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A President's fascination

As the world remembers John F. Kennedy on his 39th death anniversary that falls today, V. GANGADHAR provides glimpses of the ebullient President's association with and attraction for Hollywood.


ON A wintry morning early in 1961, weeks after he was sworn in as the President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, sneaked out of the White House, walked to the Warner theatre, bought a ticket and sat down to enjoy the movie, "Spartacus". As his eyes grew accustomed to the dimming lights, Kennedy recognised a familiar figure seated three or four rows ahead. Walking quietly, the President tapped the figure on the back. The person turned his head in surprise. "That's a hell of a way to write a farm programme," grumbled the President in mock disgust. The stranger was Orville Freeman, his own Secretary of Agriculture! News spread that the American President had watched "Spartacus" and its box office attraction grew.

Robert Kennedy, the President's brother and the Attorney General kidded actor Kirk Douglas who had also produced the movie. "You know, my brother helped you with "Spartacus" pointed out Bobby. "Yes, he did," agreed Douglas. "In fact, he became the number one fan of the movie." Informal and friendly — the new President embodied these qualities and Hollywood like other sections of American society was enchanted. After eight years of the staid Eisenhower administration, the U.S. was witnessing something new — a youthful, handsome, ebullient President and a beautiful, charming First Lady. There was a baby in the White House after several years (though Patrick Jr., died days after his birth). America was in the grip of a heady Camelot.

Like most American Presidents, Ken-nedy, who-se 39th death anni-versary falls today, was attracted not only by the glamour of Hollywood but also its talent. The stars, were, of course, divided in their political loyalties. Liberals like Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Gregory Peck and Marlon Brando were staunch Democrats while the more conservative group which consisted of James Stewart, John Wayne and Charlton Heston backed the Republicans and later, the war in Vietnam. But once a President was chosen, the stars forgot their political differences and stood by him.

Kennedy was a favourite with Hollywood even when he was a Senator. His wealth, good looks, charm, war record and his presidential ambition made him stand out. Further, his brother-in-law, Peter Lawford was in the movies and along with stars like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis (Jr) was part of the famous Hollywood `Rat Pack', attracting attention by their antics in night clubs. The `Rat pack' was featured in a hit film, `Oceans Eleven'.

No wonder, Hollywood was prominently displayed at the new President's Inauguration. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire danced and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin along with black crooners, Harry Belafonte and Nat King Cole, sang. The President was highly impressed and observed, "We have seen the ultimate in excellence tonight."


Kennedy's interest in beautiful female stars became well known and they were well represented in the White House parties. At a Madison Square birthday party for JFK, glamour girl and sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe sang, `Happy Birthday to you, dear President'. With tongue firmly in cheek, the President quipped, " Now I can retire from politics after having had `Happy birthday' sung to me by such a sweet, wholesome girl like Marilyn".

It was obvious that Monroe would not stop with singing `Happy birthday' to the President. She had a passionate affair with Kennedy. The President had a history of back trouble. After a rendezvous with Kennedy in New York, Marilyn giggled and confided to a friend, " I think I made his back real better." The President was also fond of another beauteous star, Angie Dickinson, though their affair was more discreet.

Kennedy's interest in Hollywood was not restricted to only beautiful stars. He was a keen student of the art of cinema. A fan of Ian Fleming novels featuring the British spy, James Bond, Kennedy was among the first to recognise the potential of Bond movies and never missed one. Kirk Douglas was keen to make a movie of the controversial American novel, `Seven Days in May' by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, which dealt with a conspiracy to overthrow the President and install a military, right-wing government at Washington. How will Americans react to this explosive theme, wondered Douglas. At a Washington dinner, President Kennedy asked Douglas straightway, "Do you intend to make a movie out of the novel, `Seven Days in May"? Douglas nodded. "Good, go ahead," the President said patting Douglas on the back. He spent the next 20 minutes explaining to the actor why `Seven Days ... ' would make an excellent movie. Douglas did make the movie with Burt Lancaster and character actor, Frederick March. The film not only made lots of money but also won critical acclaim.

Kennedy asked Kirk Douglas to visit poor nations all over the world and explain the American stand on major international issues. The actor went to Thailand, India, Philippines, Hong Kong and other parts of the world and found the experience exhilarating. At the end of one his visits, Douglas observed, "President Kennedy got people inspired and excited about their own country."

Kennedy's America sang, danced and partied as never before. Hollywood stars were often invited to the White House where they found the President, charmingly informal and ready to play pranks. Jackie once took the Hollywood guests to the Lincoln Room in the White House thinking it would be empty. But the President's mother, Rose was sleeping soundly and the group returned trying to suppress their giggles.

For all this jollity, Kennedy never once forgot that he was the President of the most powerful nation in the world. At a party at the El Morocco nightclub, British actor and Kennedy family friend, David Niven, went on dancing with Jackie, but the President was missing. "Where is he? Doesn't he like dancing?" asked Niven. "Yes, he does," explained Jackie. "But he likes to be the President first."

Another party, this time on board a yacht, was full of dance and song and fun. The guests, including several celebrities, touched land and dispersed at 4 a.m. Within four hours, the President was at his desk in the Oval office to attend Decoration Day Service and preside over a cabinet meeting.

Later in the evening, the President asked David Niven to sit at the Oval Presidential desk. "See how it feels," he quipped. When they met again at the Camp David resort, Niven observed an aide carrying a brightly coloured telephone closely following the President. The actor stared at the telephone and blurted out, "Is that the one you pick up if you wanted to blow up the world?" Kennedy looked out of the window for a long time and quietly nodded. But then quipped, "You know a guy could like it here!"

No wonder, Hollywood chose to remember John F. Kennedy in the best way it could. Cliff Robertson starred in "PT 109" based on Kennedy's heroics during World War II. Other episodes from his life including his tragic assassination were also filmed. Oliver Stone's "JFK" was big hit. More recently Kevin Costner starred in a movie based on the Soviet-UN confrontation during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which resulted in the USSR removing its nuclear missiles from the Cuban soil. Kennedy would have approved of such a movie. David Niven had this to say of the President. "I shall never forget him for his simplicity, his humour, his kindness, interest in other people and above all, his love for life." Hollywood would agree with these sentiments.

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