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A giant thunderbolt split open the night sky, and in the shuddering light a car emerged from a swirl of fog and raced on through the storm. Slumped in the backseat was the journalist Theodore White, a stubby little man in his late forties with thinning hair and an owlish expression. He took a slug from a plastic bottle that contained a decanted pint of Scotch whisky—his self-imposed allotment of alcohol for the long hours that lay ahead.
There was another huge flash of lightning, followed this time by a thumping crash of thunder. White peered out the window at the flooded stretch of highway. It was coming down in solid sheets of water, just the way it had rained a week ago on the night President Kennedy's body was brought back from Dallas in a dark bronze coffin.
White had covered the assassination and the three-day pageant of Kennedy's funeral for Life magazine. He was still physically exhausted and emotionally drained from the experience. Now, however, he found himself in a rented limousine, with a strange chauffeur, driving at break-neck speed through an old-fashioned northeaster on his way to another assignment for Life.
"There is something I want Life magazine to say to the country," the President's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, had told White during a brief phone conversation from her home on Cape Cod, "and you must do it."
White did not know what Jackie had in mind, but he could guess why she had chosen him above all other journalists to carry her message to the American people. He was the author of The Making of the President 1960, a book that had caught the mood and the strains of the election campaign, and that helped give birth to the myth of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Jackie had selected White because he was a storyteller with a talent for hero worship.
The limousine slowed down as it approached the summer resort town of Hyannis on Nantucket Sound. The board of selectmen of Barnstable Township had decked the facade of the town hall with black crepe in memory of the dead President, but the merchants had strung up colored Christmas lights along Main Street in an effort to dispel the gloom. White tossed down another stiff slug of Scotch and instructed the chauffeur to stop at a gas station. He got out, ducked into a telephone booth, and placed a call to New York City.
"How's my mother doing?" he asked.
The thunder and pelting rain drowned out the reply.
"What?" White shouted. "I can't hear you.
"She's doing as well as can be expected," Dr. Harold Ritkin, his family physician, yelled back into the phone.
White's mother was gravely ill. It was she who had answered the telephone at her son's East Side town house in Manhattan when Jackie called from the Cape, and in all the excitement, the old woman began having a heart attack. White was forced to make a hard decision: stay with his mother, or answer Jackie's call.
On the phone, Jackie had not spoken to White in her tiny, whispery voice. She had used her other voice, the one rarely heard by strangers, the deep, expressive vibrato that she employed when she refused to take no for an answer. You must do it, she had told White, and he felt compelled to heed her summons. He chose Jackie over his mother, and drove off into the raging storm.
He was afflicted by pangs of guilt as his car pulled up to a checkpoint in front of the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. It was not quite eight-thirty on Friday, November 29,1963. The presidential flag, illuminated by floodlights and tugged by the wind, was flying in the front yard of John and Jacqueline Kennedy's rented summer house on nearby Squaw Island.
The place was crawling with Secret Service men. No one knew if the assassination had been part of a larger conspiracy, or whether a plot existed to murder Jackie and her young children, too. Two agents, dressed in water-stained trench coats and dripping fedoras, shone flashlights into White's face, then waved him through an opening in the barricade.
The car crunched up the long driveway, past broad lawns that swept down to the gray, restless waters of Nantucket Sound. White took another snort of Scotch, cupped a hand over his mouth to check the smell on his breath, and climbed out of the limousine into the pouring rain. He dashed up the steps to the big veranda that wrapped around the white clapboard house belonging to Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., the family patriarch.
He knocked on the door and a maid ushered him into the first-floor parlor, which was filled with comfortable stuffed furniture. In the room he spotted a number of familiar faces—Dave Powers, the President's political crony; Chuck Spalding, Jack's classmate at Harvard; Pat Lawford, the President's sister; Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.; and Clint Hill, the agent in charge of Jackie's Secret Service detail. They greeted him with a chorus of friendly hellos, followed by polite inquiries about his mother.
He placed another call to New York City from the phone in the hallway, and while he waited for the long distance operator to connect him to Dr Rilkin, he snuck another nip from his plastic bottle. He caught sight of himself in a mirror. His pale and frantic face was glistening with perspiration.
His mind reeled with what seemed like a thousand thoughts. The editors of Life were holding the magazine's giant presses for him at a cost of $30,000 an hour He must notify them as soon as possible about what Jackie had to say. His contract with Life called for him to be paid $5,000 for long pieces and $1,500 for so-called white-fang pieces-stories that could be done in one quick bite. He wondered whether his editors would try to pay him the lower rate for tonight's work.
"There's no change in your mother's condition," Dr. Rifkin informed him.
White put down the phone just as Jackie entered the room.
Out of the dozens of hours of funeral coverage that White had watched on television and events he had witnessed in person, he retained a few indelible images of Jackie: her swollen eyes behind the sheer veil, her sad black stockings, her firm, long stride as she marched behind the caparisoned horse and the President's catafalque on the way to St. Matthew's Cathedral. Jackie's flawless performance during the President's funeral had transformed her in the eyes of the public into a kind of paragon of virtue, practically a saint, and White half expected to find her here in Hyannis Port still dressed in mourning.
Instead she was turned out in trim black slacks, tapered at the ankles, and a beige pullover sweater. Even in flat shoes, she looked taller than White remembered. This impression of height was enhanced by her long, graceful neck, broad shoulders, and slim hips. Everything about her, even her hands, seemed slightly out of proportion, yet somehow absolutely right.
She had not bothered to fix her hair. It was tucked casually behind her ears, exposing the broad contours of her face with its high cheekbones and full, voluptuous mouth. Without eyeliner or mascara, her eyes seemed to be set even wider apart than they appeared in photos. But that was not what made them look different, White decided. It was their color. They were darker than before. Tragedy had both darkened and deepened her beauty.
"Oh, Teddy," she said, "you came all the way up here in the storm just for me."
He was suddenly stone-cold sober.
His fatigue, his anxiety over Life's idle presses, his concern over his fee—all these worries left him in an instant. Even the guilt about his mother evaporated without a trace. The storyteller in White took over, and he thought: A talk with Mary Todd Lincoln a week after Lincoln's assassination wouldn't have been nearly as compelling as this.