25 Crazy Facts about the Kennedys You Never Knew
Fact: Jackie loved nothing more than nicotine.
You’d think at this point, there’d be nothing new left to discover about the Kennedys, the Massachusetts clan that gave us one historic president (who was only in office for a mere 1,000 days), two assassinations, and countless scandals. There have been an estimated 40,000 books published about them since JFK’s assassination in 1963, and hundreds of movies and TV shows, including the newly-released Chappaquiddick, now in theaters, and the Netflix documentary series Bobby Kennedy for President. Don’t we already know everything about the 20th century’s most famous political dynasty?
Maybe, or maybe not. You might think you’re well-versed in all things Kennedy, but there’s likely some minutiae that’s slipped through the cracks. Check out these 20 crazy but true facts about the Camelot White House and their relatives, and you may be surprised how little you really know about them. And for more great trivia touching on the legend of Camelot, don’t miss these 20 Craziest Rumors about the Kennedys!
JFK received last rites three times before his presidency.
Ted Kennedy once wondered out loud if his family was the victim of some “awful curse,” and while it was certainly true that many of his relatives suffered from tremendous bad luck, his brother John took the cake.
When JFK was shot in 1963, it wasn’t the first time that his death seemed imminent. As a lifelong Catholic, he received the sacramental last rites of the church on three separate occasions, first on a boat trip back to the U.S. from England in 1947, when he fell so gravely ill that a priest was summoned. He was administered last rites again a few years later, in 1951, after getting a dangerously high fever while traveling in Asia, and then again in 1954 after a spinal fusion surgery caused him to slip into a coma. His fourth and final last rites were given on that fateful day in Dallas, when a country lost its leader.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent Jackie Kennedy puppies
Just because the US and the Soviet Union were involved in a Cold War didn’t mean they couldn’t play nice occasionally. During the Kennedy’s first visit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, at a 1961 summit in Vienna, the First Lady was seated next to Khrushchev at dinner, and she asked about the dogs launched into space as part of the Soviet mission to make it to the moon.
Just a few weeks after the Kennedys returned to Washington, a crate arrived at the White House filled with puppies. It was a gift from Khrushchev, the offspring of one of the dogs that had returned safely from space. And for some lighthearted—but true!—news about your dog, here are the 20 Signs Your Pet Hates You.
Robert Kennedy may have predicted Obama’s presidency
In a 1968 interview with the Voice of America radio network, a young Robert F. Kennedy—who was well on his way to winning that year’s Democratic primary—made a bold prediction. “In the next 40 years,” he said, “a [black person] can achieve the same position that my brother has,” meaning the late President John F. Kennedy.
And what happened exactly forty years later, in 2008? The US people elected the very first African-American president, Barack Obama. Bobby Kennedy even had Nostradamus beat at the prediction game. And for more prognostications, don’t miss these 25 Crazy Predictions about the Next 25 Years.
Joe Kennedy dropped his pants for President Roosevelt
JFK’s father had his own political ambitions, and once hoped to become the US ambassador to the United Kingdom. But first, he’d have to convince President Franklin Roosevelt, his longtime friend, that he was right for the job. It should have been easy, right? Well, not so much.
In the fall of 1937, FDR invited Kennedy to his office and asked him, apropos of nothing, “Would you mind taking your pants down?”
Joe Kennedy was shocked, and not sure how to respond. “Did you just say what I think you said?” he asked, and the President replied, “Yes, indeed.” So the businessman and investor dropped his pants and stood there in his underwear, waiting to find out why he’d been forced to suffer such a humiliation.
The president finally explained: “Joe, just look at your legs. You are just about the most bow-legged man I have ever seen.” He couldn’t possibly be their envoy in London, as the ambassador induction ceremony involved wearing “knee britches and silk stockings,” Roosevelt told him. “When photos of our new ambassador appear all over the world, we’ll be a laughing stock.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Ted Kennedy almost died in a plane crash
The one-time Lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, had a brush with death in the early 60s just seven months after his brother had been killed.
