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Presidential trivia adds to lively 'Hatless Jack'

Forty-three years ago, it was a challenge that consumed an industry: How to slap a chapeau on the handsome but hatless head of President John F. Kennedy.

Indeed, as William Agnew, a shareholder in the Hat Corporation of America made clear at the company's 1962 annual meeting, the industry's dilemma was summed up by the fact that the youthful, glamorous Kennedy didn't wear a hat, while grumpy, slumpy Nikita Khrushchev did.

The mad hatters sent Kennedy at least a dozen gifts of their product, but all in vain. They never did succeed in making a regular hat-wearer of JFK. Kennedy hated the gift headgear that was part and parcel of stump politics, and would regularly duck and dodge the efforts to plunk a hat on his head. In one poignant moment, on the day he was assassinated, Kennedy had been presented with a cowboy hat by the president of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. When the chant started for Kennedy to put it on, he demurred: ''I'll put it on in the White House on Monday," he promised. ''If you come up there you'll have a chance to see it then."

The effort to put a lid on Kennedy is entertaining, but it's just one reason why ''Hatless Jack" makes for such diverting reading.

Neil Steinberg has gotten at something deeper here as well. Why is it, for example, that on one august occasion when historical memory has frozen Kennedy as hatless, he really wasn't?

That was his inauguration. Although he delivered his speech sans hat, while on the reviewing stand he actually wore an expensive silk top hat of the sort once considered the very epitome of gentlemanly style.

That did Eisenhower one better. Striving for a certain Republican simplicity -- didn't GOP wives wear simple cloth coats in those days? -- Ike had donned a Homburg for his own inauguration. When Mamie saw her husband decked out in a top hat for Kennedy's swearing-in, she laughed and, indulging in a little of that era's snobbery, remarked that her husband looked ''just like Paddy the Irishman."

So why didn't Kennedy wear a hat? In a headpiece, Kennedy simply wasn't a memorably handsome figure, but just another anonymous face in the political crowd.

But it wasn't just that. Nor was it Kennedy, as some students of sartorial culture maintain, who personally killed the hat business in America, though he certainly helped accelerate its demise.

Now, given that Steinberg, a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, has set his well-researched book up as something of a mystery, I'm not going to give up his conclusion.

Suffice it to say that Kennedy is mostly an organizational device in a book that plumbs much deeper into American culture. And that, though the topic seems light enough to blow like a bowler in a spring wind, the author has convincingly made the fortunes of the hat industry a barometer of the battle between larger sociological forces.

It's a tale rich with detail. Who knew, for example, that there was a time when, if you wore a straw hat out of season -- a season so strictly delimited that it officially ended on Sept. 15, no ifs, ands, or buts -- you risked having it ripped off your head and stomped beneath a stranger's feet?

And who would have imagined that Calvin Coolidge would prove an iconoclast -- and make the front page of The New York Times -- by going for a stroll in a straw hat three days after that deadline?

Besides being a fascinating sociological story, Steinberg's book is also a treasure trove of presidential trivia.

There, for example, a reader will find the aforementioned Coolidge objecting to talking on the telephone, on the grounds that it simply didn't seem dignified. (Cellphone users, take note!)

Meanwhile, it was news to this political junkie that, in a desperate attempt to stop Kennedy's nomination in 1960, Texas Governor John Connally, acting as a cat's paw for Lyndon Johnson, held a press conference to announce that Kennedy suffered from Addison's disease. (That allegation, strenuously denied by the Kennedy camp, was of course true.)

But as a Globe columnist, here's the anecdote I liked best. Stumping in Spencer, W.Va., in the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy found himself caught in a downpour.

''Finally, his suit soaked under his raincoat and water trickling down his hair," Kennedy, who rarely carried money of his own, collared Boston Globe reporter John Harris.

''Can the Globe afford to buy me a hat?" he asked.

Harris sprang $2.04 for a rubberized canvas hat.

Now there's an expense report to tell your grandchildren about.

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