AMY MACDONALD: Good afternoon. I'm Amy Macdonald, the Forum Producer at the Library, and I welcome all of you here on this May Sunday. First, let me acknowledge the underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums: lead sponsor Bank of America, Raytheon, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Boston Foundation; and our media partners, the Boston Globe, Xfinity and WBUR.
The photos and film clips of Kennedy family sailing Nantucket Sound are so familiar that Kennedys and sailing are almost synonymous in our minds. Of course, the family had many sailboats, but the Victura was their favorite, and it's almost a miracle that it has survived. Acquired by the family in 1932, it was struck by lightning in 1936, endured a hurricane in 1944, and barely escaped a harbor fire in 2003. It is now safely ensconced at the John F. Kennedy Library Museum from May to November, and at the Crosby Yacht Yard during New England's long winters.
At the conclusion of this Forum, our author, Jim Graham, would be happy to have a show-and-tell outside by the boat. Hopefully, we won't have that shower they're predicting. His book, Victura, is on sale in our Museum store and after our outside excursion, Jim will be happy to sign books.
Bios of both Jim and our moderator, Bob Oakes, are in your program. We're so pleased to have Bob Oakes back on our stage. The last time he was here was in 2011, when he moderated a Kennedy Library Forum with Governor Deval Patrick.
Jim and Bob will have a conversation and show slides for about a half an hour, and then we'll take your audience questions. Please join me in welcoming Jim Graham and Bob Oakes. [applause]
BOB OAKES: Thank you. So why don't I start out by just saying, Amy, thank you very much. It's a privilege to be back here for this event. Especially – as I'm sure this is the case for most of you -- after all the wonderful days and hours that I spent here with my family as my kids were growing up. And I say especially because one of the things about this book is I think it takes us so nicely inside the Kennedy family and lets readers experience something that was important to generations of the Kennedy family, and that's the joys, the laughs and the life lessons learned on the water sailing. So thank you.
I want to start by saying, James, it's kind of a treat being able to get to do this twice, because we did this the other day on the radio.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, it was great fun.
BOB OAKES: I want to open where the book opens. Can I say that you really did catch me. You took my breath away, really, right from the start of the book on page one when, to illustrate your point about how sailing was so integral to the family, you tell us that the night before he died in Dallas, JFK in his hotel room in Houston doodled, drawing a little picture of a sailboat moving through the waves.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, it's really poignant, isn't it? That all throughout his White House years and Oval Office meetings and elsewhere he would often draw those sketches of a sailboat with a gaff rig, which is the one that has the mast up, an extra boom, up high, which makes it a distinctive sailboat and much like the Victura. I think that it's also so fascinating to think about him during the Cuban Missile Crisis and other moments drawing little doodles of that sailboat, as if he's trying to transport himself back to his origins or his beginnings. So I think it always came back to him.
BOB OAKES: Take us back, if you might. What is it that drew the family to the sea and to sailing?
JAMES GRAHAM: Well, they moved to Hyannis Port, moved into the house and later bought it in the late '20s and then began to acquire sailboats fairly quickly -- little sailboats. The first one or two were called Wianno Juniors, and then they bought a Wianno Senior, which became the Victura.
Joe and Rose Kennedy were not really big sailors. There's no record of them pursuing the sport themselves. But when the children began to sail together, I think that experience together, growing up together during the '20s and the '30s was really something that bound them together and they had so many fond memories that to this day they pass it down generation to generation.
I think they always saw in the sea an escape, a way to be together, a way to be competitive and enjoy the thrills of competing against Boston Brahmin, who did not necessarily welcome them to their society. And then they loved it so much that though they were the first generation to sail the Wianno Senior sailboats, they passed that down generation to generation, brother and sister, uncle to nephew. So this day even the little children, little Kennedy tribe children out there, nine and ten years old, learning how to fold sails so they one day can sail Wianno Seniors as well.
They acquired a half a dozen Wianno Senior sailboats over the years since that first boat, the Victura, and keep passing it on.
BOB OAKES: The patriarch of the family, Joe Kennedy, Sr., was not much of a sailor, as I understand it. But he watched, intently; he watched the kids sail and scolded them when they screwed up in a race.
JAMES GRAHAM: He did. John F. Kennedy was once asked about the competitiveness for which the Kennedys were so famous and he said, "Well, much too much is made of that. We aren't really that competitive, although our dad sure did ride our butts about the sailboat races." He used something a little bit more barnyard than that, but, yes, they certainly did love it. They enjoyed the competition. There was never any sense from the kids that they resented their father for the pressure that he put on them for being competitive. It was always really important that they come in first. There may be 12 boats in a race, but if you came in second that wasn't good enough. They had to analyze exactly why they didn't win it and that was true of all of them.
BOB OAKES: He preached that winning was really everything.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yes. I mean, well, a little caveat: he would say that once you've tried enough, you've tried everything you can possibly try and still not fallen short, that's okay. But if he saw your effort wanting, that's when you'd be in trouble.
BOB OAKES: You write at one point that the Kennedys were privileged and ambitious, imbued with both a sense of entitlement and a strong work ethic. How did sailing fit in to that?
JAMES GRAHAM: Well, they certainly worked very, very hard at it. I mean, they sailed every day. Of course, they loved sailing so it wasn't like it was work. But the parents certainly instilled a work ethic in the children and some of the children worked harder than others. Joe Kennedy, Jr., was a very good student. But it's often said that John F. Kennedy himself was not quite as enthusiastic a student, or as disciplined a student on every subject as some of his siblings were. As I understand it, John F. Kennedy tended to focus on the subjects that really interested him, not necessarily the ones that he needed to study to get good grades.
BOB OAKES: Since you led us into Joe, Jr., let me ask a few questions. We talked about how Joe, Sr., loved the competition and loved preaching winning to the kids. Certainly, that was the case when it came to sailing races, which bred into many of them, including Joe, Jr. a degree of fearlessness. And Joe, Jr. of course, in World War II was a bomber pilot, killed in England while flying essentially a very dangerous mission and a secret mission that he volunteered for. Tell us that story.