He was campaigning for re-election to the Senate, and in a trip from Washington to Massachusetts, for the state’s Democratic convention, his plane crashed in an orchard three miles shy of the runway. Two people (including the pilot) were killed, and Kennedy, who had to be dragged from the wreckage, had broken three vertebrae and two ribs, and had a collapsed lung. And for more on the scandalous side of politics, check out these 15 White Lies with Huge Historic Consequences.
JFK had lots of secret health problems
In the era before the Internet and social media, it was still possible for a president to have a secret life. And we’re not talking about extramarital affairs. President John F. Kennedy suffered from numerous deadly illnesses and physical challenges throughout his life, which included everything from scarlet fever and whooping cough to Addison’s disease (a rare disorder of the adrenal glands) and chronic lower back problems.
He never allowed his many ailments to slow him down—while recovering from spinal fusion surgery in 1954, he used the free time to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage—but his medical records were kept as a heavily-guarded secret not just during his presidency but for almost half a century after his death.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
JFK’s back brace may have played a role in his death
It’s possible that his back brace—which JFK wore for his back pain, against the advice of his doctor—might have been the reason he died from his gunshot wounds.
The first shot, which went through the back of his shoulder, should have caused him to slump over in the car, and thus avoid other gunfire. But, because of his corset-style back brace, he was “still upright as a target,” says Dr. Kenneth Salyer, one of the Dallas physicians who treated JFK on that fateful day. Texas Governor John Connally was also shot in the chest, but because he fell over, he was spared additional damage. If Kennedy had “gone down like John Connally did,” Salyer says, he very well might have lived.
Jackie was the first to compare the Kennedy presidency to Camelot
Just days after the murder of her husband in 1963, Jackie met with a reporter to talk about her husband’s legacy, and she remarked that JFK was a fan of the musical Camelot, and especially the lyrics “Don’t ever let it be forgot/ that once there was a spot/ for one brief shining moment/ that was Camelot.” As Jackie said to the writer, “There will be great Presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot… It will never be that way again.” And if you’ve loving all of this trivia, don’t miss the 50 Amazing Facts for People Who Can’t Get Enough Amazing Facts.
One of JFK’s sisters had a failed lobotomy
Rosemary Kennedy—she was the third of Joe Sr. and Rose’s nine children—had a rough life from the very beginning. Born with mental disabilities caused by a negligent nurse—she delayed Rosemary’s birth because there wasn’t a doctor present, all but suffocating the baby in the birth canal—her parents feared that she would reflect poorly on the family’s reputation and political ambitions.
So in 1941, when Rosemary was 23 years-old, they scheduled a frontal lobotomy for her in upstate New York, a procedure that reportedly helped with mood swings. But it caused considerably more damage, with the doctor scraping away at Rosemary’s brain tissue until she could no longer talk. She lived five more decades, although mostly in an institution, and it’s been claimed (and sometimes refuted) that she helped inspire the Special Olympics.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
RFK’s grandson once dated Taylor Swift
Conor Kennedy, a grandson to the late Robert Kennedy, hasn’t followed his grandfather’s footsteps into politics—he opted to be an environmental activist instead—but he does share the family’s proclivity for dating famous women.
In 2012, when he was just 18 years old and still in high school, he dated the pop megastar Taylor Swift. Unlike some of her other boyfriends, Swift never wrote a song about the young Kennedy (that we know of), but she did once admit that the only time she’s “ever been star-struck was meeting Caroline and Ethel Kennedy.” And for more on what makes every man fall in love with Taylor Swift, check out these 11 Reasons Every Man Not-So-Secretly Loves Taylor Swift.
Kennedy had secret taping devices installed in the White House
What, you thought Richard Nixon was the first president to have every conversation in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room recorded for prosperity?
