She came to Memphis 35 years ago as a young would-be reporter, an intern for the New York Daily News and looking to cover the death of Elvis Presley.
Caroline Kennedy returns to Memphis next month in the capacity for which she’s more widely known – as the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy and a keeper of the storied Kennedy legacy on the national stage.
She’ll be at The Booksellers at Laurelwood Oct. 10 to promote the new book “Listening In,” which primarily consists of transcripts of tapes from a recording system her father installed in the Oval Office and the Cabinet room. The result essentially turns readers into a fly on the wall, “listening in” to some momentous encounters and deliberations about events regarding everything from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the civil rights movement.
Kennedy’s daughter, who used to scamper around the Oval Office as a child and who still has vivid memories of things like bounding into her father’s room while he got dressed before breakfast, wrote the book’s foreword.
“The tapes give me – and this is especially meaningful – a sense of (the president) at work,” Kennedy told The Daily News. “Kids sometimes have a strange view of what their parents do all day. I remember visiting with him. Bedtime stories he used to tell me. But the tapes give me a sense of who he was in the world and how hard he worked and how he made decisions and approached life, in a way that I wouldn’t be able to have otherwise.
“For that reason, I think I’m very lucky, because a lot of people don’t have that kind of record. And, just as a citizen, I think it’s fascinating, because we’d all like to know how our presidents are making decisions. Who’s in the room, things like that.”
The book includes episodes like the tense phone conversation Kennedy had with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett during James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962. In the conversation, Barnett is essentially begging Kennedy to pull Meredith out, but Kennedy holds the governor’s feet to the fire, saying the violence makes it impossible.
That recording also is one of the exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The museum has an alcove where the conversation between the two men plays on a loop.
The tapes give me — and this is especially meaningful — a sense of (the president) at work.”
Discussing her father, John F. Kennedy
The book also includes a recording of a meeting Kennedy had with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in October 1963, a month before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. At one point, Gromyko mentions formalizing an understanding of a certain matter, and then the men are interrupted with an exuberant “Daddy!”
“Do you want to say hello to the minister?” Kennedy asks his children, according to the book’s account. Both John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline apparently were on hand, based on references in the conversation.
“Do you want to say hello to John? Do you want to say hello to the ambassador?” Kennedy asks.
Gromyko responds with a laugh: “Well, well, well. They are very popular in our country.”
Kennedy tells his children, “His chief is the one who sent you Pushinka.” Russian for “fluffy,” it was a puppy from Strelka, a Russian space dog that was a gift from former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Asked about her visit to Memphis as a young adult in 1977, Kennedy laughed and gave the impression she has not been asked about her brief foray into journalism in a while.
“Oh, that’s right, I went to Graceland!” Kennedy said.
She interned at that time with the New York Daily News, and she ended up writing a piece for Rolling Stone about Elvis’ death.
Late one night in August 1977, an approximately 20-year-old Caroline stood outside the gate at Graceland with a throng of onlookers. Then-Memphis police director “Buddy” Chapman recognized her and let her through the gate and into the mansion.
“I went around to all the other sites too,” Kennedy said. “Lot of research. But, you know, the thing I wrote was small.”
Still, it gave her a coveted spot at a milestone in Memphis history. Her piece for Rolling Stone included lots of color about the inside of the mansion, and she even caught a glimpse of Elvis’ body in a “gleaming copper coffin.”
Elvis’ father eventually asked her to leave, the story goes, when it became clear she wasn’t a celebrity paying her respects but instead was acting as a journalist.