JAMES GRAHAM: It's an interesting story. John F. Kennedy's famous PT109 incident happened before Joe, Jr. died, and there has been speculation that perhaps Joe, Jr. was feeling a bit of competitive pressure from his younger brother, who had become a war hero, while Joe, Jr. was still flying missions out of Great Britain. But that said, it has to be said that Joe, Jr. was, without question, a great war hero because he volunteered for a very dangerous mission, experimental aircraft that was packed with explosives, volunteered to fly it. Of course, the mission failed and it exploded in midair.
BOB OAKES: Looking for V-bomb launch sites, right?
JAMES GRAHAM: Exactly right. One of the interesting things about that is how so much of this story of the Victura all comes back home again. And after Joe, Jr. died … The news was brought to the main house at Hyannis Port via the two Catholic priests who came and knocked on the door and broke the news to the family – and there were many tears shed, of course, but after a while– they had planned on going sailing that afternoon after they had this news of Joe, Jr. and they said, "Joe would want us to sail." So they went out and sailed together. John F. Kennedy was with them at the time, because he had come back from the war already.
BOB OAKES: Kind of makes you think that if that sense of competition and that sense of fearlessness wasn't woven into the character of the kids through sailing, then maybe he might not have volunteered for that mission.
JAMES GRAHAM: That certainly could be. And I agree the fearlessness was something that was a thread throughout many of the kids. I think so many times they would just jump in and out of sailboats. They were in the water, back in the boat, in the water again. There's a certain fearlessness to that.
Robert F. Kennedy was famous for being really just a fearless guy. I mean, he just took all kinds of chances. After the death of the President, he was climbing Mt. Kennedy in Canada and was just a remarkable fellow.
BOB OAKES: The Victura: Jack named the boat the Victura. What does it mean and why do you think he picked it?
JAMES GRAHAM: I mentioned earlier that he was a good student in some subjects and not so good in others. One of his weaker subjects was Latin. That said, he picked a wonderful Latin word to name the sailboat. Victura means about to conquer. It also means to live. But John F. Kennedy himself said that he meant to use the word in its other meaning, which is about to conquer. I've always thought it was just a perfect name for a sailboat, especially a racing boat.
BOB OAKES: Why the Wianno Seniors? There's a picture of it up there. Why the Wianno Seniors? They could have basically had any smaller-sized sailboat that they wanted. Why this model?
JAMES GRAHAM: Families of the South Shore and Cape Cod asked the Crosby Yacht Yard to design the Wianno Senior sailboat for that particular sailing area, Nantucket Sound. This year happens to be the 100th anniversary of the construction of the first Wianno Senior. It was built specifically for the environment of Nantucket Sound. It has a shallow keel so that with all those shallows and shoals you would run aground less often, although locals are filled with stories of running boats aground. So that's a distinctive feature of the boat.
It also has a gaff rig, which causes the sail area to be a bit more horizontal than vertical, like a traditional Marconi triangular rig. So that when it leans over in the wind, the wind will wash over it a little bit better. So the boat was built specifically for Nantucket Sound, for the families, so that they could race against one another.
BOB OAKES: And hard, not impossible, but hard to tip over.
JAMES GRAHAM: Very hard to tip over. There is a story of Ethel managing somehow to tip one over. She ran it aground again. The boats are very hard to tip over when they're in the water. But if they're on land or the keel is stuck in the sandy bottom and the wind catches it in a way, you can tip it over. She managed to do that on one occasion with some visiting friends from Ireland, some of whom did not know how to swim so they were holding on to coolers and things of that sort to stay afloat.
BOB OAKES: And she thought the whole episode was great fun.
JAMES GRAHAM: Oh, yeah, the entire time, she made everybody feel very comfortable and, "Yeah, we tipped the boat over, but no big deal, we'll all be fine." And they were fine, of course. There were plenty of other boats around to come help.
But every day was an adventure. I kept hearing that again and again as I talked to members of the family. They sailed every day, and every day was a new adventure. You never knew what was going to happen on a sailing voyage.
BOB OAKES: We should point out, as you did earlier, that although quite a lot of sailing centered around this one boat – we have it here in front of us on the screen, in addition to it being up there – the family owned quite a few boats.
JAMES GRAHAM: They did. They owned a couple of Wianno Juniors, which were smaller versions of this boat. They bought one early on that they called the Ten of Us when they were a family of ten. Joe and Rose had at that time eight children. A few years went by and Ted was born, and somewhat unexpectedly, I gather, because it was several years between the birth of Jean, the next youngest, and then Ted. So they had one boat called Ten of Us, so the next boat they called One More. [laughter]
BOB OAKES: Jack in World War II: Jack was picked for PT boat training, at least partly, or maybe largely, because of his sailing experience.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, the folks who recruited sailors and skippers for the PT crews actually came to New England and the sailing communities. They were looking for Ivy League and other collegiate racers. And Jack and Joe, in particular, were topnotch collegiate sailors, so they were good candidates for PT boat work. They were looking for people who were familiar with and comfortable on smaller boats, rather than the big destroyers and the like. There was a PT boat on display, I believe, in Edgartown that Jack Kennedy got to see before he actually was recruited. So the rest is history. A lot of the training happened in Nantucket Sound and that vicinity.
BOB OAKES: You point out in the book that PT boat duty was not all glamorous, that a lot of it was constantly just trying to keep the ship, the PT boat ready to sail and in addition to that, fighting off the notion that where they were based, in the Solomon Islands, they were out of the mainstream of the war.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, there were all these great battles going on -- Guadalcanal and all the others -- and they were on patrol duty. So they weren't necessarily participating in the major battles. They were out there reconnaissance and chasing after Japanese boats as they came and went, so there was a little bit of resentment that they weren't in the middle of things, but they certainly saw plenty of action when you consider the sinking of PT109.
