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JFK’s last birthday: Gifts, champagne and wandering hands on the presidential yacht

President John F. Kennedy aboard the Sequoia in 1963 opening birthday presents. (Robert Knudsen/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

It has been 100 years since John F. Kennedy’s birth on May 29, 1917, at his parents’ home in Brookline, Mass., just outside Boston. Over the course of his life, Kennedy enjoyed lavish birthday celebrations, the most famous being a Democratic fundraising bash at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962, when a sequined Marilyn Monroe breathily purred, Happy burrthday, Mr. President

But how did Kennedy celebrate his 46th birthday — the last of his short life?

On a boat, with Dom Pérignon, French cuisine and the president chasing the wife of a legendary Washington journalist.

On May 29, 1963, Kennedy and about two dozen others boarded the 104-foot Sequoia, the presidential yacht, for a dinner party cruise down the Potomac River. It was a family-and-friends-only affair. Aside from a few Secret Service agents, the roster of guests gleamed with a touch of Hollywood — actors David Niven (“Separate Tables” and “The Pink Panther”) and Peter Lawford (a Rat Packer who was married to Patricia Kennedy, the commander in chief’s sister).

The powerful and the privileged were in attendance: Kennedy’s brothers, Robert F. Kennedy, then the U.S. attorney general,  and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.); Ben Bradlee, the future editor of The Washington Post who worked as Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, along with his then-wife, Antoinette “Tony” Pinchot Bradlee; and R. Sargent Shriver, the founding director of the Peace Corps, and his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

The party, organized by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, also included one of Kennedy’s on-again-off-again paramours, Mary Pinchot Meyer, Tony Bradlee’s sister who was fatally shot a year later in Georgetown in a still unsolved murder, and Enud Sztanko, a young Georgetown foreign language instructor who later told a Kennedy biographer that she resisted the president’s sexual advances.

Guests arrived, per the invitation’s instructions, wearing “appropriately festive yachting suit and dress,” according to an archived White House telegram. As lightning lit the sky, they drank cocktails on the boat’s fantail, according to Ben Bradlee’s book, “Conversations with Kennedy.”  But rainy weather forced everyone inside. Guests stood up to make toasts, but the Kennedys (except Jackie) interrupted with cheers and good-natured heckling, Bradlee wrote.

When it was her turn to toast Kennedy, Sztanko “felt absolute panic” before wishing the President “happy birthday” in her native Hungarian, according to “Grace and Power,” by journalist Sally Bedell Smith.

The partyers were guzzling 1955 Dom Pérignon and feasting on crabmeat ravigote, noodle casserole, asparagus Hollandaise and roast filet of beef. For dessert? “Bombe President sauce chocolat,” according to the menu.

Photos show the guests seated shoulder-to-shoulder in the low-ceilinged cabin, with red-jacketed band members playing the accordion and guitar.

Kennedy was two-and-half years into his term as the nation’s 35th president. In the days leading up to his birthday, he had been juggling huge matters of race and war. At a May 22 news conference, he told reporters he hoped that Alabama’s new governor, George Wallace, would comply with a court order mandating integration at the University of Alabama, and that he wouldn’t have to resort to the deployment of federal troops. Answering another question, Kennedy declared that he couldn’t promise troop withdrawals in Vietnam because “there is still a long, hard struggle to go.”

A young photographer took this harrowing image of the Vietnam War. He didn’t live to see it published.

With so many momentous issues facing the young president, Kennedy was clearly ready for his birthday cruise, which began at 8 p.m. and stretched to almost 1:30 a.m., recalled Clint Hill, one of three Secret Service agents who stood sentry along the Sequoia’s mahogany walls.

I was very happy to be there that night, and that I could witness this, and be able to see him have such a wonderful time,” Hill, now 85, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Presidents don’t have many relaxed times. It’s such a stressful job and to be able to see him and his friends enjoy themselves like that made me and the other agents feel good.”

Most of the guests aboard the Sequoia have since died. (In fact, two of them just died in February: Sztanko, who later married David McGiffert, an Army undersecretary; and Charles L. Bartlett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who years earlier had arranged the blind date between Kennedy and Jackie.)

One of Hill’s favorite memories was the sight of Paul B. “Red” Fay Jr., the Navy undersecretary, crooning. “He got up and started singing some Irish song, and everyone was laughing,” Hill said.

Everyone was “more or less drenched” from the weather, Bradlee wrote in his memoir. Ted Kennedy, the president’s youngest brother, was “the wettest,” according to Bradlee, who also noted that the senator “mysteriously lost one leg of his trousers some time during the night.” Niven was more precise, telling Smith that they were “ripped off at the crotch with white underpants on the port side flashing.”

Clement A. Norton, a Kennedy family friend and Massachusetts political operative, got so drunk he fell onto the president’s gift from Jackie, stomping on the rare engraving depicting a scene from the War of 1812, according to Bradlee.

“It had cost more than $1,000 and Jackie had scoured galleries to find it, but she greeted its destruction with that veiled expression she assumes, and when everyone commiserated with her over this disaster, she just said, ‘Oh, that’s all right. I can get it fixed,’ ” wrote Bradlee, who died in 2014. “The boor of the evening turned out to be Clem Norton.”

It was the second time Kennedy had marked his birthday. White House staffers had thrown a surprise party for him at the Navy Mess at 5:45 p.m., according to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. The event, which included a massive cake prepared by the White House executive chef René Verdon, was attended by political aides, including George E. Thomas, Kennedy’s valet; Providencia “Provi” Paredes, Jacqueline’s personal assistant; and Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s personal secretary. The Navy Mess, located on the lower level of the White House, was not a place Kennedy normally frequented, wrote Hill, the Secret Service agent, in his memoir, “Mrs. Kennedy and Me.”

Kennedy was presented with several gag gifts — a pair of boxing gloves (for his fights with Congress) and “Debate Rules,” allegedly from vanquished Republican Richard M. Nixon. His wife gave him a basket of dead grass supposedly from the Rose Garden, Hill wrote, “on behalf of the White House Historical Society.”

Hill stood guard at the White House mess party. But it was the celebration aboard the Sequoia later that night that was most memorable.

“They were doing the twist, the cha-cha, and everything in between. It was wild,” Hill wrote in his memoir. “I don’t think I had ever seen the president and Mrs. Kennedy having more fun. Nobody wanted the night to end.”

In her book, Smith wrote that Kennedy, in particular, was having a lot of fun, maybe too much. He set his sights on Tony Bradlee and pursued her all evening. Pursued, in the most literal sense, according to Smith’s book.

“I was running and laughing as he chased me. He caught up with me in the ladies’ room and made a pass,” Tony Bradlee recounted to Smith. “It was a pretty strenuous attack, not as if he pushed me down, but his hands wandered. I said, ‘That’s it, so long.’ I was running like mad.”

Amazingly, she told Smith, Kennedy wasn’t drunk.

“The atmosphere probably influenced Jack’s chase,” she said, according to Smith’s book. “I guess I was pretty surprised, but I was kind of flattered, and appalled, too.” (Tony Bradlee, who was divorced from her famous journalist-husband in the mid-1970s, died in 2011.)

The boat party ended, Norton said, with everyone singing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.”

Seven months later, on Nov. 25, 1963, members of the gang would gather once again for Kennedy’s funeral.

It was his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who made the arrangements for the funeral procession through the streets of the capital. Ben Bradlee was one of the ushers helping mourners find their seats at the Cathedral St. Matthew of the Apostle in Washington. And finally, at Arlington National Cemetery, his young widow and two brothers each touched a wand to the “eternal flame” at the head of the slain president’s grave.

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