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Top 10 Enduring Myths About JFK

by Mark J. Goodman
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Shortly after the assassination of her husband, Jacqueline Kennedy began to weave the myth of a fairy-tale life for her dead husband in an interview with Life magazine’s Theodore White. But the reality of her marriage and JFK’s presidency itself were far from the fairy tale she tried to spin. Kennedy’s family, friends, and admirers still refuse to fully and honestly address his risky sexual behavior, serious medical problems, and role in assassination attempts on foreign leaders. The following are ten myths that continue to bolster our view of the JFK years as a type of Arthurian utopia.

Featured image credit: Matt Rocker

10 JFK Was Extremely Wealthy

Kennedy Family

Photo credit: Richard Sears

Search the Internet for “wealthiest” or “richest” US presidents, and you’ll find John F. Kennedy on list after list, though some go on to note that he died before inheriting his father’s estate. Certainly, the children of Joseph Patrick Kennedy (JPK) were raised in a very wealthy home, but JFK had relatively little money of his own for most of his life. In reality, he was dependent on the wealth of his father, who had an estimated worth of $300–400 million in 1960.

JPK wanted his children, particularly his sons, to be free from the need to work so that they might concentrate on power and politics. He set up a million-dollar trust for each child to ensure this. While in the White House, JFK bristled over Jackie’s spending, protesting that she did not understand that they had a limited income.

Inheriting none of his father’s great wealth due to his early death, JFK left behind an estate of $10–15 million,[1] a large sum but not what people generally envision. Most of the money went to his children, leaving Jackie with an income that didn’t come close to matching her taste in clothing and art.

9 Jackie Kennedy Inherited Wealth

JFK and Jackie

Photo credit: Cecil W. Stoughton

Based on the common misconception still repeated in numerous sources that Jackie Kennedy was an “oil heiress,” you most likely believe that Jackie Kennedy was already rich when she married JFK. While she, her sister Lee, and her mother Janet put on the airs of upper-class wealth, Jackie’s father, “Black Jack” Bouvier, had in fact dissipated his family inheritance on women, drinking, and stock market losses. Janet divorced Bouvier and married Hugh Auchincloss, who was very wealthy from family holdings in Standard Oil. Jackie did spend most of her youth living among the very wealthy, but she had very little personal wealth. Auchincloss left his money[2] to his children by a previous marriage and the two he had with Janet.

Jackie’s more severe critics claim that she went into the marriage with JFK knowing of his sexual history and the probability of his future philandering because she was attracted to the great wealth and power of his family. It has been alleged that Joe Kennedy agreed to pay for Jackie’s fashion needs in order to keep her from divorcing Jack while he was being groomed to run for president. In the end, she received relatively very little inheritance from JFK. Even after her inheritance from the estate of her second husband, Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis, she left an estate of “only” $47 million in 1994.

8 JFK Was Physically Fit

JFK Crutches

Photo credit: AP

Most of us who grew up in JFK’s era believe he was full of vigor, when was in reality, Kennedy was an extremely unhealthy man and had been for most of his life. Ironically, Kennedy’s “trademark tan” was actually a tell of his poor health,[3] as his skin color was produced by the corticosteriods that he took in massive doses. As a youth, JFK suffered from chronic digestive problems (irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, chronic diarrhea) that were treated with large doses of the new and powerful class of drugs. Though the drugs helped with the problem, they caused osteoporosis, which in turn degenerated his spinal vertebrae. In 1947, JFK was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, back then a life-threatening condition, in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough steroid hormones.

In addition to his Addison’s and colon and back problems, JFK suffered from pharyngitis, upper respiratory infections, high fevers, urinary tract infections (possibly STDs), prostrate problems, dehydration, insomnia, abscesses, and high cholesterol while he was in the White House. The most disturbing element of JFK’s health was his medication list. He was given “injected and ingested corticosteroids for his Addison’s disease; procaine shots for his back; Lomotil, laxatives, paregoric, phenobarbital, testosterone, and trasentine to control his diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss; antibiotics for his urinary tract infections and an abscess; and Tuinal to help him sleep.”

