Those of us, of a certain age, or so the story goes, can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on 23rd of November, 1963, when we first heard news of the death of President John F. Kennedy.
Some will have been in the concert hall in Boston when the performance was stopped and, in an uneasy silence, the conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, announced in a mid-European accent that somehow heightened the sense of tragedy and foreboding, that “the president has been the victim of an assassination,” and then, amidst all too audible gasps, “We will play a funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.”
Many more will have watched on TV the legendary newscaster, Walter Cronkite, struggling to retain his professionalism as he swallowed hard, adjusted his spectacles and, with agonizing pauses, confirmed to viewers, after much, earlier, unconfirmed speculation, “From Dallas…. Texas… the flash…apparently official…President Kennedy died…” Pausing, he looked up and across the studio towards the bank of clocks, “….at one p.m….Central, Standard Time… two o’clock… Eastern, Standard Time… some… thirty-eight minutes ago.”
It was some seconds before he was able to regain his composure and continue. I was a post-graduate student, studying for my teaching diploma, when the college janitor, interrupting a rehearsal for a student production of a Chekhov play, gave us the news of Kennedy’s death. The rehearsal simply stopped and we all went off our different ways with scarcely a word spoken.
Fifty years on and some of those associated with the Kennedy’s ill-fated trip to Dallas, by way of commemoration and homage (and who knows, perhaps, even contrition), have curated a small, unique exhibition of works of art originally brought together and assembled in the hotel room where John and Jackie stayed, in Fort Worth, the night before they flew in to the airport at Love Field, Dallas.
The Hotel Texas had an opulent 13th floor suite but the secret service insisted they used the more modest Suite 805. So plain in comparison, luminaries from the local arts community decided that they would decorate it with works of art, no doubt to demonstrate their own sophistication as well as that of their cultured visitors from Boston high society.
Put together in under a week at the instigation of a local reporter and art critic, Owen Day, and with the support of local collectors, especially Ruth Carter Johnson (later Stevenson), founder of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the collection was made up of 16 pieces including bronze sculptures by Picasso and Henry Moore and paintings by Franz Kline, Van Gogh, Dufy, Monet and others.
The current exhibition with its extensive catalogue, Hotel Texas: an Exhibition for the President and Mrs John Kennedy is at the Dallas Museum of Art till September and moves on to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth in October, till January 2014.
Curated by Olivier Meslay, it contains 14 of the original works. Missing is Sea and Rocks by John Marin and Monet’s Portrait of the Artist’s Granddaughter neither of which could be traced. Though the couple arrived tired at midnight, Jackie commented on the works the following morning and one of the president’s last phone calls was to Ruth Stevenson.
In Europe, more exuberant and less nuanced celebrations of a different Kennedy half-centennial have already taken place in Berlin, a city that wears its history and its heart unashamedly on its sleeve. For the citizens of Germany’s capital city, 2013 marks a happier, more positive memory.
On June 26th, fifty years ago, Kennedy addressed a crowd of several hundred thousand in front of the Rathaus Schoneberg, the city hall of West Berlin, shortly after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
His presidency had been marked by a series of Cold War crises, from the Bay of Pigs debacle to the Cuban Missile crisis, that had taken the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than ever before. As part of a sequence of tit-for-tat exchanges Khrushchev had ordered the building of the Berlin Wall and Kennedy had, in the manner of MacArthur in Korea, “gone to Berlin”, to bang the drum for freedom and democracy.
No matter that Berliners were mere pawns in a much larger geopolitical game, they took Kennedy’s presence and his words at face value and then, as now, saw him as no less than the leader of the world’s most powerful nation prepared to defend them against any aggression from the east.
Key to his success in capturing the support of the masses who turned out to hear his address were the sentences: “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum’. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”
Part of the rich mythology surrounding Kennedy is that his pronunciation of ‘Berliner’ suggested a local delicacy similar to a doughnut – ‘I am a doughnut’ would have lacked the gravity of his intended message. In fact, there is no evidence that he was misunderstood.
