JFK’s Proposal

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Good morning, it’s June 25, 2020. Sixty-seven years ago today, an engagement notice appeared in many of the nation’s newspapers: A charismatic U.S. senator had popped the question to a young Washington journalist. A September wedding date was set.

The future bride and groom each came from a prominent and wealthy Catholic family. Sen. John F. Kennedy, freshman Democrat from Massachusetts, was a U.S. Navy war hero who’d nearly been killed in the Pacific. A published author who’d dabbled in journalism after the war, Jack Kennedy, as he was known, had recently celebrated his 36th birthday.

His future bride wouldn’t turn 24 until mid-summer, but Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was also a go-getter. She had studied at Vassar College before taking her junior year in France at the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne. Inspired by her time in Paris, she’d returned stateside and earned a degree in French literature at George Washington University and then bested 1,000 other young women in a contest sponsored by Vogue magazine.

Eschewing the 12-month internship she had won, Miss Bouvier — “Jackie” to her friends — was hired in early 1952 as the “Inquiring Camera Girl” for the Washington Times-Herald. This position entailed photographing and interviewing interesting Washingtonians. She excelled at the job and was assigned by her newspaper to cover the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in early June of 1953. It was one her last assignments, as the life of a political wife lay ahead.

The future Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kennedy — Jack and Jackie — had met in passing a couple of times before being set up at a Washington garden party in 1951. “Shall we go somewhere and have a drink?” Kennedy asked as they lingered afterward on Q Street in Georgetown.

A friend of Jacqueline’s had shown up, so that didn’t happen. But the attraction was mutual, and it would blossom in the months ahead.

When we imagine this future couple in those days, we think of a handsome, dashing politician and a beautiful future first lady whose hairstyles and wardrobe choices would set instant trends in fashion. That’s not quite how Jacqueline Kennedy thought of herself, however.

First of all, the “camera girl” was an intellectual. And as far as her appearance goes, she didn’t consider herself a natural beauty. Asked in that Vogue contest to name three historical figures she’d like to have known, Miss Bouvier chose European men of arts and letters: British playwright Oscar Wilde; Charles Baudelaire, a French poet, translator and art critic; and Sergei Diaghilev, a choreographer and patron of Russian ballet and grand opera.

“As to physical appearance,” she added in that essay, “I am tall, 5-7, with brown hair, a square face, and eyes so unfortunately far apart that it takes three weeks to have a pair of glasses made with a bridge wide enough to fit over my nose.”

Okay, but dashing Jack Kennedy had imperfections of his own, health issues mainly, and in any event, he’d never met a woman quite like Jackie. They began dating in 1952 and on June 24, 1953, at Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, near where they’d first made their connection, JFK asked Jacqueline Bouvier to marry him.

She answered in the affirmative, prompting an official announcement from the families the following day. It was news that made the wires. United Press International headlined its June 25, 1953, story: “Senator Kennedy Says He’ll Wed Ex-Camera Girl.”

This item ran in the Rocky Mountain News: “The single girls in Washington would do well to weep. Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass), long regarded as the most eligible bachelor in the nation’s capital, will marry Miss Jacqueline Lee Bouvier early in September. She is from Newport, R.I.”

The New York Times headlined its item thusly: “SENATOR KENNEDY TO MARRY IN FALL: Son of Former Envoy Is Fiancée of Miss Jaqueline Bouvier, Newport Society Girl.”

If such coverage strikes you as patronizing and sexist, my guess is that it seemed that way to Jacqueline Bouvier too. Looking back on it today, though, what is most striking is how much would happen to this young woman in the next 10 years.

A glamorous wedding would be followed by the shock of what being married to such a peripatetic man meant emotionally. She would have two beautiful children adored by a nation, as well as a two children who didn’t make it. Jackie’s first child, a girl they named Arabella, was stillborn. Their last baby, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, died two days after being born, in the summer of 1963, foreshadowing tragedies to come.

She would charm Charles de Gaulle, help introduce grace and charm to U.S. public life, and reconnect Americans with the arts and with their own history. And when the splendor of Camelot was cut short by the horror of Dallas, Jacqueline Kennedy was still only 34 years old. To this day, Americans who cherish history walk the streets of Washington, particularly in Georgetown, gazing at the houses and buildings where the Kennedys courted and lived.

Family-owned Martin’s Tavern, at the corner of Wisconsin Boulevard and N Street, still seats customers at “The Proposal Booth.” So, incidentally, does Parker’s Restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay. Now owned by the Omni Hotel, it claims that JFK proposed to Jackie there, at Table 40 to be precise. Various Kennedy biographers assert, meanwhile, that Jack asked Jackie to marry him via a telegram.

So which is it?

Four years ago, Billy Martin, the fourth-generation proprietor of the Georgetown establishment, was offering free meals to World War II veterans when one of them recalled being in the place the night of June 24, 1953. This old guy wasn’t just some random vet, either. His name was Marion Smoak and he went on to a distinguished State Department career. Although he was 98 at the time, Smoak was fit and sharp and he recalled the evening clearly, without embellishment.

Smoak remembers nursing a martini and gazing at the young senator and his girlfriend when word spread through Martin’s about the conversation in their booth. He didn’t overhear the conversation himself, Smoak said, and Senator Kennedy certainly didn’t get down on one knee. But he remembered what happened next. “After the senator proposed, and she accepted, the news ran through the restaurant,” he said. “That night we didn’t know his future and what it would bring. In hindsight, it was great fun to witness a part of history.”

In preparing this note, I did some research and found that the Senate was in session that week. And since June 24, 1953, was a Wednesday, Kennedy would have been in Washington, not Boston. He seems to have been in Hyannis by June 27, however, accompanied by Jackie, which raises the possibility that he took her to dinner at Parker’s, perhaps making his intentions known in a more formal manner. Come to think of it, originally making the proposal via telegram wouldn’t have been out of character for JFK, either. Perhaps all three accounts are partially true.

All we know for sure is that 66 years ago this week, Jack and Jackie agreed to tie the knot. We remember them as forever young because they were young. Jack never made it past 46, and Jackie died before her time in 1994.

“How sad it is!” Jackie’s youthful muse Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous novel about the dread of aging. “I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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