Mrs. Kennedy and Mr. Hill

There are certain moments in your life that are forever seared on your psyche. Like September 11th. Even now, you can see these recollections clearly, recalling the emotions you were feeling at the time.

For my generation, such a memory will always be JFK in Dallas on November 22, 1963, played over and over again in a loop that starts out the same, but just once, you wish the ending could turn out differently.

I was in grade school that day, having spent the three years prior in a family that revered all things Kennedy. Growing up in a Roman Catholic family, albeit Latino, not Irish, we felt as if the Kennedy’s were our kindred spirits. Caroline was about my age and I loved watching her and John-John play in the Oval Office, hiding under their father’s desk, smiling coyly for the camera.  And, my family could be entertained for hours, gathered around the Hi-Fi, listening to Vaughn Meader’s The First Family, a best-selling comedy album that parodied the Kennedy Family, yet was retired by most and taken off the market after the assassination.

I recently had the opportunity to attend an author event for the newly-released memoir, Mrs. Kennedy and Me.  The book, written by Clint Hill, one of two Secret Service agents assigned to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s detail, as well as award-winning journalist, Lisa McCubbin, chronicles the four years Mr. Hill spent with Mrs. Kennedy, beginning just before President Kennedy’s inauguration.

Looking around at the 100 or so people in attendance, I could tell I wasn’t the only one in the room who remembered where they were when JFK was assassinated.  As Mr. Hill spoke, we hung on every word. We were children again, reliving the memories of our youth, gathered around someone even closer to the events than the proximity we claimed as eyewitnesses to the events that unfolded on TV.

Here’s some of what I learned during his hour-long, captivating talk:

Prior to protecting Mrs. Kennedy, Mr. Hill was assigned to President Eisenhower. He expected that his next assignment would be protecting President Kennedy, and was profoundly disappointed when he learned he’d be assigned to the First Lady.

Clint Hill shares his stories of his years with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

He spent the holidays leading up to the inauguration of 1961, in Palm Beach, Florida with the Kennedy family and planned to return to Washington, in time for the inauguration. However, the president elect asked Mr. Hill to stay behind with Caroline, who was just three at the time, too young to attend her father’s inauguration. Mr. Hill had no choice but to watch it on TV, and though he tried to explain to Caroline what was going on, she wasn’t interested, preferring instead to play with her paper dolls.

During an unofficial trip to Greece with the First Lady, JFK made it clear that under no circumstances was Mrs. Kennedy to cross paths with Aristotle Onassis. Apparently, the president didn’t want any photographs of the two of them to end up in the press, as Onassis was having some trouble with the US government at the time.

During a vacation, in early 1963, Mr. Hill was working round the clock. When he finally got a chance to return to his hotel room for much-needed sleep, Mrs. Kennedy called him and asked him to return because her sister’s husband, Prince Radziwill, wanted to go on a 50-mile hike. Mr. Hill had to delay his nap and go along, despite not having the appropriate clothing for hiking in, and only his dress shoes to wear.

In the summer of 1963, Mrs. Kennedy gave birth five weeks early to a boy, Patrick. He had to be put in an incubator, and died soon after. In order to help her recover from the loss, that October, Mrs. Kennedy joined her sister, Lee and some close friends for a stay in Greece aboard a private yacht belonging to, you guessed it, Onassis. This time, they did meet.

Mrs. Kennedy returned from the trip ready to help her husband with his re-election campaign. On the morning of the assassination, they breakfasted in Ft. Worth. Then, got ready for the motorcade in Dallas.  You know what happened there.

Through the course of the evening, Mr. Hill shared his stories and anecdotes with candor and love for Mrs. Kennedy. As he got closer to talking about THE date, you could feel the pulses in the room quicken. Nobody said a word. We listened intently, barely blinking, and soon I was overcome with a sense of dread and overwhelming sorrow.

Secret Service agent Clint Hill climbs onto the back of the President’s limo.

