November 28, 1983 12:00 PM

Nearly every American who was old enough to know the difference between a smile and a tear recalls that painful Friday. We remember where we were, what we were doing and what painful and confused thoughts went through our minds when we learned that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot. PEOPLE invited a number of personalities to reflect on their memories of that day. Here are their comments.

Peter Lawford


“I was appearing in Lake Tahoe with Jimmy Durante,” says Lawford, who in 1963 was married to Kennedy’s sister Pat. “The night before Jack flew to Dallas, I received a call from him. He had been advised against going, but he was thrilled that he had managed to persuade Jackie to go with him—she so hated those things. The last words he said to me were ‘It will be fun.’ ”

Art Buchwald

Syndicated Columnist

“I didn’t believe it,” says Buchwald, then 38 and a writer for the Herald Tribune Syndicate, who heard the news at Washington, D.C.’s National Airport. At the National Press Building, he recalls “seeing all these people rushing out of the building, running, and I thought maybe the building was on fire.” Buchwald continued to the office of then Newsweek bureau chief Ben Bradlee. “My next feeling was, all right, it’s true, but he’ll recover,” says Buchwald. “We just sat there, waiting it out. Ben was doing a lot of cursing—he and JFK were very close. When we knew he had died, we cried. I think I called my wife, Ann, then. I guess a lot of people were doing that, husbands calling wives, wives calling husbands.”

Coretta Scott King

Widow of Martin Luther King Jr.

“When Martin was in jail in Birmingham in April 1963, they were not letting anyone see him, and I was very worried,” she remembers. “I called the White House and the Kennedys were in Palm Beach, but I got through to Pierre Salinger. The next day the phone rang and President Kennedy said, ‘Mrs. King, I am sorry I was not in yesterday when you called. I checked on your husband, and he’s all right. He will be calling you very shortly.’ Within 15 minutes Martin called; the President had sent the FBI to the jail. That’s what I remember

when I think of this man of compassion. The day he was shot, Martin and I sat in our home in Atlanta and watched television anxiously. After a while Martin said, ‘This is exactly what is going to happen to me. Our society is just sick.’ I just sat close to him and held his hand.”

Diane Sawyer

TV Newscaster

“I’m not able to derive any lofty historical conclusions from the assassination,” says Sawyer, now a CBS anchor-woman. “Principally, it broke a lot of hearts.” Sawyer was 17, a freshman at Wellesley College and “walking across campus between political science class and philosophy class as the news was rippling along. People were saying it aloud in disbelief. I thought it was some terrible mistake that would be corrected shortly, some wretchedly perverse joke. One had no context for that kind of irrationality.” Sawyer’s next class was dismissed, so she returned to her dorm. “I sat in front of the TV the entire evening,” she says. “I cried when Walter Cronkite did.”

Robert Joffrey


“We had just danced for President Kennedy at the White House before leaving the country,” remembers Joffrey, who was then 32. “We all felt close to him because he had personally wished us luck on our first tour of the Soviet Union, where we would be representing the country.” The Joffrey Ballet was in Kiev on the day of the assassination. “We had just finished the triumphant opening night and were attending a reception in a private dining hall when a Hitchcock-like figure appeared in a dark suit. ‘Don’t leave this room,’ he announced in his Russian accent. Every one of us was frightened. We were thousands of miles from home and alone in Russia. We thought maybe war had been declared. A few minutes went by—it seemed like a lifetime before the gentleman returned. He said President Kennedy had been shot. The girls started to cry, even some of the men broke down in tears. We all held hands around the table and uttered a silent prayer. We went into official mourning that night. The Soviet authorities were unbelievably sympathetic to our grieving. They arranged for us to watch the funeral on television in our hotel and even opened a church for us to attend a service in his memory. As we got up to leave in the brutal cold of that November, Russians were waiting for us on the steps and gave each of the dancers a fresh flower. The people had gathered flowers to show us how much they loved Kennedy, too. It was snowing when we walked back to the hotel, and I remember the dancers walking through the snow holding their flowers like lighted candles.”