Installed in July of 1962, the recording devices captured almost 300 hours of meeting and telephone conversations. Some were scandalous—he was critical of Martin Luther King Jr, telling his brother Bobby that “King is so hot these days that it’s like having [Karl] Marx coming to the White House”—but nothing like what took down Nixon’s presidency.
Kennedy once considered partnering with the Soviets to get to the moon
Kennedy may have claimed in 1961 that the U.S. would be victorious in the “space race” with the Soviets, but he wasn’t feeling quite so confident a few years later. In fact, in a 1963 speech to the United Nation, the President proposed that the two enemy nations should be cooperating, pooling their resources to help each other.
Why, he asked the UN gathering, “should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction and expenditure?” Whatever his plan to join forces with the Soviets, it never came to fruition, as Kennedy was assassinated just two months later.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
JFK tried to control Jackie’s image
Former Secret Service agent Clint Hill wrote in his book Five Presidents that JFK was especially protective of Jackie, telling his staff exactly what of her private life could be revealed to the world.
Hill says that before a trip to Italy in 1962, the President laid out very specific rules as to where and how the First Lady could and couldn’t be photographed. “(He) made sure I understood that he didn’t want any nightclub scenes, no scenes with glasses or bottles of wine on the table and no bikini shots” of Jackie.
Jackie once dated the creator of “The Addams Family”
Yes, strange but true, Jackie did indeed briefly date New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, who gave the world the macabre insanity of the Addams Family.
Addams couldn’t have been more different from her late husband. He’d married his third wife in a pet cemetery, and lived on the thirteenth floor of a New York penthouse filled with oddities like medieval weapons and a suit of armor. Jackie was a big fan of Addams, and purportedly once claimed that she had more in common with Morticia Addams, the cartoon family matriarch who once said “black is my happy color,” than most people realized.
Both John and Jackie had premonitions that their son would die in a plane
An aide to JFK claims that the president often worried about what would happen to his reckless son, who loved helicopters and refused to get out of them when they landed, when “he’s old enough and wants to learn to fly.”
But nobody was more fearful of John Jr. flying than his mom Jackie, who forbid him from getting a pilot’s license and even pleaded with Maurice Tempelsman to “do whatever it took” to stop John from flying.
It didn’t work; not long after his mother’s death, John Jr. went against her wishes and got his pilot’s license. Nobody—not even boxer Mike Tyson, who once told John he was “crazy” to fly—could stop him, and sure enough, just as his parents had worried, he died in a plane mishap in 1999, crashing into the Atlantic off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts while en route to a family wedding.
Kathleen, the Kennedy almost nobody remembers, was the family black sheep
Kathleen—or “Kick” as she was sometimes known, a nickname given for her supposed “irrepressible nature”—was the fourth born in a family of nine kids, but unlike her brothers and sisters, she wasn’t as eager to do exactly as her parented decreed.
“She was the only rebel of the family,” says biographer Lynne McTaggart. “She was the only one (in the Kennedy clan) who didn’t march down the prescribed road.”
She angered her Catholic parents by getting engaged to a Protestant lord—William ‘Billy’ Cavendish, heir to the Duke of Devonshire—and when her mother tried to delay the wedding, the couple just eloped. The romance ended in tragedy, with Cavendish dying in World War II, and Kathleen herself perished in a plane crash not much later, at just 28 years old. Only her dad attended the funeral.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Joe Jr. and Jack Kennedy argued in defense of Hitler
We wish this was an exaggeration, but there’s ample evidence that two Kennedy sons thought Adolf Hitler—yes, the Nazi dictator at the center of World War II—didn’t deserve his bad reputation. During a 1934 visit to Nazi Germany, Joe Jr. wrote to his father that Hitler’s sterilization law—the forced sterilizations of an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people who were deemed to suffer from “feeblemindedness”—was “a great thing” which would “do away with many of the disgusting specimens of men which inhabit this earth.”
