25 Fascinating Facts About John F. Kennedy

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Fifty-five years after his tragic death cut his presidency short, John F. Kennedy remains one of history’s most intriguing figures—and, according to Gallup, America’s favorite president. Here are 25 things you might not have known about JFK.

1. HE RECEIVED LAST RITES A TOTAL OF FOUR TIMES.

From a young age, John F. Kennedy battled a range of health problems, some of which appeared to be life-threatening—so much so that he received the sacramental last rites a total of four times: first in 1947, when he became sick while traveling in England and was diagnosed with Addison’s disease; a second time in 1951, when he was suffering from an extremely high fever while in Japan; the third time in 1954, when he slipped into a coma following back surgery; and a final time on the day of his assassination, on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

2. HE FAKED HIS WAY INTO THE NAVY.


By Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy’s ongoing health problems became an issue when he attempted to enlist in the military in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War II. Because of his various medical conditions, Kennedy could not pass a proper physical examination. Instead, according to JFK historian Richard Reeves, Kennedy “used the riches and influence of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, to become a naval officer. The old man persuaded friends in the military to accept a certificate of good health, a false one, from a family doctor.”

3. HE BECAME A WAR HERO.

Regardless of how he found his way into the navy, Kennedy certainly proved his chops as an officer once he was there. In 1943, he was made commander of a PT-109 patrol boat that came under attack near the Solomon Islands. After the boat sank, Kennedy and his crew swam approximately 3.5 miles to a nearby island, where they were stranded for seven days until a pair of PT boats came to their rescue.

4. A MEMENTO FROM THAT NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE WAS AN OVAL OFFICE FIXTURE.


Public Domain, JFK Library

In an attempt to get help for himself and his marooned crew of fellow officers, Kennedy etched an SOS message into a coconut shell, which he gave to two natives to deliver to a nearby base in order to arrange for their rescue. As a reminder of the incident, Kennedy had the coconut encased in wood and plastic and used it as a paperweight. It sat on his desk in the Oval Office.

5. THE WRECK OF KENNEDY’S PT-109 WAS DISCOVERED NEARLY 60 YEARS LATER.

In 2002, famed deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of Kennedy and his crew’s PT-109 boat about 1200 feet below the water’s surface during a National Geographic expedition. "I'm very pleased, because it was a real needle in a haystack, probably the toughest needle I've ever had to find," Ballard said—which was quite a testament, as Ballard also discovered the Titanic.

6. HE IS THE ONLY PRESIDENT TO HAVE RECEIVED A PURPLE HEART.

Though recent presidential candidates John Kerry and John McCain both received Purple Hearts for their service during wartime, Kennedy is the only president to boast the honor. He received it after being wounded in action on August 22, 1943.

7. HIS BROTHER, BOBBY, GOT A LITTLE WILD AT JFK'S WEDDING.


The Kennedy siblings celebrate John and Jackie's wedding.

By Toni Frissell, 1953, Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When JFK married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier on September 12, 1953 in Newport, Rhode Island, his brother, Robert, served as his best man. But that best man got a little wild. According to Evan Thomas’s Robert Kennedy: His Life, Bobby “behaved like a naughty teenager, stealing a policeman’s hat” on his brother’s wedding day. “Joe Kennedy was furious. He summoned Bobby and his co-conspirators, his brother Teddy and some younger cousins, and gave them a lecture about disgracing the family name. When Bobby tried to speak up, Joe snapped, ‘No. You keep quiet and listen to me. This is childish behavior, and I don’t want anything more like it.’"

8. HE WON A PULITZER PRIZE.

In 1957, Kennedy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Profiles in Courage. Though Kennedy is credited as the book’s sole author, questions have arisen in the years since about how much of the book was actually written by Kennedy, and how much was written by his ghostwriter, Ted Sorenson. In 2008, Sorenson told The Wall Street Journal that he “did a first draft of most chapters,” “helped choose the words of many of its sentences,” and likely “privately boasted or indirectly hinted that I had written much of the book.”

9. JOHN AND JACKIE HAD FOUR CHILDREN.


National Archive/Newsmakers

Though both Caroline and John Kennedy, Jr. became celebrities in their own right, JFK and Jackie had four children: In 1956, Jackie gave birth to a stillborn daughter who they had planned to name Arabella. On August 7, 1963, she gave birth to Patrick Bouvier Kennedy more than five weeks before her due date; he died just two days later. In 1963, the bodies of both children were moved from Massachusetts to Arlington National Cemetery, to be buried with their father.