Janet Leigh


Nov. 22, 1963 was the fifth birthday of Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis. “I kept saying to myself, ‘How can I go on with this party?’ ” Leigh recalls. “Of course I did—my 5-year-old was having her birthday, and you can’t just not have a birthday party. All the parents were walking around like zombies, but we tried not to show it to the children.” Leigh watched the funeral on television with her children. “I remember Jamie being moved by the riderless horse,” she says. “Why, when I was 5, I didn’t even know what a President was. And here is my little daughter seeing one killed on TV. How can kids be the same after something like that?”

Dan H. Fenn Jr.

Director of the JFK Library

In 1963 Fenn was a newly appointed member of the U.S. Tariff Commission, having just finished a two-and-a-half-year tour of duty on the White House staff. In JFK’s circle of advisers, he remembers, “Despite the normal stresses and strains of a group of high-powered people with different life experiences and intuitive responses, there was a sense of cohesion about embarking on a common project. There was a lot of freewheeling and it was unstructured. None of us, even after three years, ever really got over the wonderment of being there.” Fenn was lunching in the State Department dining room when Kennedy was shot: “Luke Battle, the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, was sitting across the room. Someone came in and handed him something. He stood up and said, ‘The President’s been shot.’ I thought, ‘The president of what?’ Battle said something about John Connally, and then it was clear.” The nation’s capitol, adds Fenn, was eerily quiet throughout that weekend: “Thousands of people just stood in Lafayette Park across from the White House—not a sound. I have never heard such silence.”

Scott Carpenter


“I was at the NASA temporary headquarters in Houston,” Carpenter says, “when I heard that Kennedy had been shot.” John Glenn and I were having lunch. John and I both felt that if Kennedy died, it would be a terrible loss for the country. It was a great loss. I still feel it.”

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh

President, University of Notre Dame

When he heard the news, Hesburgh, then in his 12th year as head of Notre Dame, was in Boulder, Colo. “I was with the members of the National Science Board,” he says. “We were seeking a site for a laboratory for research into weather modification. We came down from the mountain and went back to the house of the University of Colorado’s president, Joseph Smiley, and before we had hit the driveway, he was out of the house and told us the President had been shot. I sat by a radio in the kitchen until we got the news that he was dead. The following day the Notre Dame football team was to play Iowa. What amazed me is that on Friday people actually expected us to play a football game the next day. I said, ‘There will be no game.’ That event brought the end of an era—an era of great expectations for the nation. Remember, everybody was full of ‘Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ I’m not sure now how much was accomplished, but certainly there was a great flood of patriotism.”

Ed Asner


Asner was in the California State Assembly building in Sacramento filming a role in the pilot for Richard Crenna’s Slattery’s People. “One of the wardrobe men, fitting one of the actors, suddenly said, ‘Isn’t that terrible about the President?’ It was like having a nerve center short-circuit—you don’t breathe too well, you can’t lift your arms. I can remember James Whit-more was on the show. We looked at each other and felt the outrage that this should be done. The idea of vengeance entered my thoughts, which is a stupid reaction.” In retrospect, Asner says, the killing of Kennedy “was one of the many steps that speeded America into middle age. It introduced strong levels of doubt within our hearts and minds about what was possible.”

Sissy Spacek


“At the time we lived a very idyllic, sheltered life in Quitman, Texas, and the most important things to me were the local football games and the Beatles,” says Spacek, then 13. “I was in school taking a test on the planets and had just written down ‘Saturn’ when the loudspeaker came on to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot. Mr. Browning, the principal, came around to talk to the teachers, and I remember he was crying. It was weird to see someone like that crying. When my mother picked me up from school, she had also been crying. That was the first time I saw my parents really frightened.” Spacek recalls that there had been “some kind of negative ad or statement in the paper about Kennedy, and it so upset me I wrote a letter to the editor about it. I guess that was my first political act.”

John Stennis

U.S. Senator

“I wasn’t an enemy of his, and I wasn’t a special friend,” says Stennis, then 62 and, as now, a Senator from Mississippi. But when Stennis—who’d just returned to Washington from a visit to an Air Force base in Florida—was told of the shooting, “It so stunned me I walked on around the plane away from everyone and thought about the implications and changes as well as the sorrow of the occasion. It was a terrific shock to everyone, whether we agreed with President Kennedy on every policy or not. I remember his fine perceptions of problems, his good language in explaining the problems and his capacity to search for remedies. He wasn’t wishy-washy. He also had a capacity to select capable men. He could judge people’s character mighty well. Many had the feeling that here’s this fine young man who had worked his way up and become President of the United States when he was a very young fella and was making good. His death was an overwhelming thing. It still is.”

