Relationships

JFK, Jackie and Me

My sweet sixteen was neither sweet or innocent

We are forever bound by a tragic twist of history, JFK and me. I was born on November 22nd, the day President Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas. That fateful Friday was my 16th birthday.

For girls, 16 is a milestone birthday that is supposed to signify a leap forward into adulthood — yet with a cloak of innocence still intact. Hence, the term “sweet sixteen” — and the fancy party to go with it, which was common among my friends in those days. But because I felt neither sweet nor innocent, I’d refused the celebration my mother had hoped to throw for me.

And though it was coincidence, it turned out that our nation lost its cloak of innocence and optimism on my sixteenth birthday, too.

As Alessandra Stanley put it in the New York Times, “Life was pre-empted on Nov. 22, 1963 … Those days of watching tragedy unfold in real time were the unifying experience of the baby boomers.” In some strange way, the darkness of those days marked by our first nationally televised heartbreak felt more in keeping with my mood than a sweet sixteen party ever could have.

I was in history class at my suburban high school near New York City when I heard that the president had been shot. Everyone in that school, including the faculty, was numb with shock and didn’t know what to do. But since school was nearly over for the day, the principal dismissed us early. When I got home, my mother was crying. Still, she decided we should stick to our scaled-down birthday plan and drive into Manhattan to be with my brother and his family in their apartment on the Upper East Side.

None of us had much of an appetite for the dinner that my sister-in-law had prepared. It was as if a member of our family, not the president of the United States who we didn’t know personally, had been struck down. And so my brother and I decided to go for a walk. We had no idea where we were headed, but we ended up walking from East 86th Street to the Staten Island Ferry — a distance of eight miles.

All along the way, the streets were thronged with people sobbing, stopping to watch the banks of TVs in electronics stores, hugging strangers in their path, and, like us, walking without a destination. When Richard and I found ourselves in Battery Park at Whitehall Terminal, we dropped our nickels in the slot and rode the Staten Island Ferry back and forth, back and forth, until it shut down for the night.

In a strange postscript, 29 Novembers later, I had a play running Off-Broadway called "Camp Paradox" that starred Christina Haag, an actress who had been John Kennedy Jr.’s girlfriend. Christina was still good friends with Jackie and, as I remember it, the former first lady was planning to come to the final performance of the show but ended up canceling because, as it turned out, the last performance was scheduled for — November 22nd!

This year, while the rest of the nation remembers, I am looking forward to a quiet — hopefully uneventful — birthday. Fifty years have passed since the day I turned sixteen and Kennedy was shot in Dallas, and nearly fifty years since the Staten Island Ferry cost a nickel.