BOB OAKES: August 1943: 109 is run over by a Japanese destroyer during a pitchblack night while on patrol in the straits off the Solomon Islands. And thanks to his time on the water and in the water, too, as you pointed out, swimming, Kennedy leads several long swims by the surviving crew members and swims, in addition to that, miles out at night to try and flag down what he hoped would be passing PT boats, although none did pass. You write that Ted Kennedy, years later, said he was convinced that Jack's sailing experience saved his life and the lives of his crew members.
JAMES GRAHAM: Ted specifically said the Victura -- that experience that Jack had sailing the Victura -- as one of the reasons he survived World War II. I think it has to be said that his skills as a swimmer had a lot to do with surviving that incident. But of course, you become a great swimmer when you spend so much time in the water sailing. So it all goes together. But I do believe that we might not have had a President Kennedy had we not had a sailor named Jack Kennedy.
BOB OAKES: Certainly, one of the things you point out very well in the book is that he was just not afraid of the water and even though he was injured and even though at that point he realized he lost a couple of crew members, he was not afraid to get into the water knowing that he would spend hours floating in the strait. He was not afraid to go out at night to swim and see if he could find a way to find a boat to get a rescue.
JAMES GRAHAM: It was an amazing feat. The boat, the PT109, was split in half by a destroyer that just came out of nowhere and sliced the boat in half. He had to reassemble his crew. Two, unfortunately, died on impact but the rest of the crew climbed aboard the floating wreckage of the boat. And he managed to lead them ashore by … The rest of the crew, most of the crew, grabbed a piece of wood or something and paddled to shore. He grabbed a badly injured sailor, who couldn't swim he was so badly injured, and took the strap from the guy's life preserver and put it in his teeth and towed him ashore. And after that, after hours and hours of swimming that way -- I think it was the next day as night fell -- he swam again way out in the middle of the channel with a lantern, waiting for a PT boat to go by and ready to shine the light at it. Because there are all kinds of Japanese boats going back and forth on their patrols as well.
What an awful experience, because they're stranded on an island. The rest of the Americans, all the allies think they're dead; they saw the explosion. They can't put SOS in coconuts on the beach of the island because there's Japanese everywhere, so they have to hide in the bush, which is exactly what you don't want to do if you want your fellow seamen to find you. So somehow, miraculously, they got out.
BOB OAKES: And the coconut that he wrote on and gave to the natives was in the Oval Office. It was on his desk at the Oval Office, later in the Oval Office of course, which you point out was decorated largely in a seafaring theme.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, when the President took over the Oval Office, he transformed it into this shrine to American seafaring. So he had that coconut on his desk from the PT109 incident. He had two cannons as bookends that were modeled on cannons from the USS Constitution. There were paintings of historic war battles, naval battles, models of ships. Of course, one of the things is when you find out that the President loves to sail, everyone who wants to give a gift to the President gives him more sailing paraphernalia. So the French, for example, gave him a ship that went on display in the Oval Office.
BOB OAKES: If you close your eyes and you think about the Kennedy family, what is it you picture most? When I'm running through that catalogue of pictures in my head, I think that I mostly see them on the boats in the water. I think that the majority of the photos in my head probably have Jack and Jackie and Bobby, and Teddy later, on the water, the wind whipping through their hair. I think this is a good time to show us a few historical slides.
JAMES GRAHAM: The one thing I wanted to point out about the Victura, there are so many things about it – the importance of what it contributed to the bonds of the family, and their survival during the war, and all of those things -- but also it was so important to the building of the Kennedy brand and the image that we have today of the Kennedys. It started as early as 1934 when Joe Kennedy, Sr. was appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Boston Globe came out to do a photo spread on the family and took this picture of John F. Kennedy and Robert when Robert was, I think, eight and Jack about17 years old. And they're standing on the bow of the Victura. We know that because in the photo caption the Globe identified the boat.
Flash forward about six years to 1940. I always show this photo and ask people if they can identify Ted Kennedy in this photo. [laughter] 1940, Joe Kennedy is now the US Ambassador to Great Britain, and LIFE magazine sends a photographer out to take a picture of the family. This time they send out Alfred Eisenstaedt, who's such a famous photographer. When I first saw this photo I thought, John F. Kennedy is not in this photo; I wonder if he's taking the photo. But then I thought, boy, it's an awfully welltaken photo; the contrast and everything is so well done. That's because it was Alfred Eisenstaedt taking the photo and John F. Kennedy wasn't on the boat. Eisenstaedt -- famous for taking that photo at the end of World War II of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square.
Of course, a few more years go by. Right after that last photo was taken, John F. Kennedy went to war and became famous as a war hero. The whole story of PT109 reported in the New York Times and there was one article written about it, interesting thing about the tale of PT109 and how it became the story that made him a war hero.
John F. Kennedy had dated a woman named Inga Arvad, who was a Danish journalist, beautiful woman. He came back from the Solomon Islands and met up with Inga Arvad, who was a journalist, and despite the fact they had dated previously, she wrote a wonderful article about his war adventures abroad PT109 and the whole adventure that he had.
Then John F. Kennedy went to New York and met up and had dinner with another former girlfriend, who now was married to John Hersey, who was a famous journalist in his own right and became famous for the book Hiroshima and some other works. Hersey wrote the story of PT109 for the New Yorker, and Joe Kennedy had it reprinted for future campaigns. Then 1953, John F. Kennedy is a young, newly elected US Senator and his fiancée Jacqueline Bouvier and he go for a sail on the Victura, again with LIFE magazine.
BOB OAKES: You write about this photo in the book: If ever there was a single moment when the Kennedy brand as defined, it was when this picture was taken, July 20, 1953.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, you think they're just newly together, this couple. John F. Kennedy's just newly elected to the US Senate, and they show them on the cover of LIFE magazine, which was much more influential in terms of its share of media audiences than magazines are today. So it did so much to establish them. Then, go forward a few more years, the 1960 Presidential campaign, and there's John F. Kennedy in Sports Illustrated. This was taken in the summer of '60, shortly after he was nominated to be President by the Democratic Party.
