It pains me to think that it’s been 50 years since I was a freshman at the University of Windsor.
For any political science major, it was an enthralling era. The six years between 1968 and 1974 witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, the burning of America in flaming cities across the United States, a police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the coming to power in Canada of Pierre Trudeau, the election and re-election of an American president, the scandal of Watergate and the ultimate resignation, in disgrace, of Richard Nixon.
While all of that was going on, I finished my studies, met the love of my life, began working for an airline, got married, and witnessed the birth of my first son. It was full circle for me: the Summer of Love to the summer of hate, and back to the summer of love.
But, as I got on with my life and started a career in the travel industry, one thought continued to intrigue me in the world of politics. That thought was how America might have been transformed had Bobby Kennedy been elected in 1968, rather than Richard Nixon. The night he was gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel that June night in 1968, he had just won the California and South Dakota Democratic primaries, and was about to challenge for the presidential nomination in Chicago.
Some 30 years after his death, I decided to write to Bobby’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, to ask for a campaign photo of her husband. My note told Ethel how much I had respected and admired her husband, mentioning that I would appreciate receiving a copy of one of the head and shoulder campaign photos of Bobby that I knew had been doled out to campaign contributors.
I included a cheque, drawn on a New York state bank, for $200 (USD). The cheque was made out to Ethel Kennedy. Not only will I get a photo, I thought, but my cancelled cheque will return with Ethel Kennedy’s signature on the back.
One month later, my deposited cheque was returned, with a “For Deposit Only” stamp on the back. No signature. I waited for an envelope from Hickory Hill in McLean, Virginia – the Kennedy home – containing my photo.
But nothing came.
In the days before 9/11 and the tightening of U.S. border security, I used to keep a mailbox in Buffalo, New York. I’d drive down from my home in Oakville every second Saturday morning, have breakfast at one of those little Main Street diners where the aging waitresses used to call their customers “hon,” and head over to the post office to pick up my mail.
About one year after Ethel had pinched my $200 without sending Bobby’s photo, I finally found an envelope from Ethyl Kennedy in my mail. Disturbingly, however, it was addressed only to my wife, Laurie. I drove all the way back to Oakville from Buffalo, dying to know what the letter contained.
It turned out to be an invitation to lunch with Ethel Kennedy at Hickory Hill. Not me - just Laurie. Both of our names had appeared on my USD cheque.
“You’re going to that lunch,” I told Laurie. It didn’t matter that it would cost me the better part of $2,000 for airfares, taxis and hotels to send Laurie to Virginia. I wanted something for my $200 cheque.
Of course, common sense prevailed in the end, and I had no illusions about my Laurie sitting down to lunch with Ethel Kennedy and, perhaps, a couple of her closest friends. Ethel’s sprawling Kennedy Foundation fundraiser lunches at Hickory Hill were notorious. They usually involved more than 1,000 women seated at tables on Hickory Hill’s spacious back lawns. Sandwiches would be served. Your purses and pocketbooks were expected to be wide open.
It had been at one of these famous lunches that Ethel had poured a pitcher of beer over singer Neil Diamond’s head when, faced with song requests simultaneously from both Ethel and Jackie Kennedy, he had started to sing Jackie’s song rather than Ethel’s.
It cost me $200 (USD), but the story of how Ethel picked my pocket, then invited my Laurie to lunch, has managed, over the years, to entertain a lot of dinner guests – and that’s almost priceless.