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25 Fascinating Facts About John F. Kennedy

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

More than 50 years after his tragic death cut his presidency short, John F. Kennedy remains one of history’s most intriguing figures—and, according to Gallup, America’s favorite president. On the anniversary of his 1963 state funeral, here are 25 fascinating facts about JFK.

1. HE RECEIVED LAST RITES A TOTAL OF FOUR TIMES.

From a young age, John F. Kennedy battled a range of health problems, some of which appeared to be life-threatening—so much so that he received the sacramental last rites a total of four times: First in 1947, when he became sick while traveling in England and was diagnosed with Addison’s disease; a second time in 1951, when he was suffering from an extremely high fever while in Japan; the third time in 1954, when he slipped into a coma following back surgery; and a final time on the day of his assassination, on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

2. HE FAKED HIS WAY INTO THE NAVY.


By Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy’s ongoing health problems became an issue when he attempted to enlist in the military in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War II. Because of his various medical conditions, Kennedy could not pass a proper physical examination. Instead, according to JFK historian Richard Reeves, Kennedy “used the riches and influence of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, to become a naval officer. The old man persuaded friends in the military to accept a certificate of good health, a false one, from a family doctor.”

3. HE BECAME A WAR HERO.

Regardless of how he found his way into the navy, Kennedy certainly proved his chops as an officer once he was there. In 1943, he was made commander of a PT-109 patrol boat that came under attack near the Solomon Islands. After the boat sank, Kennedy and his crew swam approximately 3.5 miles to a nearby island, where they were stranded for seven days until a pair of PT boats came to their rescue.

4. A MEMENTO FROM THAT NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE WAS AN OVAL OFFICE FIXTURE.


Public Domain, JFK Library

In an attempt to get help for him and his marooned crew of fellow officers, Kennedy etched an SOS message into a coconut shell, which he gave to two natives to deliver to a nearby base in order to arrange for their rescue. As a reminder of the incident, Kennedy had the coconut encased in wood and plastic and used it as a paperweight. It sat on his desk in the Oval Office.

5. THE WRECK OF KENNEDY’S PT-109 WAS DISCOVERED NEARLY 60 YEARS LATER.

In 2002, famed deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of Kennedy and his crew’s PT-109 boat about 1200 feet below the water’s surface during a National Geographic expedition. "I'm very pleased, because it was a real needle in a haystack, probably the toughest needle I've ever had to find," Ballard said—which was quite a testament, as Ballard also discovered the Titanic.

6. HE IS THE ONLY PRESIDENT TO HAVE RECEIVED A PURPLE HEART.

Though recent presidential candidates John Kerry and John McCain both received Purple Hearts for their service during wartime, Kennedy is the only president to boast the honor. He received it after being wounded in action on August 22, 1943.

7. HIS BROTHER, BOBBY, GOT A LITTLE WILD AT JFK'S WEDDING.


The Kennedy siblings celebrate John and Jackie's wedding.

By Toni Frissell, 1953, Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When JFK married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier on September 12, 1953 in Newport, Rhode Island, his brother, Robert, served as his best man. But that best man got a little wild. According to Evan Thomas’s Robert Kennedy: His Life, Bobby “behaved like a naughty teenager, stealing a policeman’s hat” on his brother’s wedding day. “Joe Kennedy was furious. He summoned Bobby and his co-conspirators, his brother Teddy and some younger cousins, and gave them a lecture about disgracing the family name. When Bobby tried to speak up, Joe snapped, ‘No. You keep quiet and listen to me. This is childish behavior, and I don’t want anything more like it.’"

8. HE WON A PULITZER PRIZE.

In 1957, Kennedy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Profiles in Courage. Though Kennedy is credited as the book’s sole author, questions have arisen in the years since about how much of the book was actually written by Kennedy, and how much was written by his ghostwriter, Ted Sorenson. In 2008, Sorenson told The Wall Street Journal that he “did a first draft of most chapters,” “helped choose the words of many of its sentences,” and likely “privately boasted or indirectly hinted that I had written much of the book.”

9. JOHN AND JACKIE HAD FOUR CHILDREN.


National Archive/Newsmakers

Though both Caroline and John Kennedy, Jr. became celebrities in their own right, JFK and Jackie had four children: In 1956, Jackie gave birth to a stillborn daughter who they had planned to name Arabella. On August 7, 1963, she gave birth to Patrick Bouvier Kennedy more than five weeks before her due date; he died just two days later. In 1963, the bodies of both children were moved from Massachusetts to Arlington National Cemetery, to be buried with their father.

