When John F. Kennedy narrowly won the 1960 presidential election, he became the country’s first Irish-Catholic chief executive. His White House was defined by glamor and Cold War politicking, but his 1963 assassination enshrined his tenure in tragedy. Celebrate the century since JFK’s birth with some surprising aspects of his life:
His Father Wanted His Other Son to Be President
Joseph Kennedy, Sr., pinned his presidential hopes on his oldest son, Joseph Jr., and gave him an elite education that all but paved the way to the White House. Joe shared his father’s hopes: In college he told friends he was going to become the first Catholic president. But when World War II broke out, Joe felt compelled to enlist. He flew more than 35 missions as a pilot.
In 1944, Joe volunteered to fly a bomber loaded with 21,170 pounds of explosives on a mission against a German target in Normandy. The plane exploded midway through the flight.
After Joe’s death, the onus to achieve political power fell on Jack’s shoulders. He later described “being drafted” into political service. “My father wanted his oldest son in politics,” JFK said. “‘Wanted’ isn’t the right word. He demanded it.”
JFK Hid His Serious Health Issues
One of the things that prevented JFK’s father from pinning his hopes on his second son earlier was Jack’s health. His childhood reads like a laundry list of illnesses: scarlet fever, measles, mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, rubella, bronchitis. As a teen, JFK had an appendectomy, suffered from back pain and severe stomach cramping, and spent months having regular blood tests because doctors thought he might have leukemia.
Those medical problems continued during his presidency. Though he was diagnosed with Addison’s disease (an autoimmune disease that causes the adrenal glands to produce too little cortisol and aldosterone), he denied having it. JFK had multiple personal doctors at the White House, and took everything from antibiotics to stimulants while in office.
He Survived Three Days on the Open Ocean During World War II
Because of his longstanding medical problems, he had to pull some strings to get assigned away from desk duty during World War II—but pull them he did. As a Naval lieutenant in the Pacific theater, Jack commanded a P.T. boat. On August 2, 1943, a Japanese destroyer rammed through it, sinking it and spilling ignited fuel onto the water. Two men died, but despite suffering a ruptured disc, JFK managed to get the others on a piece of floating debris and drag a burned crewmember to safety.
For the next several nights, Jack and others swam to nearby islands looking for help. On August 5 they found an inhabited island, and Jack carved a message into a coconut for the islanders to deliver to Allied troops. He was awarded the Navy Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart.
He Won a Pulitzer Prize
After the war, Jack didn’t allow his continued health struggles to prevent him from achieving great things. His senior thesis from Harvard was published as a book—Why England Slept—that detailed why British political leaders failed to prepare for war in the 1930s. While recovering from back surgery in 1954, Kennedy used the time to write another book.
Profiles in Courage looked at a series of American Senators and how they defied their constituents or political parties to do what they thought was right. It won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography/Autobiography, making Kennedy the only president ever to earn that honor. But suspicions about its authorship arose almost immediately. Years later, Kennedy’s aid and speechwriter Ted Sorensen admitted he composed a first draft of many chapters and helped choose the words of many sentences.
He (Supposedly) Brought Down the Hat Industry
John F. Kennedy was inaugurated on a snowy, frigid day in 1961, and wore a black top hat for the occasion—though he was frequently seen with the hat off throughout the day. This spurred an enduring sartorial legend: that JFK’s reluctance to wear hats—an essential fashion accessory at the time—led to the downfall of the hat industry.
Did Kennedy really put the final nail in the felt coffin? Unlikely. At the time, personal car ownership was on the rise. A man couldn’t get into his car with a tall hat, argues NPR’s Robert Krulwich, so hats fell out of favor.
He Loved James Bond
JFK was an avid reader, and found relief in exciting tales of espionage and adventure while he convalesced from his many illnesses. Ian Fleming’s 007 series was a favorite, especially From Russia with Love. When the Kennedys met Ian Fleming in early 1960, both asked if the author was “the” Ian Fleming. “That’s music to any writer’s ears,” Fleming told the Associated Press in 1963.
He Helped Turn a Political Thriller Into a Movie
James Bond wasn’t the only spy Kennedy loved. Another favorite story was Cold War thriller Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. It follows a plot by Pentagon officials to overthrow the president—something that resonated with Kennedy. During his presidency, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was forced to fire U.S. Army General Edwin Walker from command after Walker distributed John Birch Society materials to troops and claimed JFK and Eisenhower were both closet Communist agents.
“Kennedy wanted [the movie] to be made as a warning to the generals,” Arthur Schlesinger, JFK’s assistant and historian, recalled. The president encouraged director John Frankenheimer, who was known for The Manchurian Candidate, to make the film.
In November 1963, just before JFK’s assassination, Paramount Pictures pulled an ad for the film because they worried it was too provocative. The line in question was uttered by one of the conspirators about the fictional president: “Impeach him, hell. There are better ways of getting rid of him.”