25 Fascinating Facts About John F. Kennedy

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

More than 55 years after his tragic assassination cut his presidency short, John F. Kennedy remains one of history’s most intriguing figures—and, according to Gallup, America’s favorite president. Here are 25 things you might not have known about JFK.

1. John F. Kennedy received last rites a total of four times.

From a young age, John F. Kennedy battled a range of health problems, some of which appeared to be life-threatening—so much so that he received the sacramental last rites a total of four times: first in 1947, when he became sick while traveling in England and was diagnosed with Addison’s disease; a second time in 1951, when he was suffering from an extremely high fever while in Japan; the third time in 1954, when he slipped into a coma following back surgery; and a final time on the day of his assassination, on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

2. JFK faked his way into the Navy.


By Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy’s ongoing health problems became an issue when he attempted to enlist in the military in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War II. Because of his various medical conditions, Kennedy could not pass a proper physical examination. Instead, according to JFK historian Richard Reeves, Kennedy “used the riches and influence of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, to become a naval officer. The old man persuaded friends in the military to accept a certificate of good health, a false one, from a family doctor.”

3. JFK became a war hero.

Regardless of how he found his way into the navy, Kennedy certainly proved his chops as an officer once he was there. In 1943, he was made commander of a PT-109 patrol boat that came under attack near the Solomon Islands. After the boat sank, Kennedy and his crew swam approximately 3.5 miles to a nearby island, where they were stranded for seven days until a pair of PT boats came to their rescue.

4. A memento from JFK’s near-death experience was an Oval Office fixture.


Public Domain, JFK Library

In an attempt to get help for himself and his marooned crew of fellow officers, Kennedy etched an SOS message into a coconut shell, which he gave to two natives to deliver to a nearby base in order to arrange for their rescue. As a reminder of the incident, Kennedy had the coconut encased in wood and plastic and used it as a paperweight. It sat on his desk in the Oval Office.

5. The wreck of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 was discovered nearly 60 years later.

In 2002, famed deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of Kennedy and his crew’s PT-109 boat about 1200 feet below the water’s surface during a National Geographic expedition. "I'm very pleased, because it was a real needle in a haystack, probably the toughest needle I've ever had to find," Ballard said—which was quite a testament, as Ballard also discovered the Titanic.

6. JFK is the only president to have received a Purple Heart.

Though recent presidential candidates John Kerry and John McCain both received Purple Hearts for their service during wartime, Kennedy is the only president to boast the honor. He received it after being wounded in action on August 22, 1943.

7. Bobby Kennedy got a little wild at JFK’s wedding.


The Kennedy siblings celebrate John and Jackie's wedding.

By Toni Frissell, 1953, Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When JFK married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier on September 12, 1953 in Newport, Rhode Island, his brother, Robert, served as his best man. But that best man got a little wild. According to Evan Thomas’s Robert Kennedy: His Life, Bobby “behaved like a naughty teenager, stealing a policeman’s hat” on his brother’s wedding day. “Joe Kennedy was furious. He summoned Bobby and his co-conspirators, his brother Teddy and some younger cousins, and gave them a lecture about disgracing the family name. When Bobby tried to speak up, Joe snapped, ‘No. You keep quiet and listen to me. This is childish behavior, and I don’t want anything more like it.’"

8. John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize.

In 1957, Kennedy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Profiles in Courage. Though Kennedy is credited as the book’s sole author, questions have arisen in the years since about how much of the book was actually written by Kennedy, and how much was written by his ghostwriter, Ted Sorenson. In 2008, Sorenson told The Wall Street Journal that he “did a first draft of most chapters,” “helped choose the words of many of its sentences,” and likely “privately boasted or indirectly hinted that I had written much of the book.”

9. John and Jackie Kennedy had four children.


National Archive/Newsmakers

Though both Caroline and John Kennedy, Jr. became celebrities in their own right, JFK and Jackie had four children: In 1956, Jackie gave birth to a stillborn daughter who they had planned to name Arabella. On August 7, 1963, she gave birth to Patrick Bouvier Kennedy more than five weeks before her due date; he died just two days later. In 1963, the bodies of both children were moved from Massachusetts to Arlington National Cemetery, to be buried with their father.

