A bit of Washington lore is moving further into the category of fact: It’s an oft-cited “legend” that a young John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier at Booth Three of Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown on the evening of June 24, 1953.
The eatery has long touted the historic event, even affixing a brass plaque to the wall to commemorate the spot where Camelot was born, and dozens of couples have since gotten engaged in what’s omce to be known as “the engagement booth.” But alternate stories abound — including that the young senator proposed to Jackie over the phone or by telegram while she was covering the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in London or at a restaurant in Boston — and fact-checking skeptics have been demanding proof that the blessed event actually happened at the unassuming Georgetown restaurant (geez, you’d think this was a town of lawyers and oppo-researchers or something).
And now, Martin’s has turned up an eyewitness, just in time for the the 62nd anniversary of the question-popping that would be heard ’round the world. Ninety-eight year-old Marion Smoak, a former ambassador and chief of protocol, happened to be dining at Martin’s on V-E day last month, when the restaurant offered World War II vets free meals. And when he casually mentioned he’d been there on the infamous night, the folks at Martin’s pounced.
So they got Smoak on the record to quell the naysayers. He remembers, according to his official statement, drinking a martini and recognizing the young senator and his then-girlfriend among the fellow diners. Apparently, the deal was sealed quietly (he didn’t overhear the conversation or see Kennedy on bended knee). “After the senator proposed, and she accepted, the news ran through the restaurant,” he recalls. “That night we didn’t know his future and what it would bring. In hindsight it was great fun to witness a part of history.”
So can we close the books on this one? We checked with Kitty Kelly, a Kennedy expert who wrote the bestseller “Jackie Oh,” who says the story is plausible. She notes that the engagement was announced June 25, and that the couple frequented Martin’s. But, she says, the young couple’s union was a political calculation as much as a romantic one (“a more refined decision than a butcher makes selecting a slab of beef, but it had the same deliberate quality,” Kelly wrote in her tell-all), so it’s possible the proposal itself didn’t take traditional form of a single and public “will-you-marry-me” moment.
“I certainly hope it’s true,” she says.