In November 1963, President John F. Kennedy spent a few fleeting hours in North Texas, and the reverberations of that historic, triumphant and ultimately tragic visit here are still felt today.
Saturday at Bass Hall, the Fort Worth Opera will premiere JFK. But unlike the myriad movies, books and documentaries that focus on the president’s final day and assassination Nov. 22 in Dallas, the opera chronicles his last night in Cowtown.
While much of what happens in JFK, subtitled “The Hopeful Night Before That Fateful Day,” is from the imaginations of librettist Royce Vavrek and composer David T. Little, Kennedy really did spend the night of Nov. 21 and the morning of Nov. 22 in Fort Worth.
And it’s a few pages out of a chapter of American history that most people don’t know, said Fort Worth Opera general director Darren K. Woods. In fact, he didn’t quite believe it himself when producing director Kurt Howard told him JFK had spent his final night in Fort Worth.
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“I said everybody would know that if that were true,” he said. “We went to Google — and it was true.”
The world premiere of the opera is expected to attract critics from all over the country, and Woods says it includes some elements of the JFK story that will be familiar to “anybody in Washington or Berlin.”
But JFK also includes some “little gems” for those of us who live here:
“Jack and Jackie sing ‘There are no faint hearts’ to each other, which is what the president said: ‘There are no faint hearts in Fort Worth.’ That’s a beautiful piece of prose, but we as Fort Worthians will recognize it.” (It is also engraved in stone on the Kennedy memorial downtown.)
As the curtain rises on JFK the opera, here are few more little gems — call them the ABCs on JFK in DFW — that will provide even more context about Kennedy’s lasting legacy in Fort Worth.
Click here to go to our interactive graphic where you can follow JFK’s route through Fort Worth.
1. Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth was where JFK first touched down in North Texas — at 11:07 in the evening from Houston. Police estimated the crowd at 6,000 people. Sixty-two of Fort Worth’s major buildings were strung with amber lights to welcome the president. (The lights were kept as a memorial to the president after the assassination and established as a city tradition.) The Kennedys left the next day from Carswell at 11:10 a.m.
2. The president and the first lady stayed in the Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth. Among the many modifications made to JFK’s suite, according to research from UT Arlington, was the installation of a direct telephone line to Moscow, as well as direct connections to the White House. A bank of pay phones was also installed in the lobby for journalists’ use.
3. The Kennedys weren’t in the most luxurious suite at the Hotel Texas, but it was the safest. Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife stayed in the more palatial Will Rogers Suite. Suite 850, where the Kennedys stayed, no longer exists because of renovations at the hotel (now the Hilton Fort Worth) through the years.
4. Artistic masterpieces were used to decorate the two-bedroom Hotel Texas suite that John and Jackie Kennedy shared. The collection was cobbled together from private and public collections. Included were works from Claude Monet, Henry Moore, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Thomas Eakins. Fort Worth philanthropist Ruth Carter Stevenson, who arranged for the art in the rooms, was a bit miffed when Jackie Kennedy told her that they didn’t notice the art till after they woke up.
5. Fort Worth-born actor Bill Paxton, then 8 years old, was in the crowd of thousands when Kennedy spoke outside Hotel Texas on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. People began to gather as early as 5:30 a.m. in the rain to wait for the president’s early-morning address.
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“There was a real electricity in the crowd,” Paxton said in 2013. “Everybody was so excited.” He said he didn’t remember a lot of Kennedy’s speech, but he did remember the president said he was sorry his wife couldn’t make it. He said she tended to take longer to get ready than he did.
Click here to hear from some who were in the crowd to see JFK.
6. The Fort Worth Press Club, on the top floor of the Blackstone Hotel, stayed open past the midnight liquor-law closing time Nov. 22 to accommodate off-duty Secret Service men and various media members. Several agents went to The Cellar, a downtown club that had a somewhat shady reputation, with local media and law officers. Among the group was a young Star-Telegram reporter named Bob Schieffer.
7. Schieffer, who would go on to an illustrious career with CBS News, was working the Star-Telegram city desk on Nov. 22, 1963, when he took a call from a woman who identified herself as Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. As the news was still developing, and everyone was trying to figure out what was going on, the woman convinced Schieffer she was indeed the mother of the man accused of shooting the president. Schieffer would end up giving her a ride to Dallas and getting the first interview with her.