10. JFK got into a fender-bender with Larry King.

In 1958, Larry King got into a car accident with JFK, who was then a senator, while in Palm Beach. In his autobiography, King wrote about how he had just arrived to the area from Brooklyn and was so distracted by the swanky South Florida locale that he wasn’t really paying attention to the road. And Kennedy was pretty angry about the whole incident. “How could you?” Kennedy yelled. “Early Sunday morning, no traffic, not a cloud in the sky, I’m parked—how could you run into me?”

“All I could say was, ‘Senator, do you want to exchange information from our driver’s licenses?’” King replied, writing that, “Eventually he calmed down, and he said he’d forget the whole thing if we just promised to vote for him when he ran for president. We did, and he drove away—though not before saying, ‘Stay waaay behind me.’”

11. JFK didn’t expect Lyndon Johnson to say “yes” to becoming his running mate.


By Abbie Rowe - John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy’s choice of running mate came down to the wire. “At around 11 a.m. on the day a nominee was to be presented, John Kennedy visited Johnson in his hotel suite and offered him the job,” according to PBS. “Robert Kennedy maintained afterward that his brother offered the job to Johnson only as a courtesy, and then felt trapped when he accepted. ‘Now what do we do?’ the candidate asked, then answered by sending Bobby back to talk Johnson out of it. Around 4 p.m., with tensions running high all around, John Kennedy called Johnson to assure him he was the one. Ignore Bobby, he said, because ‘he's been out of touch and doesn't know what's happening.’”

12. John F. Kennedy was the last president to wear a top hat at his inauguration.

For many years, going back to at least James Garfield’s inauguration in 1881, it was a tradition for incoming presidents to wear a top hat as part of the Inauguration Day garb. Though JFK wasn’t a fan of hats, he went along with the tradition—but was the last POTUS to do so.

13. JFK began the tradition of having an inaugural poet.

Though not every incoming president has chosen to have an inaugural poet, the tradition itself began with Kennedy, who asked Robert Frost to recite “The Gift Outright” on his Inauguration Day in 1961. But Frost had other ideas and wrote an entirely new poem for Kennedy, entitled “Dedication,” for the occasion. There was just one problem: It was a bright and sunny day, and Frost—who was 87 years old at the time—had trouble reading the copy of the poem he had brought with him, so ended up reciting “The Gift Outright” from memory.

14. William Faulkner refused a White House dinner invitation.

Kennedy may have been able to convince one of the world’s most celebrated poets to attend his inauguration, but not every literary hero was so keen to make the journey to the White House. When Kennedy extended a dinner invitation to William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning author politely declined, telling LIFE Magazine: “Why that’s a hundred miles away. That’s a long way to go just to eat.”

15. JFK was the second wealthiest president.

With an estimated net worth of about $1 billion (in today’s dollars) when he took office in 1961, Kennedy had long held the record for the wealthiest president in U.S. history. In 2017, he was knocked into second place when Donald Trump—whose net worth is estimated to be approximately $3.5 billion—took office.

16. JFK donated all of his salary to charity.

Given the size of Kennedy’s bank account, he certainly didn’t get into politics for the money. In fact, he donated his entire presidential salary to charity, just as he did his congressional salary.

17. JFK was an animal lover.


STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

The Kennedy White House was a bit of a zoo. Among the animals that called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home during JFK’s administration were five horses, two parakeets, two hamsters, a cat, a rabbit, and five dogs, including a mutt named Pushinka, a gift from Nikita Khrushchev. Pushinka was the daughter of Strelka, one of the first dogs in space.

18. JFK was a speed reader.

While the average reader is said to digest words at a rate of about 250 to 300 words per minute, JFK was far from the average reader. He could reportedly read about four times faster than that, at a speed of 1200 words per minute.

19. JFK was a James Bond fanatic.

In 1955, JFK was given a copy of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book, Casino Royale, and was immediately intrigued by the character. In 1962, he hosted a private screening of Dr. No at the White House. When asked to name his 10 favorite books, he listed From Russia With Love at number nine. In a documentary included in the Bond 50th anniversary Blu-ray collection, Kennedy was quoted as saying, "I wish I had had James Bond on my staff."

