Kennedy, Mallon, and Me

My five-year teaching career began in 1957 at the Stewart Manor School on Long Island. I had the good fortune to teach nine-year-old Thomas Mallon, though neither of us imagined that he would become a major American writer, nor did we imagine that our paths would cross occasionally for the next half-century. His New Yorker story about Kennedy, excerpted below, is neither about Mallon nor about me, but his youthful perspective sheds light both on my early career and the way individual lives intersect with the larger narrative.

Trying to Remember J.F.K., by Thomas Mallon
The New Yorker, May 22, 2017

On November 8, 1960, I voted for Richard Nixon. I had turned nine the week before. According to my fourth-grade report card, from that September, I stood four feet one and a quarter inches tall and weighed fifty-five pounds: small enough to be permitted entry into the curtained voting booth in the Stewart Manor School, on Long Island, where my father let me pull the lever for Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge. It was a reach: during Nelson Rockefeller’s long Albany reign, the Republican ticket occupied the top row on New York State’s mechanical ballot.

I recall how Phyllis Mindell, the twenty-three-year-old teacher who had notated my height and weight, assigned our class to watch the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. As Kennedy’s inaugural arrived, Mrs. Mindell gave us a letter-writing exercise: we could send our congratulations to the incoming President, or offer the outgoing one our thanks. I loyally chose Eisenhower, and duly received an acknowledgment postmarked February 6, 1961, from Washington. The card inside was headed “Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.” Eisenhower’s bold printed signature (not dissimilar to John F. Kennedy’s) sat where a stamp should have been—my introduction to the franking privilege—and as I look at the envelope more than five decades on I’m arrested by its little bits of archaism. There is no Zip Code, and the addressee, “Master Thomas Mallon,” might as well be Penrod Schofield.

The following June, in her last set of report-card comments, Mrs. Mindell observed that “Tommy has expressed great interest in being a politician someday.” The excitement of the election had clearly lingered.

Before the nine-thirty school bell rang on April 12, 1961, Phyllis Mindell called me up to her desk to ask if I knew “what happened today.” I said that Franklin Roosevelt had died sixteen years ago. That this was the fact I answered with—rather than the hundredth anniversary of the firing upon Fort Sumter, then being commemorated in newspapers and magazines—indicates to me that she was right about my political ambitions: Presidents were more important than events.

“No,” Mrs. Mindell replied, with excitement. “I mean what happened today—this morning. The Soviet Union put a man into space.”

Mallon and Me, 56 years later. (January 29, 2017)

On April 12th of this year—a week after my trip to Boston and fifty-six years to the day after she gave me the news about the Soviets’ leap into orbit—I have lunch with Phyllis Mindell, now eighty, an active and accomplished widow with thick, stylish white hair, if no longer the Jackie Kennedy clothes she jokes about once having favored. We talk about the vagaries of memory and wonder if she did not, after all, assign her students to watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates, since she and her husband did not own a television, a decision whose cultural pretentiousness she now laughs at.

We also talk about a letter that she wrote, in 1963, to John F. Kennedy, one that I was able to find through an archivist’s search of the Name File at the J.F.K. library. In it, she thanks the President for being “a sane man,” before noting that “the yet unborn children of the world will remember you as one who helped to eliminate the evil of the atomic bomb.” She does not remember writing the letter—is astonished that it’s turned up—but the circumstances of its composition remain vivid. It was occasioned by Kennedy’s having reached an agreement on the limited nuclear-test-ban treaty with the Soviets, on July 25th.

At the time, Phyllis was twenty-six and had been married to Marvin Mindell, an engineer, for almost five years. She had once miscarried, and the couple were reluctant to bring children into a world that seemed on the brink of nuclear extinction. But the late summer of ’63 appeared to be the beginning of a more promising time, with the test-ban treaty and the March on Washington. They made a small contribution to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that season, and Phyllis now tends to think of the whole period as being more the “King era.” But her memories of Kennedy remain warm, if unblinkered. “You can be a sane man and have feet of clay,” she says. In the end, “that’s our problem, and we have to figure out how to sort that out.”

Newly hopeful, Phyllis again became pregnant late in October, 1963, on a trip that she and Marvin took to Rome. Back on Long Island, she miscarried the baby on the morning of November 22nd. She learned of Kennedy’s assassination later that day, from the weeping woman who had come to take care of her and had heard the news on the radio.

By 1966, Phyllis had given birth to two sons. One of them, David Mindell, an M.I.T. professor, is an important theorist of space exploration and a leading scholar of the Apollo lunar-landing program. The political victory that that effort provided will eventually be a paltry thing compared with the actual human transcendence that it initiated, however fitfully so far. Project Apollo seems to me, even at this remove—and surely in the fullness of time—what mattered most about John F. Kennedy’s life. It was he who committed us to it, six weeks after Professor Mindell’s mother made me look to the sky with a stiff upper lip.

Thomas Mallon, a novelist, an essayist, and a critic, is the author of, most recently, Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years.