Dallas: on the trail of JFK
The Telegraph November 17, 2013
Ahead of the anniversary of JFK's assassination, Nigel Richardson visits key sites in Dallas
"Ballistics buffs and all-round obsessives mooch around Dealey Plaza, looking up at a particular window, estimating angles"
It was nearly midnight in downtown Dallas. As we crossed Dealey Plaza on Elm Street the taxi driver braked sharply - "This is where the first bullet hit" - then floored the accelerator, whipped us round on to Stemmons Freeway and headed for Parkland Memorial Hospital.
"Kennedy was pretty much dead by this point," he said. "Jackie had the president's brains in her hands. Me, I don't think Oswald did it."
The driver, who had just picked me up from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, had taken me a little too literally. I told him I was there because the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination was looming and I wanted to see where and how it happened. He responded by taking me on the route of the motorcade on which JFK was shot, before dropping me (exhausted, bemused, excited) at my hotel in the early hours.
The assassination of President John F Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was one of the defining events of post-war history - what you might call the baby boomers' 9/11. From it, like sparks from a spinning wheel, have flown a million stories of conjecture and conspiracy.
At the still centre of every one of those stories is the town where it happened, with place names that still carry a malign yet quasi-mythical glamour: Dealey Plaza, the "grassy knoll" (actually just a sloping expanse of lawn), the Texas School Book Depository, Parkland Hospital (where not just Kennedy but his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Oswald's murderer, Jack Ruby, also died and from which derives the title of a new film, Parkland, with Billy Bob Thornton).
A still from 'Parkland'
I'll admit it, I was excited to be there - and if that sounds ghoulish, well, the private and national tragedy that happened 50 years ago has a significance that belongs to us all. In this major anniversary year people are coming from other parts of America and the world to see where a bullet changed the course of history. It is for the same reason that Ford's Theatre in Washington DC, the scene of Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865, is one of the capital's popular tourist draws.
Tourists on the 'grassy knoll'
Dallas must be exasperated by such attention. In 1963 the city was a hotbed of reactionary conservatism and there was a feeling of hatred towards Kennedy. Fifty years on, Dallas sees itself as a dynamic hub that boasts plenty of art and museums as well as commerce (Big Oil and much more).
The organisers of next week's commemorations in Dealey Plaza - a ticket-only event - promise a dignified occasion honouring the "life, leadership and legacy" of the 35th president. Then, so Dallas hopes, it can finally leave behind the "city of hate" epithets and fly towards the future like the neon Pegasus on top of the downtown Magnolia Hotel.
The Texas School Book Depository
But it will never entirely rid itself of the ballistics buffs and all-round obsessives who mooch around Dealey Plaza, looking up at a particular window, estimating angles. I became one of them myself the morning after my arrival when I strolled down to the Plaza from my hotel.
A conspiracy nut with a book to flog had already set up by the grassy knoll - "JFK assassination information center" said the banner - but the overall impression was of a municipal orderliness entirely at odds with what happened there.
Dealey Plaza, a triangular expanse of manicured lawns, live oaks and white colonnades, was built in the Thirties as a front door to the city. At 12.29pm on that day in 1963 onlookers stood on the roadside and in the shade of the live oaks as the presidential motorcade turned on to Elm Street to cross the Plaza.
The sun had come out - as it did for my visit - justifying the decision to leave the roof off the Lincoln Continental in which the Kennedys rode. The First Lady was looking radiant in a pink suit and matching pillbox hat. The crowds were cheering. Then the world went black.
Two white Xs painted on the tarmac of Elm Street mark the points at which the two bullets hit the president in, respectively, the upper back and the head (the first shot missed). I watched as tourists ran out into the road to pose for photographs by these Xs, playing chicken with the buses that swept past the former Texas School Book Depository building.
This old red-brick warehouse - now the Dallas County Administration Building - is the key to the story, of course. Oswald fired the fatal shots from the window on the south-east corner of the sixth floor. The legacy of that action is now guarded by a superb museum, located precisely there, called the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year, most from outside Texas and 15 per cent from abroad.
But before visiting the museum I wanted to see what happened next, as a consequence of those shots being fired. To do so I enlisted the help of John Estes, a local tour guide. In his car we followed the escape route from Dealey Plaza that Oswald took to the room he rented in North Beckley Avenue.
