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1 1  INTRODUCTION From 1958 to 1963, the scene was repeated on countless occasions across the United States, in parking lots and motorcades, on airport tarmacs and in hotel ballrooms. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, first a candidate and later the president of the United States, appeared in public. When the crowds saw him, they reacted viscerally and emotionally. Tanned, well-built, smiling, with a full head of brown hair, Kennedy especially elicited a powerful reaction from women. His campaign staff called the excited young women the “jumpers.” In Manhattan in 1960, when the publisher Henry Luce welcomed the candidate to the Time-Life building , “there was a big crowd, especially of teenagers, the first good whiff I had had [of the jumpers]. . . . There was very little public announcement of it, or none. In the lobby and outside in the street there wasn’t a huge crowd, but there certainly were several hundred, maybe a thousand, people, with the teenagers . . . really jumping.” Later in the campaign Kennedy visited Waterbury , Connecticut, at three o’clock in the morning. Elizabeth Simpson, then fifty-three years old, ran “up South Main Street alongside his motorcade. . . . He was so handsome. I thought my husband was going to kill me; he was a Republican.” As president, Kennedy was captured in a vivid photograph taken on the beach in Malibu, California, standing in soaking wet swim trunks amid a group of surprised and adoring young women. Nancy Greene recalled seeing Kennedy in Tampa, Florida, in November 1963: “He looked so young and was so handsome . . . a knight in shining armor.” Men agreed; “He was certainly charismatic,” William Davenport of Tampa remembered.1 2 the leading man Four days after his visit to Tampa, President Kennedy was killed by an assassin. Years afterward, JFK’s private life and his effectiveness as president became the subjects of controversy, but even his detractors continued to acknowledge the primacy of his personal appeal to Americans. In 1998 the journalist Seymour Hersh, a merciless critic, claimed that Kennedy’s life had illustrated “the power of beauty,” which in this case became a deceptive and even evil force. “Kennedy’s beauty made him more corrupt,” Hersh argues. “He was above the law; he didn’t think anything could stop him. Kennedy was a very seductive man and a very pretty man, and a lot of people responded to that.” In a society made up of plain-looking people, such beauty endowed those who possessed it with a strangely superhuman—even a godlike—arrogance and power. The former Kennedy White House aide Fred Dutton was privy to the late president’s extensive sexual activity. “We’re a bunch of virgins, married virgins. And he’s like God, fucking anybody he wants to anytime he feels like it.” Echoing Dutton, the motivational speaker Tony Alessandra, author of a book about charisma, has asserted generally that “our personalities consist . . . of a series of containers, like cups or glasses. Some are nearly empty, some brimming, yet others are partially filled to varying degrees. Together, they constitute our potential charisma. If all the glasses were filled to the top, you’d be so charismatic people would think you were a god . . . and you’d probably think so, too.”2 In twentieth-century America, godlike beauty and attraction was marketed most effectively by the motion picture industry. The Hollywood “dream factory,” as it was often called, left a powerful mark on Kennedy. He had grown up around Hollywood actors and image makers, a legacy of his father’s early career as a movie producer and his family’s continuing social ties to the industry. Indeed the potent mixture of desire and envy—and repulsion—that Kennedy aroused in Americans resembled the impact of the movies on their hopes and dreams. Rising from their modest origins as the purveyors of three-minute novelty movies unspooled in nickelodeons, American film studios became the nation’s most skilled fabricators of fantasies that, in their deceptively realistic guises, seemed to fulfill wishes in real life. As Kennedy (who was born in 1917) learned from childhood, no one in America could embody average people’s hopes and fantasies as powerfully as leading men and women in motion pictures. Character actors and tal- introduction 3 ented comic and musical performers might become film stars, but the most potent cultural forces were the lead actors; it was they who largely defined the mystique of the silver screen. Through an elusive blend of talent and personal...


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