7 Joseph Kennedy Made His Money Bootlegging

Joseph Patrick Kennedy

Photo credit: Wide World Photos

One of the most enduring myths you have probably accepted as fact is that JPK made his fortune by running bootleg liquor during Prohibition. Although Joe was a shady businessman and almost certainly had dealings with Mafia leaders, he did not engage in bootlegging. Instead, he sold legal medicinal alcohol and made sure that he held import licenses that would allow for the legal import of booze once Prohibition ended.

In late 1933, just as Prohibition was ending, JPK went to England to get an exclusive license from the Distillers Company so that he would be the sole importer of Dewar’s, Haig & Haig, and Gordon’s Gin. JPK used his political connections, taking the eldest son of President Franklin Roosevelt with him to meet with representatives of Distillers and then with the prime minister and Winston Churchill. He got the license, and the day after Prohibition ended, Somerset Importers was founded. JPK used his political muscle, but there was nothing illegal[4] about the deal.

6 JFK And Jackie Had A Happy Marriage

JFK Wedding

Photo credit: Toni Frissell

The years with more critical reporting have revealed to us the real JFK: a very complex man. From his youth, he endured almost constant suffering and had the expectation, for very understandable reasons, of a very short life. There is no doubt that JFK was a serial philanderer and that he continued his reckless sexual excesses during his marriage and in while the White House. His irresponsible behavior not only compromised his presidential actions, but it had an enervating impact on his relationship with Jackie. If Jackie didn’t know upon entering the marriage that JFK had no intentions of keeping his marriage vows, which is highly doubtful, she must have learned very quickly that he intended to behave much as he had during his bachelor years. According to JFK friend Jim Reed, “After the first year Jackie was wandering around looking like the survivor of an airplane crash.”[5]

The marriage almost came to an end in 1956, when rather than staying with his very pregnant wife, JFK went on a European yachting trip with Senator George Smathers. Jackie gave birth to a stillborn girl, but when JFK was told, he was in no hurry to return to Jackie’s side. According to Smathers, it was he who told JFK that he needed to return if he expected to get into national politics. When JFK did return, Jackie was unreceptive, and the couple became estranged. Joe Kennedy had to broker a deal for Jackie to stay in the marriage. Jackie stayed, but JFK didn’t change his behavior.

5 The Assassination Was Unexpected

The vast majority of Americans were shocked and surprised by the assassination of JFK in Dallas. However, those closest to the events of that day may have been shocked by the audacity and violence of the act, but they weren’t entirely surprised. So common was the talk of possible assassination that JFK told his wife on the morning of the assassination that nobody could stop him from being assassinated if an assassin were to fire from a high-rise building[6] with a high-powered rifle. Many of his advisors and even his personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln expressed their concern over the trip to Texas. Much of the concern was based on how badly UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been treated in Texas just the month before. Stevenson and his wife were roughed up and hit with signs by right wing demonstrators.

We now know that the Kennedys used and then prosecuted mob figures. This, along with the antipathy toward JFK felt by some anti-Castro Cubans, the CIA plot to kill Castro, and the anger of far-right extremist groups, added to a political atmosphere in the US that caused insiders to be anxious about the potential for assassination. The specter of the CIA-backed murder of President Diem of South Vietnam (a fellow Catholic) on November 2, 1963, haunted JFK. These things caused fear in those in the know—a fear that ultimately became realized.

4 JFK’s Reelection In 1964 Was A Sure Thing

JFK Oval Office

Photo credit: Abbie Rowe

Given Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964 over Barry Goldwater, we take it as a given that JFK would have triumphed as easily. But it wouldn’t necessarily have happened that way. Kennedy went to Texas to heal a division in the state’s Democratic party, where liberals were fighting with conservatives. Civil rights had become a divisive issue in 1964, and Johnson was able to use his considerable experience as a leader in the Senate to push through legislation that made him a hero to civil rights activists. Kennedy would have had a much more difficult time doing so and was extremely cautious about doing anything that might jeopardize his reelection. Notwithstanding his boldness on civil rights, Johnson was able to garner Southern support because he was “one of them,” while Kennedy was seen in the South as Northern interloper who had no idea how Southerners lived and thought.

Another issue that may have hindered his reelection[7] was JFK’s sexual exploits. Even though the ethos of reporters in the early 1960s led them to leave personal behavior out of their stories, a corruption investigation of Johnson’s protege Bobby Baker led to the exposure of a questionable woman with whom JFK had a sexual relationship. The investigation was stopped when JFK was killed, as Johnson had become president and it was thought the country needed healing.

