A Mother’s Day Tale: Rose Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, & the Search for a Signature

 

by Stacey Chandler, Reference Archivist

Just in time for Mother’s Day, our digital archivists have published a folder that contains some favorite documents here at the Kennedy Library. This folder comes from the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Personal Papers, and the documents inside offer an illuminating glimpse at the intersection of Kennedy family life and the world of high-stakes international politics.

In 1962, President Kennedy’s mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, was already in the midst of a project collecting signatures from notable people to give as gifts. She eventually collected autographs from renowned creative artists like Robert Frost and Marc Chagall; U.S. Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower; and foreign leaders including David Ben-Gurion of Israel and Konrad Adenauer of West Germany, among others. But when Rose Kennedy contacted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in August 1962 to ask for signed photographs, she prompted President Kennedy to write one of the most interesting personal letters of his Presidency.

Having received the signed photographs she requested from Premier Khrushchev, Rose sent them along to the President in late October 1962 and suggested that he add his own signature. President Kennedy, hearing about his mother’s correspondence with Khrushchev for the first time, responded with this letter – an explanation that asking favors of foreign leaders could be a tricky business.

 

Typed letter signed “Jack” from John F. Kennedy to Rose Kennedy, November 3, 1962, with Rose Kennedy’s hand-written notation. Rose Kennedy Personal Papers, Box 57, Folder: Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy, 1961-1968

 

John F. Kennedy’s concern that “requests of this nature are subject to interpretations” may have been influenced by the timing of this particular request. The President received the photographs from Rose sometime between October 19 and November 3 – a time frame that captured the peak of tension in the Cuban Missile Crisis standoff between Kennedy and Khrushchev. And, in fact, this note to his mother wasn’t the only carefully-crafted letter President Kennedy sent that day. On November 3, 1962, Kennedy also wrote to Khrushchev on the delicate negotiations surrounding the end of the crisis. (You can read that letter in Robert F. Kennedy’s Attorney General Papers, here.)

 

Rose Kennedy’s response to the President’s letter was apologetic, but not without some humor:

 

Excerpt from typed carbon copy of Rose Kennedy”s letter to John F. Kennedy, November 10, 1962. Rose Kennedy Personal Papers, Box 57, Folder: Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy, 1961-1968

 

Rose recalled the Khrushchev signature episode when writing her 1974 memoir Times to Remember, noting, “We often joked about the incident later.” It is clear, though, that the President’s mother took her son’s request seriously; a few months later, she asked the President for permission to contact Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for his autograph. According to a secretary, President Kennedy responded “Yes – go ahead,” and Rose’s collection was soon expanded by signed copies of Nehru’s autobiography.

While we already knew that President Kennedy made time for his mother while he was in the White House (see his Mother’s Day telegram below), these letters and the story behind them serve as a reminder of the influence a mother can have, even in the unexpected arena of global politics.

 

Telegram from John F. Kennedy to Rose Kennedy. Rose Kennedy Personal Papers, Box 57, Folder: Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy, 1961-1968

 

You can see all of these letters in this newly-added folder in the digital archives, here.

 

Materials consulted for this post:

  • Robert F. Kennedy Attorney General Papers, Box 217, Folder: 6-4-2: Cuba: Cuban Crisis, 1962: Kennedy-Khrushchev Letters, Etc.
  • Rose Kennedy Personal Papers, Box 6, Folder: 1972: Diary Notebook B, “Girlhood, Married Life, Children, Campaigning, Later Years”
  • Rose Kennedy Personal Papers, Box 57, Folder: Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy, 1961-1968
  • Rose Kennedy Personal Papers, Box 63, Folder: Autographed Books, 1961-63, 1967
  • Rose Kennedy Personal Papers, Box 98, Folder: Special Letters: World Leaders, 1961

 

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