However, it is true that the sentences were added at the last minute, once he had gauged the mood of the crowd and realised the extraordinary extent of his popularity. In an exhibition “Ich bin Ein Berliner” — Kennedy’s visit to Germany, at The Kennedys museum, you can read his hand-written note, his aide memoire. Spelt phonetically (he was acutely conscious of the peculiarities of his Boston accent) the note reads “Ish been Ein Bearleener” whilst “civis” comes out as “Kiwis”, better understood, perhaps, in reference to the inhabitants of New Zealand.
The museum is in a former Jewish girls’ school in the artists’ district of Scheunenviertal, part of what was communist East Berlin, an area that still bears the scars of partition, near the bombed out remnants of an old department store, saved from demolition by an artist-led occupation movement, though early signs of gentrification has seen the infamous Tacheles art collective moved away from the area.
Also amongst the documentary exhibits are quotations from both Jackie and the President. She commented, “How strange. The words of my husband, that will be the most remembered, are words he did not say in his own language”. JFK’s prescient and poignant remark was that “We’ll never have a day like this one as long as we live.”
It is difficult to assess the practical significance of the speech but it undoubtedly played a part in securing West Berlin, an otherwise isolated outpost, as part of the line, the Iron Curtain, to be held in Europe against the advance of communist expansion, a continuation of the determination to maintain a bridgehead in the city shown during the Berlin Blockade and Airlift of 1948 and 1949. It was part of a cultural as much as a political continuum that culminated in the Bruce Springsteen concert on July 19th,1988, now celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Held in East Berlin, though not too near the wall, and sanctioned by the DDR, it was part of the bread and circuses campaign launched by the East German government to take the sting out of growing youth unrest and as a response to concerts in West Berlin the same year by the likes of David Bowie (whose new album references his time in Berlin in ‘Where are we now?’), Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson.
Jackson was spied on by the Stasi whilst Pink Floyd turned their speakers to the east during their playing of The Wall. As the book by Erik Kirschbaum, “Rocking the Wall” makes clear, in its political objective it failed miserably merely inflaming young people’s desire for freedom, and not merely the desire of the 300,000 or so who attended the concert.
The following year the wall was pulled down, more hastily, perhaps, than it should have been, an act of historical and architectural vandalism at a time of heightened revolutionary fervour. Some of the wall remains, other parts have been rebuilt.
The East Street Gallery, by the banks of the river Spree, consists of a half mile length of the wall, with over one hundred paintings, now in poor repair and threatened with the inevitability of “redevelopment” in a constantly changing urban scene.
Near the Disneyesque Checkpoint Charlie, the main access from West to East Berlin, though rarely east to west, slabs of stone from the wall, like ancient stelae, carry cartoon images of modern day tyrants, from Mugabe to Assad, who await the fate of the wall.
The various celebratory exhibitions held throughout Berlin in June are now at an end. However, although the exhibition at The Kennedys museum ends in September, the museum itself is permanent, a mark of the lasting attachment of the city to America’s most glamorous president and an historical reminder of the importance of the city in the era of the Cold War.
Continuing the link between the USA and Berlin, Barack Obama became the fourth President to visit the city (after Kennedy, Reagan in 1987 and Clinton in 1994), as much to confirm Germany’s dominance of the EU as to commemorate the events of 1963, with many Germans placing the same sort of faith in “Der Schwarze Kennedy” as they did in JFK.
One is left to wonder the extent to which Kennedy’s reputation amongst Berliners will be tarnished by revelations about his admiration for Hitler in the 1930s, revealed in the recently published “John F Kennedy Among the Germans. Travel Diaries and Letters 1937-1945” in which he recorded his approval of Nazi rule and racial theories, commenting “what are the evils of fascism compared to communism”.
Top Image: Charles M. Russell – Lost in a Snowstorm — We are Friends