The Pop History Dig

1968 Presidential Race
Democrats

Paul Newman, one of many notable Hollywood stars who became active on behalf of presidential candidates during 1968's primary & general elections. Life magazine, May 10, 1968.
Paul Newman, one of many notable Hollywood stars who became active on behalf of presidential candidates during 1968's primary & general elections. Life magazine, May 10, 1968.
     In 1968, celebrity participation in the presidential primary and general elections of the United States reached a level that had not been seen in some years.  This participation was more prominent among Democrats perhaps, but was also a factor in the Republican races.  Many in Hollywood and the arts community had been wary of political activism after experiencing the communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s.  Congressional hearings, loyalty oaths, and Hollywood blacklists during that period had terrorized actors, producers, musicians, and others, wrecking careers and ruining lives.

     Yet in the 1960s,  the caldron of social issues and political unrest throughout the country,  coupled in 1967-68 with an offering of hopeful candidates — especially on the Democratic side — brought both older and newer Hollywood celebrities into the political process like never before.  “In no other election,” observed Time magazine in late May 1968, “have so many actors, singers, writers, poets, artists, professional athletes and assorted other celebrities signed up, given out and turned on for the candidates.”

     A war was then raging in Vietnam and a military draft was taking the nation’s young to fight it.  President Lyndon Johnson had raised U.S. troop strength in Vietnam to 486,000 by the end of 1967.  Protests had erupted at a number of colleges and universities.  In late October 1967, tens of thousands of demonstrators came to the Pentagon calling for an end to the war.  In addition, a growing civil rights movement had pointed up injustice and racism throughout America.  Three summers of urban unrest had occurred.  Riots in 1967 alone had taken more than 80 lives.  In the larger society, a counter culture in music, fashion and values — brought on by the young — was also pushing hard on convention.  And all of this, from Vietnam battle scenes to federal troops patrolling U.S. cities, was seen on television as never before.  Society seemed to be losing its moorings.  And more was yet to come, as further events — some traumatic and others unexpected — would fire the nation to the boiling point.  There was little standing on the sidelines; people from all walks of life were taking sides.

From left, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte & Charlton Heston at 1963 Civil Rights march.
From left, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte & Charlton Heston at 1963 Civil Rights march.

     Hollywood and the arts community had a long history of political involvement and activism on behalf of presidential candidates, dating at least to the 1920s.  Even in the dark days of the 1950s there had been a sizeable swath of Hollywood backing Democrat Adlai Stevenson for his Presidential bids of 1952 and 1956.  And in the 1960 election of Jack Kennedy, there was notable support from Frank Sinatra and friends, as well as Kennedy family connections to Hollywood.  Others, like singer Pete Seeger, had never stopped their activism, even in the face of political pressure.  By the early 1960s, with the civil rights movement in particular, a new wave actors and singers such as Joan Baez, Harry Belefonte, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman and others were becoming involved in one way or another.  Some lent their name or provided financial support; others joined marches and demonstrations.   By the mid-1960s, however, the Vietnam War became a goading factor for many in Hollywood.  And among the first to speak out and oppose the war was an actor named Robert Vaughn.

TV actor Robert Vaughn led early Hollywood opposition to the Vietnam War.
TV actor Robert Vaughn led early Hollywood opposition to the Vietnam War.
 

The Man from UNCLE

     Robert Vaughn was the star of a popular primetime TV spy series called The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which ran from September 1964 to mid-January 1968. Vaughn was among the first to criticized President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Vietnam war — and he did so very publicly in a January 1966 speech.  In Indianapolis, at a dinner given to support Johnson’s re-election, Vaughn spoke out against the war and LBJ’s policy there.  “Everyone at the front table had hands over their eyes,” Vaughn later explained when asked about the reaction.  Vaughn became worried about the Vietnam War after immersing himself in all the documents, books and articles he could find on the subject.  “I can talk for six hours about the mistakes we have made,” he told one reporter in 1966.  “We have absolutely no reason to be in Viet Nam-legal, political or moral.”

     In late March 1966, Vaughn went to Washington to meet with politicians.  He lunched with Senator Frank Church (D-ID) and also had a lengthy meeting with Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR) to discuss the war. He told the press then “the Hollywood community is very much against” the Vietnam War. “[T]he Hollywood com- munity is very much against” the Vietnam War.
        – Robert Vaughn, March 1966.
But wasn’t it risky for a star to be so outspoken, he was asked?  “I’ve had nothing but encouragement from my friends in the industry, from the studio, even the network,” he said.  On his visit to Washington that weekend Vaughn was a house guest of Bobby Kennedy’s at Hickory Hill in nearby Virginia.  He continued to be visible in the Vietnam debate, appearing as a guest on William F. Buckley’s TV talk show, Firing Line. He also engaged in impromptu debate with Vice President Hubert Humphrey on a live Minneapolis talk show. At the peak of Vaughn’s popularity, he was asked by the California Democratic Party to oppose fellow actor, Republican Ronald Reagan, then running for California governor in the 1966 election.  Vaughn, however, supported Democrat Edmund G. Brown, who lost in a landslide to Reagan.

     Vaughn would continue to oppose the war, leading a group called Dissenting Democrats.  By early 1968, Vaughn supported the emerging anti-war presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), then running for his party’s nomination. (Vaughn had later planned to switch to Robert Kennedy, a close friend, if Kennedy won the June 1968 California primary).

 

Gene McCarthy

McCarthy at 1968 campaign rally in Wisconsin.
McCarthy at 1968 campaign rally in Wisconsin.

     Gene McCarthy had announced his candidacy for the White House on November 30, 1967.  Opposing the war was the main issue for McCarthy, who had been prodded to run by anti-war activists.  On the Republican side, former vice President Richard Nixon announced his candidacy in January 1968.  And on February 8th, Alabama’s Democratic Governor George Wallace — the segregationist who in June 1963 had stood at the doors of the University of Alabama to block integration — entered the presidential race as an Independent.

     McCarthy attracted some of the more liberal Democrats in Hollywood, including those who had been for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s.  “…[H]e’s the man who expresses discontent with dignity,” actor Eli Wallach would say of McCarthy in 1968.  Wallach had won a Tony Award in 1951 for his role in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo and also became famous for his role as Tuco the “ugly” in the 1966 film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach liked the fact that McCarthy had taken “a firm position on the war in Vietnam.”  Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson, a stage actress, were among those who held fundraisers and poetry readings for McCarthy.  Actress Myrna Loy was another McCarthy supporter.  She had played opposite William Powell, Clark Gable, Melvyn Douglas, and Tryone Power in films of the 1930s and 1940s.  Loy was a lifelong activist who had supported Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956.  In 1968, she became a stalwart for McCarthy, making personal campaign appearances for him and hosting fundraisers.  But perhaps the most important Hollywood star to come out for McCarthy was Paul Newman.

 

The Paul Newman Factor

Paul Newman at 1968 fundraiser.
Paul Newman at 1968 fundraiser.
      Paul Newman was then among Hollywood’s most popular actors, and among its top five box office draws.  By 1968, he had appeared in more than a dozen major films and had a following of both older and younger Americans.  Among his films, for example, were: Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), as boxer Rocky Graziano; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), opposite Elizabeth Taylor; and The Young Philadelphians (1959).  He also appeared with his wife Joanne Woodward in several films including: The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, (1958), From the Terrace (1960), Paris Blues (1961), and A New Kind of Love (1963).  Other signature films of Newman’s in the 1960s were: Exodus (1960), The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Harper (1966), Hombre (1967), and Cool Hand Luke (1967).  Along with Joanne Woodward, Newman took time away from his profession during 1968 to work months at a time for McCarthy.  He made numerous campaign appearances for McCarthy throughout the country during the Democratic primaries and also became a McCarthy delegate to the Democratic convention.