Even more distressing, a 28 year-old future president, who was touring Germany in 1945 as a war correspondent for Hearst magazines, wrote in his diary that Hitler “had in him the stuff of which legends are made” and predicted that “Hitler will emerge from the hatred that surrounds him now as one of the most significant figures who ever lived.”
JFK Jr. hated being called “John-John”
The first son of John and Jackie Kennedy, who was famously photographed playing under his dad’s desk in the oval office, is often referred to affectionately by the nickname “John-John”. Even as an adult, the heir to the Kennedy legacy was saddled with the name.
But according to Jackie’s personal assistant Kathy McKeon, “John hated the nickname. No one in his family called him that—it came about when a White House reported had once overheard the president call out to his toddler son twice in quick succession.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
John F. Kennedy donated his presidential salary to charity
Some think this is just a rumor, but it’s true that Kennedy—who, at the time of his presidency, was the richest man to ever take the office, with a family fortune worth around $1 billion—did, in fact, donate his entire $100,000 salary as president to charity. At the time, he was the only President besides George Washington to turn down the income—it probably helped that he lived off a $10 million trust fund, according to biographer Richard Reeves—and the money, after taxes, was given to several dozen charities, including the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, the United Negro College Fund, and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.
Jackie Kennedy smoked way too much
When we see photos of Jackie Kennedy, she always looks glamorous and healthy. It’s hard to even imagine her drinking alcohol, much less a filthy habit like cigarettes. But, it turns out the First Lady was very much addicted to nicotine.
She had a staggering three-pack-a-day habit—that’s 60 cigarettes in a single day—that lasted forty years. She even smoked through her pregnancies—although to be fair, at the time cigarettes weren’t widely considered to be harmful. She only quit in 1994, after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma, and even then only at the insistence of her daughter Caroline. Jackie made it on our list of these 20 Timeless One-Liners from History’s Extraordinary Women.
JFK Got into a Car Accident With Larry King
Back in 1958, Larry King crashed his car into JFK’s while the politician was visiting Miami. While the damage to the cars wasn’t particularly bad, the president-to-be, who was parked at the time, was apparently quite upset at the situation.
King remembers Kennedy saying, “Early Sunday morning, no traffic, not a cloud in the sky, I’m parked—how could you run into me?” However, Kennedy’s anger was short-lived and King claims that the politician said he’d let the issue slide if King promised him his vote.
Rose Kennedy Didn’t Allow Crying in Her Home
With a family befallen by so many tragedies, you’d expect there to be quite a few tears shed in the Kennedy household. However, such was not the case, thanks to a mandate issued by Kennedy family matriarch Rose.
“It would be selfish and demoralizing to focus on our tragedies,” she said in her autobiography. “There was a saying after Jack died, for the grandchildren, no crying in the house. If you cry, you’ll be sent back to wherever you come from.”
JFK was a James Bond fanatic
JFK didn’t have ordinary heroes: he was inspired by none other than the world’s greatest spy. After being gifted a copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale in 1955, Kennedy became a massive fan of the author and his most famous character, with Fleming’s From Russia With Love earning a spot on his list of favorite books. In fact, JFK was such a Bond fanatic that he even hosted a private screening of Dr. No at the White House.
Bobby Kennedy bonded with FDR over stamp collecting
As a child, Robert F. Kennedy had a keen interest in collecting stamps, a hobby he shared with president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In fact, in 1935, at the age of 10, Bobby wrote to the then-president to express his interest in stamp collecting, to which FDR responded by gifting him with a book of stamps and an album in which to collect them. “Perhaps sometime when you are in Washington you will come in and let me show you my collection,” Roosevelt wrote.
JFK’s family kept sixteen pets at the White House
JFK came from a big family, and had a big one of his own—at least in terms of pets. Over the course of his tenure in the White House, the Kennedys kept 11 dogs—including Pushinka, one of the dogs sent to Jackie Kennedy by Nikita Khrushchev—five horses, a pair of hamsters, two parakeets, a canary, a cat, and a rabbit as pets.
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