A letter from the ‘Tea Party’ lady who helped JFK get elected

UPDATED NOVEMBER 25: I thought my blog post yesterday would be my second and last on the assassination of President Kennedy 50 years ago on Friday. My first post asked the usual question: Where were you when you heard the news that John F. Kennedy had been shot? My second post was prompted by a copy of a letter (above) written by Helen Keyes that was sent to me by a very good friend from my days at Villanova University, Jim Morgan. Jim had found the letter in a pile of material from his mother’s private papers, which had lain on his desk for over a year, and he only read it a few days before the anniversary. Jim’s mother was from Boston and her best friend was Helen Keyes, who also grew up in the city near the Kennedy family. Helen’s father was the Kennedy dentist, and she and her sister, Frannie, minded some of the younger Kennedy children.
UPDATE:And today’s post was necessary after Jim’s wife, Roz, another very good friend, sent me a copy overnight of Helen Keyes’ obituary from The Boston Globe on April 23, 1992. It turns out that Helen led the “tea party” that helped John F. Kennedy win his Massachusetts Senate seat in 1952 against the favoured Republican incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge, a member of a famous Boston family of rich Yankee Protestants. Ms Keyes was a teacher when JFK recruited her for the campaign, and she and a few other women organised a series of teas across the state. Lodge complained that he lost because he “was drowned in tea” — tea served by Helen Keyes.
Helen campaigned for JFK in nearly all the 1960 presidential primaries, including West Virginia, where she continued her tea parties — “a proper Bostonian hosting ladies’ teas in the hollows and hills,” according to Jim Morgan. West Virginia was a key primary state where Kennedy’s Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, gave him the challenge that a Catholic couldn’t win in a Protestant stronghold.
But as Robert Dallek relates it in his excellent biography: John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life 1917-1963 (mentioned in my last blog), JFK took on the issue as he did with Houston ministers, and told reporters on the first day of his campaign in Charlestown: “I am a Catholic, but the fact that I was born a Catholic, does that I mean that I can’t be the President of the United States? I’m able to serve in Congress, and my brother (Joe) was able to give his life, but we can’t be president?”
The head of the West Virginia campaign was Bob McDonough, who said Kennedy was the “most attractive candidate imaginable,” explaining it this way: “He just went up every valley in the state, down every road and over every hill, and he shook hands by the thousands.” I can imagine Helen Keyes accompanying the campaign over every one of those hills. Kennedy won in a landslide over Humphrey 60.8 to 39.2 per cent.
UPDATE:After JFK was elected president, Helen returned to teaching, but following the assassination she supervised the traveling presentation of the Kennedy Library Exhibit in Europe. For the next 14 years, she was the administrator of the Kennedy Library, until it was completed and dedicated in 1979.
In her letter to her friend Mary in Pennsylvania, postmarked Dec 2, 1963 at Hull, Massachusetts, Helen Keyes writes: “I’m going back to DC tomorrow to help out where I can,” which would have been a very difficult thing to do after the assassination. The reply to Mary’s letter of condolence was written on Saturday, eight days after the shooting, and Helen says she is “still shattered.” In the most fascinating part of the missive, she goes on: “It’s not only the loss of a dear friend and idol, but a complete devastation way down somewhere, & that I never expected to be hurt or disturbed. It’s the very spot where patriotism, religion, ideals etc are stored, and a spot which is supposed to be immune to all.” How well said is that! And Helen then makes the point that so many Americans seconded after the assassination: “Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it’s the world that is crazy.”
UPDATE:Helen maintained her sanity, I think, by continuing to teach — her course at the new John F. Kennedy School of Government, titled “The Nuts and Bolts of Politics,” was said to be very popular with students, according to The Boston Globe. I wonder if she served tea? The obituary suggests another way she could have stayed sane, as “a skilled sailor, a familiar figure at the helm of her 30-foot sloop Anita, sailing out of the Hull Yacht Club.”
But Helen’s poignant point in her letter about the assassination makes me wonder what she would think now after the Boston Marathon Bombings in April and the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre in Newtown, Connecticut last December. As far as that goes, I also wonder what John F. Kennedy would think, if he were still alive. It is indeed a world that has gone crazy.

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