By Joe Piasecki
A shirtless John Fitzgerald Kennedy swarmed by adoring beachgoers after an impromptu swim in Santa Monica, sharing a smile with a stranger in a polka-dot bikini: It was an image of a sitting American president the likes of which may never be seen again.
On Aug. 19, 1962, Bill Beebe was on assignment for the Los Angeles Times staking out Kennedy during one of the president’s visits to the beachfront home of his brother-in-law, “Rat Pack” actor Peter Lawford.
That afternoon, Kennedy quietly slipped out and headed to the water. A crowd followed, and so did Beebe.
“I tell you, that guy could really swim. He went about 200 yards north along the shoreline, and when he started to come out of the water, word got out along the beach. I could see what was going to happen, so I took off my shoes and went out into the water, clothes and camera and all,” Beebe, now 86, recalled this week at his home in Mar Vista.
“There wasn’t anything grand about it,” Beebe said. “The Secret Service and FBI there were beside themselves, but [Kennedy] made it seem like a natural thing to do.”
A year and three months later — on Nov. 22, 1963 — the president who had appeared so much larger than life was shot dead in Dallas at age 46.
‘Celebrity in chief’
For a nation who, through television, developed an unprecedented sense of closeness to a president and even toured the White House with the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy from the comfort of their living rooms, Kennedy’s murder was a blow experienced like none before, said presidential scholar and Loyola Marymount University professor Michael Genovese.
“The dawn of politics and television, that marriage, allowed us to see the ‘Camelot’ of the Kennedy family. TV brought them to us in a way previous presidents could not enter our lives. In a way, we felt we knew them. There was an attachment that developed,” said Genovese, author of 30 books on the presidency. “And this was the first time we had television coverage of an assassination. It was shocking to the senses … a shared experience in a way that you could not have before.”
Kennedy, said Genovese, might be considered the first “celebrity in chief.”
The first president of the generation that came of age during World War II, Kennedy also marked a changing of the guard in American politics and culture, said author Richard Reeves, who penned the 1993 biography “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” and edited “The Kennedy Years,” a compendium of articles from The New York Times released last month.
“Symbolically, it was a passing of the torch from the commander, [President Dwight] Eisenhower, to a Navy lieutenant — from one generation to another. Kennedy created a new political style and in many ways defined what the country was going to be about from the 1960s on as the old guard faded away,” said Reeves, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Kennedy “understood not only to give America hope, but that we were a provincial people before World War II, really, and we didn’t know how to act when we became rich and ran the world. So the Kennedys became the model of how Americans acted and what they did. In the movies, everybody had worn hats and then suddenly nobody had hats on, all because Kennedy didn’t wear one,” Reeves said.
‘A knowing look’
Eva Ban, the 43-year-old Hollywood housewife who had locked eyes with the president in Beebe’s front-page Times photo, got a lot of attention in the days that followed.
“It was such a knowing look,” said daughter Andrea Ashley, who recalled speculation that Bon may have been familiar with the president. “She got calls from reporters wanting to know who made the bikini she was wearing.”
Curiosity soon grew so intense that the Times later ran a profile of Bon and her family.
As it turned out, Eva Ban had been at the beach that Sunday to take her two younger children swimming, recalled her son Peter Ban, who is pictured behind her in Beebe’s photo.
Peter Ban, who was 13 at the time, had followed Kennedy into the water and swam hard to keep pace with him from some 50 feet away.
“I remember people shouting ‘It’s the president,’ so I followed the crowd … and just jumped in with him,” Peter Ban said. “There were other guys behind him, who I assume were body guards, and he was leading the pack. Then he came back to shore and the crowd gathered around again. He went walking briskly up the beach and that’s when my mom managed to walk up to him.”
Eva Ban, now 94, is currently lives in a Bay Area medical care facility.
Peter Ban, a financial planner in San Francisco, said his mother, her architect husband and her three children had greatly admired Kennedy.
“We all loved the president. He was one of my heroes,” Peter Ban said.
‘Such a hunk’
Beebe, who also worked for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook and went on to become a longtime staff writer and photographer there, recalled some controversy over publishing such a casual image of a sitting president.
“I gave the film to a messenger, and within 15 minutes [then-White House Press Secretary] Pierre Salinger called the Times and tried to kill the photo. That was before [editors] even got the film,” Beebe said.
Ivor Davis, who worked with Beebe at the Outlook in the now-defunct paper’s former Third Street office, said journalists were in awe of the photograph.
“It was such a hunk picture. [Kennedy] looks like a matinee idol, doesn’t he? Hollywood couldn’t have set it up any better,” said Davis, who later followed the Beatles on their 1964 American tour and is currently writing a book about the experience.
But Davis was still in Santa Monica the day word came over wire services that Kennedy had been shot.
“A noisy newsroom was thrown into total silence. Everybody froze in utter disbelief. Nobody could say anything,” Davis recalled.
“The assassination changed the course of American history and American thought,” said Reeves. “That we had a president of a different religion, from Irish outsiders, the youth emphasis of it … made the world see America differently and want to seem American. That Kennedy did when he was alive, and it made his death all the more powerful in the imagination of the world.”
‘So much to give’
In a recent national Gallup poll, Americans rated Kennedy as the greatest president since World War II, with 74% of respondents ranking him an outstanding or above-average president. Ronald Reagan was second with 61%, Bill Clinton third with 55% and Dwight Eisenhower fourth with 49%.
But Kennedy’s death also exposed darker realities.
“It was the end of innocence, and a lot of it was [Kennedy’s] fault,” Reeves said. “We ran the world and we took it as a given that if we didn’t like people we were going to kill them. The Kennedys, John and [then-Attorney General] Robert [Kennedy] created a kind of culture of assassination of leaders in other countries, never thinking it would come here.”
Genovese, who learned of Kennedy’s assassination over the loudspeaker of his Catholic school in Pasadena, said the president’s violent death and a lack of popular consensus about whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or as part of a conspiracy forever altered the American politics.
“Here we are 50 years later asking the same question,” Genovese said. “[Uncertainty about] who killed Kennedy allowed for distrust and cynicism. From the mid-’60s on there was a very significant drop in public trust of government.
“Then there was the war in Vietnam, then Watergate, the energy crisis … Reagan, but then the Iran Contra scandal,” he said. “The presidency took a lot of hits.”
Reflecting on his image of Kennedy’s fleeting dip in the Pacific Ocean, Beebe is left with a deep sense of lost potential.
“When he died my wife and I were devastated, to be honest,” Beebe said. “Kennedy had so much to give, and he was just coming into his own.”