BOB OAKES: I spent some time looking in the book at this photo. What I really like about it is I think it captures the confidence with which he sails. I mean, look at the left foot. It's just sitting there – I don't know my boat terminology -- but it's just sitting there, casually, braced on that centerpiece of wood. And the right foot, I just looked at it and I casually braced on that center of wood. I thought, “How many times over his life did that right foot sit in exactly that spot, bracing him up as the boat heeled over?”
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, it begins to be clear why he enjoyed doodling. He clearly loves what he's doing. You can understand why he's drawing little pictures of it when he's in the Oval Office.
But the sailboat and its contribution to the image of the Kennedys was a two-edged sword. This photo was taken in 1962 and on this very day this photo was taken, the sailboat, he ran it aground in the presence of a number of newspaper reporters. The next day he boarded Air Force One and opened the newspapers, and there was a headline in, I believe, the New York Times and a couple of other national newspapers. Headline UPI -- so it would have been distributed nationally -- the headline line: "President Runs Sailboat Aground." He was furious because this had been so much a part of the image that President Kennedy had cultivated and all the Kennedys had cultivated over the years. So he was furious and he summons his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, and demands that he go down to the press corps, who were also in another section of Air Force One, and demand a retraction of the story, "Can't Be True." [laughter] And by the way, you can't have this image of the President all over the newspapers. So supposedly the reporter reached into his briefcase, pulled out a photograph of the President and his crew waistdeep in water, trying to push the sailboat off the shoals. And this photo had not been published so Pierre Salinger walked back and nothing more was said of the matter.
BOB OAKES: On the subject of photos though, a side note: In '62, the President was spending some summer days on the Cape as President, sailing and swimming on an island called Egg Island and – you point out in the book – almost always trailed by a gaggle of mostly friendly reporters, but reporters nonetheless. And around that time, the word that we hear so frequently today, especially at seven o'clock at night when we're looking at TMZ here in Boston, we hear the word paparazzi. And that's when paparazzi came into being.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it? The Kennedys certainly enjoyed the presence of news photographers up until this point. After that, they really became a bit wary of it and began laying ground rules for how close the press boats could get and that sort of thing. But it was right around that time that word ‘paparazzi’ was coined.
BOB OAKES: The sea and Jack Kennedy. You point out that Kennedy's love of sailing influenced public policy and especially in conservation. The best example we have of that today is that Jack sponsored the legislation to propose the Cape Cod National Seashore.
JAMES GRAHAM: That's right. It certainly influenced that. The Secretary of the Interior at the time had expressed a little bit of frustration that President Kennedy didn't show very much interest in inland wilderness; he was always interested in seashores. So he proposed the Cape Cod Seashore and at least a couple other seashores that became national seashores. So his interest in the sea certainly influenced public policy.
I don't know if you want me to get into this part as well, but I think it influenced public policy in other ways. I write in the book that I think it had some influence on President Kennedy's embracing the idea of sending a man to the moon. He often used metaphors of the sea in describing space travel. He said, "This is a new ocean and we must sail it."
BOB OAKES: And he called it spacefaring.
JAMES GRAHAM: Exactly. Of course, this whole competitive spirit that we talked about earlier that had been instilled by Joe and Rose in the kids, there's one wonderful moment when President Kennedy -- a year or two after he'd committed the country to go to the moon -- he invited James Webb into the Oval Office, and talked to him about what the estimate is getting to the moon first your priority of NASA. Webb said, "Well, it is a priority." And President Kennedy quickly corrected him and said, "No, I think it's the priority." Then he went off lecturing James Webb by saying, "We can't come in second, we can't come in second place by six months. That's no good. We can't spend these enormous amounts of money to come in second. We want people to look at the US and say that they were behind, but by god they pulled ahead." Which sounded exactly like talking about sailboat racing.
BOB OAKES: You write in the book -- there was a specific line I wanted to ask you about -- "It would be an oversimplification to attribute Jack's decision to go to the moon to his love of sailboat racing, but it must have added a subconscious allure."
JAMES GRAHAM: I think so. Michael Beschloss wrote a really great article about the motivations of why President Kennedy chose to send a man to the moon. And people have speculated about a lot of things – it was a distraction from the Bay of Pigs, which had just happened weeks earlier than the speech about going to the moon. President Eisenhower thought it was crazy to send a man to the moon and spend all that money on it. Eisenhower, I don't think, ever appreciated the symbolism of the race, of getting there first and establishing a finish line as President Kennedy did. Kennedy spoke often of going to the moon, as not something he wanted to do for the science, but to demonstrate American technological superiority and our ability to win a race. So I think that notion of the race and the competition really resonated with President Kennedy in a way that might not have with a politician like Dwight Eisenhower.
BOB OAKES: Do you think that if not for his life and experience sailing competitively in sailboat races, if not for that, maybe he would not have made the decision to go the moon?
JAMES GRAHAM: No, I would not make that argument. But I would say it was a contributing factor. As with so many political decisions, there are many, many factors that go into them. But I do think that very early on he asked his staff … The Soviets were doing all kinds of one-off stunts. They had the first woman in space and they had the first dog in space. Before Kennedy, they had launched the first satellite. Kennedy said, "What can we do over the long term that will redefine the race as something we can win?" And they knew at the time that if given time they could develop the rockets necessary to get Americans to the moon. So I think it was a contributing factor, for sure.
BOB OAKES: Let me ask about Bobby and Ethel. They purchased their own sailboat just like the Victura, a Wianno Senior, and they called theirs the Resolute. Tell us about the significance of that name.
