Belfast Telegraph

How JFK murder resonated down the years for me

by Ed Curran

This week, memories will be jogged. The assassination of John F Kennedy is imprinted specially on my generation – the teenagers of the 1960s.

Tens of millions around the world will recall that history-changing day half-a-century ago. We can remember exactly where we were and what strong emotions of sympathy and grief engulfed us all.

Countless books and documentaries have retold the story of what happened. The conspiracy theorists still know no bounds. The years do not seem to dim the public's curiosity.

For me personally, the anniversary has a special resonance enhanced by the fact that, during my career as a journalist, I had the privilege of encountering three of Kennedy's closest confidants – his sister Jean, when she was US ambassador to Ireland, his brother Edward on a visit to Northern Ireland and arguably his best friend, the legendary editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee.

Bradlee related to me how he was the only non-family member invited to Bethesda hospital when the president's body was flown from Dallas to Washington.

Bradlee was a correspondent at that time for the American magazine Newsweek. He and his wife socialised regularly with the Kennedys and he told me he had given an undertaking to the president that whatever he gleaned from their close relationship would remain confidential.

He recalled how he witnessed the arrival of the president's coffin and the heart-rending scene in Bethesda hospital. He said Jackie Kennedy, her husband's blood congealed on her pink suit and stockings, "fell into my arms sobbing when she saw me".

Then, as she drew back, she pointedly said to Bradlee: "Ben, you won't report this, will you?" He recalled how he felt embarrassed that she doubted his trust amid such unimaginable grief.

A man of his word, Bradlee kept his inside knowledge of the Kennedys from publication until many years had elapsed.

My memory of Friday, November 22, 1963 is of feeling and behaving as if Kennedy was a member of my family. I recall the BBC interrupting its early evening programmes with a newsflash.

As people reeled in disbelief, there was none of the instantaneous live coverage from the scene which we have become accustomed to in the world of 24-hour news today. As a consequence, so many questions remained unanswered – some to this day.

I was so shocked by Kennedy's death that I felt compelled to express my feelings that night in the form of a letter to my local paper in Co Tyrone, where I was spending the weekend.

It was after midnight before I set off on a mile-long walk to deliver my melancholic thoughts in the letter-box of the Tyrone Courier.

On my return to university in Belfast the following week, I was passing a newsagency which stocked weekly newspapers for students from rural districts. I purchased the Courier to find that the letter, headlined 'In Memoriam' and surrounded by a sombre black border, was displayed prominently on the front page and bore my first-ever newspaper by-line.

In 1997, Jean Kennedy-Smith, now the only surviving sister of John F Kennedy, invited me to lunch in Belfast on her farewell visit as outgoing US Ambassador in Dublin. She had played a key, if highly controversial, role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Much as I am sure she was sated with people's reminiscences of November 1963, I related my story to her of how I had written to the local paper.

The following year, her brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, visited Northern Ireland. I was invited to another lunch for another Kennedy in Hillsborough Castle, where the hostess was the then- Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam.

As Mowlam introduced the guests, Edward Kennedy shook hands with everyone and, when he reached me, he said: "You must be the guy who wrote the letter about my brother."

To say that I was stunned and speechless would be an understatement, but evidently he had been extraordinarily well-briefed by his sister as to whom he might be meeting in Belfast.

Kennedy asked me to send a copy of the letter to him, which I duly did, and he wrote a gracious note of acknowledgement.

The consequence of all this is that, somewhere among the vast archives in Massachusetts marking the legacy of President John F Kennedy, rests the letter I wrote 50 years ago this week.

Where were you on the day Kennedy died? In my case, how could I ever forget?

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