20. A day before signing the Cuba Embargo, JFK bought a lot of cigars.


Photo by Walter Daran/Getty Images

Kennedy was a fan of fine cigars, and Cuban cigars in particular. In February of 1962, he asked press secretary Pierre Salinger to help him acquire a large supply of Cuban cigars—and quickly. When Salinger asked how many he needed, Kennedy told him, "About 1000 Petit Upmanns." And he wanted them by the next morning. The next day, when Salinger informed the president that he had managed to get 1200 of them, he wrote that, “Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country.”

21. JFK recorded more than 260 hours of private White House conversations.

In the spring of 1962, Secret Service agent Robert Bouck installed secret recording devices in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room of the White House at the request of President Kennedy. Though the president never explained why he wanted to record his conversations, both Bouck and Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s personal secretary, believed that his reason for doing this was to have a personal record of his time in the White House after he had left. The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has made many of the 260-plus hours of recordings available to the public (you can even listen to some of them online).

22. JFK helped get The Manchurian Candidate made.


AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Kennedy ran with a pretty cool circle of friends, and Frank Sinatra was one of them. When Sinatra was having trouble getting United Artists to greenlight a big-screen adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, for fear that it was too controversial, Sinatra persuaded Kennedy to make a personal appeal to the studio head. "That's the only way that film ever got made," Condon later told Kitty Kelley, Sinatra’s biographer. "It took Frank going directly to Jack Kennedy."

23. JFK was the target of at least four assassination attempts.

Throughout his life, JFK was the target of at least four assassination attempts—including once in 1960, shortly after being elected president, when a retired postal worker filled his car with dynamite and followed the president-elect from Hyannisport to Palm Beach. "Brother, they could have gotten me in Palm Beach,” Kennedy reportedly told a Secret Service agent. “There is no way to keep anyone from killing me." In the lead-up to JFK’s assassination in Dallas, two additional plots—one in Chicago and one in Tampa—were discovered.

24. JFK’s trusty black alligator briefcase sold for more than $700,000.


JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images)

One of Kennedy’s most trusted companions was his black alligator Hermès briefcase, which he carried with him everywhere, including the morning of his assassination. In 1998, the briefcase was among the president’s personal possessions that were being included in a highly anticipated auction of his personal memorabilia. The item became one of a number of items that Kennedy’s children fought to have taken off the auction block, but they eventually relented. The briefcase sold for more than $700,000.

25. JFK’s last words were “no, you certainly can’t.”

Though it’s been widely reported that JFK’s final words were, “My God, I’ve been hit,” that information is incorrect. His last words were in regards to how well he had been received in Dallas. Just seconds before he was shot, Nellie Connally—wife of Governor John Connally—remarked that, "You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President,” to which he replied: “No, you certainly can't."

When Theodore Roosevelt’s Son Snuck a Christmas Tree into the White House

George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust
George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

On Christmas morning 1902, the children of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt woke up early, got dressed, and began banging on the door of their parents’ White House bedroom. It was there, Roosevelt explained the next day in a letter to James Garfield, grandson of former president James A. Garfield, that “six stockings, all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities, were hanging from the fireplace.”

The six members of the Roosevelt brood were not the only ones to receive gifts that day. Archie, the president’s second-youngest child, had a surprise for his parents, too: a little Christmas tree, which he had hidden in a closet and “rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters.” Hanging from the tree were gifts for the family and some of the Roosevelt’s veritable menagerie of pets: “Jack the dog, Tom Quartz the kitten, and Algonquin the pony, whom Archie would no more think of neglecting [than] I would neglect his brothers and sisters,” Roosevelt wrote.

Christmas trees laden with glittering decorations are now a central part of the White House holiday tradition. The official White House tree is formally welcomed by the First Lady and installed in the Blue Room—a custom that began in 1912. Some first families have opted to deck the White House halls with dozens of Christmas trees. But if Archie Roosevelt hadn’t ferreted his secret gift into the official residence in 1902, there may not have been a Christmas tree in the White House that year, the second of Roosevelt’s presidency.