JAMES GRAHAM: I've asked Chris Kennedy, the son of Robert Kennedy, where the name came from because as many of you probably know, especially if you've toured the
Museum, you know about the Resolute desk in the Oval Office that John F. Kennedy had. I asked if it was named for that desk. He thought it was either that or because of the famous British boat for which the Resolute was named. The desk is made from the timbers of the Resolute. Iit was probably more a combination of things for the legend of the Resolute, the desk, and the rest. Max Kennedy actually bought a Wianno Senior later and named it Ptarmigan, which is coincidentally – the British ship, the Resolute, was first called Ptarmigan and then it was renamed when it was outfitted for Arctic exploration, renamed the Resolute. So he just liked that little historic reference.
BOB OAKES: Talked a little bit about Ethel earlier. She loved to sail.
JAMES GRAHAM: Ethel loved to sail every day. After her children lost their father, I think she really valued that time sailing. She was not so much a racer, but just loved taking the children out. No child was ever left behind -- any child who wanted to join the crew. She's got 11 kids, that's a lot of childhood friends, so the boat was always loaded with kids. There's one most memorable incident. Ethel Kennedy, one thing that she very firmly believed -- and she was a woman with strong beliefs …
BOB OAKES: I know where you're going with this. It's the ferry episode.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yes, yes. She really firmly believed that a sailboat always has the right of way over a powerboat, and it doesn't matter how big that powerboat is. So a ferry that carries cars and hundreds of passengers, it's still a powerboat. So she had an ongoing feud with the captains of various ferries, one of which was called the On Cantina[?]. She got in its way and the captain of the On Cantina came running out on the flying bridge, screaming at Ethel and her crew to get out of the way. He's yelling at her and the On Cantina's crew is yelling at the captain saying, "Look out where we're going," and he's too distracted by yelling at Ethel. The On Cantina ran aground in the shoals, damaged the propeller and Ethel just kept sailing on.
I had a chance to ask Ethel about this incident and her feuds with these big ferryboat captains and she looked at me and squinted her eyes and said, "Sometimes when people are big, it goes to their head." [laughter] And she clearly thought of herself as David and these ferries as Goliath.
BOB OAKES: You wrote that after Bobby's death, Ethel sailed almost every day when she could. What drove that, do you think?
JAMES GRAHAM: Well, she loved to sail. She loved the time with the kids. You mentioned Egg Island earlier. It really wasn't an island, it was a sandbar. They'd go up there and load up coolers with sandwiches and crackers and cheese and beverages. There's a man there who always hung out on the beach; he had a little powerboat and he couldn't speak, but he had a powerboat with a little outboard motor on it. So they named him Putt for the sound of his motor. There's a great story that Ethel also shared with me. Putt eventually died. He lived in a little shack around Hyannis. She went and looked into the shack after he had gone, and there was a picture of Ethel pasted on the wall. Ethel, as she's telling me the story, said, "I didn't really ever photograph well. I wasn't a very pretty woman, but there I was on the wall. And the rest of the wall was covered with pornographic pictures of women." [laughter]
BOB OAKES: Any further comment?
JAMES GRAHAM: I didn't pursue that line of questioning any further. [laughter]
BOB OAKES: I'm going to get you to read from a passage here. It's marked on 159 and 160.
JAMES GRAHAM: Sure.
BOB OAKES: In the book, Jim points out that the family often wrote letters to document important moments, and Ted wrote one after Bobby's death to his children. It was published in a private family book, and you included a passage of it in here. I had never read it before and it was, I thought, very moving.
JAMES GRAHAM: I'll read this. To be clear, these are Ted Kennedy's words in a letter that he wrote to the children after Robert Kennedy died.
When I think of Bobby, I will always see Cape Cod on a sunny day. The wind will be from the southwest and the whitecaps will be showing, and the full tide will be sweeping through the gaps of the breakwater. It will be after lunch and Bob will be stripped to the waist, and he'll say, "Come on, Joe, Kathleen, Bobby and David, Courtney, Kerry, come on, Michael, and even you, Chris, and Max. Call your mother and come for a sail." One of the children would say, "What about the baby?" And the father would reply, "Douglas can come next year." They'd push off from the landing, the sails of the Resolute catch the wind, and the boat tips and there are squeals of laughter from the crew and Bob says, "I think today is the day we'll tip over." And there are more squeals. And the Resolute reaches toward the end of the breakwater. He will dive overboard and catch hold of the line that trails behind, inviting the children to join him. Child after child jumps into the water, grabbing for the line and those who appear to miss are pulled toward it by his strong and suntanned arms.
Again, that's Ted Kennedy's words.
BOB OAKES: The imagery is incredibly powerful.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, and so much of the lives of the Kennedys are filled with those kinds of memories. I really think one of the powerful things about the Victura -- this is a book about a sailboat -- but it's really more so a book about a family and what made a family strong. And they all have memories like that and as I said, every day was an adventure, and they all have their own adventures that they'll recall for you.
BOB OAKES: It's so interesting to me that in writing that letter, Ted chose to write about Bobby and the family sailing.
JAMES GRAHAM: It's also of interest that so often when somebody dies in the Kennedy family and a eulogy is given that there are tales of sailing together. I mean, one of the things I often say, what motivated me to write the book, why I thought it was a good idea -- it's just the story of a little sailboat, right? When Ted Kennedy died, a lot of people got up and gave eulogies, many of them here in this building and some at a church in Boston. President Obama gave a eulogy. But four different people got up and in order to boil down the essence of who Ted Kennedy was, they told stories of sailing with him on the Victura. One of which was Senator John Culver, who told a wonderful story; you can watch it on YouTube or go to my website, TheVictura.com, and see it. It's definitely a wonderful story to hear.
BOB OAKES: Eunice, talk a little bit about Eunice for a moment or two. You write that she was the best of the sailors among the daughters.
JAMES GRAHAM: You know if you said to her, "Were you the best of the sailors among the daughters?," she would immediately say, "No, the best, period." [laughter] Men, women, all. She absolutely believed she was the best of the sailors.
