How We Almost Lost JFK Twice

This week we mark the loss half a century ago of President John F. Kennedy. For that generation, Kennedy’s death was the “where were you” moment. For our generation, the “where were you” moment is September 11th. In the middle of all that devastation, few knew that we “lost” JFK in that moment, too. Locked away in a safe in Five World Trade Center were 40,000 negatives of photos of the Kennedy circle by photographer and family insider Jacques Lowe. The trusted photographer of the Kennedys since the late 1950s, Lowe captured many of the iconic pictures of JFK and Camelot in the making. Thanks to the magic of modern technology, Lowe’s photographs have been restored. Those photographs, many never before published, are now united with Lowe’s recollections in The Kennedy Years: A Memoir. Lowe’s words and pictures remind us of how Kennedy became our first modern president in the sense of being the first to take full advantage of the technologies of the day to project a particular image to the public, both for personal political gain and to inspire the nation. We’ll never be able to bring Kennedy himself back to life, but Lowe’s images and recollections raise the Kennedy myth from the dead and allow us to recover the best and the brightest of that moment.

Lowe himself passed away in May 2001, just months before the terrorist attacks. He always considered his time filming the Kennedys to be his most important work, both historically and artistically. When Lowe moved back to his native Europe in 1968, he bought an extra ticket so that the negatives could sit beside him on the plane. When he returned to America in the 1980s, Lowe tried to get the negatives insured, but no company would take on the liability for those literally priceless pieces of film. Lowe finally decided to store the negatives in a safe in the seemingly secure World Trade Center Complex, close enough for him to access when needed from his studio, where he kept separately the original contact sheets and prints taken from the negatives.

When Lowe’s daughter, Thomasina, to whom Jacques entrusted the negatives, learned of the attacks on September 11th, she faced a unique dilemma: “Do I save myself or my father’s precious negatives, depicting one of the greatest statesmen of the modern era…?” “In my mind’s eye,” Thomasina writes in the preface to the book, “I could see my father running down Broadway against the flow of traffic with just one aim: to rescue his negatives. I have no doubt that he would not have paused for thought.” Thomasina chose to remain safe that day, but she’s still “haunted by the dilemma.” When the “strangely intact” safe was found in the wreckage, she discovered that the negatives inside had been destroyed. For the past 10 years, restorers using modern technology have painstakingly restored Lowe’s images from his original contact sheets and prints, which presented problems of size, scratches, dust, and Lowe’s own grease pencil markings. (A video of some of the restoration efforts can be found here.) “More than ten years after that grim day in New York,” Thomasina Lowe writes, “the publication of this book stands as a testament to the possibility of rebirth in the aftermath of almost inconceivable horror.”

Sadly, Kennedy’s assassination often overshadows the rest of his life. Lowe’s photographs allow the vigorous, youthfully alive Kennedy and his circle to shine once more by going back to the beginning, which Lowe himself fortunately found himself part of. Jacques’ relationship with the Kennedy’s actually began not with Jack, but with Bobby Kennedy. Lowe met Bobby while covering RFK’s involvement as chief counsel in the Senate committee investigating racketeering in 1957. RFK invited the freelance photographer to dinner at his home and the two struck up a friendship. During their time together, Lowe photographed RFK and his family. As a gift, Lowe presented RFK with a set of prints of those photographs. When RFK’s saw the prints, he asked Lowe to make a second set for his father, Joe, Sr. When Joe, Sr., saw the prints, he asked Lowe to photograph another of his sons then running for reelection to the Senate—Jack.