Mike Connors


“Kennedy was a new breed, charming, young, with a sense of humor,” says Connors, who campaigned for JFK in 1960 and three years later was trying to turn his success on TV’s Tightrope series into a movie career. “He brought a new freedom to the Presidency. He was like Reagan, in a way—the easygoing approach, so quick on his feet, and seemingly effortless.”

Willie Nelson


Nelson, then 30 and renowned as a composer but still unknown as a performer, remembers that he was eating liver and onions with the president of his publishing company in a Nashville restaurant when the news came over the radio. “It was just total disbelief,” he says. “I think we were stunned to find out that something like that could happen in this country. The next thing you knew, they had arrested Lee Harvey Oswald. Then the next thing you knew, Oswald was killed. It was just one thing after another for days and days. Lincoln was assassinated too, though. This country survived that. It took a long time, I’m sure, but this country has gone through a lot of bad things. Remember, we started out stealing from the Indians. I’m a firm believer in karma, and we’ve probably built up a lot of bad karma along the way as a nation.”

Shelley Winters


“I campaigned with Kennedy in 1960,” says Winters. “One time we were at the corner of 41st Street and Seventh Avenue in New York. We were on this podium, and there must’ve been a million or two people around us. His car stayed at 42nd Street and didn’t come. The police couldn’t hold back the crowd, and I was getting frightened. Finally the car moved up slowly and everybody went bananas. Kennedy stood and talked Spanish to people. I said to Melvyn Douglas, ‘My God, why was the car so late getting up here?’ JFK sat down next to me and said, ‘Shelley, what would a method actress know about making an entrance?’ ”

Bill Bradley

U.S. Senator

“Somebody came through the basement hallways deep in the stacks of Princeton’s Firestone Library and said, ‘The President has been shot,’ recalls Bradley, then a junior researching a history paper. “My first thought was that it was the president of Princeton, Robert Goheen. I said, ‘Why would anyone want to shoot Goheen?’ ” At the student center, Bradley commiserated with schoolmates and professors when a broadcaster announced that the President was dead. “They played the national anthem on the radio. The place had been buzzing with conversation, but everybody stood up and was totally silent. People say there’s not as much sense of community in the country as there was 50 or 100 years ago. When I have my doubts, I either go to the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorial alone and encounter the words of the founding fathers, or I remember that complete silence during the national anthem.”

Shelley Duvall


“That was a time when there was a lot of talk about the Cold War and the Russians attacking us,” says Duvall, who was then a 14-year-old in Houston. “I remember going to state fairs and seeing bomb shelters for sale and being in school and having to go out into the hallway and kneel down and cover my head with my hands. I was a TV baby, and I remember Kennedy on television as a charismatic man. He seemed kind. I remember feeling terribly sorry and upset for his kids because they had lost their daddy. And then I thought that I might also lose my daddy. It was horrible.”

John Forsythe


Between jobs after finishing a five-year run with his TV series Bachelor Father, Forsythe was driving to his agent’s office in Beverly Hills when he heard the news on the radio. “I was so stunned I pulled over to the curb and listened for at least half an hour. I had met the President once at a dinner, and my son was working for Bobby Kennedy, so it was a personal feeling. When someone that young and attractive and vital gets snuffed out, it’s a reflection on your own mortality.”

Rosey Grier

Pro Football Player, Actor

“He was a man who was able to arouse individuals to get involved,” says Grier. “He inspired people to ask themselves, ‘What’s my role in this country’s destiny?’ ” When Grier, then a 31-year-old Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman, was told on a San Fernando Valley practice field that JFK had been shot, “I just left the group and went off by myself and cried. Then I went home and watched the news over and over again. I had feelings of outrage. ‘Why?’ I wanted to know.” The incident inspired Grier to get into politics. He became a close friend of Robert Kennedy and helped subdue Sirhan Sirhan when RFK was shot. “John Kennedy and Martin Luther King started the dream—that we could all, people of every color, be a single nation,” Grier says. “JFK embodied the ideals of our nation. When he was shot, it was all over. We’ve been trying to find a man like that ever since.”

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