On the trail of JFK in New England

Fifty years after John F Kennedy’s assassination, Will Hide recalls happier times – on the trail of the president and his family on the New England coast

“It’s better to celebrate life than death,” opined my new best friend, sitting next to me on a bar stool and clutching a bottle of Samuel Adams lager at Alberto’s Ristorante in Hyannis, Massachusetts. I had driven the 90 minutes south from Boston that morning, and now we were bonding over littleneck clams and dead presidents.

On 22 November, the world’s attention will focus on Dallas, where 50 years ago, 46-year-old John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated at 12.30pm central standard time.

In New England, they prefer to concentrate on happier memories of the local hero, who was born in a Boston suburb and summered with his family in Hyannis Port. And at Newport, Rhode Island, an hour down the coast, where his wife Jackie spent much of her childhood, think of iconic images of a dapper, tanned JFK sailing his boat, the Honey Fitz – sunglasses tilted back over perfectly coiffured hair, bronzed legs protruding from a pair of crisp, white shorts, or playing on a beach with his young children … the photos were probably taken at one of these two seaside towns.

This stretch of the New England coastline still attracts hordes of summer visitors, with its sailing, lobster feasts and a presidential legacy that blankets the area with an iconic sense of cool.

Every summer the Kennedys would make the 70-mile trip south along the Pilgrims Highway out of Boston to their estate (or compound, as it was known) beside the sea in Hyannis Port. From 4 July to Labor Day, in early September, the area throbs with visitors, drawn by the pretty, unspoilt beaches, en route to catch a ferry to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, or hoping to probe the Camelot myths created by Jackie after JFK’s death.

Hyannis is home to a small presidential museum and monument (jfkhyannismuseum.org), as well as a quintessential slice of middle America along Main Street, with its collection of mom’n’pop cafes, restaurants and shops. Nearby are the stunning beaches of the 44,000-acre Cape Cod National Seashore, a national park created by JFK in 1961, during the first year of his presidency.

Once on the Cape Cod peninsula, the Kennedys often dined at the Captain’s Table at the Hyannis Yacht Club (hyannisyachtclub.org), and at Baxter’s (baxterscapecod.com), a restaurant built over the water by the harbour, where you can still sit on the deck, butter from a lobster dribbling down your chin, pondering not what Americans could do for their country, but what an extra portion of French fries and homemade coleslaw will do to their waistlines.

I chose the cheap and cheerful Spanky’s Clam Shack (spankysclamshack.com) for lunch, though, as it was right next to the departure point for an hour-long boat trip around Lewis Bay on the MV Patience (hylinecruises.com), the easiest way to see the Kennedy estate, which comprises six acres of waterfront properties first built in 1904 along Nantucket Sound. It was here that JFK fell asleep at 3am on election night in November 1960 with the result in the balance. The next morning he was woken by his daughter, Caroline, with the words “Good morning, Mr President”, and the secret service stationed outside. And it was here that he entertained (and escaped the chains of office) by sailing. “I always go to Hyannis Port to be revived,” he said, “to know again the power of the sea and the master who rules over it and all of us.”

I craned my neck to see the cluster of homes that were owned by brothers John, Ted and Bobby. (Ethel, the latter’s widow, now in her 80s, still uses theirs.) It’s the closest view you can get – from the road, it’s just the gate and hedges – and where you can imagine the president launching his sailing boat, throwing a ball to John Junior or oohing and aahing with the kids at 4 July fireworks.

Back on Main Street Hyannis, the cosy bar at the back of Alberto’s restaurant (albertos.net) was a good spot to chat about the former president. The general feeling towards Kennedy is of local pride, a life and opportunities wasted, and – with the recent US government shutdown in full swing – a sense of bewilderment and embarrassment at how the current politicians are behaving.

