Churchill Meets JFK, 1958: “He thought you were a waiter, Jack”
Q: Was JFK snubbed?
(Updated from 2014.) After meeting Churchill on the Onassis yacht Christina in the mid-Fifties, where he appeared in a white dinner jacket, 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?” —R.S., Vermont
According to Martin Gilbert in Winston S. Churchill, Vol. 8 (1174), Churchill first met Onassis when the latter was invited to dinner at La Pausa on 16 January 1956. Onassis worshipped Churchill. (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 retiring as prime minister in 1955.
Jack Kennedy deeply admired Churchill and read his books as a boy. His chance to meet his hero came in 1958, 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). Barbara 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 Douglas-Home’s younger brother. He was a longtime friend of JFK from the period of his father 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. See page 219, Caroline Kennedy’s Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. Here Jackie says that during this visit, the Agnellis took them, before a dinner, to meet Churchill on Onassis’s yacht. Jackie dates this as 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 stillborn and JFK had to be called home.
Churchill rarely nursed a grudge. Though Joe Kennedy had upset him with his defeatism when the war began, he quickly forgot. He sent flowers to the funeral of Kathleen Kennedy and admired JFK from what he read about the young man and heard from mutual acquaintances. Happily, they were destined to meet again.
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. Sir Winston had 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 remain a good Christian,” prompting a laugh by Kennedy.) By this time, for sure, Sir Winston knew exactly who John F. Kennedy was.
One thing is certain: 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.
* The Agnellis of course ran the Fiat car dynasty. 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 Agnelli. He soon realized that if any buying was done, it would be the Agnellis buying Kaiser Industries….