Why this matters.
Since posting my big brother’s heretofore-unseen photographs of Robert F. Kennedy in the “hours” before he was tragically assassinated in the kitchen of the old Ambassador Hotel last week, I’ve learned some facets about the half-life of history.
1. Even mildly dipping one’s toe into the Kennedy world can bring a cold splash of notoriety and controversy that proves we never quite got over losing two of our best and brightest, to coin a phrase from their era.
2. Presenting photographs of incredibly public people can evoke and re-ignite enormously intense emotions and private opinions about events that took place a generation ago, when the Internet was somebody’s fantasy and the Kremlin was our Al Queda. Memory is a prism.
3. Comprehension that the world has a pretty absymal learning curve when it comes to safeguarding leaders from mad-men who aim to derail the world. You’d have thought after the events of Dallas we would’ve learned that. But we didn’t. By the early 1980s, then-President Reagan had taken an assassin’s bullet and nearly died. The Pope was shot. John Lennon was killed in cold blood outside the Dakota. And so forth and so on.
A former RFK adviser, ex-union leader Paul Schrade, contacted me and Kevin Roderick at LA Observed last week, disputing my brother’s contention that the photographs were taken the afternoon preceding Kennedy’s murder. Schrade, who was one of numerous people shot and injured by Sirhan Sirhan, noted that Kennedy spent most of the day of the California primary (June 4, 1968) relaxing at the Malibu home of a Hollywood producer (one of the people behind the “Manchurian Candidate,” if you can believe it) before heading off to Los Angeles for his speech. It’d been a grueling campaign and John Kennedy’s little brother needed to catch his breath as the odds-on favorite to take on Republican Richard Nixon in the November general election. Schrade attached this clip to corroborate his point. It’s worth viewing.
Here’s a description from a book about the assassination that jibes with Schrade’s account.
“Kennedy spent the day swimming, sitting in the sun, talking to friends, playing with his children, and sleeping. He became so relaxed that he considered not attending his own election night party, suggesting that he and his family and friends watch the primary results on television. He wanted to invite the media to join them at (director John) Frankenheimer’s home. Because the television networks refused to haul their equipment out to Malibu, Kennedy reluctantly decided to go into Los Angeles to await the election returns. At 7:15 PM, Senator Kennedy, accompanied by Frankenheimer and other members of the campaign staff, left Malibu and sped downtown in Frankenheimer’s Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III to the Ambassador Hotel for the election night party. At the hotel, Kennedy and several key staffers had reserved suites on the fifth floor. With the election still in doubt and Kennedy running behind, he went to his suite and remained there, hoping for the tide to turn.”
Again, Schrade was vehement that RFK was not at the Bilmore the day of his speech at the Ambassador. “This has been confirmed by the Frankenheimers and campaign manager Fred Dutton,” Schrade emailed. “There was no election rally at the Biltmore or any other location. The car in the photo is not Frankenheimer’s car.”
I’ve asked Mr. Schrade if he could elaborate and so far he hasn’t responded back. He did not volunteer before when and where he thought the candid shots were taken, and others have come up blank as well about the details. Nobody knows whose car RFK was in or the identities of those with them. Speculation it might’ve been a young John Kerry or future Colorado Gov. Timothy Wirth, who evidently both worked on the Kennedy campaign, have been generally debunked by surviving confidantes and former journalists. (I was 6 at the time.)
But I have questions and lots of them in the battle of the memories of the two Pauls.
My brother, a USC undergrad then, is sure he took those photographs of RFK just outside the Biltmore Hotel, probably looking north on Grand Avenue, VERY shortly before Sirhan Sirhan’s reprehensible bullets flew. Paul had just wrapped up work at his part-time job at the L.A. County Dept. of Probation when he ran smack into the car-bound presidential candidate as he fist-pumped supporters, dealt with some media and conversed with aides (or in one shot, appear to fix something on a staffer’s jacket.) I re-intereviewed him after Schrade contacted me, and my brother was certain that if the photograph wasn’t snapped on the afternoon of June 4, it was the day before (and thus about 31 hours before the killing) and no later than that. Paul said in his heart that he still believes he clicked the shutter button on June 4 because he remembered being so emotionally obliterated the next morning learning about RFK’s death so close to when he captured him through his lens. It hadn’t been days, that’s for sure, no matter what the chatter today claims.
For those who believe my brother, over the passage and vicous haze of time, conflated June 1968 with April 1968, when RFK gave a well-known speech at the Bitlmore (here’s a Q&A with him following that speech.) Paul, a RFK supporter and a photo-bug, was 100 percent positive he took his picture in June!
So who was in the car? What time of day was it? Where was RFK going? Why were the media around him? Why hasn’t this cleared up? Are there secrets still out there? What is to say that after leaving Malibu, but before going to the Ambassador, RFK swung by the Biltmore? Was he there the day before? It’s not that long a distance from the Biltmore downtown to the Ambassador on Mid-Wilshire.
History changed dramatically after the events at the Ambassador far beyond the political ramifications of Nixon taking the White House. The Secret Service began providing protection to presidential candidates after this murder of a second Kennedy. Mind-boggling, preposterous and dangerous as it was not to give them security before, no one questioned it later. To read up about this after-the-fact policy, click for this NPR story. Excerpt:
“… Kennedy had several bodyguards with him, including football star Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, as he addressed a crowd gathered to support his bid for the White House. But there were no Secret Service agents present because before 1968, their services weren’t afforded to presidential candidates … ’We only had 547 agents at that time,” (Special Agent Edwin) Donovan says. “We already had the president and the vice president and their families to protect, so that made it even a smaller number of agents to draw from.’”
So who is right here, Paul Jacobs or Paul Schrade? I’m putting my faith with my brother, but neither of us are being doctrinaire on whether it was June 3 or June 4 when the pictures were taken. Paul Jacobs just thinks it was June 4, closer to the killing, that he captured the face of the man that might’ve helped us build an America without horrid ties to Laos, Cambodia, Watergate plumbers and perpetual partisanship.
If anybody has thoughts or can answer my questions or might be able to interpret the photos better than amateur me, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags: Ambassador Hotel, assassinations, California, Civil Rights, director, downtown, executions, Forgotten L.A., Grand Ave, history, identities, JFK, John F. Kennedy, John Kerry, kitchen shooting, Los Angeles, Malibu, MLK, motorcade, mystery photographs, part-time job, Paul Jacobs, Paul Schrade, protection, RFK, Robert F. Kennedy, Secret Service, shooting, Sirhan Sirhan, the Kennedy mystique, Tim Wirth, tragedy, union, USC, Vietnam, Watergate