The small scrap of yellow paper is torn slightly at the top, and on it is scrawled a note in blue ink. The only indication of its age is its musty smell. “My thoughts have been with you constantly since being told the full truth today,” it reads. “I am overwhelmed beyond words. Nellie and I grieve for you and your children and pray that God will sustain you and give all of us the courage and wisdom we need in this dark hour in our nation’s history.” It’s a letter to Jackie Kennedy from the then-Texas governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie, both of whom were in the same car that early Friday afternoon, November 22 1963, when President John F Kennedy was felled by an assassin and Connally was critically wounded in the chest.
Nellie had handed the note to her husband’s press secretary Julian Read at Parkland Hospital, where Connally was undergoing the first of several operations, shortly after hearing of Kennedy’s death.The note forms part of an incredible archive, now housed at a museum in Texas, that offers a rare glimpse behind the scenes during some of the bleakest days in the history of the United States.
Read has said very little about the assassination in the intervening five decades. But earlier this year he donated his archives to the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, and finally published his memoir, JFK’s Final Hours in Texas, last month. He’s now ready to talk.
Read was in the motorcade that Friday, 50 years ago – just a few vehicles behind the president’s, with the press corps. Every time he’s in Dallas and drives down Elm Street and under the triple underpass (a main thoroughfare in the city), the images come flooding back: the crowds lining the street; people hanging out of windows to catch a glimpse of the president and his wife; and then, as they drove past the School Book Depository, the pop, pop, pop of Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle discharging from a sixth-floor window.
The day after the assassination, dressed in a smart suit and tie and looking composed, Read calmly told a press conference: “The first shot rang out and [Mrs Connally] feels quite sure it did hit the president. Governor Connally turned immediately to see what happened and as he turned he was struck. The president, according to Mrs Connally, immediately slumped and Mrs Kennedy grabbed him. A moment later Governor Connally slumped and Mrs Connally grabbed him.”
Now in his eighties, Read still cuts a smart and imposing figure – he’s more than 6ft tall – in brown shoes, dark trousers, blue shirt and neat grey hair. We meet at the storage facility he rents in west Austin. It’s dark inside and smells faintly of disinfectant. We take a lift to an upper floor and walk along a corridor. Read unlocks a garage-style door and flicks a switch, casting light on rows and rows of cardboard boxes, stacked to the ceiling.
Read had a long career in politics and his archives (which are soon to be delivered to the Briscoe Center) span the years 1951 to 2009, when he finally retired. He was Connally’s campaign manager when he ran for president in 1980 (he lost to Ronald Reagan). He shows me boxes of reel-to-reel tapes chronicling the presidential run. There are posters, material from his first legislative campaign. Even documents from when he later coordinated his old boss’s funeral in 1993. “But,” he tells me, “the assassination of Kennedy was the most tumultuous part of my career – and these are only part of the archive – there are twice as many boxes at my house.”
Over lunch, Read shows me a handful of letters and documents he’s pulled from his collection which specifically relate to the Kennedy assassination; he inspects some scrawled notes with a curiosity that suggests this is the first time he’s seen them since 1963.
“Every time I look at these I get another chill. It never goes away,” he tells me. “It’s like any other dark memory you don’t like to dwell on.” Read hands me a typewritten itinerary that was given to journalists sometime early in the morning of November 22 1963. “11.35am: President arrives Love Field, Dallas,” it says, referring to the small airport in the north west of the city where Kennedy, his wife, and their entourage would be touching down in Air Force One. “11:45am: President departs Love Field by motor. 12:30pm: President arrivesTrade Mart to attend luncheon sponsored by the Dallas Citizens Council, the Dallas Assembly and the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest.” Except Kennedy never made it to his 12.30pm appointment.
Read tells me that shortly before the gunshots rang out, the press corps was laughing in the bus at the positive reception Kennedy was getting. Dallas was incredibly conservative. The Dallas Morning News even carried a full-page advertisement that day, paid for by local businessmen calling themselves the American Fact-Finding Committee, accusing him of appeasing the communists. “They [the press] knew Dallas was a trouble spot, but he was being shown such adoration,” Read says. “It was the talk of the bus.” In his book, he writes: “For weeks in advance, there had been ominous clouds of hostility toward the president in Dallas, raising concerns for his safety in an open car.” “There was a lot of rhetoric and it was bad timing,” he tells me, “but Nellie Connally’s last comment to JFK was that the people there loved him and that he had nothing to worry about.”
Read says, after the bullets struck the motorcade he first thought it was a motorbike misfiring until he saw people rushing about on either side of the road, and a police motorcycle “scurrying up the grassy knoll”. The presidential car disappeared and Read says he wasn’t sure what had happened. “Everybody on the bus was asking what was going on. Of course nobody had cell phones back then, so I decided to head to the Trade Mart, a civic exposition centre where the luncheon was due to take place.”