Churchill Meets JFK, 1958: “He thought you were a waiter, Jack”

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

A: No

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 aboard “Christi­na,” 1959. He wears the cap of an Elder Broth­er of Trin­i­ty House, the British Light­house author­i­ty, to which he was admit­ted in 1913. (Hills­dale Col­lege Press)


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….

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