Mr. Hill described in great detail the events as he recalled them. How he was the only secret service agent whose vantage point allowed him to see the president slump over after the first shot. How he jumped out of the car he was in and climbed onto the back of the limo the Kennedy’s were riding in. How he could immediately see the gravity of the injury and how his only thought was to use his body to shield the Kennedy’s from further harm. How Mrs. Kennedy had blood on her gloves and suit. How the shots rang out, one after another. He didn’t even notice that the Texas governor had also been hit.

Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin during the book signing.

That, when they arranged for a coffin to transport the president back to Washington, no one anticipated it would be too wide to fit through the door of Air Force One. So the handles had to be removed.  How, he had little time to sleep during the ensuing days, and how he still agonizes over the guilt of not being able to do more.

And how he never returned to Dallas until 1991 when he entered the Texas School Book Depository building for the first time and was able to see how easy it was for a lone gunman to shoot to kill.

And when he finished speaking, a woman in the audience, with tears welling in her eyes,  much like the rest of us, stood up and asked,

“Mr. Hill, did you realize that the whole country shut down for those four days?”

He paused for a moment, trying to compose himself. Then said, “No, I didn’t know.”

In that moment, not a sound was heard. Just one collective memory and one shared sorrow. As if we were all in it together. And, maybe, we were.

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60 thoughts on “Mrs. Kennedy and Mr. Hill

  1. Oh I remember that day so well. I was living in Scotland with two babies and couldn’t believe that the President was dead.
    No room for any more books in this house so I shall see if our library has that book. Thanks for sharing this.

    • It was a terrible day for an entire nation and all its allies, and though there has been so much already written on the subject, this memoir is more than that day. It really is a poignant glimpse into the life of the First Lady and her family. Well worth the read.

  2. What a compelling post this is. You’ve done exactly what you praise Mr. Hill for doing, building the tension in your story until the ‘day’. Well done. Mr. Hill comes across as being quite intelligent, forthright, and well-spoken. I felt the same about him when I watched an interview with him on television.

  3. I’ve seen Hill interviewed on CNN. I love that image of Caroline playing with paper dolls while the inauguration played in the background. If that isn’t a metaphor for the little-girl experience of that era, I don’t know what is. Fascinating post, Monica!
    Hugs,
    Kathy

  4. Thank you for bringing us to this book event. Fascinating read. I remember 11-22-63 so well. I was in Mrs. Cruise’s science class the last period of the day in my East TX town just 100 miles east of Dallas. I couldn’t wait to get home. I felt so horrible that it had happened and that it had happened in our state. Our family didn’t go to church that Sunday following as we had the TV on and then to add to the insanity we witnessed another shooting as Jack Ruby leaped through the crowd wielding his gun.

    • I remember witnessing Jack Ruby, too! I was 8, and saw things in black and white–from watching all those westerns and crime films. To me, what Ruby did seemed to be a good thing, getting the bad guy. I wasn’t thinking of the ripple effect of what that meant (not ever knowing the full story, etc).

  5. This is the best review I’ve seen or heard of that book to date because it’s so personal. You brought us with you to the event. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Such an important piece of history, such a compelling story of a story, particularly in the personal way you tell it, Monica. Also, I was fascinated by the back story of Jackie and Onassis.

    • I know! I was fascinated by the back story, too! I never knew that’s how they met. In fact, when they did announce their wedding, I felt as though it came out of left field. I didn’t know there was a “history.” Thank you, Lisa, for your kind words.

  7. Wow. It’s heart-rending to hear anyone talk about that time. It seems as though no one ever really got over that. Even though it was before my time, I feel the emotion behind the entire event.

    • Tracey, we did get over it. We have learned to live with it. But, it will always be a little pain, a tiny knot, that stays in the back of our minds. Never forgetting. For as long as we live. It was the first death that I experienced, and being so young, it was traumatic. I was in school that day, and it was the first and only time I saw so many teachers, including mine, cry. It was an awakening.

