“History Through Memory”: JFK’s Brookline


“On opposite sides of the nation stand two houses,” reported the New York Times on August 15, 1960, “one of which will become an American shrine as the birthplace of the man elected President on Nov. 8, 1960.” Today, both are national presidential historic sites. One, an American shrine indeed (and how tragically little we knew then), and the other—well, I haven’t made it to Yorba Linda quite yet.

This is JFK’s house—the beloved and tragic 35th president was born here, at 83 Beals Street, on May 29, 1917—but it may as well be yours or mine. What I am saying is, it is normal.

What I am saying is, JFK was born here?

What I am saying is, JFK was born here.

Beals Street is much like any other quiet affluent residential neighborhood in Brookline, which in turn seems like any other quietly affluent residential suburb of Boston. (“Once famous for its wealth, [Brookline] has become pretty much a middle-class community with some small manufacturing,” reported the Times in 1960.)

I know people from school here. Rebecca’s camp friend lives here. I could live here.

Visiting presidential birthplaces has brought me to sites of staggering privilege and splendor (Harrison’s Berkeley Plantation, Roosevelt’s Hyde Park) and phenomenal natural beauty (Coolidge’s Plymouth Notch, Washington’s Pope’s Creek). Equally so, I have seen origins of humbling modesty, in Grover Cleveland’s Caldwell, or the saltbox house from which John Adams emerged.

But Brookline? It’s just mundane Boston suburbia. Welcome home.

So here lies the “nine-room, three-story gray frame home” in a “pleasant middle-class Boston suburb of thirty-eight thousand” (this from Michael O’Brien’s 2006 JFK biography). What’s disconcerting, then, is  simply the astounding sense of normality. Here, on quiet, pretty Beals Street, remains little visual hint of the glowing celebrity and glamorous martyrdom of Jack Kennedy’s presidency. Is that what’s so—unexpected?

JFK is and remains what Virginia Postrel terms “the personification of political glamour,” “forever young and forever whatever his adoring fans imagine him to be.” He was “the first superstar chief executive,” an international icon “whose power to charm and inspire seemed limitless,” soaked in ” an eminence that neither time nor historians have yet been able to diminish.” That I am quoting an international article (though the author is Lewis L. Gould of the University of Texas) typifies the sort of worldwide fascination and martyrdom this president commands.

And here, a neighborhood like any other.

83 Beals Street is a sizable enough frame structure. Joseph and Rose Kennedy paid $6,600 for the home in 1914. Here the family lived (and here John and two sisters were born in the master bedroom) until 1921, when the family moved two blocks away, into what is now 51 Abbottsford Road.

“People always think we live in, like, a super rich neighborhood,” says Erica Anderson, a young mother who lives across the street from the Kennedy birthplace. “It’s a nice neighborhood, but we can afford it and I wouldn’t put us in the super rich category.”

And she’s right: Beals Street is comfortable and quaint, but far from the gated bastion of privilege one might associate with the Kennedy childhood. John was born years before his father founded an investment company and made millions in the 1920s bull market, years before the family upped and moved to wealthy Bronxville, NY, when Joseph also bought a mansion in Cape Cod. The Kennedy family “eventually had three homes, with plenty of maids, chauffeurs, and other servants,” Marie Hodge writes.

In 1917, 83 Beals Street was all there was.

If anything hints at the spectacular and tragic celebrity-in-chief Kennedy was, it’s the range and scope of visitors who flock to this quiet Brookline neighborhood every year. It’s the Alabama and Quebec and Florida license plates I spotted on Beals Street on a quiet Sunday morning tour. (My tour guide, Danielle, was from Phoenix herself.) It’s the staggering number of international visitors who make it a point to see where this United States president—certainly not just any president—was born. (“We really get people from all over the world,” Danielle told me, “and that’s one of the challenges that we have, since we get a lot of people who don’t speak English.” She pauses for a moment. “I think it’s really just the Kennedy legacy.”)

And it’s the fascinating guest book, in which visitors are asked to record their memories of November 22, 1963. (I write nothing, because I am young, though I do carry the bizarre honor of having become a Bar Mitzvah on the fortieth anniversary of that terrible day.) I open it up, see entries from Massachusetts, Texas, France, Sri Lanka, Uruguay—and those are just the first few pages.

