FRIDAY, November 22, 1963
A Personal Tribute to JFK
By Beth Amorosi
For as long as I can remember, Friday has always been my favorite day of the week. It’s the day when a week of work, routine, and (hopefully) to-do’s are crossed off the list, and when a weekend of fun and rest with family and friends, lies ahead. Friday is the day when one is able to look back at the week and (hopefully) feel good about what was accomplished, and then still look ahead to a weekend to recharge and start over, so that perhaps next Friday will be an even better one. Friday is the day when eating pizza for lunch is a no-brainer (at least for me, anyway), and when “Beating the Clock” with $.50 pitchers of beer at the Georgetown University Pub in Healy Basement was the most popular pastime until about 1988. Now, Friday evening is ok to just stay home, watch TV or read a book, and go to bed, even when a single lady at my age should be out on the town meeting her Jack Kennedy. Apparently, many other people must feel the same way about Fridays given the popular saying “Thank God it’s Friday/TGIF”, inspiring a restaurant chain, and the 1980’s song by the band the Cure, “It’s Friday, I’m in Love.” Since I came of age in the 1980’s and my tastes in music were largely formed with the birth of MTV (I still want my MTV…back…by the way), I have always loved the band, the Cure.
Recently, the song “It’s Friday, I’m in Love” has inspired my Friday Facebook status updates to find something especially interesting, positive, and uplifting to share with my (2000+???) Facebook friends, by starting with, e.g. “It’s Friday, I’m in Love: E Street Radio, because it is 24/7 Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band & if I had been driving all week, that would be my station!”. Lately, my Friday Facebook commentary does indeed include Bruce Springsteen, aka The Boss – one of my biggest role models, figure skating and the upcoming Winter Olympics, empowering girls through education or something else philanthropic, or something adorable about my nephews and nieces. This past Friday, however, is a day when I had to really pause and pay it the respect that it truly deserves. For it is on Friday, November 22, 2013 that we are commemorating a day 50 years ago, when we lost much more than a man and a President, but so much that is irretrievable: hope, dignity, youth, vigor, beauty, grace, elegance, culture, and when making a big effort to look and act our very best, was simply a responsibility of each and every human being’s daily existence. There will never be enough time to give this story the narrative that it deserves, because it was a fairy tale, without a happy ending. So it is our job to find that happy ending, by rising up to the challenge that JFK and my parents’ generation met in order to give us the world of opportunity we have today.
As we all know, this Friday – today – marks the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. If there is an equivalent to flying a flag at half-staff on Facebook, it seems that leaving my status update blank might be one very, very ridiculously miniscule way to honor JFK, especially since my Facebook updates and commentary can sometimes be hyperactive! But I can’t let this Friday pass without paying my own personal respects to a man whose legacy has been omnipresent in my life, through a photograph in my parents’ living room. It is because of President Kennedy that I was introduced to American ideals, to a bygone era that I have been lucky enough to remember and still be wistful for and about, and to the concept of role models and real greatness. Most personally, it is because of President Kennedy and that photograph, that I was introduced to my grandfather, James Britt Donovan, who died in 1970 when I was just 3 years old, and who played an important role of his own in American history before, during, and after the Kennedy years. Im fact, JFK personally called my grandfather at home from the Honey Fitz to thank him for the securing the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners, and to run as the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in New York. Just think had he won: the Javits Center could have been the Donovan Center!!! Oh well, getting VIP treatment at a conference center isn’t exactly too compelling now is it!? I am simply much more in awe of the fact that my grandfather was a candidate for U.S. Senate, among many other awe-inspiring accomplishments.
