Kennedys Found Solace in Newport, RI

By Katherine Noel
BU News Service

NEWPORT, RI — Jerilyn Fauve was a young girl hiding behind a bouquet of flowers when she caught a glimpse of First Lady Jackie Kennedy at the front door of Hammersmith Farm.

“I would do flower deliveries for my parents’ business, and I never thought I would ever see her, but one day the door opened and there she was. She just passed by in the background and then she was gone – that was the only time I ever saw her but I was very excited because I was just a young child at the time.”

For a few weeks each summer in the early 1960s, residents of Newport, RI., like Fauve welcomed a famous guest to their small seaside city as President John F. Kennedy came to town to stay at Jacqueline Kennedy’s childhood home, Hammersmith Farm.

During his presidency, Hammersmith Farm became the “Summer Whitehouse,” a vacation destination which, in addition to the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., served as JFK’s home away from Washington.

Historian Al Klyberg, head of the Rhode Island Historical Society from 1969 to 1999, explains that JFK was welcomed in Newport with a distinct enthusiasm and excitement years before he would become president. “His fame in Massachusetts, first as a congressman and then as a senator, was also shared in Rhode Island, and there was a lot of knowledgeable background of Kennedy in Rhode Island even before he married Jackie,” said Klyberg.

Klyberg said there was an almost “star-quality support” of Kennedy among the large Irish Catholic population in Rhode Island at the time. “There was a Catholic affection for him that was more than politics,” Klyberg said. “People felt a real emotional tie to him, and that tie got even stronger in Newport as Kennedy visited Jackie’s family during the time of their courtship.”

JFK and Jackie were married in Newport at St. Mary’s Church on Sept. 12, 1953, and held their wedding reception at Hammersmith Farm. Fauve says she was too young to remember the day, but knows her parents spent it preparing flowers.

“My parents didn’t do the whole wedding, but they did provide some of the arrangements that were in the church,” she recalls, adding the family-run Bellevue Florist continued to do business with the president and First Lady at Hammersmith Farm from time to time in the following years.

Kennedy historian and author Tyler Hughes remembers a more personal story about the wedding shared with him by close friend Noreen Drexel, who owned “Stonor Lodge” on Bellevue Avenue and was a friend of both Jackie and her mother Janet Bouvier. Drexel passed away in 2012, but Hughes recounts Drexel’s account of the future First Lady on the day before her wedding.

“Jackie, feeling overwhelmed, felt she needed to just get away, so she grabbed a favorite book, hopped into her car and drove down Bellevue Avenue to Stonor Lodge,” Hughes said. “Noreen was in her bedroom when Jackie rang the door, and a maid answered the door and a startled Noreen came down the stairs. ‘Oh Mrs. Drexel! Could I please stay here for the day? I just need to get away – I won’t bother you! I brought a book!,’ Jackie said. And so, as Noreen later told me, Jackie spent her last day as a single woman curled up on a couch with a book in the sun room at Stonor Lodge.”

When JFK became President in 1960, the excitement and interest in two of Newport’s most notable summer residents turned into a public fascination.

“When they were riding in the street, people were jumping up and down on the sidewalks and waving. It was almost like Elvis or someone coming – just this bigger-than-life enthusiasm,” Klyberg said. “People were proud having the President of the United States there, and the love affair the Rhode Islanders had with the Kennedys was far greater than the regular respect and admiration they had for any other public figures who came to stay in Newport.”

Alyssa Howell, general manager of The White Horse Tavern, explains how a special table was set aside at the restaurant for the First Lady whenever she came to eat. Table number 10, or “Jackie’s Table,” was set off to the side of the White Horse dining room, in the restaurant’s best attempt to give the First Lady some semblance of privacy.

“It’s semi-private and facing away from the rest of the room, so she’d be able to come and eat wouldn’t have to have her face to the public the whole time,” Howell says.

On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, Newport residents are reflecting on the President and First Lady’s time in Newport. “People are proud that part of that romance played out right here in Newport,” Klyberg said.

As a high school senior, Klyberg had seen JFK speak at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York before becoming president, and marveled at the connection the young politician had with people in their teens and 20’s as something that had never quite been seen before. Years later, Klyberg remembers the moment when he heard the president had been assassinated.

“It was like getting a big punch in the stomach. It just took all the life out of you,” he said. “Fifty years later, it’s a sad time for me because I was a part of that enthusiasm in the 1960s.”

Adrienne Shaw, who works at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, a private library on Bellevue Avenue with a collection concentrated on Newport history, remembers visiting Hammersmith Farm a few years before it was closed to the public in the 1990s.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property looking down onto the ocean, and inside you got to travel to each room. It was all set up with things form the Kennedys’ stay there, lots of photos and books,” she said, adding she is glad she had a chance to see it while it was still open. “It was just very, very moving.”

The presidential flag that was flown at Hammersmith Farm during JFK’s time in office now sits inside the Redwood Library, donated by Jackie Kennedy’s family, and Shaw says she sees it every day.

The church where JFK and Jackie were married will mark the anniversary of JFK’s death with a special memorial mass held in his honor on Sunday. St. Mary’s Pastoral Assistant Molly McGregor says the church gets a lot of visitors – tourists coming to celebrate mass on the weekends as well as to take pictures and see the historic building. Pew number 10 in St. Mary’s is marked with a plaque reading “Mr. President and Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy.” McGregor said they would come to mass at St. Mary’s after their wedding in 1953.

While there is no doubt the Kennedy’s’ legacy will be celebrated in Newport on the 50th anniversary, some – like John Everett Benson, owner of the John Stevens Shop – chose not to speak about the family’s time in Newport.

The John Stevens Shop on Thames Street is a stone inscription business and one of the longest operating businesses in the country. Benson studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, later joining his father’s business, and in 1964 was commissioned to design and carve the inscriptions for the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery when he was just 25 years old.

Benson declined to speak about designing the memorial and inscribing the slate headstone that marks JFK’s grave. “It was a very personal affair between Mrs. Kennedy and I,” he said. “Making a memorial site for someone is a very personal thing, and it’s not something I talk about after his death.”

Benson, who now runs the John Stevens Shop along with his son Nick Benson, later engraved Jackie Kennedy’s headstone as well.

In reflecting on the Kennedy’s time in Newport, JFK’s love for sailing and the ocean is remembered. In one speech the president gave while in Newport at the America’s Cup race in September 1962, he talks of living near the water, and of a closeness to the ocean. Archives Technician at the Kennedy Memorial Library, Michael Desmond, reads a quote from the speech in the archives:

All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that still exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.

“He did have a certain affection for the sea,” Desmond said.

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