The night Jackie Kennedy came to dinner, my brother and I were given the job of handing round the first two courses at our parents’ home in Notting Hill.
We were both in pyjamas and dark-blue dressing gowns, with red piping at the cuffs and lapels. I wasn’t then tall enough for my eyes to be at the same level as a grown-up, sitting in a chair. But, when I got to Jackie – as guest of honour, she was served first – she turned and helped herself, looked me in the eye, said,‘Thank you’, and I moved on round the table.
It was the summer of 1975, when I was twelve, and Jackie was 46, and I knew nothing about her other than the fact that her husband had been president of the United States and that he had been assassinated.
In 1970s London, talking about the Kennedy assassination was what the grown-ups did. They talked about Watergate and the disgrace of Richard Nixon, too, but that was different. The tide of new books on Kennedy’s death was huge.
My family spent many hours talking about whether Oswald was the only gunman, or whether there had been a broader conspiracy. When American friends of my parents came to London, some of whom had known Kennedy or worked in the White House, they chatted animatedly about the plot to hide the people who organised the assassination.
A few months after the dinner, the IRA planted a bomb, just down the road from us, under the Jaguar of the Tory MP Hugh Fraser [pictured with John F Kennedy in the adjoining article]. Fraser was unharmed but a neighbour, Gordon Hamilton Fairley, a cancer specialist, was killed by the explosion; one of his dogs found the bomb.
Fraser had become a friend of John F Kennedy’s before the war, when Kennedy’s father, Joe Kennedy, was American ambassador to Britain. His daughter, Caroline Kennedy, was staying at Fraser’s house on the day of the bomb. The possibility of assassination had migrated from Dallas to west London.
Years later, in the summer of 1992, when the Democratic National Convention was held in New York, I went to a party on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The hosts were Alexandra and Arthur Schlesinger, JFK’s special assistant, and Kennedy loyalist. It was their convention party, and many of the guest were characters from the books I’d read about the Kennedy administration and the aftermath of the assassination.
The person who opened the door that evening to let me in was, of all people, Jackie Kennedy. She looked exactly the same; on this occasion, I thanked her, and walked in. It seemed impossible to say anything more.
I went to live in New York and worked for John F Kennedy Junior, on his magazine, George. On one memorable occasion, in 1997, he took me to meet his father’s rival, Fidel Castro, in Cuba, on the 35th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
JFK Junior died at sea in 1999, aged 38, when his plane crashed into the waters off Martha’s Vineyard. Before the commencement of the 1962 America’s Cup yacht races, his father gave a speech, one with the sparkle and flair that made people listen to what he had to say.
‘I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins, the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came.’
That passage seems to me as uncanny now as it was when I read it after his son’s death in the summer of 1999.