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 Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a 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.

10 Surprising Facts About Richard Nixon

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Often maligned but rarely boring, Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the nation’s 37th president and the first to resign from office. Although his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal tends to overshadow much of his life, there was more to Nixon—who was born on January 9, 1913—than his political improprieties. Check out some facts about his early law enforcement aspirations, why he got criticized for commenting on Charles Manson, and his infamous encounter with RoboCop.

1. Richard Nixon was a Quaker.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have roots in 17th century England and promoted pacifism and spiritual equality among genders at a time those thoughts were not in fashion. When Nixon’s father, Frank, married Quaker Hannah Milhous, he joined a Quaker congregation and the couple raised their children as Quakers. Nixon’s religious faith allowed him an exemption from serving in World War II, but he waived it to enter the Navy. Later, when he was facing impeachment for his role in Watergate, Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis apparently didn’t like the affiliation with the outcast president, petitioning for him to be removed from office months before he resigned.

2. Richard Nixon wanted to join the FBI.

A photograph of Richard Nixon's 1937 FBI application
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine Nixon’s mannered disposition fitting comfortably in the stiff-necked legion of G-men that populated J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A little over a month before graduating from law school, Nixon applied to the Bureau in 1937, when he was just 24. After an in-person interview and physical, Nixon waited for a response. He never got one. Later, when Nixon was in office as vice president and queried Hoover about why he had not been accepted, Hoover told him it had been due to budget cuts.

3. Richard Nixon wrote love notes to his wife-to-be.

Nixon met his wife, Patricia, while the two appeared in a 1938 Whittier Community Players theater production titled The Dark Tower. Nixon set about courting her, writing letters that seemed uncharacteristically maudlin for the future president. He wrote: “And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee – my dearest heart.” The two married in 1940.

4. A dog helped save Richard Nixon's political career (for a little while).

A family portrait of the Nixons and their dog, Checkers
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Controversy dogged Nixon early on. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower considered dropping Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate after allegations surfaced that Nixon was benefiting from a trust fund filled by his supporters to help offset his political and personal expenses. Going on radio and television to address the issue, Nixon cleverly slipped in an anecdote about his 6-year-old daughter being in love with a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been “donated” by a campaign supporter. Believing that any man who loved dogs couldn’t be all bad, the public sentiment turned and he remained on the ticket.

“It was labeled as the ‘Checkers speech,’ as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career," Nixon later wrote. "Many of the critics glided over the fact that the fund was thoroughly explained, my personal finances laid bare, and an admittedly emotional but honest appeal made for public support."

5. Richard Nixon literally made the mornings darker.

In 1973, to save fuel during an energy crisis, Nixon signed a law that mandated that daylight saving would be in effect year-round starting on January 6, 1974. But kids wound up waiting for their school buses in pitch-black conditions, and there was a fear they might get hit by traffic—so the idea was scrapped in 1975.

6. Richard Nixon had a bowling alley installed under the White House.

Richard Nixon in the bowling alley at the White House in 1971
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nixon, an avid bowler, was pleased to see that the love of bowling that inspired Harry Truman to build lanes in the White House in 1947 was still going strong when he took office in 1969. That alley was moved in 1955, and Nixon actually ordered that a new lane be built underground under the North Portico entrance and favored the new location because it was more private than the lanes that were open to other staffers. Nixon reportedly bowled a respectable 232.

7. Richard Nixon wanted the Secret Service to wear uniforms.

The president’s security detail is usually dressed for business: Suits, ties, and sunglasses are the normal attire for many agents, while those patrolling the White House grounds wear police-style uniforms. When Nixon took office, however, he wanted his men to resemble the palace guards he had seen in other countries. The Service assigned to his personal detail wore white double-breasted tunics and hats that vaguely resembled the Empire’s underlings in a Star Wars film. After he was criticized by the press, Nixon abandoned the idea and the outfits were eventually donated to a high school marching band.

8. Richard Nixon almost messed up Charles Manson's murder trial.

Richard Nixon frowns during a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

Nixon’s first year in office coincided with the national obsession over cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, some of whom had gone on a murder spree in 1969 that left actress Sharon Tate and several others dead. During Manson’s trial in August 1970, Nixon proclaimed Manson “was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Manson’s lawyers moved for a mistrial based on Nixon’s comments. The president quickly retracted his statement, with a spokesperson suggesting he neglected to include the word “allegedly.”

9. Richard Nixon met RoboCop.

In 1987, Nixon attended a national board meeting for the Boys Club of America. Also on hand to fete organizers and kids was a guy dressed as Robocop. (The unknown actor was definitely not Peter Weller, star of the 1987 feature, and the ill-fitting costume was definitely not the original.) For years, an image of the meeting circulated on the internet without context before a crack sleuth determined it had been snapped for Billboard magazine.

10. Richard Nixon's meeting with Elvis Presley made National Archives history.

Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970
National Archives/Getty Images

On December 21, 1970, Nixon greeted one of the more colorful characters to ever enter the White House: Elvis Presley. The singer apparently wanted a badge or other token of law enforcement; as the King was high on fighting the war on drugs at the time. (Unfortunately, Presley had drug issues of his own that may have contributed to his death in 1977.) A photo of the meeting between the two is (as of 2015) the most requested image in the National Archives, outpacing requests for the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

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