Campaigning by Newman at a McCarthy rally in Menominee Falls, Wisconsin, 1968.
Campaigning by Newman at a McCarthy rally in Menominee Falls, Wisconsin, 1968.
      Newman’s support for McCarthy — like many others — was largely because of the Vietnam War. McCarthy, however, was not well known outside of the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C. and his home state of Minnesota.  In addition to actively campaigning for McCarthy, Newman was also filmed in political ads for the candidate, and emceed a telethon to raise money for McCarthy that had been quite successful.  But it was Newman’s early help in the New Hampshire primary that was particularly important for McCarthy — especially given the results and the political fallout that followed. In fact, some credit Newman with raising McCarthy’s visibility enough to enable him to make the strong showing he did in New Hampshire — a showing which later affected decisions by both Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy.

     Newman made campaign appearances in New Hampshire during February and March 1968, some with wife Joanne Woodward.  Tony Randall and Rod Serling also made appearances for McCarthy in New Hampshire.  But it was Newman who drew the crowds and notice by the press.  In March 1968, Newman went to Claremont, New Hampshire to campaign for McCarthy.  Tony Podesta, then a young MIT student, was Newman’s campaign contact.  Podesta worried that day that only a few people might show up to hear Newman. Some credit Paul Newman with raising McCarthy’s visibility in New Hamp- shire, enabling his strong showing there. Instead, more than 2,000 people came out to mob Newman.  “I didn’t come here to help Gene McCarthy,” Newman would say to his listeners that day.  “I need McCarthy’s help.”

     “Until that point,” said Podesta, “McCarthy was some sort of a quack not too many people knew about, but as soon as Paul Newman came to speak for him, he immediately became a national figure.”  In New Hampshire, the Manchester Union Leader newspaper published a political cartoon showing Newman being followed by McCarthy with the caption: “Who’s the guy with Paul Newman?”  Author Darcy Richardson would later write in A Nation Divided: The Presidential Election of 1968, that Newman’s visit to the state “caused a great stir and drew considerable attention to McCarthy’s candidacy.” New Republic columnist Richard Stout, attributing honesty and conviction to Newman’s New Hampshire campaigning, wrote that the actor “had the star power McCarthy lacked, and imperceptibly was transferring it to the candidate.” Barbara Handman, who ran The Arts & Letters Committee for McCarthy, would later put it more plainly: “Paul turned the tide for McCarthy. . . Paul put him on the map — he [ McCarthy] started getting national coverage by the press. He started being taken seriously.”

 

New Hampshire Earthquake

     On March 12, 1964, McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire to Lyndon Johnson’s 49 percent, a very strong showing for McCarthy and an embarrassment for Johnson.  McCarthy’s campaign now had a new legitimacy and momentum that would have a cascading effect on decisions that both Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy would make.  Paul Newman, meanwhile, continued to campaign for McCarthy beyond New Hampshire and throughout the election year.

March 22, 1968 edition of Time magazine, reporting on McCarthy’s surprising showing in New Hampshire & the emerging Democratic fight.
March 22, 1968 edition of Time magazine, reporting on McCarthy’s surprising showing in New Hampshire & the emerging Democratic fight.
      McCarthy soon had a long list of luminaries supporting his run for the White House, including: Alan Arkin, Betty Comden, Melvyn Douglas, Adolf Green, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Barbra Streisand, Jill St. John, Darren McGavin, Eva Marie Saint, Burt Lancaster, Sonny Fox, Alan Jay Lerner, Dick Van Dyke, and Leonard Nemoy.  Bette Davis was also a McCarthy supporter and served as hostess for some of his functions.  Playwright Arthur Miller, and author William Styron were also active for McCarthy as were folk singers Peter, Paul & Mary.  Some of the famous names would also participate in what were then called “Eugene cabarets”– fundraising, entertain- ment, and other gatherings held in New York, San Francisco, and other cities using an admission price to raise money for McCarthy.  These events ranged from nightclub shows to poetry readings.  One featured Elaine May doing comedy, another had social critic and cartoonist Jules Feiffer as the guest.  In Los Angeles, a “Eugene cabaret” featured novelist William Styron, actor Ossie Davis, and writer James Baldwin in a debate on Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.  In later months, the “Eugene cabarets” would be contributing $11,500 a week to McCarthy’s campaign. And there would be larger events too.  In mid-May 1968, some 19,000 Eugene McCarthy supporters attended a star-studded event at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.  Playwright Neil Simon along with comedians Tony Randall and Larry Blyden performed a satirical skit spoofing Johnson and Humphrey, along with other events.  The entertainers that night raised $300,000 for McCarthy.  But it was the New Hampshire primary that had sent McCarthy on his way.  Also important for McCarthy in New Hampshire had been the college kids who came “clean for Gene” and gave endless hours to his campaign.  However, in the wake of McCarthy’s surprise showing in New Hampshire, came Bobby Kennedy.

Bobby Kennedy, 1968.
Bobby Kennedy, 1968.
 

Kennedy In, LBJ Out

On March 16th, four days after the New Hampshire primary showed Lyndon Johnson to be vulnerable and McCarthy viable, Bobby Kennedy jumped into the race, angering many McCarthy supporters.  Kennedy had agonized over whether to enter the race for months, and in fact, McCarthy and supporters had gone to Kennedy in 1967 to urge him to run.  McCarthy then decided to enter the race after it appeared Kennedy was not going to run.  But once Kennedy entered the race, he and McCarthy engaged in an increasingly heated and sometimes bitter contest for the nomination.

     In 1968, however, party leaders still had a great deal of influence in the nominating process and the selection of delegates.  Primaries then were less important and fewer in number than they are today.  Still, a strong showing in certain primaries could create a bandwagon effect and show the party establishment that a particular candidate was viable.  In 1960, John Kennedy helped get the party’s attention when he defeated Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia primary.  Now in 1968, Gene McCarthy had the party’s attention.

Lyndon Johnson's surprise announcement of March 31, 1968 made headlines across the country.
Lyndon Johnson's surprise announcement of March 31, 1968 made headlines across the country.
      Robert Kennedy would have to defeat McCarthy and President Johnson in every primary that he could then still enter.  Among the primaries then available were: Indiana and Washington, D.C. on May 7th; Nebraska on May 14th; Oregon on May 28th; California and South Dakota on June 4th; and New York on June 18th.  But then unexpectedly, following Kennedy’s announcement less than two weeks later, came another jolt for the party.  Lyndon Johnson, a sitting president and the presumed nominee of his party, stunned the nation by announcing on national television that he would not accept nor seek the Democratic presidential nomination.  Johnson, among other things, had seen polling data from the then-pending Wisconsin primary showing McCarthy in the lead, which on April 2nd McCarthy would win with 56 percent of the vote to LBJ’s 35 percent.

King shot, April 4, 1968.
King shot, April 4, 1968.
 

King Shot!