It is also that photograph of JFK’s handsome face and perfect smile shaking the hand of my grandfather with his smiling Irish eyes and cherubic face, that inspired me to write my college application essay, gaining me entry into my beloved Georgetown University. It is that photograph which inspired me to attend Georgetown, perhaps most widely known for basketball (lately though, we Hoyas wish it was not!), but also known for its prestigious School of Foreign Service. Seeing world dignitaries on campus at Georgetown is a regular occurrence. In fact, just last week Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State/First Lady/Senator Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush were there speaking about the future of Afghan women. A few notable Georgetown Hoyas include President William Jefferson Clinton, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, famed Hollywood director and actor Carl Reiner, and multiple Kennedy’s and Shrivers, one of whom was in school with me, and then here in NYC post-college when I would attend his small receptions to help start his Best Buddies organization, now a very well-known non-profit organization providing mentors to disadvantaged children. It is also that photograph that reminds me of the importance of role models that inspire dedication, hard work, and giving back. By the way, that list of role models does not include anyone with the name Kardashian or a Real Housewife or a Nike-endorsed golfer. No, those are not the role models I am referring to. Finally, it is because of that photograph that I have become more recently inspired to learn about my grandfather’s role in American history and to commemorate that role fifty years ago at www.jamesbdonovan.org, and to establish an Institute in his name to continue his legacy and commitment to education, to the humanities, to the law and diplomacy, and to public service. Finally, it is because of that photograph – and because of my own father’s lifelong and unwavering dedication to medicine and to his family – that challenges me to reach for the stars and to leave an important mark on this world. While that continues to be a constant challenge and I have yet to find out exactly what that mark will be, it is that photograph that continues to challenge me to find the greatness lying somewhere within me. So on this Friday, it is still Friday, and yes, I am in love: with a man whose legacy becomes only more inspiring with the passage of time and challenges me “to ask not what my country can do for me, but what I can do for my country”.
Upon returning from one of his last trips to Cuba to negotiate with Fidel Castro (accompanied by his 16 year old son, my uncle John Donovan), my grandfather met his family, including my mother, in Palm Beach, Florida for Easter weekend. My uncle tells me that it was shortly before this, that Jim gave Castro a wetsuit, which the CIA was using as an assassination plot against Castro. Obviously, the attempt was unsuccessful, and my grandfather had ultimately formed a very friendly relationship with Fidel. Had he, JFK, and Bobby Kennedy lived, I/we can only ruminate on where the United States would be in its relationship with Cuba today. I have a strong instinct though, that we would be in a very different place rather than stuck in time as we remain, just as if it were 50 years ago. Alas, that is a subject for another story, but certainly one worth examining more closely at another juncture.
My grandparents had very close friends from the Lake Placid Club in Lake Placid, NY who owned a very fine jewelry store there, and on Royal Poinciana Way in Palm Beach, Florida. The Lake Placid Club is now gone, but it was one of the very last vestiges of this bygone, old-school era, an era where graciousness, fancy dress, intellectual stimulation, and engaging in real culture was the norm. With the exception of Palm Beach, Florida and a few other lesser-known enclaves, there are no touchstones to take us right back to that era, at least to the good parts, since we all know there were some very negative aspects of this era that none of us ever wants to remember. The Club lasted through my own adolescence and faded into oblivion after the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. Darrah Cooper Jewelry is still a very sentimental reminder to me of an era gone by, since the new owner still operates it as one of the finest jewelry stores in America on Main Street in Lake Placid. Easter weekend, 1963, my mother was visiting Mr. Cooper at the store, when he told her who was shopping next door at FAO Schwartz. No one else was in the store with him as it was closed to the public during this special shopping trip. So it would just be her, the Secret Service, and President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Given Mr. Cooper’s friendship with FAO’s owner, and also given my mother’s father’s role in Cuba and relationship to/with the President, he told her that he could facilitate an introduction. One might surmise that because my mother was a very eligible and beautiful young lady, that it might have been a clandestine interlude of sorts and perhaps the President might have taken advantage of an opportunity of another kind. Rather, it was quite the opposite and to this day, an event I imagine in vivid, larger-than-life-technicolor, as if it was one of the greatest scenes ever in a classic feel-good movie like the Sound of Music or My Fair Lady, or a Walt Disney fairy tale. Jane Donovan (Amorosi) visited with the President for 45 minutes while he shopped and she helped pick out toys for John and Caroline. She still describes the meeting with the glee and excitement of a child meeting Santa Claus or a teenage girl meeting John, Paul, Ringo, and George.
