President John F. Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination. Also in the presidential limousine are Jackie Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, and his wife, Nellie. (Credit: Wikimedia)

 

A few months back I visited Robert Morgenthau at his Midtown Manhattan office. The 97-year-old served as district attorney for a staggering 35 years for the city that never sleeps. These days he clocks in at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Morgenthau has seen it all and is a library of stories. I was there to hear a few. I had high expectations. But I could have never imagined what awaited me.

Morgenthau served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York under President John F. Kennedy. The topic of Kennedy’s assassination came up and Morgenthau shared with me where he was on that day—having lunch with the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, at Kennedy’s home in McLean, Virginia. The phone rang. The caller was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, telling Kennedy that the president had been shot. Shortly thereafter Hoover called back: “Jack’s dead.”

I was sitting three feet away from Morgenthau as he told me this. He did so matter-of-factly, no doubt having recounted the story many times over the past 50-plus years. But it was much different for me. A goose would have asked me where I got those bumps. I wondered if this was the greatest story I’d ever heard.

It has long been said that everyone can remember where they were when they heard the shocking news out of Dallas. Morgenthau’s location was breathtaking.

But even those not having tuna fish sandwiches and clam chowder with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy—Morgenthau’s memory is remarkable—have indelible memories of Nov. 22, 1963. Monday was JFK’s 100th birthday. With Morgenthau’s story tattooed on my brain, and the president’s historic birthday on Monday, I set out to hear some of those memories. Some of the nation’s most celebrated lawyers shared with me where they were on the day that changed history.

Silicon Valley titan Larry Sonsini, chairman of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, has memories shaped by a close encounter with the president a year before his death. Sonsini was a 1L at University of California, Berkeley School of Law and got the news from his car radio while driving away from campus. “I remember saying to myself, ‘But wait, he was just here’ as I recalled the president speaking at U.C.’s Charter Day in March 1962. At the moment of the terrible news, I saw his image and heard the echo of his voice as I remembered from attending his speech that Charter Day in Memorial Stadium on the Cal campus. The power of his presence that day (I had a front-row seat) only increased the emotional shock I felt hearing of his death. The rest of the day was a stunned blur … and silence.” 

Fred Fielding, White House counsel to Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, tells a story with an ironic twist. He was, by happenstance, in the city where he would later work in the president’s former home. Fielding was in Washington’s Union Station. It was a stop-over on his way back to the University of Virginia Law School in Charlottesville, having been in New York for law firm interviews. Fielding recounts: “Having time to kill, I decided to go outside, as it was a beautiful sunny day. As I walked through the station it was eerie; the only people in the station were in small groups huddled around radio and television sets. I walked outside of the station and looked up and saw the American flag was at half-staff. Rushing back inside I sidled up to one group at a newsstand, huddled by a radio, and heard, ‘It was the same Chief Justice Warren who swore in John Kennedy as president….’ I thought to myself, ‘Chief Justice Warren must have died.’ It was then that a man rushed in to the station with a bundle of newspapers. Emblazoned in a glaring bold headline on The Washington Post was the message, ‘JFK Shot.’”

Carter Phillips, Sidley Austin chairman and U.S. Supreme Court frequent trier, with 80-plus arguments under his belt, reminds us that just two days after the assassination there was another monumental event that can invoke memories of whereabouts when the news arrived. Phillips told me that he was a sixth grader in Canton, Ohio, and got the news over the school’s public address system. He added, “I actually have a more vivid memory of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby because I was at a restaurant across from the stadium where the Cleveland Browns were going to play and it was the first professional football game I was ever going to see in person. I was with my mom and the television in the restaurant was on and suddenly I see Ruby rush up, confront Oswald and shoot him in the stomach. I was pretty shocked and had a hard time getting over it that day. In fact, I have no idea whether the Browns won that game.” [Browns 27, Cowboys 17. Those were the days.]

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, with Kennedy killed on a Friday in the fall, renowned litigator and LegalZoom co-founder Robert Shapiro’s memories also trace back to America’s weekend sports obsession. “The night before, 10 weeks into my 21st birthday, I had attended a UCLA rally for the upcoming football game against U.S.C. on Saturday, a game that wouldn’t take place as scheduled. I had one too many beers and had missed my morning class. At first the news sounded like a fraternity prank and a bad one. It wasn’t possible that JFK had been shot. I put on my sweats and went to the den where a few of my ZBT brothers along with our cook Jessy were glued to the small black-and-white TV set. Dan Rather was on the air and reported that President Kennedy was at Parkland Memorial Hospital suffering a gunshot wound. Hopefully the surgery would be successful but moments later came the shocking news—the 35th president of the United States had died. Everyone was silent, shocked and tears were shed. At that moment I remember thinking that the world had changed. I was a big fan of our president and it was like a close family member had suddenly passed away. It was 50 years ago, a day that I will never forget.”

Susan Estrich, noted Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan lawyer, law professor, Fox News legal and political analyst and first woman president of the Harvard Law Review, also felt a personal connection to the president: “I was in Miss Waite’s history class at the Glover school in Marblehead, Massachusetts. It came over the intercom. She started to cry. We were kids from Massachusetts. He was our president. We cried as we walked home.”

Like Morgenthau, Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, was also in a historic setting. “I was a law clerk on the Supreme Court,” he says, “who broke the news to the nine justices who were in conference. The only television in the Supreme Court was in my office where I had brought it earlier to watch the World Series. All the justices watched Walter Cronkite on my 10-inch TV. The next night I drove Justice Goldberg to the White House to meet President Johnson.” Dershowitz recounts this story in more detail in his 2013 memoir “Taking the Stand,” including his decision to commit the unthinkable act of interrupting the justices during their weekly conference.