     On April 4th, 1968, several days after LBJ’s bombshell, the nation was ripped apart by news that civil rights leader Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In the next few days, dozens of American cities erupted in violence.

RFK at scene of his famous speech in Indianapolis the evening Martin Luther King died. AP Photo/Leroy Patton, Indianapolis News.
RFK at scene of his famous speech in Indianapolis the evening Martin Luther King died. AP Photo/Leroy Patton, Indianapolis News.
      Robert Kennedy, who had then begun his campaign, had arrived in Indiana on April 4th to begin some campaigning there for the upcoming primary.  On a flight from Muncie to Indianapolis, he learned that civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot, and before landing heard that King had died.  Despite warnings from Indianapolis police that they could not guarantee his safety, Kennedy decided to proceed with plans to address an outdoor rally to be held in the heart of the city’s African American community.  On that cold and windy evening, Kennedy broke the news of King’s death in an impassioned, extemporaneous speech on the need for compassion in the face of violence.  It has proven to be one of the great speeches in American political history.  Although a number of cities erupted with riots following King’s death, Indianapolis did not.  Political campaigns, meanwhile, were suspended for about a week as the nation mourned King’s death.

     By the end of April, the nation was boiling on other fronts, too. Student protesters at Columbia University in New York City took over the administration building on April 23rd and shut down the campus.  On the campaign trail, McCarthy won the April 23rd Pennsylvania primary, and a few days later, on April 27th, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, former Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, formally announced he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey enters the race for the Democratic nomination, April 1968.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey enters the race for the Democratic nomination, April 1968.
      Humphrey, however, was taking a distinctly different route to the nomination than McCarthy and Kennedy.  Humphrey, for the most part, did not go the primary route, although he did have surrogates in a few states.  Instead, Humphrey planned to use the “party machine” to gather his delegates and was the favored establishment candidate.

     Lyndon Johnson would also help Humphrey, but mostly from behind the scenes since Johnson was regarded a liability for any candidate given his Vietnam record.  Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, a showdown of sorts was brewing between Kennedy and McCarthy as the May 7th Indiana primary approached.

 

Celebs for McCarthy

     In April and early May of 1968, there was a lot of campaigning in Indiana, and star power was again at work with celebrities helping McCarthy.  In April, Paul Newman was drawing large crowds in the state for McCarthy, where he made 15 appearances.  At one of those stops, Newman explained from a tailgate of station wagon: “I am not a public speaker. I am not a politician. I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I’ve got six kids. I don’t want it written on my gravestone, ‘He was not part of his times.’ Also making appearances for McCarthy in Indiana were  Simon & Garfunkel, Dustin Hoffman, Myrna Loy,  and  Gary Moore. The times are too critical to be dissenting in your own bathroom.”  Newman continued campaigning for McCarthy through May 7 and was then still drawing crowds, with his own motorcade sometimes followed by cars of adoring fans.

     Also making appearances for McCarthy in Indiana were actor Dustin Hoffman, singing duo Simon & Garfunkel, Myrna Loy, and TV host Gary Moore.  Simon & Garfunkel sang at a McCarthy fundraiser at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum in May 1968, where Dustin Hoffman introduced them.  Hoffman’s popular film at the time, The Graduate — filled with a Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack — was then still in theaters.  This celebrity support for McCarthy, as Newman had shown in New Hampshire, was important for McCarthy.  “When you have a candidate who is not as well known, and there’s no money so that you can’t by television time,” explained Barbara Handman, head of the Arts and Letters Committee for McCarthy, “these people [celebs] become more and more effective for us.  They’re well-known drawing cards…”  Handman had previously headed up similar committees for Jack Kennedy in 1960, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964.  Her husband, Wynn Handman, was co-founder of the American Palace Theater.  Both were well connected in Hollywood.

 

Celebs for Kennedy

Andy Williams, Robert Kennedy, Perry Como, Ted Kennedy, Eddie Fisher at unspecified 1968 fundraising telethon, Lisner Auditorium, G.W. University, Wash., D.C. (photo, GW University).
Andy Williams, Robert Kennedy, Perry Como, Ted Kennedy, Eddie Fisher at unspecified 1968 fundraising telethon, Lisner Auditorium, G.W. University, Wash., D.C. (photo, GW University).
     Robert Kennedy, a celebrity in his own right, would draw crowds like a rock star once his campaign got going — especially later in California.  But even Kennedy had famous names on his side.  After he announced his candidacy in March 1968, his campaign was deluged with offers of help from Hollywood — some 100 actors, directors and producers called offering their support.  And in a blow to McCarthy, some of his early Hollywood supporters, such as Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Sammy Davis Jr., Candice Bergen, Rosemary Clooney, Andy Williams, and the rock ‘n roll group, Jefferson Airplane, now broke for Kennedy.  Among other Hollywood and celebrity supporters working for Kennedy were: Warren Beatty,  Bill Cosby, Tony Curtis, Bobby Darin, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemon, Shirley MacLaine, Malina Mercouri, Jack Parr, David Suskind, Nancy Wilson, Gene Kelly, Jack Lemon, Gregory Peck, and Rod Steiger.  Sammy Davis, Jr., who was performing in Chicago in the spring of 1968 in Golden Boy, would campaign for Bobby on his days off at small colleges in the nearby states of Nebraska and Indiana.  Filmmaker John Frankenheimer directed and produced ads for Robert Kennedy, and Kennedy also hired documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim to produce campaign films.

Bobby Kennedy campaigning in Indianapolis, May 1968. Behind Kennedy to the right, are NFL football stars Lamar Kundy, Rosey Grier and Deacon Jones. (photo by Bill Eppridge from his book, 'A Time It Was'.
Bobby Kennedy campaigning in Indianapolis, May 1968. Behind Kennedy to the right, are NFL football stars Lamar Kundy, Rosey Grier and Deacon Jones. (photo by Bill Eppridge from his book, 'A Time It Was'.
      Kennedy also had a number of professional athletes in his corner, including NFL football stars Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier, and Deacon Jones and former prizefighter Tony Zale. Rafer Johnson, a 1960 Olympic gold medalist, headed an “Athlete’s for Kennedy” committee and often accompanied Kennedy on his tours through black communities.

     Lesley Gore, a pop singer who by then had several Top 40 hits — including “It’s My Party” (1963), “You Don’t Own Me” (1964), “Sunshine, Lollipops & Rainbows” (1965), and “California Nights” (1967) — also became a Kennedy supporter.  At 21 years old, and about to graduate from Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, Gore became head of Kennedy’s effort to get young voters, called “First Voters for Kennedy.”  She volunteered after she heard that Kennedy needed someone to attract young voters.  “I understand there are 13 million first-time voters this year,” she told a New York Times reporter in early April 1968.  “After my graduation next month I intend to give more of my time to visiting colleges and universities around the country.”  In this effort, Gore would be traveling with actresses Candice Bergen and Patty Duke, and also the rock group, Jefferson Airplane.

     Andy Williams, a friend and skiing companion to Kennedy, was also a key supporter. “I’m doing it because I think it important,” Williams told a New York Times reporter. “I am worried about the image of America. People don’t think Nixon is swell, and they don’t think Humphrey is swell.  Bobby has star quality.” Williams would refurbish his guest house for use by the Kennedy family when Bobby campaigned in California.