  8. What a great story! Thank you for sharing! You are so right – some events we will never forget and will always remember the time and the place, when it happened. My first recollection of a particular event was the Challenger! We were in school and were watching how it went up and then few seconds later how it went down. Being raised in Soviet Union during the cold war – nobody knew how to react! Our teachers did not know how to explain and how to control our emotions they did not know if we should we be said or happy. I remember our teacher would tell us that something like that would never happen in our society – it was very, very confusing!

  9. Interesting post Monica, I will keep an eye out for the book this side of the pond.

    There are many people in the UK who have no connection to the USA but they can still remember where they were when the incident happened.

    • So, even in the UK they remember? Why do you suppose? What makes it so compelling to those with no connection to the US? I’m fascinated by the thought. Perhaps because the idea of a political leader being assassinated was so shocking, I suppose, especially in the United States. Hmm…

    • Bearing in mind I was the same age as you when it happened, I think it was because he and his family were known and liked here in the UK, simple as that.
      Also that it was such a terrible thing as well.
      The Kennedy family must be the most recognised American political figures for many here in the UK of our generation.

  10. You did such an amazing job with this post… very compelling and had me rivoted right to the end. How moving it must have been to be there.
    I was still in the hospital with my mom at the time of Kennedy’s assassination, having just been born. Coincidentally, my second son was born just a few days before Princess Diana’s death. We share these tragic but collective sorrows as our birthday buddies.

  11. Wonderful post, Monica. Years ago, I went to Dealey Plaza and the Grassy Knoll area where JFK was shot, and it still resonated with memories. I’m sure most Texans would have preferred that his death occur in any place other than Dallas. Regardless of whether you supported JFK, his politics, and his way of life, you had to be affected by his death. You did a good job summarizing Mr. Hill’s eye-witness seat to history!

    • Thanks, Debbie, I’m so glad it came across. I was very impressed with him and his devotion, after all these years, to Jacqueline Kennedy. It was quite an experience.

  12. Your post had me riveted . . . I can only imagine what it was like listening to Mr. Hill. His book strikes me as a fascinating sidelight to the events so imprinted in our collective memories.

  13. This one really gets me in the gut. When I was 10 years old, I rode my bike around the neighborhood in my plastic JFK campaign hat handing out literature. I was so excited when he was elected. When he died, I was a freshman in high school, just walking back into the building from lunch and it was announced over the intercom. For me, that’s when the entire world shifted on its axis. Things were never the same. What an historical photograph. Thanks for sharing this, Monica.

    • Jayne, I had a feeling it might. You and I are of the same ilk when it comes to stuff like this. We remember with your hearts. I love how you say it: “The entire world shifted on its axis.” So true.

  14. Monica, aside from the moment and the people you are talking about, the post itself was a terrific read. You had me on tenterhooks reading through to the very end. Nicely done, you set the scene and tone of the room. You held it through the end of the post. I don’t know if I’d pick up the book or if I did, if I would read it all the way through it, not for any other reason other than I dislike knowing the end of something before I start it. It’s a fault of mine, but after years of knowing this about myself, I am no longer ashamed to admit it.

    • Brenda, I know what you’re saying, but don’t assume you know the ending to this story. After all, it’s Mr. Hill’s memoir and the JFK assassination happens in the middle. He spent an addition couple of years with Jacqueline, and he also talks about his own family. So there’s a lot that we haven’t yet heard. :)

    • Hi Nancy, I really have missed seeing you around here, and visiting your blog. So I’m glad you’re back in action. Thank you for reading today’s post. I hope you like it enough to check out the book when you can. It’s worth reading! :)

  15. Monica,
    I loved the book. I found Mr. Hill to be such a kind caring man. If he was initially disappointed to be protecting Mrs. Kennedy, I think he got over it. You can tell that he has a deep love for her as a person. The book was truly compelling…like you said, it took us back to our childhood. A very sad moment, but one we can never forget. Great review, Monica. Really wonderful!