There's one moment when they were out racing together and Eunice was on the boat, and they're racing along and she somehow – this is not evidence as her skill as a sailor, but it's illustrative. They're sailing along and somehow she fell out of the boat. They're going down wind so they're flying the spinnaker, which is that big parachute, or balloon-shaped sail, hard to raise and lower. So she comes up and starts treading water and she waves to the sailors, "Keep going round the mark, come around and come and get me on the next leg of the race." So she treaded water for 15 minutes or something like that. That was how committed she was to racing and winning and competing.
BOB OAKES: She sailed with fierce intensity and wild daring recklessness. And what you just said is really a pretty perfect example of that.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah. She was often compared to Joe, Jr. in terms of her bravery at the tiller.
BOB OAKES: She was such an accomplished person in life on dry land. Do you think that the way she sailed matched the seriousness and purposefulness in the way she approached life? She had several jobs or careers and worked tirelessly for people who were mentally or physically challenged.
JAMES GRAHAM: The wonderful thing about the Kennedy family is all the things that kind of come together and grow the family. They had a daughter named Rosemary who was intellectually disabled, and Eunice was very close to her. Eunice was also an athlete. She played tennis I believe for Stanford and was a great sailor. And isn't it wonderful that that combination of things after she became an adult and the President took office, she was able to convert those two passions into forming the Special Olympics? There's apparently a biography being written about Eunice, and I really think we need that because she really redefined how Americans in particular, and really the world, understand people with intelligence disabilities or disabilities of all kinds. It's a really remarkable contribution that I think in history she'll be noted for. People have said she would have made a great President herself if she had been born in a different era.
BOB OAKES: Certainly was driven in life and, circling back to sailing, you point out in the book that despite a bunch of accidents over the years and some serious illnesses, she sailed well into her 80s and sometimes had to force a nurse or two, she dragged them on to the sailboat just so she could get out onto the water.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, Chris Kennedy told me a story. He was coming in from a day of sailing and Eunice was heading out to go sailing with a nurse in tow, the crew, and Chris asked her, "Where are you going?" "Going sailing." "Well, wait a minute, let me call one of my brothers to go with you." "Why? You don't think I can sail myself?" [laughter] But she definitely loved sailing.
There's a moment I describe in the book in which she was very near death and not feeling very well. Ted, who was also ill, went to visit her. They spent several minutes and in an effort to cheer her up, decided to go through the brothers and sisters and ask which of these were serious sailors and which were not serious. So Ted threw out Jack: "Serious," she'd say. And Kathleen: She'd say, "Not serious at all." And run through the list and then of course Ted had to ask her, "Who is the best sailor of all?" "I am," she said. [laughter] I've already said that that would be her answer.
BOB OAKES: So let's spend a few minutes talking about Ted. We picture Ted, I think, mostly on his beloved Mya, but he loved the Victura as well.
JAMES GRAHAM: He did. He was really an outstanding racer and took racing very seriously. He also saw it as a way to connect with his children and with nieces and nephews, who were now fatherless by 1968. He took his children out often sailing for a few days. Patrick's described … He had an annual father/son outing where they'd go out on the Victura and go camp, sail on Martha's Vineyard, or wherever the winds happened to be blowing, where the boat would go. He clearly saw that as a family time. It was something he loved to do. And it worked because the children clearly loved it, too.
They're all, so many of them have now acquired boats of their own and sail as well.
BOB OAKES: When I ask about the development of sailing, so to speak, in Ted's mind, when he was younger, long before he became the lion of the Senate, he lived in the shadow of his brothers. And you wrote here: "For years to come, no matter his accomplishments, Ted's status as a Presidential younger brother made him seem even less self-made than the other sons of Joe Kennedy. The exceptions were accomplishments racing the Victura, where nepotism gave no aid." He had independence and a sense of self-accomplishment on that boat.
JAMES GRAHAM: That's a good point. If you think about it, he was always in the shadows of such accomplished, older brothers and sisters. But as a skipper in a sailboat race, the name Kennedy meant nothing. Either you won or you lost. And he must have loved that, that he could prove himself in that way. It's kind of an amazing thing that President Kennedy, when he was President, did not race, to my knowledge, much at all, if at all. But he loved coming out and watching his younger brother Ted race sailboats. So he'd be out there on the Presidential yacht watching Ted race around in the Victura.
BOB OAKES: Late 1940s, Edgartown Regatta, a special moment, you write, for both Jack and Ted on the Victura. Jack was in Congress at the time, wanted to sail the race and asked Jack[sic] to crew. And the Congressman flies in at the eleventh hour. Tell us what happened.
JAMES GRAHAM: Apparently, you're supposed to have a ticket or be on the boat and the rules did not allow for this, but Ted and the family friend, or cousin I guess, Joe Gargan, were on the boat waiting for Jack to arrive. They were late to get to the starting line, but they really wanted to sail with their Congressman brother Jack. Jack, the plane lands and he runs out in a suit and his briefcase to the end of the dock, jumps on the Victura, goes down below, changes clothes. Comes out and they make their way. I think they can hear the starting gun in the distance, but they rush out and get in the race and it was kind of a cloudy, rainy, misty day. I don't remember what the outcome of that race was, but they …
BOB OAKES: You wrote that Ted gave Jack the tiller and when they got to the starting line, Jack could see the line that the other boats were sailing in, so he went in another direction. He took a chance in order to see if they could catch the rest of the participants.
JAMES GRAHAM: That's right. I had forgotten about that. They really did know how to read the waters. I'm a Lake Michigan sailor, and there's no such thing as a tide in Chicago. But here the tide going in and out is a big factor in sailboat racing and they were really, really good at that. And that might have been a factor in that particular race.
BOB OAKES: One by one, you wrote, they caught the other boats and finally eked out a victory at the end. I imagine that had to be one of many, many memorable moments for Ted on the Victura.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, there are so many stories of the Kennedys sailboat racing and coming from behind. That's part of the family lore, those various races. There's one other one about Jack when he was a youngster, coming from behind, even though the gaff rig busted and yet somehow he managed to win the race. I think that is a metaphor for life; Ted sailing is a metaphor for life. That notion of coming from behind is something that politicians really understand well, because so often somebody comes from behind in an election.
