By Bridget Potter
We all have lived through days from which the smallest details never fade. My English mother remembered exactly where she was on December 10, 1936 when she heard the broadcast of the abdication speech of King Edward VIII on BBC Radio. Many Americans of her generation can recall precisely where they were when they heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 or the shocking death of President Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. For my children, New Yorkers born and bred, then scattered at college, the moment is unquestionably watching the World Trade Center towers fall, live on television on September 11, 2001. We all remember where we were when the shock of such news reaches us, news that we immediately know has changed the course of history. For me, and so many of my generation, this moment was on November 22nd, 1963.
The day began like every Friday. Just 20 years old, my English accent still intact, I was working as the secretary to the producer of a new CBS television series, East Side/West Side. A vexing problem had emerged, driving my exacting boss crazy. It seemed to his highly trained eye that the carefully calibrated rhythms at the end of each act were thrown off by being “up cut”; He insisted that the editor leave several frames of black between the commercials and the action when he spliced them into the 35mm film print for transmission.
My Friday task became to run over to the CBS transmission studios, then on Vanderbilt Avenue in Grand Central Station, to watch over the network editor’s shoulder as he glued the commercials into the print.
That Friday I was preparing to head over to Vanderbilt Avenue, a few short blocks away, when someone telephoned the East Side/West Side office with a rumor that something bad had happened in Dallas. A second caller had heard that a radio station in Dallas had confirmed that shots had been fired at the Presidential motorcade. Probably nothing, said my boss. And, up-cutting was up-cutting, the editor’s time was scarce, so I ran off to CBS.
Men in suits appeared as if from nowhere, doors swung and slammed, phones rang, men were yelling. I didn’t belong there. I was sure I’d be in the way but stay, said the editor, suddenly kind, til we know more about what is going on.
There were, of course, no portable communication devices of any kind in 1963. Near our office, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 50th Street there was a store that sold high-end radios, hi-fi equipment and television sets, most disguised as furniture in wooden consoles. By the time I put on my coat and reached the street, I noticed that four or five pedestrians were standing in front of the store looking in at the display of television sets in the window. I wondered why. By the time I arrived at Vanderbilt, the CBS Studios were tense with anticipation, waiting for more news from Dallas. The editor, a 40-ish man, was usually cranky with me: he was busy, I was just a girl, and worse, I was there to check up on him. But on this day, it was no longer business as usual. We’d better get this done fast, he said, unusually collaborative. We rushed through our work, surrounded by a bewildering atmosphere of controlled crisis. All he’d heard was that there was trouble in Dallas.
Walter Cronkite had taken over the anchor job on the CBS Evening News from Douglas Edwards the previous year. Less than two months earlier, the Washington-based newscast had been expanded from fifteen minutes to a half-hour. Cronkite’s presence in Studio 40 meant that whatever news bulletins were going to be broadcast to the world by CBS that day would emanate from the newsroom right there on the same floor, as I remember it, as the cutting room. Around us now was the adrenalin rush of real crisis. Men in suits appeared as if from nowhere, doors swung and slammed, phones rang, men were yelling. I didn’t belong there. I was sure I’d be in the way but stay, said the editor, suddenly kind, til we know more about what is going on. This could be important.
It didn’t take long. The first radio bulletin from the Dallas radio station had been a little after 12:30. Cronkite’s voice had interrupted the soap opera As the World Turns at 1:40 to confirm the rumor, announcing that the President had been shot in Dallas. By 2:00, regular programming had been suspended and Cronkite was broadcasting live from Studio 40. A little after that, the editor took me by the arm, through the double doors into the tiny ice-cold studio. He stood by the one enormous stationary camera in the small newsroom and indicated that I should crouch down behind and to the side of the camera, out of the way. He gestured to the cameraman that I, a stranger, was with him. The fixed-focus camera pointed directly at Cronkite, who sat behind a desk cluttered with rotary phones, papers, a big electric typewriter. My knees hurt but I stayed still, frozen, awed. Cronkite announced that last rites had been given to the President. Then came an unconfirmed report from Dan Rather who was in Dallas, that Kennedy was dead. And then, less than a minute later, Cronkite, jacketless, button-down-shirted and narrow-tied, returned unfamiliar heavy-rimmed black glasses to his face and read from a piece of paper ripped from a news ticker machine which sat, chugging constantly and spewing out paper, bells ringing loud in the bustle of the newsroom behind him: “From Dallas Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 pm Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time.” He paused briefly to glance up at a large clock on the studio wall and then continued, “Some 38 minutes ago.”
