By Ron Hayes
In the weeks and months after Nov. 22, 1963, Mrs. John F. Kennedy received more than a million letters.
Expressions of shock at her husband’s assassination and sympathy for his family arrived at the White House from world leaders and religious figures, movie stars, socialites — and a 16-year-old girl in McLean, Va., who wrote:
I will never forget when I first met the president. I was sitting on his lap in San Francisco and he was telling me about when he would become president, he’d
invite me over to the White House.
Katherine Fay did visit the White House, more than once.
Now her letter has reappeared, in Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief, a collection marking the 47th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
“I’d forgotten I’d even written a letter,” Kathy Fay said recently, picking through a pile of old snapshots and newspaper clippings in her Delray Beach home. “Then I got a call requesting permission to print it.”
Fay’s father, Paul “Red” Fay, was one of the president’s closest friends. They met during World War II, when both were at PT-Boat school in Rhode Island, and recuperated together after both their boats were hit by the Japanese in the South Pacific. Fay campaigned for JFK in his first congressional race, ushered at his wedding and, in 1961, was named undersecretary of the Navy.
To his daughter, the president of the United States was a family friend.
“I remember once we were at Camp David and I’d just eaten dinner with Caroline and John-John,” she recalls.
While the president and her parents watched a Pink Panther movie, she went swimming in the pool and, diving too deep too fast, struck her finger on the concrete bottom.
“Dad, I think I broke my finger,”
“See me after the movie,” her distracted father said.
But JFK took her aside. “Oh, you really did hurt your finger.”
The president summoned the White House physician, who bandaged the finger while he watched.
Later, when a private tour of the White House was arranged for Fay and some friends, the president happened to see her, called them into the Oval Office and ordered photos taken.
She still has that picture, signed to Kathy “from her friend, Jack Kennedy.”
And then there’s the memory she hates to remember.
“We were in Seattle because my father was giving a speech,” Fay recalled.
While her father addressed a civic group, Kathy, her mother and 5-year-old sister, Sally, passed the time at a department store. Her mother went to look at antiques and Kathy took her sister see the toys — and passed the electronics department on the way.
“Everyone was gathered around the TVs,” she says. “I’m hearing the news and it’s just not going into my head. The idea was completely impossible.”
She remembers adults dropping to their knees in the store to pray.
“Does that mean I don’t have a godfather anymore?” her sister asked.
In a taxi, she heard the radio report that the president — “her friend Jack Kennedy” — had died.
“My father was a man of a lot of expressions,” she explained, choking up a bit even now. “I could always tell when he was mad or when he was teasing, and he looked dead. He had no expression, like his soul had run out of him. That’s when I realized the president really had died.”
A few days later, she stood in line at the White House, waiting to express her condolences to the president’s widow.
“Don’t cry,” her father ordered.
She cried, and Mrs. Kennedy embraced her.
“She hugged me and started to whimper and say, ‘It’s OK,’ ” Fay remembers.
And then she wrote a letter.
I hope that if a crisis ever hit our house, I could carry on as majestically and beautiful as you did.
I will pray for you.
Sincerely, Katherine F. Fay
The letter is one of about 200 included, along with her father’s and mother’s, in Dear Mrs. Kennedy.
“We chose that letter because it’s rare to have generations represented,” says Paul De Angelis, who edited the collection with Paul Mulvaney. “It shows something of the personal charisma of JFK, and how he had affected each family memory very closely. There are friends, and there are friends.”
John F. Kennedy was only 46 when he died on Nov. 22, 1963.
On Nov. 22, 2010, he will have been gone longer than he lived.
“Does it seem like 47 years?” Fay said, looking at a photo of her young self with a president younger than she is now.
“No. But then that time in my life was so extraordinary, it all seems like a dream anyway.”