10. HE GOT INTO A FENDER-BENDER WITH LARRY KING.

In 1958, Larry King got into a car accident with JFK, who was then a senator, while in Palm Beach. In his autobiography, King wrote about how he had just arrived to the area from Brooklyn and was so distracted by the swanky South Florida locale that he wasn’t really paying attention to the road. And Kennedy was pretty angry about the whole incident. “How could you?” Kennedy yelled. “Early Sunday morning, no traffic, not a cloud in the sky, I’m parked—how could you run into me?”

“All I could say was, ‘Senator, do you want to exchange information from our driver’s licenses?’” King replied, writing that, “Eventually he calmed down, and he said he’d forget the whole thing if we just promised to vote for him when he ran for president. We did, and he drove away—though not before saying, ‘Stay waaay behind me.’”

11. HE DIDN’T EXPECT LYNDON JOHNSON TO SAY “YES” TO BECOMING HIS RUNNING MATE.


By Abbie Rowe - John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy’s choice of running mate came down to the wire. “At around 11 a.m. on the day a nominee was to be presented, John Kennedy visited Johnson in his hotel suite and offered him the job,” according to PBS. “Robert Kennedy maintained afterward that his brother offered the job to Johnson only as a courtesy, and then felt trapped when he accepted. ‘Now what do we do?’ the candidate asked, then answered by sending Bobby back to talk Johnson out of it. Around 4 p.m., with tensions running high all around, John Kennedy called Johnson to assure him he was the one. Ignore Bobby, he said, because ‘he's been out of touch and doesn't know what's happening.’”

12. HE WAS THE LAST PRESIDENT TO WEAR A TOP HAT AT HIS INAUGURATION.

For many years, going back to at least James Garfield’s inauguration in 1881, it was a tradition for incoming presidents to wear a top hat as part of the Inauguration Day garb. Though JFK wasn’t a fan of hats, he went along with the tradition—but was the last POTUS to do so.

13. HE BEGAN THE TRADITION OF HAVING AN INAUGURAL POET.

Though not every incoming president has chosen to have an inaugural poet, the tradition itself began with Kennedy, who asked Robert Frost to recite “The Gift Outright” on his Inauguration Day in 1961. But Frost had other ideas and wrote an entirely new poem for Kennedy, entitled “Dedication,” for the occasion. There was just one problem: It was a bright and sunny day, and Frost—who was 87 years old at the time—had trouble reading the copy of the poem he had brought with him, so ended up reciting “The Gift Outright” from memory.

14. WILLIAM FAULKNER REFUSED A WHITE HOUSE DINNER INVITATION.

Kennedy may have been able to convince one of the world’s most celebrated poets to attend his inauguration, but not every literary hero was so keen to make the journey to the White House. When Kennedy extended a dinner invitation to William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning author politely declined, telling LIFE Magazine: “Why that’s a hundred miles away. That’s a long way to go just to eat.”

15. HE WAS THE SECOND WEALTHIEST PRESIDENT.

With an estimated net worth of about $1 billion (in today’s dollars) when he took office in 1961, Kennedy has long held the record for the wealthiest president in U.S. history. In January, he was knocked into second place when Donald Trump—whose net worth is estimated to be approximately $3.5 billion—took office.

16. HE DONATED ALL OF HIS SALARY TO CHARITY.

Given the size of Kennedy’s bank account, he certainly didn’t get into politics for the money. In fact, he donated his entire presidential salary to charity, just as he did his congressional salary.

17. HE WAS AN ANIMAL LOVER.


STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

The Kennedy White House was a bit of a zoo. Among the animals that called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home during JFK’s administration were five horses, two parakeets, two hamsters, a cat, a rabbit, and five dogs, including a mutt named Pushinka, a gift from Nikita Khrushchev. Pushinka was the daughter of Strelka, one of the first dogs in space.

18. HE WAS A SPEED READER.

While the average reader is said to digest words at a rate of about 250 to 300 words per minute, JFK was far from the average reader. He could reportedly read about four times faster than that, at a speed of 1200 words per minute.