 

Sinatra for Humphrey

Frank Sinatra & Hubert Humphrey, Washington, D.C., May 1968.
Frank Sinatra & Hubert Humphrey, Washington, D.C., May 1968.
      One entertainer noticeably absent from the Kennedy list was Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra had backed JFK in 1960 but had a falling out with Jack Kennedy after that election.  And as Attorney General, Bobby had initiated some actions against the Las Vegas gambling scene where Sinatra had friends and interests.  Sinatra supported Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the nomination, and had met with Humphrey in Washington in early May, pledging to make campaign appearances for Humphrey in California and elsewhere.  Sinatra headlined an Oakland, California gala for Humphrey and a delegate slate that opposed RFK in May.  At the Oakland fundraiser, held on May 22, 1968, Sinatra gave an extensive live performance, which in recent years has been found on the web in various bootleg editions.  Sinatra also performed for Humphrey at other events, including an early August 1968 gala at Cobo Hall in Detroit, and he also did a TV ad for Humphrey that fall.

     During his campaign, Humphrey would gather additional Hollywood and celebrity supporters beyond Sinatra.  Among these were some of the older and more established Hollywood names, sports stars, and other leading names, including actress Tallulah Bankhead, opera star Roberta Peters, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, writer and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, and fashion designer Mollie Parnis.

 

Indiana & Beyond

A Gene McCarthy campaign celebration, 1968.
A Gene McCarthy campaign celebration, 1968.
      Back on the campaign trail, Kennedy won the Indiana primary on May 7th, and then defeated McCarthy in the Nebraska primary on May 14th.  But McCarthy upset Kennedy in the Oregon primary on May 28th — the first time a Kennedy had ever lost a public election.  After Kennedy’s defeat in Oregon, the California June 5th primary became the crucial showdown for Kennedy and McCarthy.

     Both candidates campaigned vigorously throughout California, a winner-take-all contest with a large pot of delegates.  McCarthy stumped the state’s colleges and universities, where he was recognized for being the first candidate to oppose the war.  Kennedy campaigned in the ghettos and barrios of the state’s larger cities, where he was mobbed by enthusiastic supporters.  A few days before the election, Kennedy and McCarthy also engaged in a televised debate — considered a draw.

     On the east coast, meanwhile, and in New York city in particular, there was a star-studded celebrity fundraising rally for McCarthy in New York’s Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1968.  One Canadian blogger, who as a teenager happened to be in New York city that weekend with a friend, recently wrote the following  “forty-years-ago” remembrance of the event:

. . .Rob and I did many crazy things that weekend. . . .We learned that McCarthy was having a rally at Madison Square Garden on the Sunday night so along we went figuring we’d meet some more chicks. That event was awe inspiring.

All sorts of famous people spoke or performed that night. Paul Newman, Phil Ochs, Mary Tyler Moore to name a few. A new, young actor said a few words to the crowd on behalf of the candidate. We recognized him as the star of the ‘adult’ movie we had seen the night before. The movie was The Graduate and he was a very young Dustin Hoffman.

Celebrities walked thru the arena imploring people to donate to the campaign. Tony Randall came up our aisle and we gave him a couple of bucks. Stewart Mott (General Motors rich kid) stood up and donated $125,000 right there on the spot. The crowd was delirious. Sen. McCarthy spoke to the crowd and promised to take his fight against Sen. Kennedy all the way to the Chicago convention in August. It was pretty heady stuff for a 17 year-old from Toronto….

RFK campaigning in California.
RFK campaigning in California.
      On May 21, 1968, the Kennedy campaign in California unveiled its “Hollywood for Kennedy” committee.  According to Joseph Palermo’s book, In His Own Right, this committee was chaired by singer Andy Williams, and included, among others: Lauren Bacall, Otto Preminger, Mahalia Jackson, Sidney Portier, Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak, Trini Lopez, Milton Berle, Henry Mancini, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Marlo Thomas.  According to Palermo: “Kennedy could count on well-known actors and entertainers who shared his views on the war and on race relations.“…Kennedy’s enlistment of the Hollywood elite built on his family ties to the entertainment industry dating back to the 1920s…” - Joseph Palermo . . . A unique tactical alliance developed between California’s exorbitantly wealthy celebrity class, and some of the poorest, most dispossessed people of the state.  Kennedy’s enlistment of the Hollywood elite built on his family ties to the entertainment industry dating back to the 1920s, and helped craft the image that he might restore to the White House some of the glamour of Camelot.”  Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, also campaigned for Kennedy in California, as did John Fell Stevenson, the son of Adlai Stevenson.  The Kennedy campaign also organized two star-studded “Kennedy for President” galas, one at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on May 24, the other at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium on June 1st.  These were nationally-televised events that gave Kennedy added exposure.

Robert Kennedy campaigning.
Robert Kennedy campaigning.
      On June 4, the day of the California primary, after a grueling campaign of some 85 days to that point, Kennedy rested with his wife Ethel and six of their children at the Malibu, California home of movie director and friend, John Frankenheimer.  Late in the day, Frankenheimer brought Kennedy to the campaign’s election night headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel.  In a suite there, Kennedy awaited the results in the company of friends and supporters, among them, Andy Williams, Shirley MacLaine, Rafer Johnson, and Milton Berle.

 

RFK Assassinated!

      Four hours after the polls closed in California, Kennedy claimed victory as he addressed his campaign supporters just past midnight in the Ambassador Hotel.  On his way through the kitchen to exit the hotel, he was mortally wounded by assassin Sirhan Sirhan.  His death became yet another of 1968’s convulsing events.  Seen as an emerging beacon of hope in a dismal time, many had pinned their hopes on Kennedy and took his loss very personally.  The Democratic party went into a tailspin as a stunned nation grieved.  Thousands lined the tracks as Kennedy’s funeral train moved from New York City to Washington D.C.  Millions watched his funeral on television.  At the request of Bobby’s wife, Ethel, Andy Williams sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Kennedy’s funeral.

New York Times headlines, June 5, 1968.
New York Times headlines, June 5, 1968.
      Kennedy had defeated McCarthy in California, 46 percent to 42 percent.  Kennedy’s team believed that by winning California, he would knock McCarthy out of the race and set up a one-on-one contest against Hubert Humphrey at the national convention that August.  Kennedy had also planned to woo Humphrey delegates before the convention.  Still, Kennedy was in second place overall after the California primary, with 393 delegates compared to Humphrey’s 561.  McCarthy then held 258 delegates.  McCarthy was aiming for the New York primary, where he had support from antiwar activists in New York City.

     Historians and journalists have disagreed about Kennedy’s chances for the nomination had he not been assassinated.  Michael Beschloss believes it unlikely that Kennedy could have secured the nomination since most of the delegates were then uncommitted and yet to be chosen at the Democratic convention.  Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and author Jules Witcover have argued that Kennedy’s broad appeal and charisma would have given him the nomination at the convention.  And still others add that Kennedy’s experience in his brother’s presidential campaign, plus a potential alliance with Chicago mayor Richard Daley at the Democratic Convention, might have helped him secure the nomination.

