One of the endearing charms of John F. Kennedy was the “free spirit” side of him that surfaced every so often, even as President. Throughout his life, Kennedy often battled with, and acquiesced to, his “inner boy,” with some of those moments proving more reckless and confounding than others. And yes, his much written-about sexual escapades were, for some, a little too much “free spirit,” thank you. But Kennedy, as we now know, compartmentalized, and he managed to function at an extraordinarily high level while doing so. The public, however, mostly did not know about his more reckless or darker moments while he was President. But he did have his public moments of more innocent and harmless fun; where he could be a bit devilish, a bit adolescent, traveling “outside the lines” as it were; bending protocol, and taking the public along as he went. His press conferences come to mind on this score, when his humor and joking with the media could take the edge off more serious matters while
presenting himself as the very human person he was. Cavorting with a brood of Kennedy kids on a golf cart one summer at Hyannis Port is another of those “inner boy” moments where he appeared to be really having fun despite the weighty matters of state he bore. And certainly the moment captured above is part of that gallery too – where his face and smile say it all – i.e., being very pleased with himself for what he has just done. It was August 1962, while he was President, then staying at his sister and brother-in-law’s home by the sea in Santa Monica, California, escaping his presidential mantle and Secret Service agents for a dip in the Pacific Ocean.
Kenny O’Donnell is the narrator and writer of the 1971 book, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, which he wrote with Dave Powers, another close JFK aide. It’s a book about Kennedy’s run for the White House and his presidency, in which O’Donnell describes JFK’s “Pacific moment” in L.A. as follows:
…One Sunday on a trip to California, he spent the afternoon at the beach home of Pat and Peter Lawford at Santa Monica, sitting in his swimming trunks beside the pool, reading a book, but glancing from time to time at the ocean surf. “Dave, look at that surf out there,” he said to [Dave] Powers, who was stretched out beside him. The president returned to the lounge chair beside the pool, picked up his sunglasses and book, and said contentedly, “That was the best swim I’ve had in months.”Dave was silently hoping that the President would be able to resist the urge to plunge into the surf, because the beach was open to the public and crowded with Sunday visitors who would rush upon Kennedy if they spied him heading toward the water.
But after an hour or so the dark classes came off, the book was put down, and he was waling across the public beach toward the waves. Dave [Powers] jumped up and hurried after him, wondering if he should summon the Secret Service guards from the front of the Lawford house for protection. He heard one sunbather saying, He looks like President Kennedy, but President Kennedy isn’t that big and powerful looking.” the President plunged into the heavy surf and swam out beyond it while a crowd gathered, shouting and staring at his bobbing head. One woman dropped to her knees and prayed. “He’s out so far!” she cried. “Please, God, don’t lit him drown!” Another woman fully dressed, followed him into the surf before she turned back.
He swam in the ocean, about a hundred yards offshore, for ten minutes while a crowd of almost a thousand people gathered on the beach. When he was coming out of the water, a photographer in street clothes waded out to his waist to take pictures. Kennedy glanced at the photographer and said, “Oh, no, I can’t believe it,” The ten Secret Service men who were guarding him splashed into the water in their business suits, forming a protecting wedge around him with Dave [Powers] and Peter Lawford to hold back the crowd that struggled to touch him and shake his hand while he made his way back across the sand to the house. The president returned to the lounge chair beside the pool, picked up his sunglasses and his book, and said contentedly, “That was the best swim I’ve had in months.”The photographer who captured the JFK moment on that August afternoon in 1962 was Bill Beebe. He was on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, staking out Kennedy during his visit at the Lawford’s beachfront home. “I tell you, that guy could really swim,” Beebe said in an interview about the Presidential swim some 50 years later. “He went about 200 yards north along the shoreline, and when he started to come out of the water, word got out along the beach. I could see what was going to happen, so I took off my shoes and went out into the water, clothes and camera and all.” But Beebe also noted that “the Secret Service and FBI there were beside themselves, but [Kennedy] made it seem like a natural thing to do.” Beebe’s photograph, however, soon got White House attention, as such a casual image of a sitting president was then “iffy” publication material. “I gave the film to a messenger, and within 15 minutes [then-White House Press Secretary] Pierre Salinger called the Times and tried to kill the photo. That was before [editors] even got the film.” But to no avail, as the Times knew they had quite a photograph. It ran the next day. Beebe’s photo appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, Monday, August 20th, 1962, with a giant headline, “Kennedy Caps Visit With Dip In Pacific.” Otis Chandler, the publisher of the Times, telephoned Beebe to congratulate him on getting the shot.
The Times also received a volume of mail about the photo from all over the world. Comment ranged from amazement that a national leader could mix so easily with the populace in such an informal way, to rebuke from more officious observers who felt no national leader should put himself in such a position. Sill others objected to the Times using the photo at all, believing the newspaper should have stood against running it.
However, Bill Beebe noted that the overwhelming number of letters to the Times were positive and supportive about the photo and its publication.
The woman in the forefront of the photo with JFK in the polka-dot swimsuit, Eva Ban, a 43-year-old housewife and mother of two, had some momentary fame as a result of the front-page exposure, as the Los Angeles Times later ran a piece on her as well.
“It was only by chance that I happened to be there,” Mrs. Ban would later tell the Times. “The reason I was in the water and in the picture was because I was looking for my 13-year-old son, Peter. He ran into the water after the President and went out farther than he ever had before. I was worried.”
She also explained that the reason she was laughing in the picture “was because of what one woman [in the crowd] was yelling, ‘Mabel, I touched him.’ The President was laughing about this too.”But for a brief moment in August 1962, the camera captured an all-too-human side of a sitting president being a boy, doing what he loved to do, if only for an unguarded moment.
The L.A. beach photo also captured the reaction of admiring bystanders – in some ways, surrogates for the larger nation – seeing their president mixing with the masses, doing what they normally did on a Sunday afternoon at the beach, and being one of them. It was, in a sense, a quintessential American moment.
But there is also poignancy in this photo as well, knowing what lies ahead for this bright young president only 15 months later – leaving that begging, lasting question: why did this promising light go out so soon?
For more on the history of JFK and his family at this website see “Kennedy History,” a topics page with 12 additional stories on JFK and RFK. See also, the “Politics & Culture” page for other choices.
Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 31 March 2014
Last Update: 9 April 2016
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Jack Doyle, “JFK’s Pacific Swim: August 1962”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 31, 2014.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
“Kennedy Caps Visit With Dip in Pacific; As Beach Throng Cheers,” Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1962, p. 1.
Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers with Joe McCarthy, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1970, pp. 409-410.
Joe Piasecki, “Remembering JFK: Friday Marks 50 Years since the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Whose Life and Death Changed America Forever,” ArgonautNews.com, November 20, 2013.
Scott Harrison, “John F. Kennedy Takes A Swim,” LATimes.com ( with video: “Bill Beebe Refelcts on His 1962 JFK Image”), May 13, 2011.
Scott Harrison, “Swimming With John F. Kennedy,” LATimes.com, December 12, 2012.
Kitty Kelly, Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the Kennedys, New York: Thomas Dunne/St Martin’s Press, 2012, pp. 134-135.