By Herbert Mitgang
In the summer of 1951, the Commonwea1th of Massachusetts was represented John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a young Congressman of no particular eminence. I certainly knew nothing about him.
Politically, I was far more interested in the chances of electing the exciting and eloquent Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for President. Together with several other writers — including Merle Miller, Ralph G. Martin, Eleanor Wolquitt and Stewart Richardson — we put out a campaign newspaper for Adlai called The Stevenson Independent in ‘56 and would have happily done so again had he, instead of JFK, run in ‘60. We were all (as the slogan proclaimed) “Madly for Adlai.” He was the last class act to run for the White House in the second half of the 20th century. End of editorial.
One day, I was sitting at my desk in the large back room of the Sunday Department of The New York Times when Daniel Schwarz, the affable assistant Sunday Editor, summoned me.
“Krock is sending up some Congressman from Washington who has an idea for a magazine piece,” Dan said. “If you’re not too busy, go out and listen to him when he gets here and see if he’s got anything worthwhile to say”
At the time, I was one of a half-dozen deskmen, digging into foreign cables with a big black pencil for the Review of the Week, writing heads on a trusty, noisy Underwood typewriter, dreaming up ideas and drawing outlines for the magazine, and occasionally writing magazine pieces and book reviews. So I had no time to be busy.
Arthur Krock, of course, was the powerful Washington columnist, editor and Pulitzer Prize kingmaker (including awarding himself the prize a couple of times). He was a close friend of Joe Kennedy, the disgraced former U. S. ambassador to the Court of St. James. Behind the scenes, Kennedy pére and Krock were working together to get JFK nationally known so he could run for the Senate and eventually for President. Everyone was aware that
Krock was a wirepuller — inside and outside the paper — but we hardly knew his full personal and political agenda until long afterward.
Later that morning, the Sunday receptionist called back and said, “Some Congressman said he’s here to see you.” “Give him a chair that isn’t broken in the Ludwig Bauman room and tell him I’ll be right out.” That was the name we gave to the small reception room in honor of the department store’s cheap furniture.
The young Congressman with the close-cropped haircut (mine wasn’t too much longer) introduced himself and said that “Mr. Krock” had suggested that he come to New York to see us. I didn’t bother telling him that we were willing to see him in spite of, not because of, his sponsor.
“What’s your idea, Mr. Kennedy?”
“Well, you know, Senators and Congressmen are allowed to nominate candidates for West Point and Annapolis. The process is done much too haphazardly and personally. I’d like to write an article advocating merit selection for those we pick to attend these important service academies.”
“Sounds interesting.” I said, and asked for a few more details.
He looked pleased and asked me how to proceed.
“Here’s how we work.” I said. “We need between 2,000 and 2,500 words, tops. If the piece is accepted and published, we’ll pay you $250. If after a revision it doesn’t work out for some reason, we’ll pay you a kill rate of $100. Okay?”
“Okay by me,” said Kennedy, smiling. “When would you want it?”
“How’s two or three weeks from now?”
“I’m sure I’ll be able to meet your deadline,” said Kennedy.
In retrospect, I’m now glad I didn’t invite him upstairs for a cup of our infamous cafeteria coffee because I might have caused a future President indigestion.
Anyway, Congressman Kennedy turned in an intelligent piece in two weeks. It didn’t require a rewrite; for all l know, he wrote it himself.
The article was printed on August 19, 1951, and The Times paid him the big $250 after publication. I had no idea when I encouraged him that it was only pocket money to Joe Kennedy’s son.
Earlier, my friend John Heresy had first written about Lieut. Kennedy and his PT. 109 that was sunk by a Japanese destroyer for a national magazine. Congressman Kennedy’s Times Magazine article was one of his own first bylines in a national magazine.
JFK was on the way. The rest is history.
Silurian News, November 1996