 

Dems Realign

     Leading up to Democratic convention in Chicago, former Kennedy supporters tried to sort out what had happened and whether and how they would line up with other candidates.  George Plimpton, a well known New Yorker and journalist who authored the 1963 book Paper Lion, had been a Kennedy supporter.  He was with Kennedy the night he was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen, walking in front of him.  In New York, on August 14, 1968, Plimpton sponsored a party at the Cheetah nightclub on behalf of McCarthy supporters, along with co-sponsor William Styron, author of the The Confessions of Nat Turner. Henry Fonda was scheduled to host a McCarthy rally in Houston.  “I started out with Senator Kennedy,” explained Fonda to a New York Times reporter, “Now I think McCarthy is the best choice on the horizon.”  McCarthy supporters had other rallies and fundraisers scheduled in 24 other cities for mid-August ahead of the Chicago convention, including one at New York’s Madison Square Garden that included conductor Leonard Bernstein and singer Harry Belafonte.  Hubert Humphrey’s campaign also had fundraisers, including one in early August at Detroit’s Cobo Hall with performances by Frank Sinatra, Trini Lopez, and comedian Pat Henry.

Humphrey campaign poster.
Humphrey campaign poster.
      Trini Lopez, a popular singer in the 1960s who had more than a dozen pop and adult contemporary hit songs, including 1963’s “If I Had A Hammer,” worked vigorously for Humphrey in August1968.  Lopez postponed an opening at Harrah’s nightclub in Las Vegas to travel with Humphrey and help him with younger voters.  Humphrey also made pre-convention campaign appearances with other music celebrities, including one with singer James Brown in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where Humphrey targeted “black business ownership” as the subject of his pitch, but also, after Brown’s prompting, did a little “soft shoe” Boogaloo with the singer.  On the California television show It’s Happening, Humphrey chatted with the leader of the rock group, Paul Revere and The Raiders, attempting to reach younger voters.

     By mid-August 1968, “Entertainers for Humphrey” included Hollywood names such as Bill Dana, Victor Borge, Alan King, and George Jessel.  There were also more than 80 other luminaries in a somewhat less well-known “arts & letters” group including: classical pianist Eugene Istomin, author and scholar Ralph Ellison, violin virtuoso Isaac Stern, manager/impresario Sol Hurok, playwright Sidney Kingsley, opera singer Robert Merrill, authors John Steinbeck, James T. Farrel, and Herman Wouk, and dancer Carmen de Lavallade.  Humphrey had also picked up some former supporters of Republican Nelson Rockefeller, including architect Philip Johnson and dancer Maria Tallchief.  But Humphrey’s biggest challenges were directly ahead at the Democratic National Convention.

National Guardsmen at the Conrad Hilton Hotel at the Democratic National Convention.
National Guardsmen at the Conrad Hilton Hotel at the Democratic National Convention.

 

Turmoil in Chicago

As the 1968 Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago on August 26, 1968, there was a fractured party and little agreement on the main platform issue, the Vietnam War.  In addition to the formal business of the presidential nomination inside the convention hall, there was a huge focus on the convention location as a protest venue for  the Vietnam War, as thousands of young activists had come to Chicago.  But Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley — also the political boss running the convention — had prepared for anything, and had the Chicago police and the National Guard ready for action.  Tensions soon came to a head.

Convention floor, 1968.
Convention floor, 1968.
      The convention became a national spectacle — both inside the hall and outside in the streets — and one of the most violent political scenes in American history.  And much of it was played out on prime-time television.  Americans were shocked to see Chicago police brutally beating anti-war protesters in the streets.  Tear gas used to disperse the protesters wafted into hotel suites of delegates and even that of candidate Humphrey.  At the convention itself, Chicago mayor Richard Daley was blamed for the police clubbings in the streets.  Daley at one point was seen on television angrily cursing Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, who had made a speech denouncing the excesses of the Chicago police.  Inside the hall, CBS News reporter Dan Rather was attacked on the floor of the convention while covering the proceedings.

     Haynes Johnson, a reporter who then covered the convention for the Washington Post , has recently written: “The 1968 Chicago convention became a lacerating event, a distillation of a year of heartbreak, assassinations, riots and a breakdown in law and order that made it seem as if the country were coming apart.  In its psychic impact, and its long-term political consequences, it eclipsed any other such convention in American history, destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country and in its institutions.  No one who was there, or who watched it on television, could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes.”

Paul Newman & Arthur Miller at convention.
Paul Newman & Arthur Miller at convention.
      A number of Hollywood activists and celebrities who had campaigned for various candidates attended the convention — some as formal delegates.  Paul Newman and playwright Arthur Miller, for example, came as McCarthy delegates from Connecticut.  Television coverage of the convention not only captured the action of the formal proceedings and some of the violence in the streets, but also did interviews with various pundits and some of the attending celebrities.  ABC News of August 28, 1968, for example, included short interviews with Paul Newman, Tony Randall, Gore Vidal, and Shirley MacLaine.  Sonny Bono — of the famed “Sonny & Cher” rock star duo — had come to Chicago to propose a plank in the Democratic platform for a commission to look into the generation gap, or as he saw it, the potential problem of “duel society.”  Bono, then 28, would become a Republican Congressman in the 1990s.  Dinah Shore made a brief convention appearance for McCarthy, singing her famous “See The USA in Your Chevrolet” anthem, adapting it as, “Save The USA, the McCarthy Way, America is the Greatest Land of All,” throwing her trademarked big kiss at the end.

 

The Nomination

Humphrey supporters, 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Humphrey supporters, 1968 Democratic National Convention.
      During the convention process, there had been some attempt to prevent Hubert Humphrey from getting the nomination.  Robert Kennedy’s death had sent the already frayed Democratic Party into some disarray.  Kennedy’s delegates had not united behind any single candidate: some went to McCarthy, some went to a late candidacy of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, and others simply did not vote. The splintering of Bobby Kennedy’s supporters appeared to help Humphrey.  And the Vietnam plank being considered was not supported by many liberals.  At the convention, McCarthy would say that “if Senator Kennedy had not died, we would have this party under control on Vietnam.”  And although McCarthy did not personally like Robert Kennedy and fought him bitterly in the primaries, he offered to support a make-shift plan to nominate his younger brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, on the first ballot.  McCarthy was approached on the proposal by Stephen Smith, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, and McCarthy offered to throw all his weight to Ted Kennedy.  McCarthy’s gesture was unexpected, but the Ted Kennedy effort faltered in any case.  In the end, Humphrey beat McCarthy and McGovern on the first ballot.  The convention then chose Senator Ed Muskie of Maine to be Humphrey’s running mate.  But Time magazine would later report in its September 6th issue, showing the Humphrey-Muskie pairing on its cover, but with Mayor Daley in the background, “What was to have been remembered as the Democratic Convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey may go down in history instead as an event of rancor and rioting.”

Time cover Sept 6, 1968: Humphrey-Muskie ticket shadowed by Chicago.
Time cover Sept 6, 1968: Humphrey-Muskie ticket shadowed by Chicago.
      Post-Chicago, a number of active Democrats, including various Hollywood supporters, were not happy with the choices before them.  Walter Matthau called the Humphrey-Nixon face-off “a choice between strychnine and arsenic.”  Paul Newman told a Time reporter he might need “a month of serious drinking” before deciding on whether to support Humphrey actively.  Newman did say, however, that he would cast his ballot for Humphrey.  Steve Allen, also among McCarthy’s Hollywood supporters, lent his name to the Humphrey campaign as well.

