A Young JFK’s California Days
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s great to be young and a Kennedy.
By Sean Braswell
For many young people across the globe, the summer of 1940 was not a good time to be making long-term plans. And that was true even if you were a rich, handsome, upper-class 23-year-old fresh from Harvard whose last name happened to be Kennedy.
The author of Why England Slept, the best-selling book based on his senior thesis, and the son of the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, John F. Kennedy knew better than most that war with Germany was starting to look inevitable for America. But like so many recent college grads, he also had to figure out what was next in his own life, while enjoying what last months of peace might be at hand. And so, with the clouds of war gathering on the horizon, the young JFK struck out west to sunny Palo Alto, California, to audit some courses at Stanford’s business school … and audition some of the university’s more fetching coeds.
The young JFK was engaged by more than just his studies.
As Ambassador Joseph Kennedy’s second son, much was expected of young Jack, whose Harvard thesis, “Appeasement in Munich,” had earned him magna cum laude honors before being published in book form. He had vague thoughts of becoming a writer or a journalist or perhaps of following his father into business, or even attending Yale Law School. But suffering from a bad back and other ailments, he was also worried about his deteriorating health, in addition to the looming conflict overseas. So young Kennedy decided to mark the time with a change of scenery from his usual New England haunts, hopeful that the Californian sunshine could improve his health, Stanford’s illustrious faculty could sharpen his mind and the Bay Area’s beautiful young women could distract him from all of the ugliness in the world.
In mid-September 1940, just as Congress was passing the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, Kennedy rolled into Palo Alto in a brand-new Buick convertible with red seats and checked himself into the President Hotel on University Avenue. At the time, as Michael O’Brien covers in John F. Kennedy: A Biography, Stanford was a largely white, Protestant and politically conservative institution, and after finding a small rental cottage on campus for $60 per month, JFK enrolled in courses in business, economics and political science. He enjoyed the spirited exchanges with his classmates and professors over politics and the war, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the young JFK was engaged by more than just his studies. “Have become very fond of Stanford,” he wrote a friend in November. “Everyone is very friendly — the gals are quite attractive — and it’s a very good life.”
A “very good life,” however, hardly does justice to Jack’s autumn in California. The future president could frequently be seen — paired with invariably pretty dates — at several Palo Alto hangouts like L’Omelette, a local bar, and Dinah’s Shack, a steakhouse with a fireplace. JFK himself rarely drank, and the closest thing he had to a steady girlfriend, says O’Brien, was “a stunningly beautiful sorority girl” named Harriet “Flip” Price, whom he took to dances and Stanford football games in his convertible. But Jack was not seeking a commitment from Price, or any of his other dates. “Slam, bam, thank you, ma’am” was how he was said to have summed up his extracurricular activities to his male pals at Stanford. “I’m not interested in carrying on, for the most part,” he admitted to one friend. “I like the conquest. That’s the challenge … It’s the chase I like — not the kill!”
And, as if the Stanford coed community did not provide a fruitful enough orchard for his amorous appetite, JFK also made regular trips down the coast to Hollywood, where he met the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner, and started hitting the town with a young actor named Robert Stack. “I’ve known many of the great Hollywood stars, and only a very few of them seemed to hold the attraction for women that JFK did,” Stack would later observe. “He’d just look at them and they’d tumble.”
But like all of life’s interludes and short-term diversions, Kennedy’s flirtation with business school and the California dream would come to an end. After his raunchy Stanford semester ended, JFK headed back east to help his father write his memoirs and address his own persistent health problems, intending to return to Palo Alto in the spring. Instead, he wound up traveling around South America, working on his Yale Law application and eventually joining the U.S. Navy the following fall, just a few months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and every American’s life, Kennedy’s “very good” one included, took an irrevocable turn.