John F. Kennedy was drawn to the sea. The bronze likeness that greets visitors outside the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum on Cape Cod portrays our 35th president in a polo shirt and khakis, barefoot: presumably, he’s headed to the shoreline to test the water.
We humans “have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears,” Kennedy once said. “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”
This year, to mark the centennial of Kennedy’s birth, admirers of one of our most forward-thinking presidents may want to retrace the steps from whence he came. For Massachusetts residents and out-of-state visitors alike, Kennedy’s familiar legacy comes back to life on sightseeing missions to his old homes and haunts.
In late May the JFK Hyannis Museum, which opens for the season on April 17, unveils a new exhibit, “JFK at 100.” The Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jung-Ho Pak, will host a centennial concert on May 28 — the day before JFK’s birthday — at the Barnstable Performing Arts Center.
Also opening for the season in May is the John F. Kennedy National Historic Site in Brookline, located in the president’s birthplace in the Colonial Revival-style house on Beals Street. The site opened 50 years ago during an extensive restoration by family matriarch Rose Kennedy, after the Kennedys bought the house back from a private owner. Outfitted with mementos ranging from the future president’s christening gown to antique cans of Underwood deviled ham, the house was named a National Historic Site in 1967.
Through the month of May, Brookline Town Hall is featuring an exhibit from the Kennedy memorabilia collection of local chef Jim Solomon, a Brookline native (and proud Revolutionary War reenactor) who owns the Fireplace on Beacon Street. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of his hero’s birth, Solomon’s restaurant is serving a few of the president’s favorites, including fish chowder, clams casino, and a gin drink called JFK’s Way.
The Coolidge Corner Theatre expects to join the JFK 100 celebrations with a May 29 screening, likely of “Apollo 13.” The theater is also working to track down a print of “PT 109,” the 1963 feature about JFK’s wartime heroics, in which the actor Cliff Robertson played the sitting president.
In Dorchester, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum will open its own “JFK at 100” exhibit in May. Notable artifacts set for display include the flag from PT 109, Kennedy’s Navy boat; the president’s handwritten notes for his landmark address on civil rights; and personal effects such as JFK’s sunglasses and gifts from his children.
In Boston, Kennedy made a habit of spending Sunday afternoons in his favorite high-backed booth upstairs at the Union Oyster House. His patronage is noted with a plaque and a small, framed American flag at table number 18, where he reportedly paged through stacks of newspapers over bowls of lobster stew. Each Nov. 22, the anniversary of the president’s assassination, restaurant staff place a single white rose on the table and leave the booth unoccupied.
After serving in the Navy during World War II and then, briefly, as a correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, Kennedy moved into a rented suite at the old Hotel Bellevue at 21 Beacon Street. There he established residency for his first foray into electoral politics, when he won the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives vacated by the once and future Mayor of Boston James Michael Curley. Kennedy later kept an office and “crash pad” at 122 Bowdoin Street, an address he used on voter registration rolls through his own presidential candidacy.
As he was at the Union Oyster House, Kennedy was something of a regular at the Bowdoin Street bar known today as the 21st Amendment, long a watering hole for legislators after hours at the State House. According to the barroom (variously known over the years as the Bellevue Pub and the Golden Dome), Kennedy sometimes sat by the fireplace, making notes for speeches.
Kennedy announced his candidacy for Congress in 1946 at the Parker House Hotel (known in recent decades as the Omni Parker House). Family lore assigns another noteworthy event there: at age six, JFK is said to have made his first “political” speech, honoring his maternal grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the onetime Boston mayor and U.S. Congressman.
Though he never served in the Massachusetts state legislature, Kennedy’s presence around the building and Beacon Hill was memorialized with the 1990 unveiling of another likeness in bronze, the striding statue that stands outside the west wing of the State House. The monument was declared off-limits to the public for several years following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but access to the courtyard has recently been restored.
At the unveiling of the Hyannis statue in 2007, Ted Kennedy summed up his brother’s legacy in a few simple words. “He believed very deeply that people do best when they are challenged,” he said. In what would have been his 100th year, the stories we tell about John F. Kennedy’s political life and his grace under pressure still bear repeating.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.