Churchill Meets JFK: “…he thought you were a waiter, Jack.”

by Richard Langworth on 22 June 2013

Churchill aboard "Christina," 1959.

Churchill aboard “Christina,” 1959.


A reader writes: “After meeting Churchill on the Onassis yacht Christina in the mid-Fifties, John F. Kennedy allegedly asked his wife, ‘Well, how did I do?’  Jacqueline Kennedy replied, ‘I think he thought you were a waiter, Jack.’ When and where was this? Did Churchill snub Kennedy out of his dislike for his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, the defeatist former U.S. Ambassador to Britain?”

According to Martin Gilbert in the official biography, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 8 (1174), Churchill first met Onassis when the latter was invited to dinner at “La Pausa” on 16 January 1956. (WSC to his wife: “He kissed my hand!”) La Pausa was the home of Emery Reves, Churchill’s literary agent and frequent host in the south of France after his retirement as prime minister in 1955.

Jack Kennedy was not present in 1956, and the event actually took place two years later, according to my friend Barbara Leaming, whose books I recommend (Churchill Defiant: Fighting On 1945-1965; Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman; Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years). Ms. Leaming writes:

The actual source of the Jackie quote is William Douglas-Home’s oral history at the Kennedy Library.  William was Prime Minister Alec’s younger brother and he was a longtime friend of Jack’s from the period of Joe Sr.’s ambassadorship.  He was one of the many young boys in that set who were besotted by Jack’s sister Kick (Kathleen).Both William and Jackie say the meeting of JFK and Churchill took place when JFK and Jackie and William and his wife shared a vacation house in the South of France.  On page 219 of Caroline Kennedy’s Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, Jackie says that during this visit, the Agnellis took them, before a dinner, to meet Churchill on Onassis’s yacht.  Jackie says this was in 1958.

That date makes sense in terms of both JFK’s trips and Jackie’s, as well as for Churchill’s presence in the South of France. 1956 is impossible:  Jackie did not accompany Jack to Europe that summer after he lost the VP nomination because she was about to have a baby. The baby was still born and JFK had to be called home.

Of course this was not the first meeting between WSC and Onassis, which Martin Gilbert places in 1956. But it was clearly where Jackie thought Sir Winston took Jack for a waiter.

The Agnellis of course were the Fiat car dynasty, and I ran into them in researching my book on Kaiser-Frazer. At one point Henry J. Kaiser had the idea that he would buy Fiat. He had a talk with Gianni, and soon realized that if any buying was done, it would be the Italians buying Kaiser Industries….

Kennedy never actually cruised with Onassis, nor did Churchill before September-October 1958. But they met again more auspiciously after WSC’s second cruise in February-March 1959, when Christina moored at Monte Carlo. JFK was invited on board when Churchill expressed a wish to meet “young Kennedy.”

According to Willi Frischauer’s Onassis (229), Kennedy chatted with Churchill about his presidential ambitions, citing his Catholicism as a problem. (Churchill replied: “If that’s the only difficulty, you can always change your religion and still rmain a good Christian,” prompting a laugh by Kennedy.) By this time, for sure, Sir Winston knew exactly who Jack Kennedy was.

Of one thing I am sure: Churchill never snubbed Jack Kennedy because of his father. Churchill was not a hater. He sent a wreath to the funeral of Jack’s sister Kathleen in 1948. He expressed admiration of JFK on several occasions, and congratulated him after his election.

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