A 90-minute drive west, Newport, Rhode Island, is the self-proclaimed “sailing capital of the world” and site of many gaudily impressive, late-19th-century mansions built for American industrialists – the Vanderbilt and Astor families and their peers. Even now you can picture the playground for the wealthy that was once the Newport scene. It was at Hammersmith Farm that Jackie grew up, and where she and John held their wedding reception, with a receiving line that lasted nearly four hours. Their daughter Caroline kept her pony, Macaroni, on the farm, and it was here that JFK plotted a course through the final throes of the Cuban missile crisis in the autumn of 1962. Today, the best way of getting a glimpse of Hammersmith Farm is on a rather more egalitarian trolley bus tour (vikingtoursnewport.com).

John and Jackie’s marriage ceremony took place in Newport, at the solid, 19th-century St Mary’s Church (stmarynewport.org) on William Street, where you can still push open the door and wander in to see the small Kennedy plaque on pew number 10. During my visit, the priest was too busy sweeping the floor to notice me, or perhaps just too jaded… there was a steady flow of Kennedy tourists. On the wedding day itself, Jackie’s father was allegedly too drunk to lead her down the aisle, so he was shipped off in an ambulance and her stepfather was drafted in at the last minute.

From Cape Cod, it’s an easy drive across the bridge into Boston, where local historian David O’Donnel, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Kennedy and his family, leads two-hour tours on foot around the city centre (kennedytour.com). Starting from the open spaces of Boston Common and finishing in the North End (now an Italian neighbourhood, but once Irish), the tour is a good orientation – and proof that the nickname “America’s walking city” is well deserved. As well as exploring JFK’s local haunts, David highlights locations that were instrumental in the rise of Irish political power in the city from the late 1800s onwards, including those that played host to JFK’s grandfather.

The tour finishes near the Union Oyster House (unionoysterhouse.com), which claims to be America’s oldest restaurant, established in 1826, and which from the outside has “ye olde tourist trappe” written all over it. Inside, my fears prove unfounded, as I read my guidebook over a bowl of New England clam chowder, JFK’s favourite dish, in “the Kennedy Booth”, his regular newspaper-reading spot (just look for the flashbulbs popping in the corner, the small plaque and flag, not to mention the sign hanging from the ceiling).

If you want to go the whole Kennedy hog, pop by the Omni Parker House hotel (omnihotels.com) on School Street. Legend has it that in the somewhat dour restaurant, at table 40 in the corner, John proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier in May 1953 with a 2.88-carat diamond and emerald ring. The public areas of the hotel have a dimly lit, old-school, pre-Mad Men feel: it’s not too hard to imagine JFK and his buddies tipsily weaving their way along the first floor corridors from the Press Room, where he held his stag do in 1953. It’s alleged that one of the stags, Senator George Smathers, fell out of a window and smashed his ankle, but what goes on tour …

That afternoon, I rode the T (Boston’s subway train) to Coolidge Corner station in Brookline, then walked along leafy, affluent streets to 83 Beals Street, a wooden clapboard house with a garden. Number 83 is JFK’s birthplace (nps.gov/jofi), the house where Kennedy matriarch Rose famously ruled with an iron fist, and now a museum administered by the government: when I was there a few weeks ago, it was closed due to the government shutdown, and I could only peek through the windows. When the elected representatives of the American people aren’t squabbling among themselves, you can take a 30-minute guided tour of the property and watch videos relating to the presi2dent.

The most impressive presidential site in Boston, however, is the large, white marble, IM Pei-designed John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (jfklibrary.org), situated near the harbour entrance into which Kennedy’s forefathers sailed from Ireland. Here, I pored over vintage movie footage and memorabilia, with a recreation of the Chicago TV studio where Kennedy and Richard Nixon took part in the first televised presidential debate in 1960, and a presentation on the Cuban missile crisis, including the map on which the president plotted events. I enjoyed the more personal items, such as the coconut on which Kennedy carved a rescue message during the second world war, after his ship was sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands, and a series of taped interviews Jackie gave in 1964 that were sealed for almost half a century and only made public two years ago.

As I left for Boston airport, the weather had shifted, almost overnight. Summer was over, the trees were shedding their leaves: autumn had arrived and there was a chill in the air. Seasons, like lives, can end too quickly.

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