John F. Kennedy Assassinated

On Friday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot as he rode in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas; he died shortly thereafter. The thirty-fifth president was forty-six years old and had served less than three years in office. During that short time, Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, became immensely popular both at home and abroad.

President John F. Kennedy, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. U.S. Navy photograph, 1961. Prints & Photographs Division.

For the next several days, stunned Americans gathered around their television sets as regular programming yielded to nonstop coverage of the assassination and funeral. From their living rooms they watched Mrs. Kennedy, still wearing her blood-stained suit, return to Washington with the president’s body.

The President’s Car, Carrying the Wounded President John F. Kennedy, Speeds Toward Parkland Hospital. United Press International, Nov. 23, 1963. New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Many witnessed the November 24 murder of Kennedy’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Viewers also followed the saddled, but riderless, horse in the funeral cortege from the White House to the U.S. Capitol, where Kennedy lay in state. They saw the president’s young son step forward on his third birthday to salute as his father’s coffin was borne to Arlington National Cemetery.

Robert E. Lee’s Onetime Home, Arlington House, looms above the Kennedy Family Gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, [between 1980 and 2006]. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

Television played a significant role in Americans’ collective mourning. For the first time, the majority of citizens witnessed the ceremonies surrounding the death of a beloved leader, creating a shared experience of the tragedy. Even now, television programming maintains public memory of the assassination by transmitting vivid images from those difficult days to successive generations.

Despite the intimate experience of events surrounding the death of John F. Kennedy, the nation failed to achieve closure. Oswald never confessed, and the facts of the case remain mysterious. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone failed to satisfy the public. In 1976, the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations reopened the investigation of the murder. The Committee reported that Lee Harvey Oswald probably was part of a conspiracy that may have involved organized crime.

Interest in the assassination remains acute. Congress enacted the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act on October 26, 1992. Signed by President George H. W. Bush, the legislation opened most government records to the public and facilitated use by designating the National Archives and Records Administration sole repository of government files pertaining to the assassination.

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An American Beauty

On November 22, 1880, “Lillian Russell” made her debut at Tony Pastor’s Theatre in New York City. Within weeks, the beautiful blonde added a prominent role in The Pie-Rats of Penn Yann to her stage credits. This spirited travesty of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance made Lillian Russell an instant star. For the next thirty-five years, Russell maintained her position as one of the first ladies of American musical theater.

Born Helen Louise Leonard in 1861, she was “Nellie” to her family—her father, an easygoing newspaperman, her mother, an ambitious social reformer and crusader for women’s rights, and four sisters. Trained in music and foreign languages, in the late 1870s she moved with her mother from Chicago to New York in order to receive advanced voice instruction. Soon, she met Tony Pastor, the vaudeville impresario who transformed the slightly seedy variety format into respectable family entertainment. Having previously only made appearances as a chorus member, Nellie Leonard, with guidance from Pastor, became “Lillian Russell, The English Ballad Singer.” She was seen at Tony Pastor’s by almost everyone in New York—-except her mother.

Lillian Russell, 1861-1922. Falk, c1901. Prints & Photographs Division

“For more than a month I succeeded in appearing in Tony Pastor’s every night, without my mother receiving so much as an inkling of my new occupation. This was easier than it sounds because mother was a busy woman…But one night at dinner I had a sudden premonition that something was wrong. I raised my eyes and found the glance of a newspaperman who lived in the same house…”Mrs. Leonard,” he said, “do you know that there is a girl named Lillian Russell, who sings at Tony Pastor’s Theatre, who looks enough like your little Nellie to be her sister?”

Lillian Russell

Charles W. Stein, ed. American Vaudeville As Seen By Its Contemporaries (New York: Knopf, 1984), 13-14.

Assured that Tony Pastor’s Theatre was “respectable,” Mrs. Leonard accepted the newspaperman’s invitation to see the show and joined in the thunderous applause following her daughter’s performance.

Hearing her sing in The Pie-Rats of Penn Yann, Sir Arthur Sullivan pressured Russell to leave Tony Pastor’s for an equivalent role in the legitimate production. She refused to break her contract with Pastor. By 1888, Russell commanded $20,000 a year headlining the Casino Theatre in New York City. There she took on some of her most acclaimed roles including Gabrielle Dalmont in An American Beauty—a title that became her soubriquet.

Entering her second decade on the stage, Russell was as popular as ever. Touring with the Casino company made Lillian Russell a household name. The turn of the century found Russell older and fuller of figure, though still highly paid and much in demand. In 1899, she moved away from light opera and toward vaudeville by joining Lew Fields and Joe Weber‘s theatrical company. At the Weber and Fields Music Hall, and with their touring company, she starred in productions including Whirl-i-Gig, Hoity-Toity, and Whoop-Dee-Doo.

The Maid of TimbuctooExternal.” Words by J. W. Johnson; music by Bob Cole; New York: Jos. W. Stern & Co., 1903. Representations of Blackness in Music of the United States (1830-1920)External. Brown University Library

Whoop-Dee-Doo starred Russell as a French countess who purchases art for American millionaires. At one point in the play she sings the Johnson and Cole song “The Maid of Timbuctoo.” From 1901 to 1906 poet James Weldon Johnson frequently produced popular songs with composer Bob Cole. Joe Weber and Lew Fields are pictured in the upper corners of the title page of “Maid of Timbuctoo.” Whoop-Dee-Doo was the vaudeville team’s last collaboration for several years.

One of America’s first celebrities, the public was as fascinated with Lillian Russell’s private life as they were enchanted by her stage presence. Although her solid middle-class background and lady-like demeanor helped elevate the social status of entertainers, Russell’s four marriages (one to a bigamist), her rumored affairs with Diamond Jim Brady and the Great Sandow, and her appetite for food and jewelry added to her notoriety.

After marrying prominent Republican Alexander P. Moore in 1912, Russell increasingly focused on politics. She presided over the opening of Progressive Party headquarters in Pittsburgh, sold Liberty Bonds during World War I, and campaigned for Warren Harding in the 1920 election.

Lillian Russell died in 1922 shortly after completing a fact-finding mission to Europe on behalf of President Harding. She was buried with full military honors.

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