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June 5, 1968: The Last Hours of RFK

A remembrance of that awful night—and a brief, powerful friendship.

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The Final Triumph
Pierre Salinger watching Robert Kennedy declare victory in the California primary on TV.

Photographs from RFK: A Photographer’s Journal by Harry Benson, published by powerHouse Books. Copyright © 2008 by Harry Benson.  

Around 8:30 p.m., we were in Suite 516 of the Ambassador Hotel, whose windows looked down upon Wilshire Boulevard. In memory, there were about 30 men and women in the long windowed suite, talking in knots, most leaning forward, mouths to ears, like conspirators. They were wealthy California Democrats, big-time lawyers, movie executives (but no stars), political professionals, journalists, including my friends Jack Newfield, Budd Schulberg, Jimmy Breslin, and my younger brother Brian. It was June 4, 1968. There were no laptops, or cell phones, or BlackBerrys, or cable-television news either. So telephones rang insistently in the suite, were picked up, and names were called in stage whispers. Or the door would open, someone in shirtsleeves would arrive, whisper the latest news, then turn abruptly and leave. A few people mixed drinks at the bar, clunking ice, nibbling from plates of rolled-up room-service ham and wedges of Cheddar and Swiss cheese. There was no music. This was not, after all, a party. That would be later, after the results were in, at a place called The Factory. This was politics. This was, in fact, the last stop for the campaign of Robert F. Kennedy in California. Downstairs, the ballroom was full, waiting noisily for news of a victory and a chance to roar for their candidate.

While we waited in 516 for the polls to close and the returns to come in, I talked for a while with the movie director John Frankenheimer. The advertising agency Papert, Koenig, Lois, Inc., had hired him in March to work with the Kennedy campaign on shooting promotional material, including some commercials. He and Kennedy had become friends, and the candidate had spent the night before in Frankenheimer’s home in Malibu. On this Tuesday, Frankenheimer had driven Kennedy to the Ambassador, where they arrived around 7:30 p.m. Like me, Frankenheimer was a native New Yorker, and I noticed that he referred to Kennedy as Bob, as I did. Where we came from, people named “Bobby” were either 9 years old or professional ballplayers. We talked a bit about the town that spawned us, and then about Frankenheimer’s great paranoid masterwork from 1962, The Manchurian Candidate, which starred Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. It had been withdrawn from public viewing after the killing of Jack Kennedy in 1963 (it would finally be rereleased in 1988). The story, based on a novel by Richard Condon, was about programming a man to assassinate a presidential candidate.

“Do you think it could happen in what is laughingly called ‘real life’?” I asked him.

Frankenheimer smiled in a nervous way, and glanced at the door of the suite.

“Yeah.”

Across the hall, in Room 511, Robert Kennedy was waiting, too. This was the night of the California primary. A week before, Kennedy had lost the Oregon primary to McCarthy, his first loss in the near-frantic campaign that had started on March 16. If he lost tonight, if California went to McCarthy, it would be impossible to get the nomination at the convention in Chicago in August. His wife, Ethel; a few of his children; close family friends; some of the top professionals in the campaign: All went in and out of 511, some to deliver bulletins, others to provide laughter or diversion. Even Freckles, the homely springer spaniel who had become a star at Kennedy’s side during the campaign, had made it into 511. There, Kennedy sat in shirtsleeves, the cuffs turned up, his tie loose, grinning with a kind of dark Irish fatalism in his eyes.

I didn’t meet Kennedy until Saint Patrick’s Day, 1966. I had been covering the war in Vietnam for the New York Post, and Kennedy had sent me a letter admiring my columns and inviting me to call him. We agreed to meet at a Saint Patrick’s Day breakfast at Charley O’s, a restaurant near Rockefeller Center. The place was full of the usual green ties and green cardboard derbies and people getting ready to march. I saw Kennedy across the room, talking to various people. He was better-looking than he was in most photographs, the hair fashionably long, sometimes falling across his brow to be brushed back with a quick flick. He seemed taller than he actually was (five-foot-nine) and moved athletically, like a good middleweight. He was quick to smile a rueful smile, usually in a self-deprecating manner. But in his eyes, as I came closer to introduce myself, I could see an almost permanent sadness. By all accounts, he’d been wrecked by his brother’s death.

“How are ya?” he said.

I said I was fine, for this hour of the morning, and we began the friendship. In the few years that followed, I would see him fairly often, in situations that were off the record. He liked me, Breslin, and Newfield because we all came originally from the New York beyond Manhattan: Breslin from Queens, Newfield from Bedford-Stuyvesant, I from blue-collar South Brooklyn. He was curious about the people that shaped us, and the places we’d lived in—so different from the world that shaped him. He would often call us, one at a time, when he was in town, and take guided tours into those worlds. He didn’t want to see it from the back of a passing car. He’d want to pull over, approach a group on a summer stoop, or entering a church, or an Irish bar. He learned a lot from the people he met on those small journeys. And the people he met learned a lot from him.


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