me, but the Secret Service just wouldn’t let them in,” said Kennedy to a round of laughter.
Then on May 29, his staff threw him a birthday party in the White House mess hall. Photos show a relaxed chief executive, wife Jacqueline at his side, bantering with his officials while opening presents (he received a shillelagh, among other things). The assembly toasted his health with champagne glasses.
That night Mrs. Kennedy hosted a private birthday celebration on the presidential yacht "Sequoia." Invitations were sent out over the name of Jackie’s social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, and requested attendees to wear “appropriately festive yachting suit and dress."
The guest list was a glimpse of Washington gone by. It included family (Robert and Edward Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, and their spouses), Hollywood (actors David Niven and Peter Lawford), and Kennedy pals (Sen. George Smathers and wife, and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his then-wife Toni).
Toni’s sister Mary Pinchot Meyer also attended. An alleged Kennedy mistress, Meyer was murdered the next year on a path in Georgetown. The killing remains unsolved.
By all accounts, the party was a great success. The menu was high 1960s – crabmeat appetizer, followed by roast beef, noodle casserole, and asparagus Hollandaise.
“There were plenty of toasts, and after birthday cake at the dining table, the president opened presents in the aft salon. Then the dancing started. They were doing the twist, the cha-cha, and everything in between. I don’t think I had ever seen the president and Mrs. Kennedy having more fun,” wrote Secret Service agent Clint Hill in his memoir "Mrs. Kennedy and Me."
Six months later, Mr. Hill was riding in the car behind JFK and Jackie as their motorcade twisted through a narrow part of downtown Dallas. At the first shot, he leaped out and jumped on the back of the presidential limousine, pulling himself onto the trunk with a hand-hold. He was perhaps two seconds too late to shield the president from Lee Harvey Oswald’s fatal, final shot.