Where Was I When JFK Died? In a State of Innocence

by francine Hardaway on November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy’s assassination profoundly changed the trajectory of my life, although I was not aware of it at the time. I was 22 years old, with two Ivy League degrees, working at a coveted advertising job in New York City. I was a junior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson Company. My boss had some big accounts: Maxwell House Coffee, Singer Sewing Machines, and Preparation H. They weren’t too interesting to me, but I was just out of graduate school and mostly typing for other people anyway. It was the Mad Men era. My boss was a woman, however, an important account executive at the company. She had the chain-smoking habit and the eczema to provet it; she was a nervous wreck.

On Nov. 22, I was ¬†still innocent. I had been too young to vote when Kennedy was elected (the voting age was 21 back then), but I was looking forward to voting for him when he ran for a second term. I thought he was really cool, and although the Bay of Pigs incident frightened me enough to make me pull off the West Side Highway when I was listening to it on the news in my car, I still felt very safe in America. Especially after Kennedy called Cuba’s bluff. I was politically disengaged, although intelligent and aware, and focused on my life: how soon would I be promoted, when could I move out of my parents’ apartment, and how come there was so much traffic. I also wan’t thinking about getting married, although I was always thinking about men. Or boys. Like I said, I was innocent.

Although I had already lost my virginity (college), been “pinned” to a guy who wanted to get engaged, and drank scotch on the rocks in night clubs, I had not yet been introduced to drugs. It was a different world.

Around lunch time on that world-changing day, I was running an errand for my boss — delivering story boards to the Singer Sewing Machine people. Their office was on the very top floor of 30 Rock, and I had just come up the elevator and gotten out at their floor when I heard the news. I ducked into a conference room with a small black and white television set, joining many other people. Everyone was crying.

And then I was crying, too. Suddenly I didn’t want to be a career woman anymore, I wanted to go home to my parents. I dropped off my storyboards and called my office. I asked if I could take the day off, and whoever answered said yes. I didn’t know yet that all offices would close. I went down the elevator, went home, and my parents were already there. They had come home from the office on Fifth Avenue where they both ran a small brokerage firm. ¬†They were already sitting in front of the living room TV.

We all just stared at the TV for the rest of that weekend. Of course I saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot: we all did, because we were all parked in front of the TV.

My father had met Kennedy, who conducted his affairs at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, which was owned at the time by a Hungarian refugee named Louis Ritter, who had made his money in the fur business. In fact, my father had told me that Kennedy was a womanizer long before any of it hit the public eye. “He cheats,” my dad said. I didn’t care.

I’m sure I must have gone back to J. Walter Thompson to give them some notice, but all I remember is that I felt compelled to quit my job. I wanted to get out of the line of fire, and back into the university where I felt safe. I started applying to graduate schools again, and within the year I was not only back in school,. but I was the wife of a medical student, someone I’d known from high school. I had stuck my head out of my shell, attempted a career, and the assassination of JFK had almost blown it off. I retreated. Advertising seemed so pointless after what had happened.

I never registered to vote, either.





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