There was a lot of news to cover in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy were arriving at Love Field after a 13-minute flight from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. It would be Kennedy’s fourth stop in Texas, and although he hadn’t officially declared his candidacy for re-election it was clear that this was a campaign trip. There would be a motorcade through downtown Dallas including President and Mrs. Kennedy, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird, Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie. The motorcade would take them through Dealey Plaza, past swarms of crowds on the street.
So, lots of news and lots of places where the news needed to be covered. Perhaps this was the reason that Vivian Castleberry, the women’s editor of the Dallas Times Herald, was sent to the Dallas Trade Mart, where JFK was slated to give a speech on topics including education and national security.
I can imagine the scene at the Trade Mart. People milling around, or perhaps sitting in rows of seats set up for the event, waiting for the President to arrive. As Jerrie Smith, who was there with her husband, Fred, recalled, “We were so excited. We were young, and we loved Kennedy.” And it must not have seemed strange when there were delays. After all, it was the President and delays were inevitable. But it got later and later, and the crowd probably turned from excited to anxious.
The first official word that something was amiss came from J. Erik Jonsson, president of the Dallas Citizens Council. He approached the podium at 1:01 p.m. and told the crowd: “There has been a delay in the arrival of the motorcade. There has been a mishap. We do not know the extent of it or the exact nature. We believe from our report that we have just received that it is not serious. We hope you will keep your seats. As soon as we have something to tell you, believe me, we’ll do it.”
But, of course, it was serious.
Vivian Castleberry knew that it was serious when she saw members of the Washington press corps burst through side doors of the Trade Mart. And Vivian did not keep her seat as requested. Instead, she followed the Times Herald Washington Bureau Chief, Bob Hollingsworth, and the two of them kept a phone line open to the paper to feed editors all of the fast-moving information from the Trade Mart. The facts were efficiently relayed in this event that was the epitome of front page news. But Vivian’s reporting instincts were not always on these facts. As she recalled:
Right at the front of the Trade Mart there was a little room that had been set up for his personal use and the red telephone was in it. And I saw that and I also saw the cowboy hat that had been placed there for him. And I saw the gifts that had been placed there for him to take back to the children. And I don’t know whether a man would have seen those things or not, but I saw them.
Vivian put in a very long day on November 22, 1963. After working the phones at the Trade Mart she moved to Parkland Hospital to report from that location. Then she went to the newspaper’s offices, where the rooms were filling up with out-of-town correspondents. The marching orders from the editors were clear, according to Vivian: “Help people in whatever way you can; lend them your typewriter, you know, give them anything they need; give them any help that they want. Don’t get in their way.” Vivian said that it was difficult to cede her phone and typewriter to out-of-towners who didn’t know that the hospital and courthouse weren’t next door to each other, but it was what she was asked to do so she pitched in and helped.
At the end of the day, the phone on Vivian’s desk rang and she answered it:
I got a telephone call from my first cousin who was the assistant to Abraham Zapruder … And when Peggy got on the phone she said to me, “Vivian, I saw a president die today.” I said, “Peggy, don’t say another word until I put a piece of paper in the typewriter.” And I got her first-person story through sobs … This was a woman who was standing at Zapruder’s left elbow while he was handling the camera, and she was holding the extra film, and she was holding, you know, the tape, and she was doing all these things.
Unfortunately, the story Vivian wrote about her cousin Peggy was never published. There just wasn’t room in the paper. And Vivian never had a chance to write the story about the room at the Trade Mart with the cowboy hat and the presents for Caroline and John John.
But Vivian’s experiences on that fateful day in November remind us that these women’s editors in the 1960s weren’t just thinking about brides and Eastern Star meetings and home furnishings. On the pages in the women’s sections, the editors were covering many critical issues of the day – education, health, early challenges of women in the workplace. And they were also sometimes – by design or happenstance – at the places where the “hard news” of the day was happening.
When these women were in those places where the hard news was happening, their journalistic skills were as strong as those of all of the men surrounding them. But these women also brought a perspective to stories that eluded many of the men. They saw human details that might be passed over in the search for the facts that were valued for the front page.
In her 1989 oral history, Vivian Castleberry reflected on the changes to journalism in post-Watergate years – changes that have only intensified in the decades since:
We’re going for the jugular … in that we are looking for the things that don’t work instead of the things that do work. We are trying to find a rotten egg under every laurel leaf, so to speak. And I think that eventually it’s going to make a difference. I think we’re going through – history never comes to terms with its times that it’s going through, you’ve got to get beyond it and look back to see what you did.
Fifty years later, we are still coming to terms with what happened on November 22, 1963. There are many accounts from the time that can help us in this process. But I find myself wishing that I knew more about the feelings of Vivian’s cousin as she held the film for Abraham Zapruder. And I wish I knew more about the gifts meant for Caroline and John John that sat in the small room with the red phone at the Trade Mart.
Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source material are invaluable.