Sound was muffled as it is by snow, but there was no snow. Just shock.
There was silence in the newsroom. For a moment, just as he removed his glasses, Cronkite famously lost his composure. It’s a click away now on YouTube in grainy black and white. But white was not a color you could wear on television then. It caused glare in the transmitted picture. Cronkite’s shirt was blue.
The editor tugged me up off the floor. I gathered myself and left. The elderly black elevator operator who cheerfully greeted me each Friday – nice to see you Miss, nice day – wiped his face with his sleeve to catch his tears as he nodded me on and off the elevator. No words.
As I found my way back to 444 Madison, the city was in slow motion, Manhattan hustle muted. A solemn quiet had descended. Sound was muffled as it is by snow, but there was no snow. Just shock. Traffic crawled, but car horns did not blare. A large crowd had now gathered in front of the store window on Madison Avenue, standing silent, those in the back craning their necks to try to catch a glimpse of a television screen. Back in the office, work had stopped, people were scattering. I went home alone to my rent-controlled sixth-floor walk up in the Village and turned on my twelve-inch black-and-white television.
Another shoe would surely drop. A coup? The Russians?
A man was under arrest and being held by the police. The Dallas Police had picked him up in a movie theatre within an hour or two of the shooting. He was also suspected of the same-day shooting of a Dallas cop, J.D. Tippet. Who was this man? How had this happened? Another shoe would surely drop. A coup? The Russians? We’d survived the Cuban Missile Crisis but was this the Russian’s revenge? Maybe it was the Texans? It was because of some serious political trouble in Texas that Kennedy had made the trip, and now a Texan had been swiftly sworn in as President. Whoever this guy was who had been arrested, he was certainly part of some larger plot. America might well be under attack.
Through that long night I switched the dial from one to the other of the three channels then available, trying to improve the feeble reception by adding a twisted sheet of aluminum foil to its rabbit ears. Television reporters repeated every horrible rumor as it came in. The shooter was identified. Yes, he had connections to the Soviet Union.
For the first time, television pictures united us during a moment of historic tragedy.
I was terrified, but it was impossible to turn away from the images on the television. The pictures, now so iconic, were fresh then, unbearably sad but also soothing. They were brought to us by men on the screen who were just like us all, struggling to absorb the enormity of what had happened. For the first time, television pictures united us during a moment of historic tragedy. It would happen again and again.
Like so many others, I watched all day and almost all night for three days, until the funeral was over and the body was on its way across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery where it would be buried. Eight members of the armed forces, strong body-bearers, carried the President to his grave, lifted the flag draped over his coffin and held it stretched tight. A bespectacled bugler played Taps, quavering with emotion. Then, according to military ceremony, the flag was folded twelve times and tucked into a triangle to be presented to the widow. As the folding ritual began, the U.S. Marine band played a hymn, identified by the television commentator as the U.S. Navy Hymn. The melancholy slowness of the C major to C minor progressions in the hymn moved me achingly, way beyond tears. I was done watching.
A week later, President Lyndon Johnson announced the formation of a blue ribbon panel to investigate the assassination. It would be known as the Warren Commission, headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren. There was immediate and lasting cynicism about its integrity. There would be many investigations, official and unofficial over the ensuing years. They were all complicated, necessarily a little paranoid. Some seemed momentarily credible, others less so. The Mafia, Castro, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, the KGB, even Lyndon Johnson, have been implicated by conspiracy theorists. I have my own intuitive theory, but it’s admittedly ridiculous and certainly can’t be proved.
We knew that day that what had happened in Dallas changed history. We didn’t know, though, how it happened or why, and fifty years later we are asking still.
Bridget Potter is currently working on larger project, a memoir of New York in the nineteen-sixties, from which this piece is adapted. After a long career, most notably in charge of Original Programming at HBO, she burned out, entered Columbia College, and managed somehow to get a BA in Cultural Anthropology followed by an MFA in Literary Nonfiction. She is now writing for Publishers Weekly and working as a consultant in the Writing Center at Columbia University.