3 Jackie Tried To Get Out Of The Car

Jackie Kennedy Zapruder Film

Film and photos of the assassination show that after the fatal shot, Jackie Kennedy crawled onto the trunk of the presidential limousine. This has led to speculation as to what motivated her to do so. In the book A Woman Named Jackie, author C. David Heymann makes the scurrilous accusation that Jackie was trying to “escape” from the scene and was pushed back into the limo by her Secret Service agent, Clint Hill. This is based upon the author’s portrayal of her as essentially a spoiled narcissist. Heymann asserts that while John Connelly (the then-governor of Texas who was riding in the car with his wife) was pulled by his wife into her lap after being shot, Mrs. Kennedy did nothing but watch and then tried to get out of the vehicle.

The more plausible explanation is that Jackie was in shock after seeing her husband’s head partially shot off and part of his skull landing on the trunk. A close review of the Zapruder film shows a piece of skull skittering across the trunk, and Jackie climbs out of the car in an attempt to recover it.[8] She clearly cups her hand as if she is trying to scoop something up. This was Hill’s explanation after the fact, and it matches the video evidence. Hill did not push her back into the limo; she was already moving back in before he touched her.

2 JFK’s Catholicism Hurt Him In 1960

JFK Campaign Poster

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Those of us alive during Kennedy’s election campaign, particularly Catholics, cannot forget that JFK’s religion became a main issue. Contemporary thinking was that no Roman Catholic could be elected to the presidency, given the historical aversion of the majority of Americans to the “Romish” religion. Al Smith, the Irish Catholic governor of New York, lost the 1928 presidential election, one that the Democrats should have been in great position to win. Postelection analysis showed that Smith’s Roman Catholic faith, along with ugly stereotypes of Irish Americans, was a major factor in his loss.

But things had changed greatly in the US by 1960. World War II and the Korean War had major impacts. Catholics and Protestants served together in these conflicts and now lived next to each other due to the rise of the suburbs. Attitudes had softened over the decades to the point where compatible political beliefs were more important than religion.[9] JFK and his advisors knew this, but they also knew that the Catholic vote had become a larger voting bloc and could be a major positive for his campaign.

In the Wisconsin primary, Kennedy beat Hubert Humphrey, though Humphrey carried the Protestant precincts and JFK the Catholic ones. While this showed a split on the religious issue, it also pointed out the strength of the Catholic vote. The ultimate proof that his Catholicism was not a hindrance came when Kennedy won the primary in heavily Protestant West Virginia. With this win, Kennedy showed that Protestants were willing to accept a Catholic as president.

1 Oswald Was Standing When He Fired

Book Depository Window

Photo credit: JFK Lancer

Anyone who saw the assassination scene in the made-for-TV movie Killing Kennedy (or read the book) was presented with not so much a “myth” as a downright fallacy—which will eventually morph into myth. In the scene, Lee Harvey Oswald is standing up in the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository building when he fires the shots that killed JFK and wounded Governor Connelly. Why the writers or producers would allow for such a mistake is unfathomable. Nothing is as clear as the fact that if the fatal shots came from the sixth floor of the Depository, the shooter would have had to have been supporting his arms upon the boxes he’d set up to steady his rifle.

Moreover, the style of the sixth floor windows makes it impossible for one to stand up[10] while firing a rifle, as the window opens at most to about hip level. The Dallas police and Warren Commission made the construction of a “sniper nest” an elemental proof that Oswald planned the assassination. There is little more to say on this, as the existing evidence so strongly shows the movie to be in gross error on this point. But in this mistake (or at best instance of artistic license) lie the seeds of myth.

Mark holds a Master of Public Administration Degree (urban planning emphasis) from California State University Fullerton. He served two terms as the mayor of Laguna Niguel and was a member of the Orange County Fire Authority board of directors. He has served as chair of the County of Orange 20 Year Transportation Master Plan Task Force and member of the board of directors of the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies (budget & finance committee) as well as on numerous other countywide boards and committees. In his spare time Mark writes about history, politics, and religion. He also dabbles in writing poetry, has written an unpublished children’s book, and is working on a screenplay.

fact checked by Jamie Frater