(This post is adapted from a post on our previous blog, published 5/10/2013.)
By Stacey Flores Chandler, Reference Archivist
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in 1890 and lived through almost the entire 20th century, keeping detailed records on her life, family, and travels along the way. And thanks to her papers in the archives at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, we can see glimpses of Rose urging her children – including President Kennedy – to capture history in the making, too. From reminding her kids to write the date on their letters, to encouraging JFK to buy the furniture he and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used during their famous 1961 “Vienna Summit” meetings (now in our museum collection!), Rose kept an eye on the historical record for nearly all of her 104 years.
So it’s no surprise that for years, including during her son’s Presidency, Rose Kennedy kept up a side project collecting autographs from well-known people – sometimes to give as gifts, and sometimes to save for her own archives. She eventually collected signatures from artists like Robert Frost and Marc Chagall; former Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower; and world leaders including Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany. The fact that the President’s mother was exchanging letters with some of the most powerful people in the world seemed to go mostly unnoticed – that is, until Rose asked for an autograph from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the summer of 1962.
Khrushchev agreed to sign a few photographs that were taken of himself and President Kennedy in Vienna, and Rose received them through the Soviet Ambassador in October. Her staff quickly sent the photos on to the President, suggesting that he add his own signature – and apparently tipping off JFK that his mother had been in touch with the Soviet government. In November, President Kennedy wrote back to Rose to explain that asking international leaders for favors could be a tricky business, and to request that she “let me know in the future any contacts you have with heads of state.”
The President’s worry that his mother’s request would be “subject to interpretations” might’ve been sparked by the interesting timing of her communication with Khrushchev. On October 16, 1962, just eighteen days before he wrote his letter to Rose, JFK learned that Khrushchev was working with Cuban leader Fidel Castro to place Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba; the discovery kicked off a two-week period of tense negotiation between Kennedy and Khrushchev that’s now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In Rose’s archival records, we’ve found that President Kennedy must have learned about her communication with Khrushchev sometime between October 19 and November 3, 1962 – firmly in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The timing meant that the President’s note to his mother wasn’t the only carefully-crafted letter he sent on November 3, 1962; on the same day, Kennedy and his national security team also wrote to Khrushchev about the delicate negotiations surrounding the end of the Crisis.
In Rose’s response to the President’s letter, she noted that while she hadn’t thought about the complications of writing to world leaders, she could “see that it was probably an error, and it will not happen again.” She also joked: “when I ask for Castro’s autograph, I shall let you know in advance!”
Putting aside matters of international diplomacy, Rose went on to discuss the family news and reminiscences that often came up in her letters to her children; here, she included an update on Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.’s care following his 1961 stroke, and a memory from JFK’s childhood.
Rose recalled the Khrushchev signature episode when writing her 1974 memoir Times to Remember, noting, “We often joked about the incident later.” It’s clear, though, that she took her son’s request seriously; a few months later, Rose’s secretary asked for permission to contact Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India. President Kennedy responded “Yes, go ahead,” and Rose’s collection was soon expanded by signed copies of Nehru’s autobiography.
Luckily for archivists and historians, Rose continued to document her life and experiences for the rest of her days, collecting papers and photographs until her death in 1995. You can find more information about Rose Kennedy’s papers in the finding aid to her collection, and see more photographs and materials from Rose’s life in our other blog posts!