She was known to the world as “Jackie” but to me, she was and always will be, “Mrs. Kennedy.” With the movie “Jackie” up for an Academy Award this weekend, I thought I’d share one of my favorite memories.
February 22, 1963. JFK and Jackie Kennedy had flown down to Palm Beach, and that night, they made an unusual request of me. It’s hard to believe it has been 54 years since I went on that “little” 50-mile hike in my Florsheim dress shoes. Here’s an excerpt from MRS. KENNEDY AND ME (Gallery/Simon and Schuster, 2012).
THE FIFTY MILE HIKE
I was sitting on the bed in boxers and a t-shirt when the White House phone rang.
“Oh, Mr. Hill,” the breathy familiar voice said, “the president and I would like you to do something for us.”
I looked at my watch. It was eight o’clock. What could they possibly need me to do? I didn’t have a good feeling about this.
The previous month, President Kennedy had unwittingly started a fad that had by this time spread from coast-to-coast, and of which I was about to become a spontaneous participant. It all began when the president came upon a 1908 executive order in which President Theodore Roosevelt set forth rules for Marine officers to be able to complete a 50-mile hike. President Kennedy sent a memo to Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup suggesting that a similar 50-mile challenge would be a good test to see how the present-day officers could perform the task.
Concerned that the average American was becoming more and more unfit, as he had written in the Sports Illustrated article, President Kennedy announced that he would put his White House staff to the 50-mile test as well. It was meant to be a publicity stunt to kick-start a national fitness campaign, and the press ate it up. Poor Pierre Salinger, who was himself a poster child for the “soft American” declined the challenge, but publicly vowed to increase his daily dose of exercise. Meanwhile, the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, readily accepted the challenge and completed his own 50-mile hike in just seventeen hours.
Now, two weeks later, Jackie Kennedy was calling me at eight o’clock in the evening with a special request—not just from her but from the president as well.
“Yes, Mrs. Kennedy,” I said. “What can I do for you?”
“You know Stash and Chuck Spalding are here with us, and they are going to go on a 50-mile hike, beginning tonight.”
“Oh really?” This was news to me.
“Yes, they’re going to walk on the new Sunshine Parkway, and the president and I plan to go out and check on them from time to time, so we would like for you to be there to make sure everything is okay. The president wants to make sure nothing happens to them.”
“Sure, Mrs. Kennedy. Whatever you need me to do.”
“Oh, Mr. Hill, you are so wonderful.”
“When do they want to start?” I asked.
“At twelve midnight, tonight. Will you be ready?”
“I’ll be ready, Mrs. Kennedy.”
As I hung up the phone, I thought, What have I gotten myself into now? What will I wear? What about shoes?
The only shoes I had were my Florsheim wingtip dress shoes. They were well made and stood up well to the long hours spent standing, but I wasn’t sure how comfortable they’d be on a 50-mile hike. I had no choice. They would have to suffice.
I didn’t have workout clothes. The most comfortable things I had with me were a pair of casual slacks and a sweatshirt. There was no choice. I got dressed, jumped in my car, and headed over there.
The president and Mrs. Kennedy had gone to the Wrightsmans’ for dinner, so I telephoned their residence and informed Agent Paul Landis what was going on. His response was a hearty laugh.
The Secret Service Command Center, when I notified them, had a similar reaction. Everybody was glad it was me, and not them, going through this ordeal.
While they were laughing hysterically, at my expense, I was trying to think ahead to everything we might need.
I contacted the Army Sergeant who was assigned to me to drive Mrs. Kennedy, and told him I needed him, the station wagon, and a big cooler with ice. Our station wagon had radio equipment so I could stay in touch with Palm Beach base and the Secret Service Command Post, and I figured the ice would come in handy one way or another.
I soon found out that Prince Radziwill and Chuck Spalding had been practicing for this hike for months. They had the best hiking boots money could buy. I also learned this whole escapade was the result of a bet. The president had challenged his buddies that they were not in good enough physical shape to do what Americans were doing all across the country. Me? I had only my Florsheims and my pride to do better than they did.
When we got together around eleven-thirty, I also learned there would be a few important observers on this adventure: Professional photographer Mark Shaw, who had been with Life magazine, would be photographing the hike for posterity; and New York City doctor Max Jacobson and a Navy Medical Corpsman from the White House physician’s office would be on hand for medical assistance.
The newly completed Sunshine State Parkway was a north-south highway that ran from Miami to Fort Pierce along the east side of Florida. It was not yet fully operational, which made it an ideal place to walk and not worry too much about traffic.
