Today, 22 November 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of three remarkable deaths, which at the time made a triangle from Oxford, UK to Los Angeles, California and Dallas, Texas.
As a result of different time zones, the first death on that day was in Oxford, the agnostic turned Anglican, C S Lewis. To someone of my age, who grew up with a new Narnia book nearly every Christmas, his death was a first. Not the first death in my family, but the first famous person that I had known who died. I was still at school but had begun to read his books for adults, starting with The Screwtape Letters, which is being read on Radio 4 by Simon Russell Beale as part of the BBC CS Lewis anniversary this week.
By some appalling coincidence, the trajectory of the second and third notable deaths on that day must have been started at almost exactly the same time. President John F Kennedy was shot in Dallas about forty-five minutes before 1:00pm Central time zone. The announcement that he had been declared dead at Parkland Hospital was made on national radio giving the time of death as 1:0pm, or 2:00pm Eastern Standard time (which was the time in Washington); in Los Angeles at around 11:30 on the same day but in the Pacific time zone (two hours behind Central), Aldous Huxley, author, mystic and pacifist had received the first of two injections of LSD that would end his life, peacefully at around 5:30.
The Kennedy Presidency, above all others, was a televisual phenomenon beginning even before the Election that swept JFK (the first Roman Catholic President) to victory with the now famous televised Presidential Candidate Debates, three gruelling verbal duels beamed to the nation on every channel, in which Kennedy looked every bit The Statesman while his opponent, Richard Nixon managed to look like a used-car salesman trying to sell you a rust bucket.
It went on from there, the cameras followed the Kennedys every step of the way, at home and abroad. Like a roller-coaster there were plenty of ups and downs; Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, “ich bin ein Berliner”, and two visits to the UK in June 1961 when he met HM the Queen and the PM and again June 1963 where he met Harold Macmillan and went on to a rapturous reception in Ireland.
The sudden death of the President of the United States of America is one of those seismic moments that remains blasted on to your memory for all time, so that even 50 years later you can still remember exactly where you were when you heard the news. It belongs in the same part of the brain as the death of Princess Diana, the attack on the Twin Towers and even on a lighter note the day we beat Germany in the World Cup!
Newspaper and television coverage of The President’s death was so overwhelming that the deaths of two seminal authors of the 20th century got scant coverage. This was obviously a natural bias, world interest in the situation in Dallas was massive even before the assassination, The Kennedys were the glamour ‘royalty’ of those days; Jackie Kennedy set the fashionistas twitching and Camelot was the place to be; it was not until some time later that the dirty tricks, the womanising and the rest came floating to the surface. On that day in Dallas, the Kennedys were still top of the billing.
For anyone else whose relative or dear friend died on that day the commemorations relating to the deaths of these three remarkable men can only bring back for them whatever heartache they were going through at the same time.