8. JFK’s final speech was given the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, before the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. The president arrived about 10 minutes late because he had to change clothes after speaking to the crowd outside the hotel in the rain. At the breakfast, he spoke for a little more than 12 minutes, mostly touching on Fort Worth’s role in the nation’s defense and the city’s contract to build the TFX, the Tactical Fighter Experiment plane.
Kennedy also praised Jim Wright, who would go on to become speaker of the house. “I’m glad to be here in Jim Wright’s city,” Kennedy said. “He speaks for Fort Worth. He speaks for the country. He contributes to its growth, and I don’t know any city that’s better represented in the country than Fort Worth.”
9. Robert Cluck, who was Arlington mayor from 2003 to 2015, was in the crowd that greeted the president at Dallas Love Field on Nov. 22, 1963. An hour later, Cluck reported for duty at Parkland Memorial Hospital as an intern and witnessed a mortally wounded Kennedy being wheeled into the emergency room.
10. Most visitors to North Texas are aware of Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum, the former Texas School Book Depository and the site where JFK was assassinated. They may be less aware of the JFK Tribute at General Worth Square in Fort Worth. Located at Eighth and Main streets, across from what was the Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth, it’s named after General William Jenkins Worth, the city’s namesake. It’s also a park featuring an outdoor exhibit dedicated to JFK.
Click here to see our interactive graphic of the Dallas motorcade and who was riding in each vehicle.
11. There were so few mourners at Oswald’s funeral that Star-Telegram writer Jerry Flemmons turned to Mike Cochran, the Fort Worth-based Associated Press reporter, and said, “Cochran, if we’re gonna write a story about the burial of Lee Harvey Oswald, we’re gonna have to bury the son of a bitch ourselves.” Although they didn’t exactly bury Oswald, the media were pressed into service as pallbearers. Oswald is buried at Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth.
12. Oswald was no stranger to Fort Worth. He attended Lily B. Clayton, George C. Clarke and Arlington Heights elementary schools and Arlington Heights High School.
13. When Oswald was arrested at the Texas Theatre in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood, the movie playing was War Is Hell, a 1961 Korean War drama narrated by actor Audie Murphy, himself a World War II hero. Also on the bill: Cry of Battle, a WWII film starring Van Heflin and Rita Moreno.
14. At the time of JFK’s murder, according to CNN, assassinating a president was not a federal crime — this, despite the previous assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley and James Garfield. It was not until 1965 that the murder of a president was made a federal crime.
15. The Kennedys were on a two-day, five-city tour of Texas. The day before he arrived in Fort Worth, he was in San Antonio and Houston. His last stop was scheduled for Austin. A Star-Telegram column on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, wondered what the Kennedys would eat at a breakfast in Fort Worth and a scheduled dinner that day in Austin, because the Kennedys were Catholic and it was “fish day” (at the time, Catholics were not allowed to eat meat other than fish on Fridays). “But Catholics have been granted dispensation for the events,” the column noted.
Had the Austin event happened, the menu would have featured “charcoal broiled K.C. strip steak and all the trimmings, topped off by apple pie” — for 5,000 people.
Click here to view an interactive panorama of such North Texas sites as the Sixth Floor Museum, JFK Plaza, Dealey Plaza, the Texas Theatre and Oswald’s grave.
16. The swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson as the United States’ 36th president at Dallas’ Love Field marks, according to CNN, the first and thus far only time in American history that a president has been sworn in by a woman (in this instance, it was federal judge Sarah Hughes performing the inaugural duties aboard Air Force One).
17. The license plates taken from the limousine Kennedy was riding in during his fateful trip through downtown Dallas were auctioned by Dallas’ Heritage Auctions last year, fetching an astonishing $100,000, paid by a private collector.
18. A piece of the fence from the infamous Grassy Knoll at Dallas’ Dealey Plaza is one of the Kennedy-related items being auctioned online by Goldin Auctions through May 7. Minimum bid is $1,500. Some items that were Oswald’s are also up for sale. Absentee bids are being accepted and live bidding begins at 6 p.m. April 30. To view the items, go to www.goldinauctions.com.
19. Jackie Kennedy’s blood-stained pink Chanel suit has never been cleaned, and is stored in the National Archives, where, per the Kennedy family’s request, it will not be viewable by the public until 2103.
20. The news coverage surrounding JFK’s assassination continued, uninterrupted, for four days on all three major networks, according to CNN. It was the longest continually covered news event until the Sept. 11 attacks.
This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.