19. HE WAS A JAMES BOND FANATIC.

In 1955, JFK was given a copy of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book, Casino Royale, and was immediately intrigued by the character. In 1962, he hosted a private screening of Dr. No at the White House. When asked to name his 10 favorite books, he listed From Russia With Love at number nine. In a documentary included in the Bond 50th anniversary Blu-ray collection, Kennedy was quoted as saying, "I wish I had had James Bond on my staff."

20. A DAY BEFORE SIGNING THE CUBA EMBARGO, HE BOUGHT A LOT OF CIGARS.


Photo by Walter Daran/Getty Images

Kennedy was a fan of fine cigars, and Cuban cigars in particular. In February of 1962, he asked press secretary Pierre Salinger to help him acquire a large supply of Cuban cigars—and quickly. When Salinger asked how many he needed, Kennedy told him, "About 1000 Petit Upmanns." And he wanted them by the next morning. The next day, when Salinger informed the president that he had managed to get 1200 of them, he wrote that, “Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country.”

21. HE RECORDED MORE THAN 260 HOURS OF PRIVATE WHITE HOUSE CONVERSATIONS.

In the spring of 1962, Secret Service agent Robert Bouck installed secret recording devices in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room of the White House at the request of President Kennedy. Though the president never explained why he wanted to record his conversations, both Bouck and Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s personal secretary, believed that his reason for doing this was to have a personal record of his time in the White House after he had left. The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has made many of the 260-plus hours of recordings available to the public (you can even listen to some of them online).

22. HE HELPED GET THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE MADE.


AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Kennedy ran with a pretty cool circle of friends, and Frank Sinatra was one of them. When Sinatra was having trouble getting United Artists to greenlight a big-screen adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, for fear that it was too controversial, Sinatra persuaded Kennedy to make a personal appeal to the studio head. "That's the only way that film ever got made," Condon later told Kitty Kelley, Sinatra’s biographer. "It took Frank going directly to Jack Kennedy."

23. HE WAS THE TARGET OF AT LEAST FOUR ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS.

Throughout his life, JFK was the target of at least four assassination attempts—including once in 1960, shortly after being elected president, when a retired postal worker filled his car with dynamite and followed the president-elect from Hyannisport to Palm Beach. "Brother, they could have gotten me in Palm Beach,” Kennedy reportedly told a Secret Service agent. “There is no way to keep anyone from killing me." In the lead-up to JFK’s assassination in Dallas, two additional plots—one in Chicago and one in Tampa—were discovered.

24. HIS TRUSTY BLACK ALLIGATOR BRIEFCASE SOLD FOR MORE THAN $700,000.


JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images)

One of Kennedy’s most trusted companions was his black alligator Hermès briefcase, which he carried with him everywhere, including the morning of his assassination. In 1998, the briefcase was among the president’s personal possessions that were being included in a highly anticipated auction of his personal memorabilia. The item became one of a number of items that Kennedy’s children fought to have taken off the auction block, but they eventually relented. The briefcase sold for more than $700,000.

25. HIS LAST WORDS WERE “NO, YOU CERTAINLY CAN’T.”

Though it’s been widely reported that JFK’s final words were, “My God, I’ve been hit,” that information is incorrect. His last words were in regards to how well he had been received in Dallas. Just seconds before he was shot, Nellie Connally—wife of governor John Connally—remarked that, "You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President,” to which he replied: “No, you certainly can't."

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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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7 Things You Might Not Know About William McKinley
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in films and sketches. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country—or removed from major mountains. Here’s a look at some facts about our 25th president, William McKinley, who was born 175 years ago today.

1. HE HELPED KEEP A GANG OF COAL MINERS OUT OF PRISON.

McKinley, born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, studied at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania and Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, but he didn’t graduate from either school. After the Civil War erupted, he volunteered for the Union Army, rose to the rank of second lieutenant, and received a brevet commission to major. Following the war he apprenticed under an attorney, studied law for less than a year at New York's Albany College, and was admitted to the bar back in Ohio in March 1867.

Nine years later, McKinley defended a group of striking coal miners who allegedly incited a riot at a mine in Tuscarawas Valley before tussling with the Ohio militia sent by Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. All but one of the miners was acquitted, and McKinley refused any compensation for his services.

2. AS PRESIDENT, HE BOOTED SPAIN OUT OF FOUR TERRITORIES.

Even though McKinley’s then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, allegedly claimed that his boss possessed “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair” while the situation with Spain was deteriorating, McKinley and Spain would eventually cut off diplomatic relations, and the United States supported Cuba in its struggle with the Spanish.

