60 years later, JFK's memory lives in Palm Beach

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Of all the loves of his life, Palm Beach is one to which John F. Kennedy returned over and over, including on the weekend before he was assassinated 60 years ago on Nov. 22, 1963.

From his boyhood slurping milkshakes at Green’s Pharmacy Luncheonette on North County Road to his presidency with visits to the Kennedy family’s former North Ocean Boulevard estate, dubbed the Winter White House, the island was JFK’s refuge, playground and muse.

He recuperated here when ill as a child and adult.

JKF as a young man with his younger brothers Bobby (right) and Teddy at the family's Palm Beach estate.
JKF as a young man with his younger brothers Bobby (right) and Teddy at the family's Palm Beach estate.

He wrote “Profiles in Courage” here, not to mention much of his 1961 inaugural address as staff members hunkered down for days at the Palm Beach Towers and The Colony Hotel to plan the new Kennedy Administration.

JFK played golf there, swam in the ocean and donned his wayfarer sunglasses while waving to locals from his cream-colored convertible.

Sure, the Kennedy family relished its compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, but Palm Beach was a place where “the growth of the Kennedy identity” was forged, biographer Laurence Leamer once said.

More: UPDATED: Former Kennedy estate sells for $70 million in Palm Beach, deed shows

And so it was for the second son of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy, who themselves adored Palm Beach.

Rose Kennedy first visited in 1911 after her dad, U.S. Congressman and two-term Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, convinced her visiting Palm Beach was a better choice than attending Harvard’s junior prom.

“Since then,” she would later say, “I have been to Palm Beach every year, but I have never been to a junior prom."

JFK, right, arriving in Palm Beach with his father, Joe.
JFK, right, arriving in Palm Beach with his father, Joe.

After she and Joe married in 1914 and started a brood that grew to nine children, he began annual months-long visits to Palm Beach.

In 1933, he bought an Addison Mizner-designed Mediterranean-stye oceanfront manse at 1095 N. Ocean Blvd., which the family would own until selling it in 1995.

Above all, it was a private getaway where an insular family with a high public profile could spend time together, with gatherings eventually including in-laws and countless other extended family members.

Enter JFK, known from childhood as Jack.

More: PHOTOS: Remembering John F. Kennedy on his birthday

A sickly child, he’d face health issues that called for recuperation and private tutors in warm Palm Beach, including in 1934 after collapsing at a Northeast prep school due to a low blood count and fever.

He and the family enjoyed annual Christmas and spring visits to the island, which included touch football on the oceanfront lawn.

JFK as a Navy lieutenant in the 1940s, posing with his father Joe in Palm Beach.
JFK as a Navy lieutenant in the 1940s, posing with his father Joe in Palm Beach.

Mass at St. Edward Catholic Church on North County Road was often followed by burgers across the street at Green’s Pharmacy, which opened in 1938 and remains popular to this day.

“He was a hell of a nice kid who’d hang out around the drugstore drinking Cokes and reading our magazines and newspapers,” the late Green’s Pharmacy founder Murray Green once said.

Just south on North County Road, the Kennedy kids jockeyed for seats at The Paramount Theatre, a 1927-founded movie palace and performance hall that now combines retail, office and other uses.

After graduating from Harvard in 1940, Jack stayed with his dad in Palm Beach for six weeks with friends.

He’d be back again for extended stays after his harrowing experiences as a PT boat commander in World War II and then spinal surgery in 1954 after marrying Jacqueline Lee Bouvier in 1953.

During his monthslong 1954 recuperation, JFK, then a U.S. senator, wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage.”

When up to it during that rehab, he and Jackie strolled Worth Avenue, where JFK is said to have been partial to Stinchfield’s sportswear shop.

The Paramount Theatre in Palm Beach lights up its marquee with a welcome to the Kennedy family, circa 1960.
The Paramount Theatre in Palm Beach lights up its marquee with a welcome to the Kennedy family, circa 1960.

“He was like anybody else, in penny loafers with no socks and khaki slacks, shopping and looking in the windows,” late Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce President Jesse Newman said.

That would change after JFK defeated Richard Nixon in November 1960 to become the youngest president elected in the U.S.

The curtain went up on Palm Beach Camelot.

It starred the 35th president, his beautiful wife and their two adorable children: 3-year-old Caroline and younger brother John. Jr.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson (far left) during a 1960 press conference with JFK in Palm Beach.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson (far left) during a 1960 press conference with JFK in Palm Beach.

The new first couple would spend holidays and spring vacations in Palm Beach along with other Kennedy family members and their spouses — including Hollywood hunk Peter Lawford — bringing glamour and vitality to a conventional resort town.

