He was ferried through Miami Beach in an open Lincoln convertible, often perched atop the rear seat to give adoring crowds along Collins Avenue an unobstructed view.
Photographs from the era captured that sense of myth and glamour and celebrity that adorned John F. Kennedy’s interactions with South Florida.
So many years later, those same black-and-white photos reveal a kind of naiveté that would be unimaginable in the 21st century. Now we see something chilling in the photographs of Kennedy’s swing through Miami and Tampa on Nov. 18, 1963, as he waves from the back of the convertible or wades unprotected into the crowds, oblivious to the history that awaits him.
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Now, as we approach the centennial of JFK’s birth, that unobstructed view of a president on Collins Avenue foretells of an unobstructed shot from a sniper’s rife. Four days later, the president would be in Dallas.
Among the most iconic Miami photographs of Kennedy is an arresting image, a candid shot that turned into a portrait snapped by the great Miami News photographer Charles L. Trainor. The photo was taken with a state-of-the art telephoto lens during a 1962 fundraiser in Miami Beach.
Kennedy later autographed an enlarged print of the portrait, which today belongs to Trainor’s son, Miami Herald photographer Charles Trainor Jr. The telephoto lens used to take the photograph still exists — but not the negative.
Of course, a number of other presidents have had an intimate relationship with Florida. Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor enhanced their reputations as Indian fighters hereabouts. (Jackson served a short, unhappy stint as Florida’s first territorial governor in 1821.)
In 1920, the Miami Herald dispatched reporter Marjory Stoneman Douglas to cover Warren G. Harding’s golfing vacation on Miami Beach. As a publicity stunt, land developers who had underwritten the golf outing provided Harding an elephant for a caddy. Years later, Douglas told Herald columnist Charles Whited that Harding didn’t gin up much public adoration. “People weren’t enthusiastic about him.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt once docked his secondhand houseboat, Larooco, in South Florida. According to James Clark, author of “The Hidden History of Florida,” Roosevelt often brought his rumored mistress, Missy LeHand, on his Larooco getaways. The 1926 hurricane put a stop to those shenanigans, blowing his boat aground a mile or so up New River in Fort Lauderdale.
Seven years later, Roosevelt would take time out of a sailing vacation in South Florida to make a public appearance in Miami’s Bayfront Park. The president-elect was offering a few innocuous remarks about fishing when a deranged immigrant tried to assassinate him. (Giuseppe Zangara missed Roosevelt but managed to kill Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and wound four other people. He pleaded guilty a few days later in Courtroom 6-1 in the Dade County Court. “I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists,” said Zangara, who was executed just a few weeks later.)
The unassuming Harry Truman liked to vacation in Key West, where he could stay at a modest home on the naval base there. President Richard Nixon set up his “Florida White House” on Key Biscayne. And, of course, nowadays we have President Donald Trump making frequent trips to his fabulous Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach.
But the Kennedy family had been associated with South Florida since Rose Kennedy first visited Palm Beach in 1911. Her husband, Joe, began wintering in Palm Beach in 1926, where he like to gamble at Palm Beach’s notorious Bradley’s Beach Club. In 1933, he bought an Addison Mizner house on the oceanfront for $105,000, where he was said to have entertained actress Gloria Swanson and a number of other mistresses — apparently a Kennedy tradition in Florida. In 1934, when his son John fell ill at his Connecticut boarding school, he was allowed to spend the winter recuperating in Palm Beach.
After JFK joined the Navy in World War II, he was briefly stationed at the Submarine Chaser Training Center in Miami. Later, politics would bring him back this way.
“This is the first convention of any kind which I have addressed since the Democratic National Convention last August — and I must say I find this a much pleasanter task,” the Massachusetts senator said in a speech to the American Farm Bureau National Convention in 1956. “Miami Beach in December makes more sense and better speeches than Chicago in August — and the Roney-Plaza Hotel here has a certain atmosphere about it that is superior to the atmosphere in the Chicago stockyards.”
Paul George, historian with the HistoryMiami Museum, remembers seeing Sen. Kennedy on Christmas night, 1956, at the Orange Bowl, “seemingly incognito, squirting mustard on a hot dog at a stand on the south side near ground level. He was wearing a tweed jacket, which I had never seen before, having lived in Miami all of my life up to that time. I recognized him because he had been a strong candidate for vice president on the Democratic Party ticket a few months earlier.”