     Humphrey, for his part, attempted to reach out to Hollywood celebrities, as California would be a crucial state in the general election.  Humphrey met with a number of celebrities during and after the convention, one of whom was Warren Beatty.  Beatty in 1967 had directed and starred in the movie Bonnie & Clyde, a huge box office hit.  Beatty had appeared in a number of earlier films as well, from Splendor in the Grass (1961) to Kaleidoscope (1966).  Beatty reportedly offered to make a campaign film for Humphrey if he would agree to denounce the war in Vietnam, which Humphrey would not do.  During September and October 1968, a number of Hollywood’s stars and celebrities came around to support Humphrey, with gala events and/or rallies such as one at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in New York in late September, and another at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in late October.

Hollywood actor E.G. Marshall narrated a political ad for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 that pointedly raised doubts about opponents Nixon and Wallace.
Hollywood actor E.G. Marshall narrated a political ad for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 that pointedly raised doubts about opponents Nixon and Wallace.
      There were also celebrities who helped Humphrey in television advertising, such as E. G. Marshall, a two-time Emmy Award-winning actor.  Marshall played a lawyer named Lawrence Preston on a popular 1960s TV show, The Defenders and also co-starred in a famous 1957 movie 12 Angry Men.  Marshall narrated a four-minute TV ad for Humphrey that contrasted Humphrey’s record versus that of opponents, Richard Nixon and George Wallace.  In the ad, the authoritative and well-spoken Marshall stood by large, life-size photographs of each Wallace and Nixon, ticking off the problems of each candidate as he stood by their likeness.  At the end, alongside of Humphrey’s photograph, after extolling his best qualities, Marshall concludes: “There is only one man of the three who trusts me, and who trusts you…. Now he is asking us to trust him… This is a time when a good man can become a great man. I believe in Hubert Humphrey, and I trust him.  And God willing, he will be our next President.”

New York Times, 7 Nov 1968.
New York Times, 7 Nov 1968.

 

Nixon Wins

     On November 5th in one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Nixon beat Humphrey by a slim margin.  Although Nixon took 302 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191, the popular vote was extremely close: Nixon at 31,375,000 to 31,125,000 for Humphrey, or 43.4 percent to 43.1 percent.  Third party candidate George Wallace was a key factor in the race, taking more votes from Humphrey than Nixon,  especially in the south and among union and working class voters in the north.  Nearly 10 million votes were cast for Wallace, some 13.5 percent of the popular vote.  He won five southern states and took 45 electoral votes.  Democrats did retain control of the House and Senate, but the country was now headed in a more conservative direction.  In the wake of their loss, the Democrats also reformed their presidential nominating process.  As Kennedy and McCarthy supporters gained more power within the party, changes were adopted for the 1972 convention making the nominating process more democratic and raising the role of primary elections. Hubert Humphrey would become the last nominee of either major party to win the nomination without having to compete directly in primary elections.

Warren Beatty, who worked for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, continued his activism & political film making, flirting with a White House bid himself in 1999.
Warren Beatty, who worked for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, continued his activism & political film making, flirting with a White House bid himself in 1999.

 

Celebrity Postscript

     Many of the celebrities who worked for Democratic candidates in 1968 did not throw in the towel after that election.  They came back in subsequent presidential election cycles to work for and support other Democrats ranging from George McGovern and Jimmy Carter to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.  And some of 1968’s activists, and their successors, also continued that long history of Hollywood film-making that has focused on American politics as film subject.   Among some of the post-1968 films that explored that realm, for example, were: The Candidate (1972, with Robert Redford, screenplay by Jeremy Larner, a Gene McCarthy speechwriter); All the President’s Men (1976, with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford); Wag The Dog, (1997, with Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro), Bullworth (1998, produced & directed by Warren Beatty who also plays the central character), and others.

     And certainly by 1968, if not before, it had become clear that Hollywood and politics were intersecting in an increasing number of ways, especially in the packaging of candidates.  Hollywood techniques were fast becoming political techniques.  Hollywood personalities like Ronald Reagan and George Murphy were winning political office by then as well — Murphy taking a U.S. Senate seat as a California Republican in 1964, and Reagan elected in 1966 as California’s Republican Governor. Certainly by 1968, if not before, it had become clear that Hollywood and politics were intersecting in an increasing number of ways. Reagan, of course, would become president in 1980, and others from Hollywood, such as Warren Beatty, would also consider running for the White House in the year 2000.

     Today, celebrities and Hollywood stars remain sought-after participants in elections and political causes of all kinds.  Their money and endorsements are key factors as well.  Yet polling experts and political pundits continue to debate the impact of celebrities on election outcomes, and many doubt their ability to sway voters.  Still, in 1968, celebrity involvement was a factor and did affect the course of events, as every political candidate at that time sought the help of Hollywood stars and other famous names to advance their respective campaigns.

Readers of this story may also find several other “politics & celebrity” stories at this website of interest, including the companion piece to this article on the Republicans and Richard Nixon in 1968, and also: “Barack & Bruce” (Bruce Springsteen & others campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008 & 2012); “The Jack Pack” (Frank Sinatra & his Rat Pack in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign); and “I’m A Dole Man”( popular music in Bob Dole’s 1996 Presidential campaign). See also the “Politics & Culture” page for additional stories. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 14 August 2008
Last Update: 26 June 2014
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “1968 Presidential Race, Democrats,”
PopHistoryDig.com, August 14, 2008.                                                                              Return to Home Page

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

“The D.O.V.E. from U.N.C.L.E.,” Time, Friday, April 1, 1966.

Peter Bart, “Vaughn: The Vietnik from U.N.C.L.E.,” New York Times, May 29, 1966, p. D-9.

Satan’s Little Helper ipod Warren Weaver, “M’Carthy Gets About 40%, Johnson and Nixon on Top in New Hampshire Voting; Rockefeller Lags,” The New York Times, Wednesday, March 13, 1968, p. 1.

“Unforeseen Eugene,” Time, Friday, March. 22, 1968.

‘The Hustler’ Is on Cue for McCarthy,” Washington Post-Times Herald, March 23, 1968, p. A-2.

E. W. Kenworthy, “Paul Newman Drawing Crowds In McCarthy Indiana Campaign,” New York Times, Monday, April 22, 1968, p.19

Louis Calta, “Entertainers Join Cast of Political Hopefuls; They Get Into Act to Back 3 Candidates for the Presidency,” New York Times, Saturday, April 6, 1968, p. 42.

Associated Press, “Celebrities Endorse Candidates,” Daily Collegian (State College, PA), May 5, 1968.

Lawrence E. Davies, “Sinatra Supports Slate Competing With Kennedy’s,” New York Times, Sunday, May 5, 1968, p. 42

“The Stars Leap Into Politics,” Life, May 10, 1968.

Leroy F. Aarons, “Poetry’s Popular At Club Eugene,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, May 16, 1968, p. A-20.

“The Pulchritude-Intellect Input,” Time, Friday, May 31, 1968.

“Newman and Miller Named Delegates to Convention,” New York Times, Wednesday July 10, 1968, p. 43.

“HHH Office Unit Opens, With Sinatra,” Washington Post, Times Herald, August 2, 1968, p. A-2.

Richard F. Shepard, “Stage and Literary Names Enlist for Candidates; Plimpton Giving a Party in Night Club to Further McCarthy’s Cause,” New York Times, Wednesday, August 14, 1968, p.40.

Florabel Muir, “Trini Goes All Out for HHH,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, August 15, 1968, p. D-21.

Dave Smith, “Singer to Tell Democrats of Youth’s Views,” Los Angeles Times, Aug 23, 1968, p. 27.

