Somebody ran in and said ‘Kennedy has been shot!’
- Credit: Archant
It’s said everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when John F Kennedy was assassinated. Young mother Liz Calder wasn’t far from The White House, as she tells STEVEN RUSSELL
Liz Calder and her young family had been in Washington DC only a matter of days when America was shaken to its core. “We had driven, in an old Chevy, across America from San Francisco. We were living in a rented house in Georgetown” – a neighbourhood by the Potomac river – “and I had gone out with the two little kids in a pushchair to post a letter. I was in the post office and somebody ran in and said ‘Kennedy’s been shot!’ and the whole place came to a standstill. Then people started talking, saying ‘Can it be true?’ We all ran home and put the television on, and there it was.”
John F Kennedy, the president who appeared to promise a better world for a generation eager for change, had been assassinated in Dallas. “It was absolutely shattering. It seemed beyond belief,” remembers Liz, who many years later would be a founding director of publisher Bloomsbury (and enjoy the Harry Potter years) and, later still, trade London for Suffolk.
“For the next few days we did get completely caught up in it. We saw Jackie Kennedy (the widowed First Lady) and her two little children in their little blue coats coming out of the Capitol, I think where he was lying in state, and that was a sight not to be forgotten. So poignant to see those children… We were on the street and they just happened to be coming out at that moment.
“Then I think it was the following day that we went and stood on the Arlington Memorial Bridge and watched the cortege going by, which was incredibly moving.
“The hearse went by and there was this black, riderless horse that followed. That was also incredibly moving. And there were huge crowds, of course. Toby, my younger child, was pretty much in-arms, and we all just stood there for hours, waiting for the procession to go by.”
Liz admits she’d felt compelled to witness this tragic yet potent moment in history.
- 1 Man with foot fetish jailed for sexually assaulting women
- 2 Nine Ipswich players who could follow Nsiala out the door this month
- 3 Van driver in his 20s dies in Elmswell crash
- 4 Road near A14 closed after 'serious' two-vehicle crash
- 5 See inside £1.25m bungalow for sale in one of Suffolk's 'poshest' villages
- 6 'Versatile, hungry, athletic and technical' - McKenna on new signing Bakinson
- 7 'I'm not bothered... he can go' - Pearson on Town target Bakinson
- 8 Flood alert issued for parts of Suffolk coastline
- 9 Town working on loan deal for Bristol City midfielder
- 10 Colchester sack Mullins as ex-Town defender takes interim charge of U's
“Very much so. Being there, we had to participate, in some degree. Of course, we didn’t know anybody in Washington at the time, so we just went and joined the crowds. People were absolutely weeping and in distress. There were people from all walks of life and the whole population seemed to feel the same. You couldn’t believe that he’d been cut down like that. When you see the pictures, the photographs of the actual shooting, the shock of that time still resonates.
“Every year, when the 22nd of November comes up, it’s stamped in my memory. There aren’t many times in your life that are like that. I don’t think any other public event has been so shocking to me.”
And then, thanks to the ex-pat existence she was living, Liz and her family were first of all caught up in “normal” life and then – in a matter of months – back in the UK. By the April of 1964 they were off to begin a new adventure: a four-year stay in Brazil. (Where they arrived as president João Goulart was overthrown by the armed forces in a coup d’état. These weren’t dull days, the 1960s…)
Liz was born in 1938 and had lived over her parents’ grocery store in north London. In 1949 the family emigrated to New Zealand, with father George becoming a sheep farmer. His daughter read English at university and, after graduating, married student Richard Calder, son of New Zealand’s air vice-marshal.
The couple moved to England. Liz’s engineer husband worked for Rolls-Royce in Derbyshire and she taught for a couple of years at a secondary school.
Daughter Rachel arrived and Richard’s work took the family first to Canada (in 1962) where son Toby was born, followed by brief spells in San Francisco and Washington DC. That longer stay in Brazil rounded off the period of extensive travelling.