BOB OAKES: You write about how after Jack and Bobby passed, Ted would sail the Victura out at night just to think all by himself.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, imagine the trauma of losing both your brothers. By that time, he'd also lost Joe, Jr. and his older sister Kathleen, now Jack and Robert. For days, he would go out sailing alone at night under the stars and collect his thoughts. There are other stories of the Kennedy family really enjoying sailing at night. There's a wonderful passage from Eugene O'Neill that Patrick Kennedy read at a funeral for his sister Kara, in which O'Neill writes about sailing at night and gazing up at the stars.
BOB OAKES: You think sailing at night for Ted gave him a sense of purposefulness again? Certainly, his relatives thought it helped him focus.
JAMES GRAHAM: I think so. The Kennedys are famously Catholic, but I think that they connect with their Maker as much at sea as anywhere. Kerry Kennedy told me that she never really feels closer to God than when she's out on a sailboat at night. I think that really puts life in perspective when you're out there on the water and experiencing the infinite sea. John F. Kennedy famously had on his desk, the Resolute, a little plaque that said "Oh, God, the sea is so great and my boat is so small." I believe that plaque is here in the Museum, if I'm not mistaken.
BOB OAKES: Amy says yes. Summer 1994 – I'm wrapping up in a few minutes -- get ready with your questions – summer 1994, in the grips of a tight US Senate race. I remember this well, I covered this race as a reporter, that race with Mitt Romney. Looked for a while like he might very well lose, even the Senator's own campaign polls had the race nip and tuck or dead heat. Senator had to be concerned. And the afternoon before everyone knew what would be an extremely important first debate, he asked his driver to take him here to the Library so that he could stand and reflect near the Victura. Tell us about that.
JAMES GRAHAM: He did. It was the afternoon of a debate. He's down in the polls, or the polls had him and Romney neck in neck, more or less, and some polls had him behind. You know when you're a challenger to a guy like Ted Kennedy, being on the stage with him as an equal, challenging Ted really is a boost to your campaign. So it was a really crucial debate between Ted Kennedy and Mitt Romney. And just to collect his thoughts, he came here and walked around the lawn. I think he sat on a bench somewhere outside part of the time and also must have spent some time with the sailboat. He said later that it was just a chance for him to collect his thoughts and reconnect with his values and the memory of his brothers and sisters.
There was a line in the debate -- I don't remember exactly -- but he was challenged on a scandal in which the family was accused of profiting on some kind of a real estate deal involving the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, I believe. He basically responded by saying,
"Our family has paid too high a price to try to profit financially from public service."
BOB OAKES: We're on the same page, because I actually have that called up right here. I remember that moment in the debate back then. When you cover a lot of politics, I think every now and then you can find a moment or two where you can actually see a campaign change right in front of your very eyes. That happened once to me in the race for President that John Kerry was nominated for. We were out in Des Moines, Iowa, and he had been slipping, slipping, slipping and at that moment, on that one particular day, he gathered a bunch of veterans together and it was a very, very moving moment at an event near his campaign headquarters. The energy in the room was incredible, and you could feel the momentum in that Democratic primary swing back to John Kerry at that moment.
It was overpowering.
I remember this line in that debate and you knew when he said that line, you could hear it on the other end of the televisions all across the Commonwealth, people saying, "Wow, that is a campaign-changing moment." I think he had one of those moments at that time. You wonder, if he would have been able to call that up had he not been here that afternoon, reflecting on his life with his brothers and the boat right next to the Victura.
JAMES GRAHAM: One of the wonderful things about the story of the Victura is, as I said, it's the story of the family, it's not really just the story about John F. Kennedy as a 15 year old boy sailing it. It's that relationship between John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, and Robert and then Joe, Jr. and the others. What I really love is that with the construction of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate nearing completion, that that boat – I hope that that boat becomes more a symbol of the family and the relationships between them and what that chemistry meant than just about John F. Kennedy. Because I think that's the real story of the Victura.
I will also say that I think that sailing together was a really powerful shared experience. It was deliberately pursued by people like Ted Kennedy trying to connect with his children. There's really valuable family lessons from that, in that if you can find something to share with your children and your cousins that is a really wonderful shared experience – it doesn't have to be sailing, it can be anything. It could be fly-fishing; I think you fish for trout, right? It could be quilt making, it could be all kinds of things – but find your own Victura as a family and I think you'll do well.
BOB OAKES: I've dragged my kids on many fishing trips. Okay, questions from the audience. Step up to the microphone.
Q: I have a question. I don't know if it's in your book but in Jacqueline Kennedy's, the tapes that came out, her long interviews with Arthur Schlesinger, one of the last things he asks her is when was President Kennedy most relaxed, and she said on a boat. Because there was no telephone.
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah, yeah, and certainly that photo from the Sports Illustrated spread really shows it. There's another news account at the time when he's President and he's with Ted and they're coming in from a cruise on -- might have been the President yacht coming back to Hyannis, it must have been Hyannisport -- and they see the Victura, winds blowing 30 knots or something like that and they look at it and they just say to each other, We've got to go out. So the President and Ted go out sailing. So clearly, he relished those moments. .
Q: Then just one quick question – the grandchildren of the next generation, the Shrivers, the Smiths, the Kennedys, who are some of the most outstanding sailors in the family?
JAMES GRAHAM: I know that Robert and Ethel's son Joe really spent a lot of time with Ted and became an avid sailor. I know Max has raced a lot with the family. Chris Kennedy, who I came to know because he lives in the Chicago area, actually owns the boat – after they gave the Victura to the Kennedy Foundation for this Museum, they acquired another Wianno Senior and named it Victura. That has now come into the hands of Chris, although many of the members of the family sail it. So I'm not sure if any one of them really stands out. Certainly, Joe, and Ted Kennedy, Jr. was a very good competitive sailor. I think his name shows up as a winner of many races.
