By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Paul B. Fay Jr., 91, a confidant of John F. Kennedy's from their service together during World War II to his tenure as a high-ranking Navy Department official in the Kennedy administration, died Sept. 23 of complications from Alzheimer's disease at his home in Woodside, Calif.
Mr. Fay, a San Francisco businessman after his years as Navy under secretary during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, got to know Kennedy in the fall of 1942, when Mr. Fay was a young Navy ensign assigned to the PT Boat School in Melville, R.I.
Kennedy, a junior naval officer at the time, was Mr. Fay's instructor. Both men were dispatched to the South Pacific, where they were part of the same squadron -- Kennedy as skipper of PT 109, Mr. Fay as executive officer of PT 174 and subsequently captain of PT 167, based at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands.
On the night of Aug. 2, 1943, a 2,000-ton Japanese destroyer rammed PT 109, and the collision and ensuing explosion killed two of Kennedy's men. Despite an injured back, the 26-year-old skipper and his surviving 10 comrades swam over a vast distance to an island, with Kennedy pulling a badly burned crew member in his wake. The men were rescued a few days later.
About the same time, Mr. Fay's boat was disabled when a torpedo from a Japanese plane bounced on the water and tore through the craft just below the water line. The boat didn't explode, and the crew managed to get it back to base, where it sank as it docked. Mr. Fay received a Bronze Star for his actions in the incident.
For about a month, he and Kennedy shared a Quonset hut on Tulagi, where the two young men, both fun-loving Irishmen, cemented their friendship.
Paul Burgess Fay Jr., known as Red, was born in San Francisco on July 8, 1918. His father was president of the Fay Improvement Co., a heavy construction firm founded in 1875.
Sally Bedell Smith, author of "The Private World of the Kennedy White House" (2006), noted that Mr. Fay's family was "a West Coast version of Kennedy's Irish Catholic family: six children dominated by a hard-driving Republican businessman -- the politically conservative owner of a construction company -- whom Fay referred to as 'the battler' and Kennedy called 'the great industrialist.' "
Mr. Fay graduated from Stanford University in 1941 and joined the Navy shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the war, he returned to San Francisco, where he became executive vice president of the family business. He stayed in touch with Kennedy and the extended Kennedy family. He campaigned for John Kennedy during his first race for Congress, in 1946, and in his subsequent campaigns for the Senate and the White House. He was an usher at his friend's wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier.
"He was great fun," said his nephew, Charles McGettigan. "Everyone enjoyed being around him. He was like a Pied Piper, always organizing touch-football games, tennis tourneys, golf tournaments. He was terrific."
Kennedy, a year older than Mr. Fay, enjoyed his friend's company as well. Biographer Smith quoted journalist Rowland Evans, a close friend of Mr. Fay's, who observed that "Kennedy liked people who were brash, as long as they were not rude. He loved the banter, and Red Fay had that."
Shortly after Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he offered his old friend the job of under secretary of the Navy. In "The Pleasure of His Company" (1966), Mr. Fay's best-selling account of his friendship with the late president, Mr. Fay recalled his less-than-satisfying interview with Robert McNamara, the newly appointed defense secretary. Mr. Fay found him to be "a coldly, serious man," and the interview did not go well.
John Connally, the new secretary of the Navy-designate, had a bit of advice: "Red, I'll discuss this all with Secretary McNamara, but I wouldn't sell my business if I were you until you hear from me."
McNamara, in fact, concluded that Mr. Fay lacked the requisite experience for running a huge organization. Although Kennedy had agreed to give his defense secretary the authority to appoint whomever he wanted, he overruled McNamara, and Mr. Fay became the Navy's second-ranking civilian official in February 1961.
He remained close to the president -- so close, journalist Richard Reeves recalled in a 2002 New York Times article, that he occasionally watched Kennedy inject himself in the thigh with the corticosteroids that kept him from succumbing to Addison's disease.
"Jack," Mr. Fay told him, "the way you take that jab, it looks like it doesn't even hurt." According to Reeves, the president lunged at his old friend and stabbed the needle into his leg. As Mr. Fay screamed in pain, Kennedy said, "It feels the same to me."
Mr. Fay included the incident in the manuscript of his memoir, but Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, crossed out the paragraphs before publication.
Leaving the Pentagon two years after Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Mr. Fay helped reconstitute his family business into a financial consulting and business venture enterprise. He also was a founding partner of William Hutchinson & Co., an investment brokerage firm.
Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Anita Marquez Fay of Woodside; three children, Katherine Fay of Delray Beach, Fla., Paul Fay III of San Francisco and Sally Fay Cottingham of Cambridge, Mass.; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.