10. HE GOT INTO A FENDER-BENDER WITH LARRY KING.

In 1958, Larry King got into a car accident with JFK, who was then a senator, while in Palm Beach. In his autobiography, King wrote about how he had just arrived to the area from Brooklyn and was so distracted by the swanky South Florida locale that he wasn’t really paying attention to the road. And Kennedy was pretty angry about the whole incident. “How could you?” Kennedy yelled. “Early Sunday morning, no traffic, not a cloud in the sky, I’m parked—how could you run into me?”

“All I could say was, ‘Senator, do you want to exchange information from our driver’s licenses?’” King replied, writing that, “Eventually he calmed down, and he said he’d forget the whole thing if we just promised to vote for him when he ran for president. We did, and he drove away—though not before saying, ‘Stay waaay behind me.’”

11. HE DIDN’T EXPECT LYNDON JOHNSON TO SAY “YES” TO BECOMING HIS RUNNING MATE.


By Abbie Rowe - John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy’s choice of running mate came down to the wire. “At around 11 a.m. on the day a nominee was to be presented, John Kennedy visited Johnson in his hotel suite and offered him the job,” according to PBS. “Robert Kennedy maintained afterward that his brother offered the job to Johnson only as a courtesy, and then felt trapped when he accepted. ‘Now what do we do?’ the candidate asked, then answered by sending Bobby back to talk Johnson out of it. Around 4 p.m., with tensions running high all around, John Kennedy called Johnson to assure him he was the one. Ignore Bobby, he said, because ‘he's been out of touch and doesn't know what's happening.’”

12. HE WAS THE LAST PRESIDENT TO WEAR A TOP HAT AT HIS INAUGURATION.

For many years, going back to at least James Garfield’s inauguration in 1881, it was a tradition for incoming presidents to wear a top hat as part of the Inauguration Day garb. Though JFK wasn’t a fan of hats, he went along with the tradition—but was the last POTUS to do so.

13. HE BEGAN THE TRADITION OF HAVING AN INAUGURAL POET.

Though not every incoming president has chosen to have an inaugural poet, the tradition itself began with Kennedy, who asked Robert Frost to recite “The Gift Outright” on his Inauguration Day in 1961. But Frost had other ideas and wrote an entirely new poem for Kennedy, entitled “Dedication,” for the occasion. There was just one problem: It was a bright and sunny day, and Frost—who was 87 years old at the time—had trouble reading the copy of the poem he had brought with him, so ended up reciting “The Gift Outright” from memory.

14. WILLIAM FAULKNER REFUSED A WHITE HOUSE DINNER INVITATION.

Kennedy may have been able to convince one of the world’s most celebrated poets to attend his inauguration, but not every literary hero was so keen to make the journey to the White House. When Kennedy extended a dinner invitation to William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning author politely declined, telling LIFE Magazine: “Why that’s a hundred miles away. That’s a long way to go just to eat.”

15. HE WAS THE SECOND WEALTHIEST PRESIDENT.

With an estimated net worth of about $1 billion (in today’s dollars) when he took office in 1961, Kennedy had long held the record for the wealthiest president in U.S. history. In 2017, he was knocked into second place when Donald Trump—whose net worth is estimated to be approximately $3.5 billion—took office.

16. HE DONATED ALL OF HIS SALARY TO CHARITY.

Given the size of Kennedy’s bank account, he certainly didn’t get into politics for the money. In fact, he donated his entire presidential salary to charity, just as he did his congressional salary.

17. HE WAS AN ANIMAL LOVER.


STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

The Kennedy White House was a bit of a zoo. Among the animals that called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home during JFK’s administration were five horses, two parakeets, two hamsters, a cat, a rabbit, and five dogs, including a mutt named Pushinka, a gift from Nikita Khrushchev. Pushinka was the daughter of Strelka, one of the first dogs in space.

18. HE WAS A SPEED READER.

While the average reader is said to digest words at a rate of about 250 to 300 words per minute, JFK was far from the average reader. He could reportedly read about four times faster than that, at a speed of 1200 words per minute.

