Wednesday 22 November 2000 marked the 37th anniversary of the death of John F Kennedy. This year, the anniversary has been largely overshadowed by electoral events in Florida, just as last year it was overshadowed by the death in an air crash in July 1999 of his son, John F Kennedy Jr.
Although I was only seven at the time, my own memory of that fateful Friday night is quite clear – and amusingly mundane: the BBC had blacked out the Harry Worth show as a mark of respect, a course of action that, to my young mind, seemed quite out of proportion to something that had happened in a place as far away as Dallas, Texas.
As I grew older, however, I started to become fascinated with the assassination – and when I started writing novels, I wondered how I might write a novel about it. I decided it would be about a fictional attempt to kill JFK at some time before 22 November 1963. There would be no Lee Harvey Oswald, no Jack Ruby, no Dallas, not even a grassy knoll – just a lone assassin, with a nod to Frederick Forsyth’s Jackal, bent on killing Kennedy in the earliest days of his presidency. It would be called The Shot.
Incredibly, in the course of my meticulous research, I discovered that there had been a real attempt to kill Kennedy as early as December 1960; and that, but for John Jr, JFK would have been assassinated before he was even inaugurated. I discovered that even well-informed Americans older than myself did not seem to know about this.
This is the story of the first attempt to kill President-elect John F Kennedy.
JFK won the 1960 election, defeating Richard Nixon by the slenderest of majorities. Later on, Kennedy told a friend, the journalist Ben Bradlee, that the election had cost his hugely rich father, Joe, $13m – about $100m in today’s money. Joe Kennedy is best remembered as being the US ambassador to Britain at the beginning of the Second World War. What is less well known is that Joe, a former bootlegger, was closely connected to the world of organised crime. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York once described him as “a truly evil man”. Joe would have liked to have been president himself. But he had too many skeletons in his closet. And there were too many others who shared Spellman’s low opinion of him.
One such man was Richard P Pavlick, a 73-year-old retired postal worker from Belmont, New Hampshire, who had a history of psychiatric problems. His neighbours, however, mostly saw him as somewhat vocal at town meetings and something of a local eccentric. He was also a prolific writer of letters to the newspapers; and his favourite subject was that Joe Kennedy was trying to buy the presidency for his son. There was nothing Pavlick could do to prevent Kennedy being elected, but he decided he could stop him from ever being inaugurated as America’s 35th president.
It is a peculiarity of American politics that an incumbent president does not assume the office, nor occupy the White House, until he has been inaugurated about ten weeks later. Kennedy had won the election on 9 November 1960, but he would not be safely in the White House until after 20 January 1961. The young president-elect spent the intervening period at various Kennedy family homes in New York, Georgetown, Hyannis Port and Palm Beach in Florida, putting together his Cabinet.
In planning The Shot, I visited all of these properties, equipped with a rifle-scope, to consider their fictional feasibility as potential assassination sites, in the knowledge that Pavlick had done the same. Finally, he decided that Palm Beach provided him with the best opportunity, not least because Kennedy was there so much. Kennedy worshipped the sun, not to mention the local ladies, who dubbed him “Mattress Jack” for obvious reasons. So JFK enjoyed the last weeks of 1960 at 1095 North Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach, sunning himself, swimming, playing golf, offering people jobs in his administration and sneaking out of the house under Jackie’s nose to get laid in a private suite at the nearby Breakers Hotel.
The house was called La Guerida when Joe Kennedy bought it for $100,000 back in the early 1930s. From the road, there is very little to see – just an archway with a heavy oak door in a big white wall and, beyond, the glimpse of a white stucco corner and a red tile roof amid a whole plantation of wind-bent palm trees.
The house looks as private as a camera-shy clam. From the ocean side, it’s a different story, and the house – swiftly dubbed the “Winter White House” – can be seen for what it is, if the local coastguards let you linger long enough. Even today, they are a constant security feature around the property. The 100ft-long, two-storey house sits atop a private dock amid lush vegetation that shows a contempt for the cost of gardeners. The Kennedy place is an impressive-looking house – although, by the brash standard of some of the properties in the area, it is actually a tad Boston conservative.
At some point towards the end of November, Pavlick sold or gave away all of his property and set out, in his station wagon, to kill the 43-year-old president-elect. Somewhere along the 1,500-mile journey, he purchased detonators, blasting caps, seven sticks of dynamite and four large cans of gasoline. In West Palm Beach, the cheaper part of town, he checked into a local motel, which, ironically, was very close to where Kennedy’s own secret service detail was lodged. Nobody noticed him rigging up a car bomb in the motel car park. And, on 11 December, he drove to the house on North Ocean Boulevard. His plan was simple: to wait for Kennedy to come out of the house, and then to crash into the presidential limousine before detonating the car bomb, killing both Kennedy and himself.
But Pavlick had not reckoned on John Jr. Like Tony Blair, JFK never missed a photo opportunity and, with dozens of news reporters grouped on the road out front, there were plenty to be had. Every time Kennedy came out of the house, he was accompanied by Jackie and their baby boy. Pavlick hated JFK; but he had nothing against Jackie and her baby, John. So Pavlick delayed, awaiting another opportunity; and another. He went back to North Ocean Boulevard several times: in all, he was parked in the road for five days. This says all you need to know about the secret service detail that was supposed to be protecting JFK.
It was 15 December before Pavlick was arrested, not by a secret service agent, but by a humble Palm Beach patrolman, for committing a minor traffic violation. At which point, the dynamite was found. Pavlick was charged with planning to assassinate the president-elect on 16 December 1960. At the time, the secret service denied Pavlick had ever got close to Kennedy. It would be the week after the inauguration before the “retiring” chief of the service, U E Baughman, admitted to Look magazine just how close a call it had really been. Meanwhile, on 27 January, Emmett C Choate, a federal judge, ordered Pavlick to be committed to the United States Public Health Service’s mental hospital at Springfield, Minnesota, where, it is believed, he died.
It will never be known just how many times JFK came close to being blown up before he was even inaugurated as president of the United States, but it is certain that his life was saved by his own baby son, John Jr.
Philip Kerr’s novel The Shot is published by Orion (£6.99)