Retracing President Kennedy's Final Journey: Selections from William Manchester's Research Files

November 2, 2013 - March 2, 2014

In early 1964, President John F. Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, decided that an authorized version of the events surrounding her husband’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963—50 years ago this year—should be written. Remembering her slain husband’s appreciation for Portrait of a President, a study of President Kennedy written by William Manchester in 1962, she asked the author, who was working for American Education Publications (then owned by Wesleyan University), to accept the assignment. Manchester agreed and took a leave from Wesleyan to write what would become bestselling The Death of a President, published in 1967.

After reaching an agreement with the president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and the publisher Harper & Row, Manchester was granted exclusive access to the Kennedy family, who encouraged all parties to participate in the project. Manchester left no stone unturned as he pursued his investigation and collected thousands of pages of research materials. He conducted hundreds of interviews, including sessions with Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. “I approached every person who might shed light upon this complex of events.” Manchester wrote in his foreword. “I went over every motorcade route, searching for men and women who had been spectators, and in Dallas I walked from Love Field to the overpass, looking for potential sniper’s nests. Every scene described in the book was visited. I crawled over the roof of the Texas School Book Depository and sat in Oswald’s sixth-floor perch. In Washington, Hyannis Port, and elsewhere I studied each pertinent office, embassy, and home—over a hundred of them.”

This exhibition offers just a small glimpse of the documentation that Manchester amassed, culminating with a look at the way he organized the material. There has been no attempt to provide a systematic overview of the writer’s research approach or methods; instead, the focus here is on the types and formats of the documentation. As research and writing becomes increasingly digital, the Manchester files remind us that for centuries information was conveyed primarily on paper in physical form. While what we glean from reading an advertisement for a funeral home in the yellow pages is helpful to telling a story, to the many of us who have not cracked a phone book in years—or have no idea what “yellow pages” means—the same advertisement has completely different significance.

Retracing President Kennedy’s Final Journey: Selections from William Manchester’s Research Files draws entirely from the The William Manchester Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Olin Library, and was curated by Leith Johnson, University Archivist.