Unlike Dershowitz, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court was far from any power center when he got the news. But on that day, everyone was in the same state. Shock. “I was a ninth grader in Clovis, New Mexico, a small farming community where I grew up, 10 miles from Texas. I was manning a student-run concession stand outside the gym where snacks were sold during lunch to some 800 students and teachers to raise money for school activities. ‘Attention!’ the public address system blared. The din continued. ‘Attention!’ it insisted. ‘President Kennedy has been shot.’ Silence fell over the area. We all looked at one another. Teachers came through the halls. The school is closing. Buses are running. Go home. I rode the bus out to our farm. We were all worried. No one spoke. I walked into the kitchen. Papa had come in from the field. He and Mama were sitting at the table. When they said nothing, I knew the president was dead, and I cried.” 

Ben Brafman, famed criminal defense lawyer to the high-profile, makes us realize that some people’s reactions to the news were shaped by their personal experiences with the past: “I remember exactly where I was. I was in an appetizing store in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue buying a loaf of rye bread for my mom when the news came over the store radio. People began screaming and crying and I raced home with the terrible news. I can still remember my mother bursting into tears as she reached over me to double lock the door. As a Holocaust survivor whose parents were murdered at Auschwitz, she never got over her fear that her new family would be taken away as well and the news of Kennedy’s assassination imposed a special level of fear in the hearts of those who really understood war and murder‎ and pure evil. For the next several days, our family like so many millions of others throughout the world sat glued to our TV sets and slept with our radios,‎ not really sure if the world was coming to an end. As a kid, I knew that the world would never be the same ever again. The next time I felt exactly the same way was on the morning of Sept. 11, as I watched the second plane hit the towers and then watched in horror as they came down. JFK and the Twin Towers [are] etched in my own mind together forever as pure acts of evil that have transformed the world.”

Frank Shorter’s reaction to the news was also framed in a historical context. The 1972 Olympic gold medal marathoner-turned-lawyer was in the locker room of the Mount Hermon School in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. The junior had skipped a mandatory Friday noon chapel service to add extra runs to his training schedule. “I never thought about the consequences of skipping chapel,” Shorter told me. He heard the news on the radio coming from the equipment manager’s cage: “‘President Kennedy had been shot!’ I felt empty, alone and vulnerable. For about 15 minutes I tried to visualize the circumstances as I heard the details being repeated over and over. I thought of how a year earlier I had also been at this isolated, serene place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then, I had listened to President Kennedy’s voice and now, once again, would recall the spoken words of his rationale as he explained his actions. Then, I would sometimes see the contrail of a high flying jet as it flew from north to south over the campus and actually hope it was one of ‘ours’ and not something from the Soviet Union. Now, the voice was gone.”

But for Miles & Stockbridge’s noted litigator Billy Martin, it wasn’t the past that came to mind on Nov. 22, 1963, but the future. The long-time man-to-see in Washington for countless celebrities, politicians and sports figures, was a ninth-grader “fascinated by [Kennedy’s] vision of Camelot and hopeful that this president would recognize the need for a change in the way people like me—African-American—were viewed and treated in America. Martin was at school when it was announced that the president had been shot. “I was overcome by a sense of shock and confusion,” Martin said. “It was more a feeling of defeat—did his assassination signify an end to efforts to provide equal-opportunity to all?  To a 14-year-old kid dreaming of those opportunities I was devastated. His death inspired me to give back to my country, serving nearly 14 years as a senior attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice.”

For many, the unimaginable shock on Nov. 22, 1963, came in two waves. Professor Arthur Miller was on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis. He says: “A group of us had a tradition of going to the faculty club for lunch at 11:30 a.m., a common lunch hour in the upper-Midwest. (As an Easterner I thought it was uncivilized to eat that early, but collegiality dictated I go along.) We were on the serving line when someone burst out of the kitchen yelling that President Kennedy had been shot. We ate in a stunned and depressed silence hoping against hope that it wasn’t serious. The early reports were unclear about his condition. We finished quickly and hurried back to the law school where we learned he had died. It was all surreal—a bad dream we all prayed we would awake from.”

Judge Jack Weinstein, the legendary New York federal jurist, who is still going at it at 95, was in a position to become the centerpiece of a hundred other peoples’ whereabouts-stories. He told me that he was county attorney for Nassau County. For reasons of public safety, the information was provided to the police before it was announced to the public. The police called Weinstein for guidance. He called in his staff of a hundred, reported the news and told them, “‘I want each of you to go home and pray for our country. You’re dismissed for the day.’ And they all left crying.” 

Oscar Goodman, the nation’s foremost mob lawyer-turned two-term mayor of Las Vegas, makes us realize that, while the world truly did change on Nov. 22, 1963, one thing did not. Goodman was in an elevator in Philadelphia City Hall. He was clerking for the district attorney’s office while attending University of Pennsylvania Law School. He said he “felt the world would never recover. A few days later when Jackie Kennedy stood with her children, as the caisson went rolling along, I saw that I was wrong, and America would remain great!” 

Randy Maniloff is an attorney at White and Williams in Philadelphia, where he represents insurers in coverage disputes under a host of policies. He is the co-author of “General Liability Insurance Coverage–Key Issues in Every State” (3rd edition, National Underwriter) and the publisher of the newsletter and website www.CoverageOpinions.info.