40 Years After Shots in Dallas, a Survivor's Painful Memories
By Ralph Blumenthal
New York Times
Friday 31 October 2003
HOUSTON, Oct. 30 — "It was a car full of yellow roses, red roses and blood, and it was all over us."
In a luxury apartment tower rearing over the city's toniest shopping district, Nellie Connally pauses, her rush of words suddenly stilled. "It's hard to explain," she continues after a moment. "You can't believe the horror of being in that car."
"I can't believe it's been 40 years," she says, "nor can I believe that I'm the last person living that was in the back of that car" — a car that carried her in her hot-pink Neiman Marcus suit, and her husband, John, the new governor of Texas with his cowboy hat, and President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, in a triumphant motorcade through the streets of Dallas. It was an ebullient Mrs. Connally who gushed, "Mr. President, you certainly can't say that Dallas doesn't love you" — perhaps the last words Kennedy ever heard.
After shots rang out — and Mrs. Connally is adamant that three bullets, not two as officially established, found their mark — the president was dead, her husband gravely wounded as she struggled to stanch his blood, and the course of history forever altered.
Now with the approach of the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22, Mrs. Connally, at 84, is telling her story, a story that she first scrawled out 10 days after the 1963 events for grandchildren yet unborn and that has now been published as a memoir after she rediscovered the narrative in 1996 in a long-forgotten desk drawer.
This week, Mrs. Connally, in a lime-green Yves Saint Laurent suit, sat in her well-furnished but hardly opulent apartment filled with cheerfully obvious Impressionist fakes — the Connallys lost their fortune in a calamitous bankruptcy in 1987 — and in a wide-ranging interview rummaged through five decades of turbulent memories. She even brought out the pink suit she keeps to this day, cleaned and in plastic, as a grim memento of history.
Her thoughts carry her from an electric first encounter between Idanell Brill, a sparkling young ingénue at the University of Texas in 1937, and the tall and dashing student body president John Bowden Connally, through their marriage in 1940, Mr. Connally's years as an aide to the rising politician Lyndon B. Johnson, his appointment as secretary of the Navy by President Kennedy, election as governor in 1962, service as secretary of the Treasury for President Richard M. Nixon — after Connally switched to the Republican Party — his trial and acquittal on bribery charges, and quixotic bids for the presidency. ...
But mostly she talks about That Day in Dallas. It is a story she recounts in her memoir, "From Love Field" with the writer Mickey Herskowitz and just published by Rugged Land, that is propelling her into a limelight she never knew as the dutiful housewife of one of the era's more colorful politicians.
"He was my career," she said of John, who died in 1993, after hurriedly finishing his own memoir with Mr. Herskowitz.
"We were all in our 40's," she recalled of the events 40 years ago next month. "We didn't think the world owed us a living. We thought we owed the world, and we were ready to charge."
The Kennedys and the Connallys hit it off well, she said — "a happy foursome, that beautiful morning," as she wrote in her original notes. "I had my yellow roses in my arms and Jackie had her red roses in hers." Both women, near disastrously, had turned up in pink.
She said that the president had not really come to Texas, as often stated, to repair a rift between the liberal Democratic Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas and Vice President Johnson. Rather, she said, he was looking to shore up his flagging popularity and raise money from wealthy Texans.
"He wanted to have four fund-raisers," she recalled. "John said no," persuading the president, as she recalled, that it was wiser to limit himself to one benefit, in Austin, and make his other appearances nonpartisan.
All began well that fateful morning, she recalled. The two couples flew together from nearby Fort Worth to Dallas's Love Field, where the women were presented bouquets of roses. Wet clouds had lifted, and in the strong autumn sunshine the limousine's bubble top was removed. The president and his wife sat in the back, the Connallys on jump seats in front of them.
The crowds lining the sidewalks were effusive — none of the right-wing hostility that had marred recent visits by the vice president and Adlai E. Stevenson, the United Nations representative. Mrs. Connally, her anxieties allayed, was moved to make her remark about the friendly reception. President Kennedy was delighted, she recalled, and "he grinned that wonderful grin he had."
Then, as she wrote: "I heard a loud, terrifying noise. It came from the back."
She turned to see the president's hands fly up to his neck and saw him sink down in the seat.
Then, she recounted in the book and interview, there was a second shot and her husband was hit as he blurted, "No, no, no," and "My God, they are going to kill us all."
Finally, she said, there was a third shot, the one that shattered the president's head. (Mr. Connally later said that his exclamation was misconstrued to suggest advance knowledge of a conspiracy.)
"The car was covered with matter, bloody matter," she said. "Tiny little specks, the car, my clothes, everything."
The Warren Commission and subsequent investigations have concluded that the first shot, fired by Lee Harvey Oswald from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, went wild, that the president and the governor were both hit by a second bullet, and that President Kennedy alone was hit by a third shot.
"Well they're wrong," Mrs. Connally said this week at the beginning of a publicity blitz for the book that will keep her before the public, on television shows (with Larry King, Katie Couric and Dan Rather and Liz Smith), speeches and readings around the country. "I was there, they weren't. When they argue with me, all I have to say is, `Were you in that car?' The answer has to be no because there wasn't anybody else."
(The two Secret Service agents in the front seat have since died; two other agents, Clint Hill, the agent in the following car who climbed on the trunk to help Mrs. Kennedy, and Win Lawson, who rode in the car ahead of the president, are still alive.)
"All I'm saying is there were three shots and I know what happened with each shot," she said.
She said, however, that she was not a conspiracist and that she believed — and that her husband's own exhaustive study of records as Treasury secretary proved — that Mr. Oswald was the lone gunman.
"A gun and a scrambled-egg mind caused all that horror," she said.
She disputed an account by the author William Manchester attributed to Mrs. Kennedy suggesting that the Connallys were screaming afterward in the car.
"I don't know why she said that," Mrs. Connally said. "She made an error."
In fact, she said, a swath of her hair had turned white overnight, medical proof, she said, that she had internalized her trauma and not given vent to her grief.
She recalled distinctly, she said, that after the second shot hit her husband "I was trying to figure out what I could do to help him."
"I wanted to get him out of the line of fire so I just pulled him into my lap," she said.
She helped cover his open chest wound, which she said she heard later probably saved his life.
"I had him in my arms," she recalled. "I said, `Be still, it'll be all right,' and I said it over and over and over again."
At Parkland Hospital, Mr. Connally, though only semiconscious, heaved himself out of the way so medics could get the president out of the car, she said. Inside the hospital she succumbed to flashes of resentment.
"I was just afraid that the president was in the other room, that all the doctors were with him," she admitted. She found she was wrong, that her husband was being attended to as well, but it was not clear whether he would survive.
She shook her head as if to banish the memory. "It was a bad deal," she said.