Victor S. Navasky, “Report on The Candidate Named Humphrey,” New York Times Magazine, Sunday August 25, 1968, p. 22.

“Guests Flock to Week-Long Party Given by Playboy…” New York Times, August 29, 1968.

Jack Gould, ” TV: A Chilling Spectacle in Chicago; Delegates See Tapes of Clashes in the Streets,” New York Times, Thursday August 29, 1968, p. 71.

Tom Wicker, “Humphrey Nominated on the First Ballot After His Plank on Vietnam is Approved; Police Battle Demonstrators in Streets,”New York Times, August 30, 1968.

David S. Broder, “Hangover in Chicago – Democrats Awake to a Party in Ruins,”The Washington Post, Times Herald, August 30, 1968 p. A-1.

“Dementia in the Second City,” Time, Friday, September 6, 1968.

“The Man Who Would Recapture Youth,” Friday, Time, September 6, 1968.

“Dissidents’ Dilemma,” Time, Friday, September 20, 1968.

Richard L. Coe, “Candidates By Starlight,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, November 3, 1968, p. K-1.

E.G. Marshall, 1968 T.V. ad for Humphrey Campaign, “Nixon vs. Humphrey vs. Wallace,” @ The Living Room Candidate.org.

Joe McGinniss, The Selling of the President, New York: Trident Press, 1969.

Pope Brock, “Myrna Loy: So Perfect in Her Way, it Almost Seems We Imagined Her,” People, April 4, 1988, p. 47.

Charles Kaiser, 1968 In America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, New York: Grove Press, 1997, 336pp.

Ted Johnson (managing editor, Variety magazine), “Paul Newman: Bush is America’s ‘Biggest Internal Threat’,”Wilshire & Washington.com, June 26, 2007.

Ted Johnson, “Flashback to 1968,” Wilshire & Washington.com, April 25, 2008 (also ran in Variety magazine; Ted Johnson is managing editor).

Darcy G. Richardson, A Nation Divided: The 1968 Presidential Campaign, iUniverse, Inc., 2002, 532pp.

Tom Brokaw, Boom! Voice of the 1960s: Personal Reflections on the ‘60s and Today, New York: Random House, 2007, 662 pp.

“Robert Vaughn,” Wikipedia.org.

Ron Brownstein, The Power and The Glitter, New York: Knopf Publishing Group, December 1990 448 pp.

Joseph A. Palermo, “Here’s What RFK Did in California in 1968,” Huffington Post.com, January 10, 2008.

Joseph A. Palermo, In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, New York: Columbia, 2001.

Associated Press, AP Photos @ www.daylife.com.

Ray E. Boomhower, “When Indiana Mattered – Book Examines Robert Kennedy’s Historic 1968 Primary Victory,” The Journal-Gazette, March 30, 2008.

“Forty Years Ago This Weekend – May, 1968….,”BlogChrisGillett.ca, Sunday, May 18, 2008.

Haynes Johnson, “1968 Democratic Convention: The Bosses Strike Back,” Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian.com, August 2008.

“Democratic National Convention,” Wikipedia.org.

“United States Presidential Election, 1968,” Wikipedia.org.

See also, “The 1968 Exhibit,” a traveling and online exhibit organized by the Minnesota History Center partnership with the Atlanta History Center, the Chicago History Museum and the Oakland Museum of California.

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“The Sinatra Riots”
1942-1944

1940s: A  young Frank Sinatra in a CBS studio.
1940s: A young Frank Sinatra in a CBS studio.
      The screaming, adoring fans seen on the Ed Sullivan television show when Elvis Presley performed there in the 1950s, or when The Beatles appeared on the same show in 1964, weren’t the first such displays of fan hysteria for music stars.

In the early 1940s, as radio and recordings were making singers more broadly popular, it became clear they could also draw huge, adoring crowds to their live performances.  And one of the first modern “teen idols” to do just that was a young singer from Hoboken, New Jersey named Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra had begun to make his mark on the music world in 1939 with big band leader Harry James, and then in 1940-42 with Tommy Dorsey.  In July 1940, he had his first #1 hit with “I’ll Never Smile Again.”  By 1942, as his music was broadcast on the live radio show Your Hit Parade,sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes, Sinatra began attracting the attention of teenage girls.  The “Bobbysoxers,” as they were called for their rolled-to-the-ankle white socks, were swooning in the aisles for the young singer.

New York fans mob Sinatra, 1943.
New York fans mob Sinatra, 1943.
     In fact,  Sinatra’s vast appeal to this group revealed a whole new demographic for popular music and for marketing.  Sponsors had yet to recognize the vast economic buying power of teenagers and young adults, and had traditionally aimed their programming and sponsorship at the 30-to-50-year-olds.  But that soon changed.

 

At The Paramount

     On December 30,1942, when Sinatra played his first solo concert at New York city’s Paramount Theater near Times Square, the Bobbysoxers came out in droves.  After being introduced by Jack Benny, Sinatra walked on stage to loud and continuous shrieks and screams.  “The sound that greeted me,” he later recalled, “was absolutely deafening.  It was a tremendous roar.  Five thousand kids, stamping, yelling, screaming, applauding.  I was scared stiff.  I couldn’t move a muscle. [Band leader] Benny Goodman froze, too.  He was so scared he turned around, looked at the audience and said, ‘What the hell is that?’ I burst out laughing.”  The kids screamed in delight; some even fainted.  They also crowded the back stage door after the show shrieking for his autograph, and spilled over into Times Square, snarling traffic.  Sinatra by then had become a recording sensation. He was so popular at the Paramount, that his engagement there was extended to February 1943.  He played the Paramount for nearly four solid weeks, first with Goodman and then an orchestra led by Johnny Long“Not since the days of . . . Valentino has American womanhood made  such unabashed public love to an entertainer.”   -Time, 1943.   But Sinatra’s drawing power was real, and so was his talent.  Between 1940 and early 1943 he had 23 top ten singles on the new Billboard music chart.  And all through those years, back at Paramount and other venues, the kids continued screaming and swooning for Sinatra.

     “In various manifestations, this sort of thing has been going on all over America the last few months,” wrote one Time reporter who had observed Sinatra’s screaming kids at a July 1943 Paramount performance.  “Not since the days of Rudolph Valentino has American womanhood made such unabashed public love to an entertainer.”  Fans had not swooned or screamed over other singers, such as Bing Crosby.  So what was it with Sinatra?  Something else was going on, the critics surmised.  Although his singing was certainly a factor, some charged it was also Sinatra’s look; his seeming innocence, frailty, and vulnerability that evoked the passions of female fans.  Newsweek magazine then viewed the Bobbysoxer phenomenon as a kind of madness; a mass sexual delirium.  Some even called the girls immoral or juvenile delinquents.  But most simply saw them as young girls letting their emotions fly.  Still, Sinatra fan clubs were cropping up all over America, and not just among teenagers; 40 year-old women were enlisting too.