When Liz returned to England she got into publishing, becoming editorial director of Victor Gollancz. Her first commission was Salman Rushdie’s Grimus.
She went on to work for Jonathan Cape and in the mid-1980s became a founding director of Bloomsbury. During her career she bought novels such as Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. She was also there when Bloomsbury came upon a manuscript by an unknown dreamer of stories called JK Rowling. Nuff said.
Liz and second husband Louis Baum moved to the Saxmundham area about eight years ago and adore the county.
A lot has happened in the past 50 years, then, but memories of the early 1960s are still vivid.
“The thing about Kennedy for my generation was that he represented a great hope for the future. Remember, we kind of grew up with the (British Prime Minister Harold) Macmillan style of ‘old farts’, as we saw them, and he was this extraordinarily youthful and charismatic and inspiring man in The White House.
“Even though it was America, it seemed to hold hope for the world. It was like Obama coming in; the world rejoiced with this couple there. It was still quite new – I guess he had made a few boobs – but there was optimism around The White House, and romanticism with the whole Camelot atmosphere.”
That word relates to the president’s liking for the upbeat 1960s musical Camelot, and became a label for the “magical” post-war years when life seemed good and America appeared to be riding the crest of a wave. Kennedy, his photogenic wife and their two cute children, Caroline and John junior, personified the mood.
There was a line in the musical that read “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot”. The widowed First Lady ensured its place in folklore when she said in an interview that “There’ll be great presidents again, but there’ll never be another Camelot again…”
“She was quite inspiring too,” says Liz of Jacqueline. “This was the early ’60s, when the whole fashion scene changed and there was an explosion of this youthful feeling of taking over the world. Respect for the establishment was waning and the whole of that satirical movement started around then, with Beyond the Fringe.
“In San Francisco, we’d been to see Beyond the Fringe – the Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller revue – at a little jazz club called the hungry i.
“We practically died laughing. They were saying things you could never have dreamt of saying about the Church and politicians and the whole establishment. It was a breath of fresh air and I think the whole Kennedy period somehow seemed a part of that.”
So, before this liberalisation, the world was… how?
“I grew up in a very restricted (society). My generation grew up much more traditionally, and obedient to parental expectation. People tended to get married very young, leave university – if they’d gone to university – and start a family, and do as their mothers and fathers had done. I felt very restricted by all of that.
“Once I got away from New Zealand – which was about a decade behind everywhere else! – and back to the UK, and then in America found things were changing, it was a great relief after the rather repressive atmosphere that existed in the late ’50s in New Zealand.”
So JFK almost validated those emerging attitudes, then, and built momentum?
“He was older than us but had retained this youthful spirit and appearance. It seemed like a great new time opening up for people. And it was coming out of the last vestiges of austerity that followed the war.”
Does Liz have a sense of how the world might have been different, had Kennedy not been killed and perhaps won a second term?
“I don’t know. I think a lot of it” – how popular-history remembers JFK – “was an idealisation of him. Whether he would have been great as a president, you can’t really know. It seemed he was somebody you could put some trust in, but, really, he wasn’t in the job long enough to know.
“The people who worked for him and were around him – and the loyalty of his brother Robert, who seemed to me a very fine man and would have made a pretty wonderful president, I guess – seemed to have tremendous affection for him. And when you saw the calibre of some of those who followed, you realise he probably was pretty special, although his reputation has been tarnished by gossip: his raffish love-life and all of that. And some of his decisions – the Bay of Pigs (a botched CIA-supported invasion on the south coast of Cuba by Cuban exiles) – doesn’t enhance his reputation.”
I suppose the world lost the chance of “something that could have been…”
“The fact he’s gone does raise him in the public mind as someone who was more wonderful than he perhaps was – that one ‘shining moment’ is how it’s depicted. We don’t really know how shining it was, but that’s how it seemed at the time.”