• Emailarticle
  • Writecomment

11/22/63 Still Remains Tied to American Culture

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, also died on that date

Anyone under 50 today must harbor at least some cynicism about the current obsession with 11/22/63, the day of the JFK assassination. Unlike much of what is written about that era, in this case it’s not simply another case of Baby-Boomer self-indulgence; the day is critical to understanding 20th Century American history. No other day, except possibly Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941,  marked a greater transition in American society than November 22, 1963.
Politically, the shots in Dallas ended President Kennedy’s New Frontier and ushered in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Kennedy’s death created a brief moment of bipartisanship that would be envied today. It was marked by passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 followed by other anti-discrimination legislation, highlighted by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At the same time, the assassination resulted in a period of nearly unparalleled Democratic Party ascendance. This included LBJ’s landslide over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election, accompanied by Democratic supermajorities in both houses of Congress. Like today, some foresaw the end of the Republican Party. However, soon names foreign to most Americans on 11/22/63 entered the American lexicon—Vietnam, Gulf of Tonkin, and Ho Chi Minh. By 1968, the Republicans, specifically JFK’s primal enemy Richard Nixon, had recaptured the White House and the Democrats were the party in disarray. 

11/22/63 also changed popular culture when two of the century’s greatest writers, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, both died on that date. Their deaths went virtually unnoticed.
A year before, on a tense night in late October 1962, the night of JFK’s Cuban Missile crisis speech, a 27-year -old comedian named Vaughn Meader recorded The First Family, a comedy album based on his impersonation of John Kennedy. It sold over six million copies in its first six weeks, at that time the best-selling album ever, and made Meader almost as popular as the man he imitated. Imagine a star’s career ending instantly in one afternoon through no fault of his own. But on November 22, Meader became the visible reminder of something no one wanted to remember. “That was it,” Meader recalled. “One year, November to November. Then boom. It was all over.”
Meanwhile, another popular avant-garde comic, Lenny Bruce, took note of Meader’s plight. Bruce took the Carnegie Hall stage that night and after a mock respectful silence opened, “Man, poor Vaughn Meader.” Bruce was unaware his own career was also nearly finished. Besieged by legal problems for obscenity on stage, the controversial Bruce turned to the assassination for material in his act. Suddenly, no one found him funny. Less than three years after the evening he ridiculed Vaughn Meader at Carnegie Hall, Lenny Bruce was dead of a drug overdose. Meader and Bruce, once household names, now nearly forgotten.
Ten weeks after the assassination, the Beatles debuted on American television. Their instant popularity in the United States has been attributed in part as a response to lingering national grief about 11/22/63. Whether true or not, they immediately transformed American music.  Folk music and jazz, popular trends since the late 1950’s, were suddenly passé. Folk singers and jazz musicians scurried for rock-and-roll gigs. Jimmy Buffett later observed in a song it was a time when “only jazz musicians were smoking marijuana,” a soon-to-be mainstream trend.  American rock-and-rollers, who once topped the charts faded rapidly into obscurity as The Beatles and their British contemporaries took over.

However, two legendary American rockers were deeply affected by 11/22/63. That afternoon, legendary producer Phil Spector released his revolutionary concept album, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, featuring black female rockers singing Christmas songs with his signature arrangements. Not surprisingly, considering the release date, it flopped commercially. Now its songs like The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” and Darlene Love’s “White Christmas” are Christmas standards. Today, if Phil Spector hears his rediscovered masterpiece at all, it is from jail.

On the West Coast on the night of the assassination a disconsolate Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys, was moved to write a song different from his usual cars and surfing fare. It was the saddest song he ever composed. A wistful ballad, never a hit, it was called “The Warmth Of The Sun,”  about a boy who loses “the love of my life” and finds solace in the California sun. The migration by young people to California had already begun and they received the advice to wear “flowers in your hair.” But some of their contemporaries were soon sent farther west, to fight and die in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
The observation that summed up that historic day better than any other occurred when Washington Post columnist and Kennedy family friend Mary McGrory remarked to Cabinet official Daniel Patrick Moynihan that she felt like we’d never laugh again. Moynihan’s prescient reply was that “we’ll laugh again, it’s just we’ll never be young again.”

Published: December 07, 2013
Issue: 2013 Philanthropy Guide