On this date in 1963, president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and the world took notice. His death overshadowed the deaths of Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis on the same day, and it feels now as if their deaths went unnoticed. Obviously, close friends and family paid attention to their passing, but few others did. Why was the death of one U.S. politician more important around the world than the deaths of two English writers? The unfortunate coincidence of Huxley and Lewis dying right around the time JFK was shot did not escape some people’s attention and is the subject of Peter Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley. Did JFK’s death merit more attention than the other two? I’d like to tease that question apart.
People of my generation, especially in the US, can recall the details of what they were doing when they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. It was as game changing in its day as the events of 9/11 were to a later generation. I was 12 and living in South Australia at the time. I heard the news on the morning of Saturday, November 23rd on the way to play cricket, but because of the time difference between Dallas and Adelaide (16 hours), the news was only a few hours old, and very little was known about the precise events in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Then events seemed to happen in lightning succession. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, then when he was being transported, he was shot by Jack Ruby in front of television news cameras. Then there was the funeral, and the investigation which brought to light some grainy photos and amateur movies. It was all a hailstorm of incomplete information that added little to what we already knew, but fueled endless conspiracy theories. Was this retaliation by Cuba or Russia? Was there more than one shooter? Were shots fired from the grassy knoll? Etc. etc. Some of these conspiracy theories won’t die, but it is unlikely that any new information will ever come to light at this stage to change the conclusions of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone, even though doubts linger.
In some ways, the prominence of JFK’s assassination in the news cycle, more or less to the exclusion of other news, is no great mystery. The US was certainly no stranger to the assassination, and attempted assassination, of presidents, but there were few people alive in 1963 who could remember the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 – the last successful attempt, although virtually every president thereafter had been the subject of at least one attempt. It still came as a profound shock because Kennedy represented something new. He was a new kind of president for a new decade – bringing a sense of youth and vitality to the White House which many called Camelot. Perhaps he was the best that the US had to offer in the way of royalty – a blue blood, war hero (young and energetic: not a seasoned veteran general like Eisenhower, but a decorated naval lieutenant PT boat commander who was in the thick of fighting in the Pacific theater with tales of bravery surrounding him). Jack and Jackie presided over a glittering spectacle at the White House brimming with artists, musicians, and actors for their courtiers.
Kennedy was also a knight in shining armor in the Cold War. He had faced down Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and when Sputnik showed the Russians up to be the leaders in the Space Race, he vowed that the US would have a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Of course, there was a downside: the Bay of Pigs, and the full throated approach in Vietnam being the most salient.
All in all, Kennedy’s era was one of renewed hope, with the post-war Baby Boom coming of age and expecting great things to emerge. A bullet from Oswald’s rifle ended that hope, and replaced it with a brutal reality. There is no need to wonder why Kennedy’s death pushed Huxley and Lewis off center stage. They were not world leaders, and they had died in their beds. Admittedly Huxley died tripping on two doses of LSD administered by his wife as he lay dying, but this fact was not made public until some time afterwards. It was certainly a fitting end for the man who had blazed a trail in the realm of the psychedelic. Lewis seemed to be improving from kidney problems that had plagued him for a few years, but then suddenly collapsed and died in his bedroom in his home in Oxford. In that sense the deaths of Huxley and Lewis, although tragic, were not unexpected, and they had left a stack of completed work. Kennedy, on the other hand, was in the prime of life – a father of young children, with much left to be accomplished. He was cut short with a great deal of unfinished business.
So, yes, there is a reason that Kennedy’s death overshadowed the other two. But should we remain in the same pose we were in back in 1963, 55 years on? I think not. We have had time to let the dust settle and assess the three men dispassionately. What did they leave behind that is lasting? We have to be fair to Kennedy in arguing that he might have accomplished great things if he had lived. He may not have ratcheted up the Vietnam War in the way that Johnson did, and he might have presided over Civil Rights and the landing on the moon. We cannot know now. However, we can say that his legacy has not endured to the same extent that those of Huxley and Lewis have.