    • Annie, I’m so glad to know you read it! And, you’re right. He did get over it. His love for Mrs. Kennedy was so evident. It really pained him he wasn’t able to do more. Thank you for reading my re-cap of the evening. Glad you enjoyed it!

  16. Monica, wow, I loved reading that. I would love to hear Clint talk. I find first hand accounts so interesting as they are filled with such an energy.

  17. Monica, wonderful post, sister! Without a doubt, you have managed to pique our interest in this book! What a treat to sit and listen to Clint Hill! I would imagine that reading the story from his perspective would be fascinating, to say the least. The Signficant Other is quite the fan of anything related to John F. Kennedy. I shall share your post with him! :)

    • Gracias, Bella! I haven’t finished reading it yet, but it’s a great read so far. Lovingly told. How wonderful that the SO is a fan of JFK. My brother is practically obsessed with JFK, too, and he’s been to Dallas, Dealey Plaza, twice to review the scene. I remain in awe of the them and those Camelot days, which, as a kid, seemed magical to me. And then three bullets took it all away. Sigh.

  18. –Monica.
    How absolutely moving. My heart aches. The last question by the woman in the audience almost broke me down.

    I watched the author inteviewed by Pierce Morgan last week.

    Great Post. Xxx

    • Kim, that last question gave me the chills. Also, fyi, the woman sitting next to me during the presentation was Mr. Hill’s next door neighbor back when he lived on Cape Cod. She was telling me how her older sister used to babysit Clint Hill’s son. Speaking of his son, Mr. Hill told us that during the four years he spent with Mrs. Kennedy, he spent more time with the Kennedy children than he did with his own. You could tell he felt bad about that, too.

  19. I can’t help feeling this was written just for me…I LOVED it! The Kennedy’s have always fascinated me…I’ve always wondered if there was more to his assassination than just a crazy guy with a gun. Thanks for the great read. Just what I needed after a horribly long day!

    • Nate, you called it! ;) You were the one who told me to write it. Trust me, I wasn’t going to, as it really was an emotional experience, the kind that felt like you had to have been there. But, anyway, there you have it. I’m glad you liked it, too. As for the conspiracy theories, Mr. Hill firmly believes it was a lone guy with a gun. Nothing more.

  20. I’m so glad you wrote about this book, of which I hadn’t heard. I’m definitely going to read it.

    I remember exactly where I was – in my 4th grade classroom – and exactly what happened. Our teacher was called out into the hall. She came back in a few minutes later and told us that the president had been shot and that we were all to go home.

    For days, everyone was glued to the TV. I remember all of it, even what I wore when we watched the funeral.

    Sad…

    • Eloise, what you describe is pretty much what I, too, remember. I was in elementary school and a teacher came in to the classroom to speak to my teacher. She left. Our teacher told us the president had been shot. Moments later the first teacher returned. This time, in tears. She whispered to my teacher and left. Then my teacher, started to cry as she told us the president was dead and we were to go home. It was absolutely shocking and incredibly sad. End of an era.

      • I think that people our age all over the country experienced the same thing that day – school ending early, going home stunned and with no idea of what would happen next.

        It’s one of those incredibly sad moments that gets burned into your brain. It brought people together in a way that events like that do, Sigh.

  21. I felt everything you wanted to convey Monica. Beautifully written, how amazing to be in that room. I will be adding this to my list. I saw the CNN interview and thought to myself, how fascinating. I have seen numerous films, documentaries and heard every theory in-between about this sad, sad day. I didn’t grow up in the US, but I was a part of the rest of the world, mourning for two beautiful children, a wife, and a country. In the end I came to my own conclusion that there was no conspiracy, just a sick man with a gun, it’s interesting that Mr Hill believes the same thing.

    • Do add it to your list, MM, I think you’ll like it. His is a remarkable story, and the way he described the assassination, it seemed logical, that it was a lone killer.

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