So there we were, Prince “Stash” Radziwill, Chuck Spalding, and me, with our entourage, at midnight on the Sunshine State Parkway. We were all competitive, and knowing the Attorney General had finished in seventeen hours, we were determined to beat his time. Fortunately the weather cooperated with comfortable cool air as we began the walk. After a few miles, we all realized we were working up quite an appetite.
“Can you have some food sent out to us, Clint?” Stash asked.
“Sure,” I said. “What do you want?”
“We need some protein,” Chuck said. “How about some steaks?”
“Come morning a glass of champagne with some orange juice would be nice,” added Stash.
This was obviously not your average 50-mile hike.
So, periodically, we would stop for a short rest, a cigarette—the three of us were all smokers—and I would radio back to the house and request certain things be sent out to us.
Steaks, orange juice, bottled water, champagne. When I asked, people responded. Everyone seemed to be in on this little jaunt and was eager to help.
We walked through the night, and shortly after the sun came up, Paul Landis brought Mrs. Kennedy and her sister Lee out to see how we were doing. They walked with us for a while verbally challenging Stash and Chuck Spalding to go faster. I was determined to stay ahead of the pack, and that just led to more jokes, more laughter. Mrs. Kennedy thought Mark Shaw should appear in a photo, so she ran ahead of us with one of his cameras and clicked a few shots.
After about thirty minutes, they got back into their car to return to Palm Beach.
“We’ll be back to check on you!” Mrs. Kennedy called out. “Don’t give up!”
Every so often we would stop to eat, relieve ourselves, and rest. Chuck and the prince had come prepared with fold out mats to spread out on the grass, and a few hours later, they happened to be resting when Mrs. Kennedy and Lee returned, along with President Kennedy.
Everybody was in good spirits, and the visit by the president gave us all renewed determination to finish what we had started.
By this time, the word had spread and soon the Florida State Police stopped by to encourage us. On and on we walked down the Sunshine Parkway. Mile after mile after mile. Prince Radziwill and Chuck started to have problems with their feet, and when they took off their boots, big blisters were forming. I could feel the same thing happening to me, but I didn’t dare mention it. All of us were bound and determined to carry on.
At one point, Dr. Jacobson administered oxygen to Stash and Chuck to give them a boost. I declined the oxygen, but made the mistake of sitting down in the front seat of the station wagon during one of our breaks, and fell sound asleep. It lasted just long enough for Mark Shaw to take a photo, and then they woke me up and we were back to the walk.
Throughout the journey, I would radio back to the command post to advise of our progress. Somewhere around the 45-mile point, President and Mrs. Kennedy returned again to encourage us.
Finally, at about eight o’clock on the evening of February 23, we reached the fifty-mile point, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The adrenaline that had been flowing for the past twenty hours now stopped and I could feel the effects. Aches and pains in my back and legs, blisters on my feet. But, by God, we had finished.
On the drive back to the Paul residence, all I could think about was getting in a hot shower and going straight to bed. But when we pulled up, I was informed that the president and Mrs. Kennedy wanted me to come inside.
They were entertaining a small group of friends, and as soon as I walked in, President Kennedy handed me a tall glass filled with champagne.
“Congratulations, Clint!” he said.
Then he pulled out a handmade medallion made of purple construction paper that was attached to a ribbon of yellow crepe paper. As President Kennedy placed the mock medal around my neck, he read the inscription he had handwritten on the front:
“For Dazzle. February 23, 1963. The Order of the Pace Maker, He whom the Secret Service will follow into the Battle of the Sunshine Highway. Signed John F. Kennedy.”
He looked at me and with a twinkle in his eyes, he added, “I even drew the presidential seal on there to make it official.”
Everybody laughed, and I was beaming. I was so impressed that the President of the United States had taken the time to prepare a handmade, personally inscribed medallion to me. It had been an arduous—some might say frivolous—task, but this simple, sincere gesture by President Kennedy made every step worth it.
The kid from the North Dakota Children’s Home has come a long way.
A few weeks later, a package arrived for me at my office in the White House. Inside was a leather bound photo album. Engraved on the front in simple gold letters, it read:
FOR C.H. FROM M.S.
And on the spine:
THAT PALM BEACH 50
Inside were thirty original photos by Mark Shaw, all printed on heavy card, chronicling the 50-mile hike.
It’s been fifty years since that momentous hike, and still, that leather bound book, and the handmade paper medal presented to me by President John F. Kennedy are two of the most precious mementoes I have.
So, if you watch the movie “Jackie,” remember it is Hollywood. In MRS. KENNEDY AND ME, you’ll come to know what Jackie Kennedy was really like.
Mrs. Kennedy and Me (2012 By Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin)
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