We cannot lay the whole of fantasy fiction at Lewis’ door, but he was a giant in its creation, and the many tales of Narnia are still big sellers as books and on the big screen. His popular apologetics for Christianity should probably be consigned to the trash can of history. I suppose it’s all right for people who don’t think too much about religion, and want easy answers, but it’s amateur stuff at best – “God can’t make beautiful sculptures of us without chiseling bits off which hurt” – that sort of thing. All lame thoughts of someone who has not read theology deeply, nor knows anything about world religions.
Huxley explored pain from a somewhat different, yet related, angle. Brave New World describes a world without pain. I don’t know if it is read much any more. It does not have the insight of Orwell’s work, partly because it envisages a world that cannot exist because he has his facts all wrong about the possibilities of eugenics and psycho-social conditioning. But he does raise the key theological question: “What is the point of life if it is mechanical?” Pain and suffering are what inspire artists and poets to great heights. If you give up the one, you forfeit the other. Is it worth it? Very good question. The Doors of Perception not only gave us Jim Morrison and The Doors (in more than name only). It gave us Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and a generation intent on exploring the limits of perception and consciousness.
While I would not say that Kennedy’s legacy in the political sphere has endured well, his and Jackie’s tastes did change White House kitchens. Previous White House meals were a rather dull affair. None of the recent occupants had been what could be considered gourmets. Calvin Coolidge inexplicably referred to any and all meals as “supper,” even if it were breakfast time; the Roosevelts famously served hot dogs to the king and queen of England; and a menu for the state dinner for the crowned heads of Greece given by the Eisenhower administration is depressing: “toasted Triscuits, fish in cheese sauce, sliced lemmon [sic].”
Not long after the inauguration, Jackie Kennedy hired a French chef, René Verdon. Quickly, the White House menus changed from featuring saltines and beef stew to more sophisticated fare, such as sole Veronique and strawberries Romanoff. Verdon’s influence was felt throughout the country, as magazine and newspaper articles went crazy for all things Kennedy. Julia Child’s celebrated public television program The French Chef began about this time, too.
Perhaps the most celebrated White House dinner of the Kennedy years was held at president Washington’s grand house, Mount Vernon, in honor of the president of Pakistan. Guests were transported down the Potomac on yachts, with dance music played and champagne freely poured. The French meal was prepared in the White House kitchen, and trucked the 15 miles to Mount Vernon in specially modified military vehicles. Guests were treated to a crabmeat and avocado mimosa, poulet chasseur and fresh local raspberries with whipped cream. You can find my recipe for poulet chasseur here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/orient-express/ Fresh raspberries and whipped cream scarcely need a recipe. Here is crabmeat and avocado mimosa:
Crabmeat and Avocado Mimosa
2 ripe avocados
1 scallion, minced
2 tsp lemon juice, divided
¼ tsp salt (or, to taste)
hot pepper sauce
3 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp chili sauce
1 tbsp prepared horseradish
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
8 oz cooked fresh crabmeat
2 cups watercress
2 hard cooked egg yolks
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Peel half of one avocado. In a small bowl, mash avocado half. Add scallion, 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and hot pepper sauce to taste. Stir until well combined. Reserve.
In separate bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, chili sauce, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and remaining teaspoon lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Reserve.
Peel the remaining 1 ½ avocados, cut into half-inch cubes, and place them in a large bowl. Squeeze the excess moisture from crabmeat. Add to cubed avocado and gently combine. Fold in the mayonnaise.
Line the bottoms of 6 chilled open champagne glasses or small glass serving dishes with watercress. Divide crab mixture evenly among glasses. Top each with a dollop of mashed avocado mixture.
Press the egg yolks through a fine mesh sieve and combine with the parsley in a small bowl. Sprinkle the yolk/parsley mixture evenly over each portion. Mimosas can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 hours.