After the American battleship Maine exploded and sank under mysterious circumstances off the coast of Havana in February 1898, killing 266 sailors, McKinley demanded Spain grant independence to Cuba, and Congress authorized a declaration of war on April 25, 1898 (though they retroactively dated it to April 21). In the roughly 100-day Spanish-American War, the United States destroyed the Spanish fleet outside Cuba’s Santiago, seized Manila in the Philippines, and annexed Puerto Rico and Guam, ending Spain’s run of colonial dominance.

3. HIS HOME LIFE WAS TRAGIC.

McKinley married Ida Saxton, a cashier at her father’s bank, in 1871, and she gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, on Christmas Day the same year. A second daughter, Ida, was born in 1873, but died four months later. Katherine passed away from typhoid fever in 1875, and his wife’s health deteriorated due to phlebitis and undiagnosed epilepsy. During their time in the White House, Ida often needed sedation to enable her to sit through official functions as First Lady, and McKinley would throw a handkerchief over her face when she suffered an epileptic seizure.

4. HE ANNEXED THE REPUBLIC OF HAWAII.

McKinley reversed the policy of his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, and advocated for Hawaii to become a U.S. territory. After the Spanish-American War, the strategic importance of the islands’ location in the Pacific Ocean became more apparent, and an annexation resolution supported by McKinley passed the House and Senate in 1898. The episode marked an end to a lengthy battle between native Hawaiians and white American businessmen for control of the local government. The last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani, was overthrown in 1893, and Benjamin Harrison actually sent a bill to the Senate to approve the annexation. But Grover Cleveland became president before it was passed, and he withdrew the bill. When McKinley became president, he tried to reintroduce the bill, but was stymied by the Hawaiian Patriotic League, who kept the U.S. at bay until the events of 1898.

5. AN ANARCHIST SHOT HIM JUST MONTHS INTO HIS SECOND TERM.

During a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. on Sept. 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the torso while the president greeted guests in a receiving line. McKinley allegedly uttered, “Don’t let them hurt him,” as the angry mob descended on Czolgosz. Later, at the Emergency Hospital on the Exposition grounds, McKinley said of his assassin, “It must have been some poor misguided fellow,” and “He didn’t know, poor fellow, what he was doing. He couldn’t have known.”

6. AN OB/GYN PERFORMED THE EMERGENCY SURGERY THAT FAILED TO SAVE MCKINLEY'S LIFE.

Matthew Mann, a physician and professor of gynecology at the University of Buffalo, was chosen by a hastily assembled group of doctors to perform surgery on McKinley, but the team could not find the second bullet inside the President’s body. A brand-new X-ray machine sent by Thomas Edison arrived in Buffalo but was never used, as it was thought McKinley’s condition was improving. Instead, his health declined as gangrene set in around the path of the bullet. McKinley died on September 14, 1901, eight days after being shot and just six months into his second term as President.

7. MOUNT MCKINLEY LOST MORE THAN 80 FEET IN 2013, AND THEN LOST HIS NAME.

McKinley never set foot in Alaska and never saw the peak named for him by prospector William Dickey, a designation that was made official by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. That’s probably a good thing, because it’s been a rough few years for McKinley’s spot on the mountain.

First, the mountain shrank. On September 12, 2013, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell announced that North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley, was 20,237 feet tall, 83 feet shorter than previously thought. The U.S. Geological Survey and Alaska’s Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative used new radar technology to correct the earlier height of 20,320 feet, which had been recorded in 1952 using photogrammetry.

Then, the mountain cut its ties to McKinley. Although the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain in 1975 to Denali, a name used by the Koyukon Athabaskan people, for decades Ohio representatives had been blocking name-change requests sent by the Alaskan state legislature to the United States Board on Geographic Names. Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 that reverted the name of the area to the Denali National Park and Preserve, but the name of the mountain itself had remained steady until 2015. Associate director for the National Park Service Victor Knox said in June of that year that he had “no objection” to a January bill submitted by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski that would rename the peak Denali. The change became official in 2015, stripping the 25th president’s name from the highest peak in North America.

But, you should use a non-permanent marker on those atlases—the Ohio delegation, including Speaker John Boehner and Representative Tim Ryan, were quick to denounce the decision and have said they're exploring legal avenues to challenge the decision. And in late 2017, Donald Trump considered reversing the decision, though the Alaska senate told him thanks but no thanks.

