Fifteen Minutes: Behind a University's Very Close Doors... 'The JFK Suite'

There are no neon signs or gaudy trimmings proclaiming the site of room 14 in the F entryway of Winthrop House. A simple blue placard tacked to the door identifies the dorm room haunted by, as one visitor called it, "The Ghost of Charisma Past." Welcome to the JFK Suite.

On May 29, 1970, in commemoration of the 53rd birthday of John F. Kennedy '40, the Institute of Politics created this cozy home-away-from-home for assorted visiting dignitaries, scholars and public figures. Once the posh pad of JFK and his senior year roomie--future Congressman Torbert H. MacDonald '40--the suite is also let out to supplicating students who want to bask in the nostalgia of JFK and his memorabilia.

Behind the locked door lies the New Frontier, a frontier that tickles the nose with "a whiff of history," as another guest put it. The door opens to a quaint sitting room, bedroom, kitchenette and bathroom while books by and about the President overflow the bookshelf and framed photos and newspaper clippings deck the walls. Here, a snapshot of the swimming team; there, JFK attending the Harvard-Columbia football game in 1963; upon the bedroom door, the 1940 University Class Day Program announcing all the swingin' graduation activities. "There's a flavor to it," says Catherine L. McLaughlin, deputy director of the IOP. "That's why we didn't change it. We want to maintain the feeling of a dorm room." Vivian M. Song '02, modern-day inhabitant of F entryway, acknowledges the positive aura of the room, but, as an advocate of progress, regards it as "A little shabby. I would have done a little more work with it, especially in the bedroom."

The most revealing asset of the JFK Suite proves not to be the photo of Jack in his swimming trunks, but rather the guest book whose pages overflow with the autographs and comments of admiring denizens. Ted Koppel, Ron Brown, George McGovern and Sergei Khrushchev, seeking respite from the chaotic world beyond Johnston Gate, have all found solace here. Reports of sojourns range from such witticisms as "very stimulating" to "a bloody good time." John Vesey raves about this Camelot. "Wow! The Kennedy vibes are intense. Inspirational sounds so put-on but it certainly is that." Occasional remarks invite puzzled looks-- "ONION," "Long live chocolate chip cookies!" and the oh-so political "No comment." Others invoke giggles--"Yowzah!" and "Much nicer than Nixon's old room at Whittier." Sensing conspiracy, Vicki Hunter pens, "The truth is out there." Dan Rather of CBS News, however, takes the cake, as he ponders the deeper philosophical quandaries of our time: "Kenneth--What IS the frequency?"

What about the man behind the placard? During his studies in Cambridge, JFK nearly drowned in the ivy sea, fumbling through campus politics and athletics. A member of the Hasty Pudding and the Freshman Smoker Committee, he managed to pull gentleman's Cs. Ronald Ferry, then head of Winthrop House, characterized JFK as "reasonably inconspicuous," and an old friend recalls his amorous reputation: "Jack never even went steady until late in his senior year." Author and Crimson editor Cleveland Amory '39, described him as "a pleasant, interesting guy. But the legend that we considered him destined for the presidency is pure hogwash." As JFK discovered during the Cold War, and as his former classmates witnessed during his reign in the White House, never underestimate the potential of the red, or the crimson, tide. A 1961 article in The Washington Post reports, "Musing, no doubt, about [JFK's] singular lack of prophetic indications, today's undergraduates at Winthrop House have posted a sign at the portals: 'Be Kind to Your Roommate.'"

--K. E. Kitchen