It's a quiet middle-class street these days. One front garden had been transformed into a gothic graveyard in preparation for Halloween and the former lodging house where Oswald lived is now a three-bedroom, bungalow (it's currently for sale and can be yours for half a million dollars).
"After calling in at the rooming house he walks up Beckley towards Jefferson," said Estes, driving us on the same route. "To me this is where the mystery begins - from the rooming house up to here. What was he doing?"
We'll never know. Near an intersection he was approached by a patrolman, Officer J D Tippit, whom he shot four times.The houses round about have bars on the windows and electronic gates, as if they still aren't taking any chances.
Jefferson Boulevard, where Oswald fled, is now a Latino neighbourhood. Oswald went to ground in a cinema called the Texas Theatre and it's still there, recently renovated and sparklingly retro with its vertical neon sign.
As a film about the Korean War, War is Hell, was playing (the Texas Theatre is showing it again this month) Oswald was arrested in the auditorium. He was next seen in public two days later in the basement of City Hall, then the Dallas Police HQ, as he was being transferred to the City Jail (the basement is not accessible but we sat and looked at the unremarkable exterior of the building). Jack Ruby put a bullet in him and the story ended. Only for a million more to begin.
The Sixth Floor Museum, where I was dropped at the end of my tour, is scrupulously neutral in its presentation of the various conspiracy theories. "Most agree that this complicated murder mystery will never be fully resolved," it concludes.
The undisputed facts - the extraordinary narrative that unfolded over 48 hours - have always been compelling enough for me. To be in the former Book Depository is to feel immersed in Big History. The old freight elevators, used for hauling boxes of textbooks up and down, are still in place. The workaday wooden floors, pillars and ceilings are as they were when Oswald worked there as a temporary employee before the assassination.
The exhibits include artefacts with dark auras, such as the fedora worn by Ruby when he shot Oswald, and the displays do an excellent job of expressing the memories of "rememberers": those who were there. But the thing that draws you on is the place where it happened, the corner window.
There Oswald made a sniper's nest out of boxes of books and took aim with a rifle he bought by mail order for $21.45. The corner is glassed off now - souvenir-hunters were hacking bits off the window frame - but the crime scene has been re-created with boxes of books piled into a barricade. People go quiet when they approach, then stand at the adjacent window and look down on Elm Street, towards the white Xs painted there.
Nigel Richardson travelled with America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com): three nights at the Fairmont Dallas (room only, based on two sharing) costs from £765 per person including return flight from London Heathrow on Delta Airlines._______________________________________________________________________________
Stops on the JFK trail
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (jfk.org) is at 411 Elm Street: open 10am-6pm, Tues-Sun, admission $16 (£10).
The John F Kennedy Memorial Plaza is one block east of Dealey Plaza on Main St.
Parkland Memorial Hospital is about four miles north-west of Dealey Plaza off Stemmons Freeway. This is a working hospital and doesn't welcome people wandering about.
Oswald's rooming house is at 1026 North Beckley Ave, Oak Cliff. This is a private home.
The site of the Tippit murder is near the intersection of 10th St and Patton Ave in Oak Cliff.
The Texas Theatre is at 231 West Jefferson Blvd.
The old City Hall, where Oswald was shot, is at S Harwood and Main Streets. The basement where it happened is not open to the public.
Discover Dallas Tours (001 214 521 3737; discoverdallastours.com) offers a three-hour private guided tour of these sites for $175 (£110) for up to three people._______________________________________________________________________________
A new free shuttle bus service, the D-Link (or Route 722), connects the Sixth Floor Museum with the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff: every 15 minutes from 11am to 11.30pm, Mon-Sat (DART.org/DLink)._______________________________________________________________________________
Where to eat
After a gruelling day's sleuthing you deserve to relax in one of the finest restaurants in town, at the Mansion on Turtle Creek (reservations advised on 214 443 4747). Try the signature spicy shrimp cocktail ($20/£12) and king salmon ($40/£25)._______________________________________________________________________________
What to read
November 22, 1963: Witness to History by Hugh Aynesworth (Brown Books, $26.95), a dramatic account by a journalist who was there.