After a chilly first meeting, Lowe soon won the weary campaigner and his family over with his photographs. Working for $150 a day plus expenses, Lowe became the Kennedy’s prime image maker as the Senate reelection campaign soon became a secret (and then not so secret) campaign for the 1960 Democratic nomination for President. Lowe’s pictures capture Kennedy on the cusp of becoming “Kennedy.” The public man and master of persuading the public through pure youthful confidence and charisma seems light years away from simple images such as Lowe’s photograph of Jack and Jackie enjoying a quiet, undisturbed breakfast in a diner on the campaign trail in 1959 (shown above). While Jackie sips coffee and reads the newspaper, Jack folds his hands and muses on the day’s work ahead. Morning light penetrating the window blinds rakes across Kennedy’s hair, face, and hands, perhaps foreshadowing the larger spotlight to come. Around this same time, Lowe photographed the young couple freshly disembarked from the small plane and greeted by an underwhelming contingent of just three supporters—an image Kennedy told Lowe later was his favorite by the photographer. “Maybe nobody remembers that day,” JFK explained, “but that’s why it’s my favorite picture.” Thanks to Lowe’s pictures, we can now remember that long gone day, too, and better understand the makings not just of history, but also of mythology.

Interspersed between the memorable and new images are reproductions of Lowe’s contact sheets, the tiny proofs where the Kennedy mythos was strategically chosen. Seeing the pictures not chosen was as fascinating for me as seeing those that made the cut. Where Jackie Kennedy saw each “image [as] a piece of art… composition, light, and shadow,” Jacques writes, “Jack looked at content. For him a photograph was a document.” Fortunately for us, Jacques Lowe saw his photographs as both art and history, because his art helped shape that history in so many ways. Kennedy’s the first modern president in the sense that he’s the television president from the debates with Nixon to the short programs welcoming voters into his world, but it’s Lowe’s timeless photographs that leave the most indelible mark—time literally held still for us to appreciate and marvel over.

Lowe never hides his affection for the Kennedys in his words or his pictures. A freelancer, Lowe never needed to feign lack of bias in the name of journalism. There’s a quaintness to his prose (which was taken from talks, speeches, random writings, and family stories and edited into a chronological order) that our modern knowledge of Kennedy’s womanizing and multiple hidden illnesses make almost impossible. Lowe stopped working exclusively documenting JFK’s presidency after the first year. After the excitement of the campaign and the whirlwind tour of Europe in 1961, Lowe grew bored with the daily grind of government. Although he continued to be close with the family, Lowe learned of JFK’s assassination while in New York and rushed down to Washington in time to film the funeral. Personal anguish over RFK’s assassination in 1968 set Lowe packing for Europe, where he stayed until 1985. Amazingly, Lowe didn’t exhibit his Kennedy pictures until 1990, needing more than two decades of distance to finally let the public see his work.

In the end, Lowe often asked himself how he found himself part of history, especially why he decided to dedicate his life to documenting the Kennedys. “In Jack Kennedy and in Bobby Kennedy I had something I could believe in,” Lowe concludes, “something I could look up to, something that was bigger than me. When Jack went, we lost all that.” Through The Kennedy Years: A Memoir, Jacques Lowe’s pictures and words allow us to recover at least some of the Kennedy mystique—not for pure, blind nostalgia, as some would claim, but rather for that something “bigger” Lowe alludes to. Modern media loves to cut giants down to size, especially those who aspire to the highest offices. The Kennedy Years: A Memoir reminds us that sometimes we need giants—not to follow blindly, but as ideals (however false) to aspire to. I was born years after JFK died, but my parents filled my Irish Catholic childhood with his memory as he looked down on us in the form of a plaster bust, one of the few pieces of art my parents owned. Literally a household god for me, Kennedy’s life reminded us of all that we can achieve while his death reminded us of how little time we each have to do it. Reading The Kennedy Years: A Memoir and musing upon the pictures (none of which directly depict that terrible day in Dallas we remember this week), I found myself believing again, even in these dark economic and spiritual days for America, in bigger and better things.

[Image: Jacques Lowe. Jack and Jackie Kennedy eating breakfast in a diner on the campaign trail, 1959. © The Estate of Jacques Lowe.]

[Many thanks to Rizzoli USA for the image above and for a review copy of The Kennedy Years: A Memoir by Jacques Lowe, with a preface by Thomasina Lowe.]

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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