Four years later, presidential candidate Kennedy offered more of his famous wit during a campaign speech at the 163rd Street Shopping Center in North Miami Beach. “I come to Florida today where my family has lived for 30 years,” he said, “and I feel it looks pretty good at least to get two votes in Florida.”
That was Oct. 18, 1960. The same day, he spoke at the old band shell in Bayfront Park and warned Miamians that Republican mistakes were fostering a recession. “I know something about the economy of this state. When the rest of the country catches cold, Florida gets pneumonia and Miami is very sick.”
Over the next three years Kennedy, who had lost Florida to Richard Nixon by 47,000 votes in 1960, kept returning, maybe motivated by politics, maybe by lifestyle. The CBS newscaster Roger Mudd, in his memoir “The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News,” wrote about covering Kennedy and his close friend Florida Sen. George Smathers, another rich, handsome politician with a certain reputation for womanizing. “Wolves on the prowl,” Mudd called them.
Mudd described how he was assigned to the press boat when Smathers and Kennedy were aboard the president’s yacht off Palm Beach, celebrating the Florida senator’s 48th birthday. “It was a joke, our pretending to be covering the president, bobbing around in the ocean, squinting through binoculars to find out who was coming and going but always having our view blocked by a Secret Service boat just as another long-legged Palm Beach beauty climbed aboard.”
Mudd shrugged it off. “We were political reporters, not gossip columnists.” Those were different times.
Twice, during his shortened presidential term, Kennedy found time to attend Orange Bowl games. Paul George remembers seeing Kennedy at the 1963 New Year’s game. “Kennedy looked cool in what appeared to be Ray-Ban sunglasses while puffing on a cigar.” That picture is among our trove of iconic Kennedy photographs, another image unimaginable for a modern politician, him in the stadium crowd, puffing away, his head wreathed in cigar smoke.
By then, Kennedy’s image had been considerably tarnished among Miami’s Cuban community. Exiles blamed his administration for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Resentments simmered as 20 months passed before the first group of prisoners were freed by Fidel Castro and allowed to fly back to Miami.
In December 1962, at the Orange Bowl stadium, Kennedy accepted the battle flag of the exile army, Brigade 2506. “I want to express my great appreciation to the brigade for making the United States the custodian of this flag,” he told a gathering of 35,000 exiles. “I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.”
The Cuban exiles were still waiting and still bitter when Kennedy made that last swing through Miami on Nov. 18, 1963. Bomb threats preceded his visit. Miami and county police assigned about 250 police officers to the presidential details.
Secret Service agents put Kennedy on the bottom floor of the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour instead of the presidential suite upstairs, which was deemed too vulnerable. Workers rebuilt the doorway to his room to enhance security. Kennedy’s meal was picked at random from a collection of roast beef plates in case someone tried to poison the president.
But his speech to the Inter-America Press Association that day, his last Miami Beach appearance, was vintage, soaring, idealistic Kennedy. He warned that the “problems, the hard reality of life in much of Latin America, will not be solved simply by complaining about Castro, by blaming all problems on communism or generals or nationalism. The harsh facts of poverty and social injustice will not yield easily to promises or good will.
“In my own country, we have prepared legislation and mobilized the strength of the federal government to ensure to the American Negro — and all other minorities — access to the benefits of American society,” Kennedy said. “Others must also do the same for the landless campesino, the underprivileged slum dweller, the oppressed Indian.
“Privilege is not easily yielded up. But until the interests of a few yield to the needs of the nation, the promise of progress and modernization will remain an empty mockery for millions of our citizens,” said the president, who was born 100 years ago Monday but who remains, for most of us, perpetually young. Kennedy’s romantic hold on our collective imagination has been sustained, in part, because old age never marred the face in those last vintage photographs, taken four days before Dallas.
Those images of the young president, waving from the back of an open convertible on Collins Avenue, afforded Miami that one last glimpse of Camelot, along with the Trainor portrait, taken March 10, 1962, at the Fontainebleau Hotel.
Then on a dark day the following year, Nov. 23, 1963, The Miami News enlarged the Trainor photograph until Kennedy’s face took up nearly the entire front page. It was an acknowledgment, expressed in a single photograph, of the slain president’s long and intimate relationship with South Florida.