Q: I had the pleasure of running into the Kennedys several times in Maine. They used to go sailing there quite a bit. Is that in your book? And how much time did they actually spend up there?
JAMES GRAHAM: In Maine. I don't really know the answer to that, but I know that there's a story of Robert and Ethel taking the children up to Maine sailing. The story was that they used to navigate with roadmaps instead of nautical maps. [laughter] And the rocky coast of Maine is not a place you want to take lightly.
But that was an incident where Kathleen Kennedy, now Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, was not with them and fell off a horse, on their way to Maine. So a Coast Guard boat came to give them the news and Robert jumped off the boat and swam in high waves and everything else, swam across the water to the Coast Guard boat so he could get ashore to be with Kathleen, to be with her and attend to her injuries.
Q: You had spoken before about the PT109. I've often wondered, it's sort of known that Jack Kennedy had sustained a very bad back, or had a back problem and he also had Addison's disease. Did he sustain his back injury during World War II, or was it due to something else?
JAMES GRAHAM: Well, he had back issues prior to World War II. Whether that incident aggravated his back injuries, it's hard to say. I mean, after that incident, he was able to do all that swimming, so his back must not have been bothering him very much then. But I think it's been said that many people after World War II said that John F. Kennedy injured his back on PT109. In fact, I think he had injured it earlier. And he didn't necessarily correct those reporters who said that so it's not entirely clear how the back conditions were sustained.
Q: You open the book by quoting the Tennyson poem Ulysses. I just wonder if you can talk about sort of what that meant to the family and how it entered family lore, et cetera.
JAMES GRAHAM: Thanks for bringing that up. Ulysses, of course, is a Tennyson poem from the 19th century based on Homer's Odyssey of the legend of Odysseus, who was a great mariner. And it all started with a little ten-year-old girl named Jackie Bouvier who memorized the poem with the help of her grandfather when she was only ten years old. When she became engaged to John F. Kennedy, she recited the poem from memory to him. Jack was just delighted by it and it became his favorite poem, and he used it in speeches.
There's one moment when he was running for President and he wanted to conclude his speech with words from that poem, but couldn't remember them. So he writes, "Jackie, give me the last words that begin with 'Come my friends.'" She proceeds to write several lines of that poem, starting with "Come with my friends, tis not too late to seek a newer world."
And of course after John F. Kennedy's death, Robert Kennedy took up that poem himself and began using it in speeches. He published a book called, To Seek a Newer World, taking a title from that. Then, when Robert F. Kennedy died, Ted Kennedy became under prominent consideration for the Presidency and his greatest speech was in 1980 at the Democratic National Convention, when he was conceding the race to President Carter and he gave his famous "Dream shall never die speech." But before he got to that concluding line, he quoted from Ulysses.
To this day, there are grandchildren of that generation of Kennedys who memorize portions of that poem, sometimes performing it for the family at the dinner table. Conor Kennedy recently, who's I think is 18 years old and a grandson of Robert and Ethel – he's more famous for having dated Taylor Swift [laughter] -- but he also memorized the poem in its entirety for a class of his own.
BOB OAKES: Before we go outside, we started by talking about doodles and we're going to finish by going back to art.
JAMES GRAHAM: Before I go to this, I do want to say one quick word. I really wanted to say a word of thanks to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, because their support of my research here for this book was really, really invaluable. Of course, they preserve the boat but I spent a lot of time in the Library doing research and the help of the Library staff and all these photographs, the one that I love so much of John and Robert, I had not seen it anywhere but I found it here in this Library.
But one of the indications of how much this boat meant to the Kennedys as a family and especially a generation of the Kennedys who were the children of Joe and Rose, in 1963 the three sisters -- Jean, Patricia and Eunice -- decided that what their three brothers really wanted for Christmas were paintings of the sailboat Victura. And they commissioned an artist named Henry Koehler, who's in this photo, in the fall of 1963 to go out to Hyannis Port and go out on a boat. It might have been the Honey Fitz or it might have been the Marlin, I'm not sure. A powerboat. Joe Kennedy, Sr., who was an invalid at this time because of a stroke, they gave him a ride on the boat with him as this artist Henry Koehler drew sketches of the sailboats. So here you have the President, the Attorney General of the United States, and Senator Ted Kennedy together, very important people in this country at that time and the sisters think that the thing that they most really want for Christmas are paintings of the Victura.
So Henry Koehler made these paintings. This is one of Jack and Jacqueline, and then this is of Ted and Joan Kennedy, and then nother one of Robert and Ethel. And in the fall of '63, as he's working on these paintings in his New York studio, one of the sisters wanted to come by and check on the progress of his work. So she came by the studio. Henry turned off the radio because he didn't want the gathering to be disturbed so they could have a conversation. The sister looked at the paintings. He can't remember which sister it was. He just said it wasn't Eunice; it was one of the other two. The sister thought the work was great, and she walked out the door and headed down the street. And the phone rang and it was the artist's, Henry Koehler's fiancée, saying, "Do you have your radio on?" "No." "The President's just been shot." He ran out the door to see if he could find that Kennedy sister, and she was long down the block somewhere. He found out later that the sister learned of it from someone who recognized her on the street, a stranger had grabbed her and said, "Your brother's just been shot."
But these paintings were nonetheless finished. He thought he'd lose the commission as a result of that. But he finished the paintings and delivered them for Christmas. Jacqueline had to accept for her husband.
BOB OAKES: I said this the other day on the radio -- sorry about the cough, still coming off a cold -- I said this the other day on the radio and let me conclude– first of all, before I conclude I want to say that James is going to go downstairs next to the boat and take some one-on-one questions from you, if you want to question him there. But on the radio the other day, at the end of our other interview, I said that this book -- if you love the story of the Kennedy family and you love a great story about how a family develops together through one shared interest -- this book is a gift. It's a real gift. And thank you very much. I appreciate it.
JAMES GRAHAM: Thank you, Bob. [applause]