19. HE WAS A JAMES BOND FANATIC.

In 1955, JFK was given a copy of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book, Casino Royale, and was immediately intrigued by the character. In 1962, he hosted a private screening of Dr. No at the White House. When asked to name his 10 favorite books, he listed From Russia With Love at number nine. In a documentary included in the Bond 50th anniversary Blu-ray collection, Kennedy was quoted as saying, "I wish I had had James Bond on my staff."

20. A DAY BEFORE SIGNING THE CUBA EMBARGO, HE BOUGHT A LOT OF CIGARS.


Photo by Walter Daran/Getty Images

Kennedy was a fan of fine cigars, and Cuban cigars in particular. In February of 1962, he asked press secretary Pierre Salinger to help him acquire a large supply of Cuban cigars—and quickly. When Salinger asked how many he needed, Kennedy told him, "About 1000 Petit Upmanns." And he wanted them by the next morning. The next day, when Salinger informed the president that he had managed to get 1200 of them, he wrote that, “Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country.”

21. HE RECORDED MORE THAN 260 HOURS OF PRIVATE WHITE HOUSE CONVERSATIONS.

In the spring of 1962, Secret Service agent Robert Bouck installed secret recording devices in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room of the White House at the request of President Kennedy. Though the president never explained why he wanted to record his conversations, both Bouck and Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s personal secretary, believed that his reason for doing this was to have a personal record of his time in the White House after he had left. The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has made many of the 260-plus hours of recordings available to the public (you can even listen to some of them online).

22. HE HELPED GET THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE MADE.


AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Kennedy ran with a pretty cool circle of friends, and Frank Sinatra was one of them. When Sinatra was having trouble getting United Artists to greenlight a big-screen adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, for fear that it was too controversial, Sinatra persuaded Kennedy to make a personal appeal to the studio head. "That's the only way that film ever got made," Condon later told Kitty Kelley, Sinatra’s biographer. "It took Frank going directly to Jack Kennedy."

23. HE WAS THE TARGET OF AT LEAST FOUR ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS.

Throughout his life, JFK was the target of at least four assassination attempts—including once in 1960, shortly after being elected president, when a retired postal worker filled his car with dynamite and followed the president-elect from Hyannisport to Palm Beach. "Brother, they could have gotten me in Palm Beach,” Kennedy reportedly told a Secret Service agent. “There is no way to keep anyone from killing me." In the lead-up to JFK’s assassination in Dallas, two additional plots—one in Chicago and one in Tampa—were discovered.

24. HIS TRUSTY BLACK ALLIGATOR BRIEFCASE SOLD FOR MORE THAN $700,000.


JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images)

One of Kennedy’s most trusted companions was his black alligator Hermès briefcase, which he carried with him everywhere, including the morning of his assassination. In 1998, the briefcase was among the president’s personal possessions that were being included in a highly anticipated auction of his personal memorabilia. The item became one of a number of items that Kennedy’s children fought to have taken off the auction block, but they eventually relented. The briefcase sold for more than $700,000.

25. HIS LAST WORDS WERE “NO, YOU CERTAINLY CAN’T.”

Though it’s been widely reported that JFK’s final words were, “My God, I’ve been hit,” that information is incorrect. His last words were in regards to how well he had been received in Dallas. Just seconds before he was shot, Nellie Connally—wife of Governor John Connally—remarked that, "You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President,” to which he replied: “No, you certainly can't."

Richard Nixon Had a Speech Prepared In the Event That Apollo 11's Mission Failed

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Richard Nixon Foundation via Getty Images

In July 1969, the world watched as the crew of Apollo 11 successfully entered lunar orbit, landed, then blasted off and returned to Earth. At each step of the way there were dangers and NASA had backup plans in case something went terribly wrong—though there wasn't much NASA could do from 384,403 kilometers away. In 1999, William Safire discussed the speech he wrote for President Richard Nixon just in case the mission failed. From Safire's article:

The most dangerous part of the trip was not landing the little module on the moon, but in launching it back up to the mother ship. If that failed, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could not be rescued. Mission Control would have to "close down communications" and, as the world agonized, let the doomed astronauts starve to death or commit suicide.

Nixon aides H. R. Haldeman and Peter Flanigan told me to plan for that tragic contingency. On July 18, 1969, I recommended that "in event of moon disaster . . . the President should telephone each of the widows-to-be" and after NASA cut off contact "a clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to 'the deepest of the deep,' concluding with the Lord's Prayer." A draft Presidential speech was included.

