Memories of the Kennedy Administration
June 30, 2011 | by Peter Terzian
I graduated from college in the late 1980s with a degree in English literature and no real idea of what to do for a career. One afternoon I wandered out of Harvard Square after a movie at the Brattle Theater and saw the grand yellow Georgian mansion where the nineteenth-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had lived. A sign said that it was open to the public for tours; they must hire tour guides, I thought. I imagined it would be pleasant to work in a dusky, book-filled house, tucked away in a quiet pocket of the world. I went inside and filled out an application.
When I got a call a few weeks later, it was to interview for an opening at a different, affiliated historic site: John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, a not so grand, actually kind of poky early-twentieth-century house in the nearby suburb of Brookline. I was a little disappointed, as I didn’t have much interest in the Kennedys. But I didn’t have any other employment prospects either, so when an offer was extended, I accepted. My parents were pleased, at least. I had grown up hearing from them about the shock of the Kennedy assassination, how they had gathered with friends in front of the television set and mourned for days—for four days, to borrow the title of a commemorative book my father had on our shelves back home.
The National Park Service maintained both Longfellow’s and Kennedy’s houses, and I was surprised to find that my title would be “park ranger,” something I had never thought I’d be. On my first day I was given a catalog from which I was to order a ranger’s uniform: flared pants and a shirt with epaulettes, both dull green and made of stiff, scratchy, nonbreathable polyester; and a broad-brimmed campaign hat, the kind that Smokey Bear wore. I was at war with my uniform and its hopeless lack of coolness from the beginning. When my half-hour break came around each noontime, I did a quick change into my civilian clothes in the bathroom before going to pick up lunch in nearby Coolidge Corner, where I might run into someone I knew, and another quick change when I got back. There was barely time left to eat.
NOTWITHSTANDING ITS NAME and the bas-relief plaque on the dinky front lawn, the John F. Kennedy Birthplace was really all about Rose, the President’s mother. Rose and Joe Kennedy had moved into the house in 1914, three years before their second son was born, and moved out four years after. Just about everything interesting that happened to the family came later—the Kennedy birthplace was a starter home, a place of nursing and bathing and toddling. Rose bought the building a second time, a few years after John’s death, and donated it to the federal government, to be transformed into a kind of shrine. She supervised the restoration, though only a handful of the furnishings—a piano, some rugs, a bed—were genuine family artifacts that had once been used in the house; the remaining pieces were antiques and custom reproductions that corresponded to her probably somewhat sketchy memories. The rooms looked pristine and unreal. They looked the way you might imagine a typical middle-class family home from the period might look, without the family.
My job of ushering visitors through the house was made simpler by the fact that Rose had recorded a series of short audio tapes, one for each room, that were played through speakers hidden in the corners—a kind of podcast avant la lettre. Each doorway was barricaded by a wooden half-gate wired with a bright red button; press the button and out came Rose’s wistful, creaky voice. This house holds many happy memories … Life was much simpler then … The boys’ knee stockings always had holes in them … Jack’s favorite book was King Arthur and His Knights … There on the stove you see the bean pot … Our supervisor had studied historic interpretation, which I hadn’t known was a field in its own right, and was keen for the park rangers to interpret—to augment Rose’s words with knowledge we had gathered from reading about the Kennedy family in our downtime and shaping that knowledge into a tour that bordered on performance. But people didn’t want to hear us. They wanted to hear Rose. They saw those red buttons and, like subjects in a kind of Milgram experiment, were powerless before them. Every so often a bored and uncontrollable child would run on to press the next doorway’s red button before the one playing had finished, and then on to the button after that, and the house would fill with a round of Roses. I heard those tapes at least once a day and sometimes as often as five or six times a day, five days a week, for a year. I heard them ringing in my ears on the walk home.
My coworkers and I made something of a pet of Rose, as we familiarly called her. We did imitations of her starchy, patrician accent. We particularly liked the way she pronounced boudoir as “boo-dwah.” She was then still living—she turned one hundred the year I worked there. We had her on a deathwatch; a staff memo was pasted inside a closet detailing what to do when the news came (how high to raise the flag, where to hang a wreath). We thought it would happen any day; we never imagined that she would live five more years, long after all of us had moved on, and that another generation of park rangers would have to consult the memo.
Most of the visitors walked through with glazed looks. They were dutifully following the instructions of their Michelin Guides, and they sometimes looked a little disappointed that they had traveled all the way out to the suburbs for a modicum of fun. A few, though, were profoundly moved. Familiarity quickly made me immune to the pathos of the Kennedy story. But if I had been older and less callow, I might have paid closer attention to the note of grief in Rose’s tapes, the things she couldn’t say. I buried four children, my eldest daughter was lobotomized, my youngest son was disgraced. One day I led a tiny, elderly Irishwoman through the house. At the end of the tour we stood side by side and looked at the kitchen, while Mrs. Kennedy talked about watching from the window as her children played in the sunny backyard. The woman cried quietly into a handkerchief and shook her head, as though she were crying not just for one family’s miseries but for everything that had ever gone wrong in the world. I didn’t know what to do. I patted her on the back.
Tucked away in a quiet pocket of the world I certainly was. Most days only a few people came to the house; some days, in winter, none. Once I had read as much of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys as I needed to get by, I hid in the staff room in the attic, ignoring the small library of books that all seemed to have the phrase “triumph and tragedy” somewhere in the title, and went back to my ongoing project of reading the novels of Thomas Mann. I wrote long letters to friends in other cities. I ordered some catalogs for graduate schools and thought about moving to North Carolina, but then lost interest. I used the copier to make reduced-size copies of articles I had liked in the too large Voice Literary Supplement. I was learning the boring rhythms of jobs. I strained to fill the hours with relevance and at the same time dreaded to hear the buzz of the doorbell, which meant that I would have to do the work I had been hired to do—that I would have to listen to Rose’s tapes again.
Some of my coworkers were making a career out of park ranging, transferring from one National Park to another every year or so. They were good about following the rules: they proudly wore their ranger outfits in public. The rest of us had fallen into the job one way or another. Deb had been an American-history major and read the triumphant and tragic books with interest. She became a walking encyclopedia of Kennedyania and could keep visitors entertained with anecdotes about Rose’s fanatical Catholicism or Joe’s affair with Gloria Swanson for hours. Hai Ja whisked people through the house in minutes and still had them leaving satisfied. "They just want to be able to say they saw it," she said with a shrug. Roseanne had traveled from Philadelphia to take the job; she didn’t know anyone in Boston except us. When there was nothing else to do we all talked, in the late-night way of college students, about our families, our histories, our likes and dislikes. We complained about the repetitiveness of the job, the seemingly arbitrary Park Service regulations.
What a strange place to spend one’s days. My college friends had moved to New York or San Francisco for internships or entry-level jobs at film-production companies or computer start-ups. Me, I had stayed behind and worked in a diorama.
The rules, the barriers, the inviolability of the rooms must have gotten to us in the end. I was eventually transferred to the Longfellow house, which thrilled me—no more of Rose’s tapes. On my last morning at the Kennedy birthplace, before we changed into our uniforms and opened the house to the public, Deb and Roseanne and I went on a touching spree. We went from room to room, opening the gates, putting the Kennedy family furniture to use, taking photographs to document our illicit activities. We sprawled on Joe's and Rose’s single beds. We pretended to talk into their candlestick phone. We took turns rocking the President’s bassinet and leafing through his King Arthur book. We sat before the dining-table place settings, and I held my knife and fork upright like a hungry person.
Peter Terzian is the editor of Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives.