As the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination approaches, it is relevant to recall that convulsive event ushered in many of the cultural and social changes that are still with us today. One of those was a revolution in women's rights, status and opportunity, a battle that, to the surprise of many, is still being fought. In recognition of that tragic event and the tumultuous consequences to follow, here is the first chapter of my NYT bestseller, MODERN WOMEN, the novel I wrote to explore, up close and personal, the lives of women in the pivotal years of the mid 20th Century.
NOVEMBER 22, 1963
“You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome.”
—Mrs. John Connally, Jr., to President Kennedy in the motorcade in Dallas
“Jack! Oh, no! No!’
—Jacqueline Kennedy, several moments later
DALLAS 11:31 A.M. CST
AT first she wasn’t sure what happened. If anything.
Wearing a phony press badge with a fake name borrowed from Ian Fleming's James Bond series, Jane Gresch was seated on the window side in the first row of the first press bus accompanying John F. Kennedy’s presidential trip to Texas. Because of a mix-up in scheduling, the bus was farther back in the motorcade than planned. As Jane gazed out the window at the sparse crowds that had turned out to see a president much too liberal for local John Birch tastes, she thought she heard a car backfire.
From behind the tinted bus window, Jane saw, as if in a silent film, a stir of uncertainty ripple through the crowd. She noticed several people turn and begin to run away from the motorcade. A young mother pushed her two children to the ground and, using her own body as a shield, flung herself on top of them.
Then the bright daylight receded and Jane’s view was blocked as the bus went into the shadows of the Dealey Plaza underpass.
“What happened?” Jane asked. She turned to Owen Casals, her date for the weekend, who was sitting next to her in the aisle seat. Tall Owen. Dark Owen. Lean, handsome, work-all-day, fuck-all-night Owen.
He stood up to get a better view of the scene in front of them.
“The president’s car sped off. Really barreled away,” he said, turning to Jane. He looked alarmed. Owen, too, had heard the sound. Rifle fire, he thought, although he immediately rejected the idea. It was impossible. Along the banks of the Yalu River in Korea where he had reported a war, yes, but not here in America.
Originally a police reporter like his father, Owen had risen through the journalistic ranks swiftly. At thirty-two he was a star in his world, a general assignment reporter for Newsflash magazine. Owen traveled constantly covering the hot stories—and President Kennedy’s Texas trip promised heat.
The local Democratic party’s bitter infighting had prompted what was hoped to be a fence-mending presidential trip. Adlai Stevenson, citing the ugly mood in the Lone Star state, had advised the president not to go. The warning added an edge of danger to the story. Mrs. Kennedy, known to dislike politicking and politicians, had accompanied the president, contributing a bracing jolt of glamor and sex appeal. Dallas promised to be the kind of story on which Owen had built his career.
When the bus came out of the underpass, Jane saw a policeman jump his motorcycle up over the curb, dismount, and scramble up the grassy bank. As he disappeared from her view, Jane thought she saw him reach for his holster. The bus stopped for a moment and a lone reporter got off and ran after the policeman. Then the bus started again and continued at a leisurely motorcade pace toward the Trade Mart where the president was scheduled to speak.
“Something really serious, we’d hear sirens. Cops and Secret Service would be all over the place. This bus wouldn’t be crawling along,” Owen said. He had decided that the noise he had heard was probably a motorcycle backfiring. The driver of President Kennedy’s limousine had certainly heard the same sound and, trained to act first, think later, had undoubtedly jammed his foot on the accelerator and peeled out
“Just act like you belong,” Owen advised Jane, leaping out of his seat as the bus pulled up to the Trade Mart. Even if nothing had happened, Owen wanted to be the first to report it.
Scores of tables had been set up in the huge function room of the Trade Mart. The speaker’s podium, where President Kennedy was about to address the crowd, was draped in red, white, and blue bunting. American flags stood by the speaker’s podium and bouquets of hundreds of yellow roses stood at the head tables. The organist was warming up with a few bars of “Hail to the Chief.”
Everything was ready, but suddenly everything ceased. Hundreds of Texans in the middle of a rubber-chicken circuit lunch stopped eating. Jaws stopped in mid bite. Forks hung suspended in midair. Water glasses poised midway between table and mouth. Jane could see eyes open wide in surprise, heads shake in doubt, mouths open in O’s of disbelief as the rumor spread through the room.
“Is it true?” a man in a business suit and ten-gallon hat asked Jane. He glanced at her press badge and, thinking she might know something, grabbed her urgently by the arm. “Did someone shoot the president?”
“Shoot?” Jane replied. A feeling of chill she had pushed away earlier returned. Jane remembered the stir in the motorcade route crowd—an uneasy and frightened ripple similar to the wave of movement that was sweeping the banquet room.
Before Jane could say another word, Owen grabbed her by the arm and propelled her into the surging mob of journalists that pushed through the banquet hall and up the stairs into the second-floor press room. Just as Jane and Owen entered the room, an official-looking man put down a telephone.
“The president’s been shot,” he said, his face turning white. “He’s at Parkland Hospital.”
NEW YORK CITY 12:39 P.M. EST
ON November 22, Lincky Desmond did what she almost always did for lunch. She left the office at twelve thirty and went out for a brief walk and a breath of fresh air. Then she stopped at the deli for a tuna sandwich that she would eat at her desk while working on a manuscript
The fact that she had been sleeping with her boss didn’t mean that Lincky worked less. In fact, it meant that she worked more. There were two reasons. The first was that Lincky didn’t want Hank Greene to think that she would use their personal relationship to take advantage. The second was that Lincky didn’t want anyone in the office to suspect the affair by noticing that she was goofing off and not getting chewed out about it. Hank Greene, after all, was known as one of the most demanding bosses in publishing.
The first thing that struck Lincky was that the deli, usually frantic at lunchtime, was eerily quiet. The customary frenzy was notable by its absence. The waiters were not shouting orders at countermen. Dishes did not clatter noisily and silverware did not bang against stainless steel counters. The customers, too, were silent. They had stopped eating, stopped talking. Lincky would have thought that she had suddenly gone deaf except for the sound of a portable radio turned up high.
“The president is dead. That’s a confirmed report.” The announcer kept repeating the words over again and again. “The president is dead. That’s a confirmed report.”
Lincky was confused.
“President?” Lincky asked, turning to the Brooks Brothers-suited young executive who stood in the line behind her. “President of what?”
“Kennedy,” he said. Lincky noticed that his skin was ashen. “They got Kennedy.”
Irrelevantly, it struck Lincky that with his charcoal gray suit, rep tie, and horn-rimmed glasses, he didn’t look much like a Democrat. Even before the impact of the news fully sank in, Lincky ran out of the deli toward the office.
As she hurried down Third Avenue to 45th Street in the clear, gloriously sunny late autumn weather, Lincky still didn’t quite know whether or not to believe what the man in the deli had told her. President Kennedy dead? He was so young and so vital. Dead? It was incomprehensible. Yet that was what the man had said.
Lincky saw people standing on the sidewalks, huddled around portable radios. Traffic had come to a halt. A bus, its doors open, stood empty, abandoned in the middle of Third Avenue. Knots of people were gathered around automobiles listening to car radios through open doors and windows. A large crowd had gathered in front of a discount store window where banks of television sets showed grim-faced reporters and anchormen.
Half walking, half running, Lincky realized that something momentous really had happened. Part of her wanted to stop and join the people clustered in groups. The other part, the dominant part, wanted to get back to the office. She wanted to see Hank. She wanted to be with him. She wanted to share this moment with him.
The Henry Greene Literary Agency’s fourth floor offices were deserted. Everyone was out at lunchtime, particularly on a beautiful late November day, sure to be one of the last nice days before winter and darkness took over the city. Looking for Hank, Lincky went down the corridor to his modest corner office. Like everyone else, Hank was still out. Unable to be with Hank physically, Lincky did the next best thing. She sat down in his chair, smelled the familiar odor of his cigarettes and soap, and took comfort from these signs of Hank’s presence.
More prepared now to confront the terrible news, Lincky turned on the portable radio in Hank’s office. Every station had broken into its regular programming for the same bulletin from Texas:
“President Kennedy is dead. He was shot today in Dallas by an unknown assassin.”
It was only then, when she first began to truly comprehend the dimensions of the tragedy, that Lincky realized that not once since she had heard the dreadful news had she thought of her husband.
WASHINGTON 12:40 P.M. EST
AS dumb jobs went, selling shoes in the Pappagallo boutique in Georgetown was one of the dumbest. As impossible customers went, this one, Elly McGrath had long since decided, redefined the species. Her name, although not nationally prominent, was fairly well known in Washington. Her husband was an upper-echelon lawyer in the attorney general’s office. It was said on the Georgetown dinner party circuit that she and her husband had the perfect marriage: he had the brains and she had the dough, piles and piles of it.
She also had a blond lion’s mane bouffant hairdo that she flew to New York every week to have set and teased at Kenneth’s, a wardrobe of Jackie Kennedy look-alike A-line dresses, and an overly emaciated figure to offset her overly developed bank account. Her existence proved that it was possible to be too rich and too thin. She reeked of Shalimar and insatiability.
She was exactly the kind of spoiled, materialistic, self-centered woman Elly McGrath had been brought up to despise.
Seven pairs of suede and patent leather shoes were scattered around the pearl gray carpet of the boutique. Three pairs were pumps, four were T-straps. Three were black, the rest were various shades of cream, tan, rust, and brown. Elly was on her knees on the floor, helping her customer slip her long, bony feet into and out of them. The woman had been parked there for an hour and a half unable to decide which color and which style she wanted.
Floundering in a morass of indecision, she inspected each style carefully, lingering over each one in turn. Under her breath, she debated the merits and debits of each style and each color, arguing with herself over its present and future usefulness, flattery, and fashion quotient. The microscopic examination did not seem to help her make up her mind Nor did the fact that she had repeated the exercise on the two previous afternoons.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it,” the woman said.
She motioned to Elly to put her own shoes back on and got up, ready to leave. As Elly collected the shoes strewn over the carpet and began putting them back into their tissue-lined boxes, the stock boy suddenly burst out of the stock room.
“President Kennedy’s been shot!” he said. “He’s dead!”
For as long as she lived, Elly never forgot that at a moment of national crisis she had been on her knees, trying to sell shoes to a selfish and self-obsessed woman who greeted the announcement of the president’s assassination with an angry sigh.
“I suppose that means my dinner party’s off for tomorrow night. And Ethel promised she and Bobby would be there,” she said, her thin, predatory hand with its blood-red nails on the open door of the boutique. “Jesus Christ! Why does everything have to happen to me?”
Elly was jolted by the assassination and her customer’s self-centered reaction. She was wasting her life, her time, her energy. Where were her brains? Where were her values? Where were the ideals with which she had been brought up? Elly was appalled by the way she had been spending her time and energy.
“I’m quitting,” Elly told her boss an hour later. She was in tears.
“You’re just upset. Why don’t you go home for the rest of the day? Come back tomorrow,” replied Janice Kellen, the boutique’s owner.
Elly was an excellent saleswoman, the best Janice had ever had. She didn’t want to let her go.
“No. You’ve been nice to me and I’ve enjoyed working here, but I realize that it’s the wrong place for me,” Elly replied.
It was an impulsive, emotional decision that Elly couldn’t really afford. She had very little money and no idea about what she was going to do next other than that it was damn well going to be more constructive than selling shoes. Making her way home through a stricken city, Elly comforted herself by remembering that she still had the only things that really mattered to her: her friends and her family—and, maybe, if she really got lucky, the man she had her heart set on, Owen Casals.
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