"There will be no Christmas tree at the White House"

Newspaper reports from the time remarked with interest that the president’s family would not celebrate the holiday with a tree. The New York Sun, for instance, published an article in late December 1902 noting that while the Roosevelts would spend the morning exchanging gifts, “there will be no Christmas tree at the White House.”

White House Christmas decorations
A Christmas tree was set up in the East Room of the White House in 1936 at the end of President Franklin Roosevelt's first term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publications

Rumors soon began to spread as to why a twinkling evergreen was not part of the family’s planned Christmas decor. A now-ubiquitous anecdote emerged: The president, a staunch conservationist, had imposed a ban on Christmas trees in the White House. And 8-year-old Archie found a way to circumvent the rule, bringing an extra dash of holiday cheer to the residence.

It wasn’t an outlandish theory. Roosevelt was indeed a leading figure of America’s conservation movement, which arose in response to the heavy exploitation of natural resources in the mid- to late-19th century. Though an avid hunter, Roosevelt was troubled by the mass slaughter of big game species like bison and elk. He recognized that the country’s natural resources were finite, its environment vulnerable and in need of protection. During his presidency, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and, with the signing of the 1906 American Antiquities Act, 18 national monuments.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt once wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

"The Forestry Fad"

Some environmental advocates in Roosevelt’s day opposed harvesting evergreens for use as Christmas trees. In late December 1899, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Roosevelt’s predecessor, President William McKinley, had received “many letters … begging Mr. McKinley to refuse to have a Christmas tree.” The writers had “taken up the forestry fad,” decrying the “Christmas tree habit” as “an immense and lamentable destruction of young firs and spruces,” according to the publication.

But Jamie Lewis, historian at the Forest History Society, says he has not found evidence that the 26th president ever took a similar stance on the Christmas tree quandary. In fact, Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service who collaborated closely with Roosevelt on conservation matters, did not believe forests would be harmed by cutting down evergreens at Christmas time.

“Ultimately,” Lewis tells Mental Floss, “[Roosevelt] had no ban on Christmas trees.”

Lewis thinks there is a simpler explanation as to why the president decided to forgo this particular holiday symbol: “As far as I know, it was family tradition that they just didn't have a tree.”

Christmas trees at the White House
Workers put Christmas decorations on the front of the White House in 1939, during President Franklin Roosevelt's second term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The Baltimore Sun reported as much in a December 1901 article, which explained that “[t]here will be no Christmas tree [in the White House], as a tree has never been part of the celebration of Christmas in the Roosevelt family.” In an earlier article, the same publication suggested that with six children and multiple guests traipsing through the White House, there simply wasn’t enough room for a tree.

“In the private part of the house conditions are such that Mrs. Roosevelt finds she cannot devote a single room to a tree and therefore it has been decided by the President and herself that the children must have their tree at the home of their uncle and aunt,” the Sun reported.

Robert Lincoln O’Brien, a journalist who served as the White House executive clerk during the Cleveland administration, echoes this sentiment in his account of Archie’s surprise Christmas tree, which appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1903. “The main motive of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt … is to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible,” O’Brien writes. “Almost every room of the White House at the holiday season, in a family of so many children, is overloaded with things; trees upon which to display them would only add so much more.”

"Pagan Symbols"

Today, this might seem like a rather Grinch-like attitude. But at the turn of the 20th century, not every home in America where Christmas was celebrated would have a bedecked evergreen. In fact, Christmas trees had only recently become a widely accepted feature of the holiday season. As late as the 1840s, many Americans, influenced by the country’s Puritan roots, saw Christmas trees as pagan symbols. Immigrants from Germany, where it was common practice to honor the holiday with a decorated tree, helped usher in a fondness for the custom. Even then, however, Christmas trees were typically reserved for households with children; presents would be stored under, or hung from, the evergreen.

Christmas tree at the White House
The White House Christmas tree was arranged in the Blue Room in 1961, during John F. Kennedy's first year in office.
Robert L. Knudsen, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library // Public Domain

The same was true of the America’s first families. “Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children,” Lewis writes on the Forest History Society website, “while presidents without young children had no tree.”

Roosevelt, of course, had multiple little ones living with him at the White House, which is perhaps why the family’s tree-less Christmas was remarked upon in contemporary newspaper reports.