Not only did JFK speak with my mother glowingly about the father whom she adored, he also spoke with her about her life, her family, her school, and her dreams. She described his appearance as otherworldly and his dress as sleek and preppy, but with the sophisticated edge of the worldly and adventurous explorer that he was: pink pants and a black Lacoste shirt. She said he was the most handsome man she had ever seen and will ever see (of course she had not met my father yet and let me tell you, Dr. Edward L. Amorosi is one handsome and stylish fella too!). Later that day, the President’s convertible and motorcade drove informally down Royal Poinciana way (parade style) greeting the large crowd who had gathered to get a glimpse of this man who actually walked among them as if he were one of them – as common as one can get in Palm Beach, FL. anyway! The President saw my mother amongst the crowd, stopped the car, got out and ran over to her to say how much he enjoyed meeting her, how much he treasured my grandfather, and gave her a big hug. Needless to say, he made my mother feel like the movie star and her friends were aghast and what they had just witnessed! It was Easter weekend, 1963 and it was that Easter Sunday when the famous photograph of the First family was captured exiting mass at St. Edward’s. Unbeknownst to everyone, it was to be his last Easter.
Growing up, my mother always shared with my siblings and I where she was on that fateful day. She was far away from home in Brooklyn, NY at school for a year in Lausanne, Switzerland. The people of Lausanne immediately recognized her as an American and complete strangers embraced her with their sympathies and their own sadness for the loss of a man whose magnetism captured the world’s attention, during a time when black & white TV, the transistor radio, the good ‘ole newspaper and Life Magazine, and the telegram were the only way the world connected and communicated. It was also a time when reverence for the office of the President and any higher office was led by example through the media and the public was exposed to only the best sides of a public man holding the highest office in the world. It was also a time when school shootings and stabbings at JFK airport, and planes flying into twin skyscrapers, were unheard of and unimaginable. It was a time when a world leader driving a convertible with his serenely beautiful wife was something that connected people to a man and his immediate and extended family in a way that has made us connected to him and to that family forever, as if no time has passed, and as if all of us was there. It was a time and specifically, a day, that my father cannot even bear to speak about, to this very day.
I was fortunate enough to meet and hear the Academy-Award winning director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, 3 Days of the Condor, Michael Clayton among many others) speak only a few years before he died. For my generation, 9/11 is the worst day in American history that we have experienced in our lifetime. When that day comes up in conversation, the first question that is always asked is “Where were you?” When I heard Mr. Pollack speak, the movie United 93 was on the verge of release. While he was not vehemently against the movie itself (though my instincts tell me he was), he made a very astute comment that I will never forget and use as a barometer for great storytelling and great art. An event of such gravitas deserves the passage of time for raw emotions to heal and for the intellect to direct the story’s narrative and lend it the gravitas it deserves. It is only if enough time has passed, will the story be told with the proper deference and perspective, and with respect to the art of storytelling or any art – for it even to be considered a piece of art, let alone great art.
As we commemorate this 50th anniversary of the worst day in American history for my parents’ generation, there will never be enough time to pass for our country to truly heal. There will never be enough time to muse on what we truly lost on that day. There will be endless accounts, reexaminations, analyses, movies and photographs, and we will never get enough. 50 years from now, the fascination with JFK, his Presidency, and the entire Kennedy family will continue and will transcend time. As long as there remains one member of that family who wants to try to emulate the life of JFK, then we have a similar responsibility – to do what he called upon us to do and to finish the life that was taken from him and from all of us on that day. For those who question this and become frustrated or annoyed with this seemingly excessive attention on one person and one family, then perhaps he hasn’t touched you and your life in the same way he has done with mine. There is never enough to learn about who he was and what he could have been, because we will never know. It is our job though to make the most of our time here and if that doesn’t inspire you, then perhaps getting a convertible, getting dressed up for dinner tonight, putting on some Sinatra, or watching the movie Parkland or reading Profiles in Courage, might inspire you to take just one more look. If you don’t, then you just can’t be an American, and perhaps not even human! For in the end, that is what he was, taken from this world in a violent and undignified way, leaving his family and the country with an unfinished life and so many unanswered questions. There will never be enough time. 50 years is just not enough. There will never be enough time to tell this story the way his and all of our stories should be told: with a happy ending.
Beth Amorosi is the granddaughter of James Britt Donovan, resides in New York City, and is working to establish the Donovan Institute in Lake Placid, NY. For additional information, visit www.jamesbdonovan.org