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

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

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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