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Rutherford B. Hayes, National Hero of Paraguay
iStock // Wikimedia Commons

Following a traffic accident in 1998, 15-year-old Griselda Servin spent two years in a coma. When she awoke, the Paraguayan was excited to find out that a regional television show, Tell Me a Dream, would be making one of her wishes come true. Servin would have an opportunity to fly to America, which she had always wanted to see, with all expenses paid.

There was one condition. Instead of heading for New York City, which she preferred, the show would be sending her to Fremont, Ohio. Servin would be honoring her country by visiting the resting place of its greatest hero—the 19th American president, Rutherford B. Hayes.

iStock

How Hayes—by most historical accounts, a man who chaired an unremarkable presidency from 1877 to 1881 that was remembered mainly for introducing telephones and Easter Egg rolls to the White House—wound up becoming an icon for a small South American country is remarkable. Not because of the geographical divide, but because Hayes himself might have had virtually nothing to do with it.

In 1864, Brazil had tried to intervene in a civil war in Uruguay; Paraguay was worried that this would destabilize the entire region, and ultimately declared war on Brazil, which enlisted Argentina and Uruguay to overtake the Paraguayans. Paraguay was so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the opposing soldiers that they began painting sticks to look like guns and putting them in the hands of children wearing fake beards. After six years of bloodshed, the country had seen up to 60 percent of its population killed in combat or dead of disease.

Sensing easy prey, Argentina swooped in to claim Chaco, a desolate slice of land roughly the size of Colorado that made up 60 percent of Paraguay's total territory. Losing it meant Paraguay would be in danger of ceasing to exist.

In an attempt to settle the land issue without bloodshed, the countries agreed to arbitration by a neutral third party: the United States. Both submitted reams of documents and testimony arguing why their side should be awarded Chaco.

On November 12, 1878, Hayes released a written decision. It read, in part:

…Be it known that I, Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States of America, having duly considered the said statements and the said exhibits, do hereby determine that the said Republic of Paraguay is legally and justly entitled to the said territory between the Pilcomayo and the Verde rivers, and to the Villa Occidentals situated therein…

Although Chaco was and would remain largely destitute and semi-inhabitable—Paraguayans like to refer to it as the “Green Hell” despite a productive cattle ranching industry—it didn’t matter. To them, Hayes had rendered a just decision that offered some ray of hope after a devastating three-pronged attack, one that had left just 29,000 adult males alive—many still with battle wounds.

Over the next several decades, Paraguay’s reverence for Hayes swelled. It named a state Presidente Hayes, with the town at the mouth of Chaco dubbed Villa Hayes. A museum was erected in his honor; a bust of him greets schoolchildren at Villa Hayes Elementary. The date of his decision, November 12, is a provincial holiday.

Amid the monuments, soccer teams, and postage stamps honoring him, Paraguayans often express disbelief whenever they're confronted with the idea that Americans don’t spend much time thinking about Hayes.

Ricardo Nuñez, mayor of Villa Hayes, was astonished to be told by a U.S. journalist that Hayes’s contemporaries once referred to him as “Rutherfraud” because his office was preceded by a Constitutional crisis, and he had lost the popular vote.

“Rutherfraud? Wow!” Nuñez told NPR in 2014. “That’s amazing!” He could not conceive of such a slur.

Given Paraguay’s history of malevolent rulers, it’s not surprising that they placed a lot of emotional stock in Hayes, who served just one term and died in 1893. The dictator who antagonized Brazil, General Francisco Solano Lopez, once demanded that his Catholic bishops declare him a saint. If they refused, they were executed. Once he took office, he had his elderly mother flogged in public.

While there’s no record of Hayes ordering the courtyard whipping of his mother, the truth is that no one is quite sure just how much he had to do with the decision to allow Paraguay to keep Chaco. Historians don’t know what criteria was used, or if Hayes simply endorsed the decision made by his staff. It’s likely low-level subordinates pored through paperwork and that Secretary of State William Evarts merely gave the ruling to Hayes for a signature.

For a matter that may have occupied just a couple of hours of his life, Hayes has received infinitely more credit for it than for his entire tenure in office. In Delaware, Ohio, his childhood home was torn down to make room for a commercial development. Those wishing to pay a pilgrimage to Hayes’s birthplace will be greeted by a BP gas station with a memorial plaque out in front.

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