Just about everyone who is around to remember 11/22/63 was in school on 11/22/63, I notice. But most visitors seem to have flipped straight past the book’s instructions to record reflections on the president himself.  Which is fine by me—these are incredible to read, too.

Some excerpts

  • “The President’s death was the first time I had seen my parents so very sad. Every November as I anticipated my birthday the excitement was tempered with everyone’s sadness of the anniversary of JFK’s death.” —Liz, Massachusetts
  • “Venerable and simple home of a great President. It’s demystifying experience. Thanks to the Nat. Park Service.” —Uswaran, Sri Lanka
  • “I was in the navy at the Naval Training Center in San Diego CA. I was 19 yrs. Old and they shut down the base and I was in shock and very sad. I was watching TV when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. I couldn’t believe my eyes. ” —R. Williams
  • “I was a senior in high school when the president was killed. I had lost my father in 1961 and had ‘adopted’ him as a surrogate. So I was devastated. How can you tell people what we felt when John Kennedy & his family became our first family—there was such a great feeling in the country. To lose him was terrible. . . . I have always maintained my love for the Kennedys. I watched & learned thru the years & will always be a Democrat. Obama’s election is the first time I felt like I did with John Kennedy.” —Vicki Lyons Hedrington, Washington
  • “I respect J. F Kennedy too. really much. But I am sad. Because J. F. Kennedy died. When I was coming, I thought he was alive. So I imagine to talk with him. But when I came, I was so sad that he was died so I can’t talk with him —Jane Park
  • “This is the 4th time I am visiting the Kennedy’s home. Every single time I just feel heavenly peace. To me, the Kennedy’s mean GOD, LOVE, HOPE, PEACE, STRENCHT AND JOY.” —Jaine Richard

What other president has inspired such rhetoric? (Okay, okay, don’t say it, I know.) Someday, I realize, I will record similar recollections in a similar guest book at some September 11 memorial museum in Lower Manhattan. But nowhere in that flood of memories will you find expressions of “heavenly peace,” of “GOD, LOVE, HOPE, PEACE, STRENCHT AND JOY.” Only sorrow.

There’s plenty of that here, too.

I have seen the house where Grover Cleveland was born, and that means something to someone somewhere, but this is the house where John F. Kennedy was born, and that means something to everybody everywhere.

What  gives the site particular poignancy, I learn, is the personal nature of the restoration project.

During Kennedy’s administration, the house remained in private ownership with a single elderly woman, one Mrs. Louis Pollack. Two years later, town selectmen voted to mark the site with a boulder and plaque. And then the president was shot in the head.

That’s when Pollack opened her front door to find hundreds of people gathered in memory outside, from Brookline, from Massachusetts, from everywhere.

Rose Kennedy, the late president’s mother, bought back the house in 1966 for $55,000, nearly ten times what the family paid in 1914. And in her grief she led the painstaking effort to restore the house, to “demodernize” the kitchen, to make it all look as it had in 1917, when Jack was born. In March, 1967, the Senate voted to establish 83 Beals Street as a national historic site. And two years after that, on what would have been Jack’s fifty-second birthday, the Kennedy family presented the restored birthplace to the United States government.

A recording of Rose’s voice, her memories, provides a self-guided tour of the house. There is a monologue for every room, recorded in 1968. By then, her husband had suffered a stroke and four of her children had been killed (Robert earlier that year, during the restoration project). Restoring the house becomes an act of healing, of understanding, of confronting.

But “history through memory poses a problem,” Danielle concedes. “What is she remembering, or choosing not to remember?” And can we ever know?

* * * *

The home where John F. Kennedy lived from ages 4 to 10.

An interview with Danielle, JFK National Historic Site tour guide:

How long have you worked at the JFK birthplace?

This is my second season here.

Are you from Brookline?

I’m from Phoenix, AZ.

What makes the JFK site different from other presidential birthplaces?

I think what’s unique about this site is what Rose Kennedy [the president’s mother] gives to this site. She offers an interesting insight into the childhood of JFK while he’s living here and as his personality’s beginning to develop, that will later lead into some of his personality traits during the presidency.

In what ways?

Specifically, I would say his love of reading. In the nursery you really see that come out. He’s sick quite a bit as a child, so he learned to read and he has a very imaginative mind because of that.