“They were a dynamic, fascinating family that the press loved covering,” Lewis explains, adding that journalists may have been particularly eager for content as Christmas approached.

“Congress would have adjourned weeks before,” he says. “They weren't working right up until the week before Christmas. So [the media is] desperate for copy, and here we have this fascinating family. I think some of the myth and legend is born out of boredom, frankly.”

The tale of clever Archie flouting a presidential ban in 1902 certainly made for a good story—even if it wasn’t an entirely accurate one. In subsequent years, Lewis writes, newspaper articles not only remarked that the Roosevelts would once again not have a Christmas tree, but also speculated whether Archie would “pull a fast one” on his father.

“An Ideal Christmas”

If there was no ban, it seems more likely that Archie’s intention was simply to present his parents with a nice gift. In his letter to Garfield, Roosevelt describes the tree as a “surprise,” and doesn’t seem cross about the gesture.

“[A]ll the children came into our bed and there they opened their stockings,” he wrote. “Afterwards we got ready and took breakfast, and then all went into the library where each child had a table set for his bigger presents.”

Christmas tree at the White House
Lyndon Johnson set up a modest Christmas tree in the White House in 1963.
White House Photo Office, LBJ Presidential Library // Public Domain

Archie’s tree also may have planted the seeds for a new family custom. In late December 1906, Roosevelt noted in a letter to his sister that “Archie and [his younger brother] Quentin have gradually worked [up] a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room.”

That year, the Roosevelt children decorated a second tree for their parents—perhaps to surprise them, now that Archie’s “variant” had become part of the Christmas tradition. While Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, were busy admiring Archie’s tree, “two of the children had [slipped] out,” the president explains, “and when we got back to our own room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself.”

It was, Roosevelt writes, “an ideal Christmas.”

Scientists Just Created 3D Digital Replicas of John F. Kennedy’s Assassination Bullets

NIST
NIST

Part of the National Archives and Record Administration’s duty is to provide the public with access to its billions of pages of texts, maps, photos, film, and other artifacts of American history—but some of them aren’t so easy to view. The bullets from John F. Kennedy's assassination, for example, have long been considered too fragile for anything but sitting in a climate-controlled vault in Washington, D.C.

However, they recently took a field trip to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where the ballistics team there used advanced microscopic imaging techniques to create breathtakingly accurate 3D digital replicas.

jfk bullet 3D replica
NIST

According to a press release from NIST, the collection includes two fragments from the bullet that killed Kennedy, the so-called “stretcher bullet” that hit both Kennedy and then-governor of Texas, John Connally; two bullets from a test-fire of the assassin's rifle, and a bullet from an earlier unsuccessful assassination attempt on Army Major General Edwin Walker that might have come from the same rifle.

As you can probably imagine, the two fragments from Kennedy’s fatal bullet are the most affecting pieces of the collection. They also give you a pretty good understanding of how difficult it must have been to recreate them—the bits of metal are twisted into gnarled, asymmetrical shapes that look different from every angle.

jfk bullet 3D replicas
NIST

To replicate each miniscule mark, ridge, and divot, NIST physical scientists Thomas Brian Renegar and Mike Stocker spent hours rotating the artifacts beneath the microscope, capturing images from all perspectives, and then combining parts of the images to create full 3D versions of them.

“It was like solving a super-complicated 3D puzzle,” Renegar said in the release. “I’ve stared at them so much I can draw them from memory.”

Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, has generated no small number of conspiracy theories over the years, but NIST and the National Archives made it clear that the project to replicate the bullets was “strictly a matter of historic preservation,” and not in any way a reopening of the case. But once the complete 3D scans are made available in the National Archives’ online catalog in early 2020, members of the public are free to analyze them however they like.

“The virtual artifacts are as close as possible to the real things,” Martha Murphy, the National Archives’ deputy director of government information services, said in the release. “In some respects, they are better than the originals in that you can zoom in to see microscopic details.”

And while Kennedy’s case is closed, the cutting-edge technology used on his bullets will be used in the future.

“The techniques we developed to image those artifacts will be useful in criminal cases that involve similarly challenging evidence,” NIST forensic firearms expert Robert Thompson said in the release.

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