Here's a scan of the speech:

And here's the text:

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

This story has been updated for 2019.

How Thomas Jefferson's Obsession With Mastodons Partly Fueled the Lewis and Clark Expedition

James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the 1800s, American mastodons—prehistoric relatives of the elephant—had been extinct for roughly 10,000 years. Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that, though. The Founding Father dreamed of finding a living, breathing mastodon in America, and this lofty goal ended up being a motivating force throughout much of his life. Even during the Revolutionary War, and even when he ran for the highest office in the land, he had mastodons on the mind. Jefferson was convinced that the hairy beasts still roamed the continent, probably somewhere on the uncharted western frontier, and he was determined to find them—or, at the very least, enlist a couple of intrepid explorers by the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to do the hunting on his behalf.

The Corps of Discovery departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804 and headed into the great unknown of the Louisiana Purchase in search of an all-water route to the Pacific. The adventurers made many discoveries on the two-and-a-half-year round trip—mapping the geography of the region and logging hundreds of species of flora and fauna unknown to science—but the directive to look for mastodons is a little-known footnote to their famous expedition.

At the start of their trip, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “the remains and accounts of any [animal] which may be deemed rare or extinct.” Although he didn’t mention mastodons specifically—at least not in any of the written correspondence on record—the two explorers were all too familiar with Jefferson’s mammoth ambition. “Surely Jefferson still had the M-word in mind, and surely Lewis knew it,” author Robert A. Saindon writes in Explorations Into the World of Lewis and Clark, Volume 2.

Jefferson had long been interested in paleontology, but his mastodon obsession was fueled by a longstanding beef he had with a French naturalist who thought America’s animals and people were puny. Jefferson’s bone-collecting hobby quickly evolved into a mission to assert America’s dominance in the Western world and prove that it was "a land full of big and beautiful things," as journalist Jon Mooallem put it in his book, Wild Ones. Indeed, there are worse ways to become a political and cultural heavyweight than to prove your country is home to a 12,000-pound monster.

A Rivalry Forms

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

François-Hubert Drouais, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

For much of his adult life, Jefferson was an avid collector of fossils and bones. At various points in time, he owned a bison fossil, elk and moose antlers, giant ground sloth fossils, and naturally, a number of mastodon bones.

Though his original interest may have been purely academic, Jefferson's exposure to the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon fanned the flames of his obsession. Buffon’s “Theory of American Degeneracy,” published in the 1760s, postulated that the people and animals of America were small and weak because the climate (he assumed, without much evidence) was too cold and wet to encourage growth.

Jefferson was furious. He formulated a rebuttal, which partly drew attention to the inconsistencies in Buffon's beliefs about the mastodon. Buffon suggested that the American mastodon was a combination of elephant and hippopotamus bones, but because Jefferson had inspected the bones, he knew that the measurements didn't match those of previously known species. Instead, Jefferson argued that the bones belonged to a different animal entirely. (Although they’re distinct species, woolly mammoths and mastodons were lumped into the same category at the time, and were called one of two names: mammoths or the American incognitum.)

“The skeleton of the mammoth … bespeaks an animal of five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant,” Jefferson wrote. He later scaled back his argument a bit, adding, “But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings.”

He didn’t just believe that mastodons had existed at one point in time, though—he believed they were still out there somewhere. It wasn’t unusual for thinkers and scientists of Jefferson's era to assume that bones were evidence of a still-living species. After all, dinosaurs had not yet been discovered (though their bones had been found, no one would call them dinosaurs until the early 19th century), and the concept of extinction wasn’t widely accepted or understood. Dominant religious beliefs also reinforced the idea that God’s creations couldn't be destroyed.

For his part, Jefferson believed that animals fell into a natural order, and that removing a link in “nature’s chain” would throw the whole system into disarray. Taking the tone of a philosopher, he once questioned, “It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?”

This position may have been partly fueled by wishful thinking. Jefferson believed that tracking down a living mastodon would be the most satisfying way to stick it to Buffon and say, “I told you so.” (In the meantime, though, he had to settle for a dead moose, which he sent overseas to the Frenchman’s doorstep in Paris to prove that large animals did, in fact, exist in America.)