Jackie Kennedy, who in Palm Beach often wore casual Lilly Pulitzer shifts (and called Lilly a friend), might be spotted shopping. Her husband loved playing golf (often at Palm Beach Country Club), swimming in the ocean and driving around town in his Lincoln convertible and later a blue T-Bird.

He chose Palm Beach as the place to plan his administration.

Arriving via motorcade with Jackie, Caroline and sleeping infant John Jr. in December 1960, local girls “squealed with delight as the President-elect’s car rounded the N. Ocean Blvd. curve,” The Palm Beach Post reported. An adult among them shouted, “Don’t wake the baby!”

The former Kennedy estate on North Ocean Boulevard.
The former Kennedy estate on North Ocean Boulevard.

The president-elect’s staff members moved into temporary offices at then-recently built Palm Beach Towers on Cocoanut Row. Press Secretary Pierre Salinger held press conferences there; speechwriter Ted Sorensen worked by the pool.

At The Colomy Hotel, the Secret Service installed special phone lines connected to the White House switchboard.

From the family’s North Ocean Boulevard estate, JFK introduced North Carolina Gov. Luther Hodges as his new Commerce secretary.

He also worked on his inaugural address, but there was always time for Jackie and the kids. “You could hear their laughter echoing throughout the house,” brother Ted Kennedy once recalled.

Kennedy was almost assassinated in Palm Beach at this time.

JFK, Jackie and their two young children before Easter Mass at St. Edward Catholic Church in 1963.
JFK, Jackie and their two young children before Easter Mass at St. Edward Catholic Church in 1963.

In December 1960, a deranged anti-Catholic New Hampshire postal worker, Richard Paul Pavlick, planned to ram Kennedy’s car in the president-elect’s motorcade as it headed to Mass at St. Ed’s.

Pavlick aborted his plan at the last minute, but Palm Beach Police arrested him on Dec. 15 in his 1950 Buick, in which they found seven sticks of dynamite and a detonator. (Pavlick later was found incompetent for trial and sent to a New Hampshire hospital. He died in 1975).

That didn’t deter continued Kennedy visits to Palm Beach.

The president kept up his golf here, including with such partners as Lawford, Bing Crosby, Chris Dunphy and ambassador Earl E.T. Smith, who served as the town’s mayor from 1971 to 1977.

It was an “exciting” era, Newman said. “I think the town definitely had this philosophy that ‘he belongs to us.’”

Where and when might Kennedy appear on the island? The late Palm Beach-based lensman Ken Davidoff often knew. The Kennedys trusted him and even invited him into their home to take photos.

As the family’s “official Palm Beach photographer,” Davidoff — whose collection of images make up the 2008 “The Kennedy Family Album: Personal Photos of America’s First Family”— once recalled how JFK’s Palm Beach antics to outwit the Secret Service were legendary: “He would suddenly take off and go to Worth Avenue shopping or go to Green’s and get a soda.”

Jackie and JFK at a formal event in Palm Beach in the early 1960s.
Jackie and JFK at a formal event in Palm Beach in the early 1960s.

In 1961, the Secret Service and a contingent of Navy Seabees secretly built a bomb shelter on Peanut Island for JFK in case of nuclear war. Kennedy is said to have visited the bunker twice.

Joe Kennedy, 73, suffered a stroke after a Palm Beach golf game in December of 1961, leaving him partially paralyzed.

But the First Family continued regular visits. While guests at the nearby Palm Beach home of C. Michael Paul during Christmas in 1962, the Kennedy kids and children of friends put on a Christmas pageant watched by JFK, Jackie and many other members of the clan.

More: It's official: Palm Beach County to restore and reopen JFK bunker on Peanut Island

JFK’s last Palm Beach visit: the weekend before he was shot.

After quiet time with his dad and jaunts elsewhere in Florida for political and press events on Nov. 15 and 16, he went to Sunday Mass at St. Ann Catholic Church in West Palm Beach.

The next morning, he left Palm Beach. He’d be assassinated by a gunshot wound to the head on Nov. 22 as his motorcade drove along the streets of Dallas, Texas.

JFK descending from Air Force One as he arrives for a Palm Beach visit.
JFK descending from Air Force One as he arrives for a Palm Beach visit.

The tragedy is newly told in color in a new documentary, “JFK: One Day in America,” that began streaming Nov. 5 on the National Geographic Channel.

The day Kennedy left Palm Beach for the last time, resident Phyllis Hoffman was driving in her red Porsche near the Southern Boulevard traffic circle when she saw the president’s motorcade.

“The president was in front in his baby-blue Thunderbird convertible with Pierre Salinger driving, and there were two cars behind him with Secret Service men and I think a Palm Beach police car bringing up the rear,” the late Hoffman recalled a decade ago. “I waved to him as he left town. I think about that so often, you can't imagine.”

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Palm Beach was among the great loves of JFK's life