New York Times story of August 3,1943 on Sinatra appearance with the New York Philarmonic for a night of pop singing at Lewisohn Stadium at City College.
New York Times story of August 3,1943 on Sinatra appearance with the New York Philarmonic for a night of pop singing at Lewisohn Stadium at City College.
      In early August 1943, Sinatra played in New York city at City College with the New York Philharmonic, where a contingent of his fans showed up adding their boisterous approval.  In California, the announcement of Sinatra’s slated appearance for a mid- August 1943 show at the Hollywood Bowl “had thrown Los Angeles high-brow music lovers into a self-righteous williwaw,” reported one account in Time magazine.  When Sinatra arrived by train at the Pasadena station, his fans went “into a squealing ecstasy,” according to Time magazine.  But Sinatra’s symphonic debut at the Bowl was relatively calm.  “As he led into ‘Dancing in the Dark,’only a self-conscious handful of female fans whinnied ‘Oh Frankie!’,”reported Time.  “Halfheartedly, the press photographers posed a couple of shots of Hollywood babes ‘rushing’ an accommodating cop or two.”  Sinatra had drawn the biggest Hollywood Bowl crowd of that season, fattening the gate and no doubt pleasing his hosts.  Sinatra also appeared elsewhere across the country that year on a national tour, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he appeared in December 1943 with Philadelphia band leader, Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters.

Frank Sinatra being greeted by fans at Pasadena, CA train station, August 1943.
Frank Sinatra being greeted by fans at Pasadena, CA train station, August 1943.
      In October 1944, when Sinatra returned to New York city’s Paramount Theater –and by then he had also appeared in the films, Step Lively and Higher and Higher – some 30,000 to 35,000 fans, mostly female teens, caused a giant commotion outside the theater.  Dubbed “The Columbus Day Riot,” the police were called in to diffuse the situation.  Part of the problem had to do with fans who refused to leave the theater after having seen one complete show.  Repeat performances were then being scheduled in tight rotation, running nearly all day and into the night.  In theaters with a capacity for 3,000 to 3,500 fans, sometimes as few as 250 would leave at the show’s end. Some were known to sit through dozens of performances to the point of becoming faint, remaining in their seats for six or eight hours without food and refusing to leave until forcibly removed by attendants.

Frank Sinatra fans waiting on line, Pittsburgh, PA, December 11th, 1943.
Frank Sinatra fans waiting on line, Pittsburgh, PA, December 11th, 1943.
      Sinatra, meanwhile, was becoming a rich young man. Between October 1942, and mid-1943, he made an estimated $100,000 from radio, film, and personal appearances — a huge amount of money in those days.  And his teen audience would prove to be something of a guaranteed market in the years ahead; an audience that would literally grow up with him, being roughly of the same age.  They would follow his music and career, thus assuring Sinatra and his sponsors of a continuing future audience.  “[H]e is smart enough to know,” wrote Time magazine about his fan base in July 1943, “that if he is lucky they will be his adult public ten years from now, [and] will buy the cereals, cigarettes, radios, cars which he hopes to sell.”

     In the fall of 1944, Sinatra’s fame brought him into his first round of “up-close-and-personal” politics, as he met with President Franklin Roosevelt in September.  Sinatra publicly supported the president’s re-election bid that October.  In New York city, his young fans came out in some numbers to hear a late October speech he made on behalf of Roosevelt at Carnegie Hall.  He also campaigned for Roosevelt in November 1944.  Sinatra by then had also entered the business world, setting up a music publishing business.  But out on the concert circuit, and in the sale of his recordings, Sinatra’s singing continued to enthrall millions of teenagers and young adults.

Frank Sinatra giant marquee at New York's Paramount Theater, October 1944. (photo - Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
Frank Sinatra giant marquee at New York's Paramount Theater, October 1944. (photo - Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
      In January 1945, the New York correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper filed this report on Sinatra for readers back home:

. . . The United States is now in the midst of one of those remarkable phenomena of mass hysteria which occur from time to time on this side of the Atlantic. Mr. Frank Sinatra, an amiable young singer of popular songs, is inspiring extraordinary personal devotion on the part of many thousands of young people, and particularly young girls between the ages of, say, twelve and eighteen.

     The adulation bestowed upon him is similar to that lavished upon Colonel Lindbergh fifteen years ago, Rudolph Valentino a few years earlier, or Admiral Dewey, the hero of Manila Bay, at the turn of the century.Mr. Sinatra has to be guarded by police whenever he appears in public. Indeed, during the late political campaign he broke up a demonstration for Governor Dewey, the Republican candidate, merely by presenting himself on the sidelines as a spectator. . . .

Frank Sinatra, 1943 Life magazine photo.
Frank Sinatra, 1943 Life magazine photo.
      . . .It is reasonable to suppose that his popularity with young people was at first a fiction invented by his press agent; it is not uncommon for myths of this sort to be set going by those enterprising gentlemen, and young people have even been hired to riot on a small scale in a music-hall or cinema to demonstrate the popularity of a performer. There is no doubt, however, that the matter has now become a genuine phenomenon.  . .

     By 1946 Frank Sinatra’s recording company, Columbia, estimated that he was selling 10 million records per year.  Yet these were still the early years for Frank Sinatra.  He had another 40-plus years of performing and music-making ahead.

Other stories at this website with Frank Sinatra content include: “Ava Gardner, 1940s-1950s” (long sidebar, “Ava & Frank,” on their relationship); “Mia’s Metamorphoses, 1966-2010” (Frank Sinatra / Mia Farrow marriage & divorce); “The Jack Pack, Pt. 1, 1958-1960,”(Sinatra’s Rat Pack help for JFK’s presidential run in 1960); and “The Jack Pack, Pt. 2, 1961-2008″ (Sinatra falling out with Kennedys, post election; Sinatra & Reagan, etc. ); and, “Sinatra: Cycles, 1968,” a Frank Sinatra song profile. For additional stories on celebrity history please see the Celebrity & Icons category page. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Please Support
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Date Posted:  18 March 2008
Last Update:   24 August 2014
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “The Sinatra Riots, 1942-1944,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 18, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

A 1972 six-disc, boxed set of the early Frank Sinatra-Tommy Dorsey years, RCA-UK, vinyl LPs.
A 1972 six-disc, boxed set of the early Frank Sinatra-Tommy Dorsey years, RCA-UK, vinyl LPs.
CD cover of 1940s Frank Sinatra-Tommy Dorsey recordings, 2005.
CD cover of 1940s Frank Sinatra-Tommy Dorsey recordings, 2005.

“That Old Sweet Song,” Time, Monday, July 5, 1943.

“Symphonic Sinatra,” Time, Monday, August 23, 1943.

“Frank Sinatra Sings to 7,000 at Stadium; Heard With the Philharmonic – Steiner Music Played,” New York Times, Wednesday, August 4, 1943, p. 14.

Sinatra Fans Pose Two Police Problems And Not the Less Serious Involves Truancy,” New York Times, October 13, 1944.

“Youngsters Flock to Sinatra Speech; Overflow Crowd Hears Singer Urge Roosevelt Re-election at Carnegie Hall,” New York Times, Wednesday, October 25, 1944, p. 16.

“Biography of Frank Sinatra,” About the Artist, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.

“Frank Sinatra and The ‘Bobby-Soxers’,” Guardian Unlimited (London), New York correspondent, Wednesday, January 10, 1945.

“The Life of Frank Sinatra, Part 2,” Originally written and compiled by Gary Cadwallader for Seaside Music Theatre and MaryAnn Eifert for research materials, posted at Summer Wind Productions.com, March 2008.

Frank Sinatra” and “1943 in Music,” at Wikipedia.org.

Antony Summers and Robbyn Swan, Sinatra: The Life, New York: Doubleday, 2005.

 

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