The Hunt Continues

A painting of The Exhumation of the Mastadon

This 1806 painting by Charles Willson Peale, titled The Exhumation of the Mastadon, shows mastodon bones being excavated from a water-filled pit.

Charles Willson Peale, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In late 1781, Jefferson wrote to his buddy George Rogers Clark in the Ohio valley and asked him to fetch some mastodon teeth from a nearby "mastodon boneyard" in northern Kentucky called Big Bone Lick. “Were it possible to get a tooth of each kind, that is to say a foretooth, grinder, &c, it would particularly oblige me,” Jefferson wrote. Clark politely explained that the possibility of Native American attacks made this task impossible, but he was able to procure a thighbone, jaw bone, grinder, and tusk from travelers who had managed to visit the frontier.

However, Jefferson didn’t receive Clark's reply until six months later in August 1782 (because of, you know, the Revolutionary War). Although the war technically didn't end until the following year, peace talks between the two sides were nearing a conclusion, and everybody knew it. With an end to the conflict in sight, Jefferson doubled down on his request for mastodon bones. He wrote to Clark, “A specimen of each of the several species of bones now to be found is to me the most desireable object in Natural History, and there is no expence of package or of safe transportation which I will not gladly reimburse to procure them safely.”

Later, while serving as America’s first Secretary of State, Jefferson supported a proposed Western exploration that would have preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the expedition was called off, Jefferson had instructed the would-be explorer, French botanist André Michaux, to look for mastodons along the way. He wrote to Michaux in 1793, “Under the head of Animal history, that of the Mammoth is particularly recommended to your enquiries.”

Even when Jefferson turned his attention to national politics and ran for president against incumbent John Adams in 1800, he was still thinking about mastodons. His preoccupations were so widely known that his opponents, the Federalists, called him a “mammoth infidel” in reference to his unusual hobby and supposed secular leanings. As an 1885 article in the Magazine of American History recalled, “When Congress was vainly trying to untangle the difficulties arising from the tie vote between Jefferson and [Aaron] Burr, when every politician at the capital was busy with schemes and counter-schemes, this man, whose political fate was balanced on a razor’s edge, was corresponding with [physician and professor] Dr. [Caspar] Wistar in regard to some bones of the mammoth which he had just procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County.”

Once president, Jefferson used his office to further the field of paleontology. Not long after he was elected, he loaned one of the Navy’s pumps to artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who wanted to extract a pile of freshly unearthed mastodon bones from a water-filled pit. It ultimately became the first fossilized skeleton to ever be assembled in America.

Of course, there is also evidence that Jefferson silently hoped Lewis and Clark would stumble upon a living mastodon during their expedition, which formally kicked off in 1804 and ended in 1806. That, as we now know, was impossible. After their return, Jefferson sent William Clark on a second assignment to collect artifacts from Big Bone Lick. He sent three big boxes of bones back to Jefferson, who got to work unloading and studying them in the East Room of the White House—the same room where John and Abigail Adams once hung their laundry.

Still, something wasn’t quite right, and Jefferson may have known it even then. By 1809, the animal in question had been identified and given the name mastodon, and Jefferson started to reverse some of his previously held opinions. In a letter to William Clark, he conceded that the mastodon was not a carnivore, as he once believed, but an herbivore. "Nature seems not to have provided other food sufficient for him," he wrote, "and the limb of a tree would be no more to him than a bough of cotton tree to a horse."

Accepting the Mastodon’s Fate

Thomas Jefferson
National Archive/Newsmakers

The fact that Lewis and Clark never spotted any giants roaming out West may have helped Jefferson accept the inevitable: Mastodons had gone extinct long ago. Waxing poetic in a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.”

Although he was unsuccessful in his quest to find a living mastodon, Jefferson made other meaningful contributions to the field of paleontology. The fossils of another mysterious creature he believed to be a lion were later revealed to be that of a giant ground sloth. He named it Megalonyx (Greek for “great claw”), and in 1822, the extinct creature was renamed Megalonyx jeffersonii in Jefferson’s honor.

Nowadays, the ground sloth fossils—and several other items that formed the "cabinet of curiosities" Jefferson displayed at his Monticello estate—are part of The Academy of Natural Science collection at Drexel University. Considering that Jefferson is sometimes called "the founder of North American paleontology,” it would appear he got his revenge against Buffon after all.

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