Can you talk about the history of preservation at 83 Beals Street?

Rose Kennedy decided to go ahead and start restoring this after the assassination of the president. It’s a very personal project for her, one that she does with Mr. Lettington, an interior decorator. And so all of it is really done from her memories. They are definitely older memories, because she had lived in the house 46 years previously, but she kind of puts the home back together because of that.

And you talked about the challenges of “history through memory” on the tour . . .

Yeah, that’s definitely something we have to keep in mind as historians going through the home. There’s this issue of memory—does Rose Kennedy remember everything accurately? But the National Park Service has decided that we’re preserving the memory that Rose Kennedy left here, so while it’s not necessarily accurate history all the time, there’s still importance to be gained from the memories that we have of the past.

What characterizes the visitors that come to the site?

Um, there are a lot of international visitors actually. I think it’s because of the Kennedy family and the legacy that they leave. They have somehow connected to people internationally extremely well, and especially in oriental cultures, as well as South America. We really get people from all over the world, and that’s one of the challenges that we have in giving tours of the home, since we get a lot of people who don’t speak English . . . That guy that actually just came up [during the morning’s tour], he didn’t speak English, so we let them see the rooms but we oftentimes can’t communicate with them very well, so yeah. I think it’s really just the Kennedy legacy.

Any especially notable visitors coming through?

We did have Senator Kennedy come through the home; he brought his grandchildren with him and we gave a tour of the house.

Can you tell me about the guest book that you have here?

We have one that just records people when they come in, but the other guest book that we have is people recording their memories of where they were when they heard about the assassination of the president, and I hope you got a chance to flip through it. It’s a fascinating book to read through, one that the park rangers enjoy actually the most. But most people that we get at this time remember being at school at some point and hearing about it. Some of our older visitors remember actually being at work or in college, but now most of the memories we get are about being in school. One of our volunteers who work here, she actually drove by the Kennedy home on the day of the assassination. She wasn’t part of that large crowd, but she actually drove by the house on that day.

So people gathered at this site after Kennedy’s death?

They gathered here not necessarily the day that he’s killed, but the day of his funeral, and that’s the picture I showed at the beginning on the front porch. They have a memorial service up the street at a Jewish temple, and then they all come back here to remember and commemorate the president.

Is there a lot of attention to JFK’s birthplace in Brookline?

Yeah, I definitely think that the neighbors know about this, they come here to this site, they encourage people to come to the site . . .

But when the Kennedys lived here, they were not actually extremely involved in the community actually in Brookline. They were here because of the trolley lines that take them into the city of Boston. And they go to different places while they were here, but most people say that they weren’t extremely connected to the community. Jack [JFK] goes to the Edward Devotion School just down the street, and we have connections with that community all the time.

* * * *

I also spoke with neighbors on Beals Street—those who live within, say, 40 yards of the site where John F. Kennedy was born. Here are some highlights from those conversations:

  • “When people ask me where I live, I say, ‘Across the street from JFK’s house.'”
  • “There’s a sense of pride that we live next door to such a place, so I suppose it helps that it’s a very liberal community and that goes along with it . . .”
  • ” It’s more than just there, but it’s not proud. He was not my son. If Kennedy was my son, I would be proud of him.”
  • “Since we live right across the street from the site, we’ve not only been able to see it, but they have various events, and they’ll bring in schoolchildren, and they’ll have a special event for his birthday, so we’re able to do those things, too, which we probably wouldn’t have heard about had we not lived right across the street.”
  • ” It’s kind of nice to know that our house would have been here when [JFK] was here.”
  • “We actually asked our real estate agent if there were gonna be, like, tour buses and stuff on the street.” [Note: there are certainly not.]
  • “[Friends and family] always think we live in, like, a super rich neighborhood. Like, it’s a nice neighborhood, but we can afford it and I wouldn’t put us in the super rich category. But it’s definitely something, too, that as we have family come and visit, everyone has gone through the house, too, which is not something that we might have sought out in Boston.”
  • “I think it may have been for his birthday, and they had the third graders from Devotion School come, and they had this street closed off, and the third graders had to write an essay about what it meant to go to a school that John F. Kennedy went to, and they picked  a winner.”

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