Robert F. Kennedy’s final flight: The storied tour of a float from California to New York


Presidential carefree Sen. Robert F. Kennedy waves goodbye to his supporters on Jun 5, 1968, as he prepares to leave a Ambassador Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles, shortly before he was assassinated. (Dick Strobel/AP)

Robert F. Kennedy’s physique was installed onto a front of a Air Force jet early in a afternoon of Jun 6, 1968. His family, holding hands, surrounded a coffin while it was hoisted up. Meanwhile, a several Kennedy friends, kin and aides who had fabricated during Los Angeles International Airport boarded from a stairs during a rear. At one point, D. Paul Sweeney, a Secret Service representative station by a behind doorway as people filed in, peeked to his right, and speckled something utterly extraordinary: Midway down a aisle, America’s 3 many famous widows were conversing. They spoke usually briefly, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. But they were there, together. Then, for a subsequent 4½ hours, Ethel Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta Scott King common a moody over their grieving, wounded, uneasy country.

Robert Kennedy’s final moody is reduction famous than his final sight ride, a one that took him from New York to Washington before a final leg to Arlington National Cemetery. But what Sweeney witnessed that day appears to be a usually time via a issue of Kennedy’s genocide when a 3 women indeed talked to one another. What they pronounced can usually be surmised: None of them wrote about it afterward. Nor did any photographer safety a moment; there were zero aboard a plane.

Little about a moody was ever preserved. In America’s minutely accessible assassination chronicles, it stays a black hole. Only 3 reporters were aboard that day, and they had been invited as friends, not chroniclers. Two of them, a columnists Joseph Kraft and Rowland Evans, pronounced subsequent to zero about it afterward. But opportunely for history, a third, Sander Vanocur of NBC News, didn’t feel so constrained, or couldn’t keep a good story to himself. Minutes after a craft landed in New York, Vanocur was on a air, describing what he had usually seen.

Up until a impulse he boarded a craft in California, Vanocur had been working. He had been tracking down rumors that a family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, had died on training about his third son. Then, shortly after Air Force One had arrived from Washington to fetch everyone, Vanocur had stood in front of a dull aircraft and reflected on a tour to come.

“It somehow seems mocking that on afternoons unequivocally many like this, Air Force jets bear a bodies of masculine Kennedys out of a West behind to their resting place in a East,” he had said. “Also on house currently will be another widow, Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr., whose father went to his grave on a jackass train. And it unequivocally doesn’t make any difference, we suppose, by jackass sight or by jet, a fact that somehow and in some way, we seem to be promulgation a good many of a immature leaders to their early graves.”


Sen. Robert F. Kennedy speaks with NBC commentator Sander Vanocur dual hours before Kennedy was shot. (Bill Eppridge/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Kennedy lies on a building of a Ambassador Hotel after being shot by Sirhan Sirhan. The senator died after a subsequent day. (Bill Eppridge/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Other factors accounted for a blackout. Many of a 70-odd other passengers, tired after uninterrupted excited nights — a night Bobby Kennedy had been shot, followed by a night he died — upheld many of a moody sleeping, experiencing small and remembering less. Those handling to stay watchful followed an phonetic Kennedy code, disclosing zero about it presumably after a craft landed or for a subsequent 50 years. Now, there’s scarcely no one left to remember it or, in a box of a Kennedys themselves, peaceful to relive it.

Thanks to a Kennedy allege male named Murray Richtel, who picked adult a duplicate of a moody perceptible that day during LAX, we know who was aboard. Among a Kennedys were not usually Ethel and Ted, yet Ethel’s 3 oldest children: Kathleen, afterwards 16, Joe, 15, and BobbyJr., 14. Two Kennedy sisters, Eunice and Jean, were also on hand, along with their husbands. So were Jacqueline Kennedy’s brother-in-law and sister, Prince Stanislaw and Lee Radziwill.


The central perceptible of passengers on a craft that ecstatic Kennedy’s physique from Los Angeles to New York. (Murray Richtel)

There were pivotal aides from Kennedy’s debate — his press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, and a speechwriter Richard Goodwin — and from Kennedy’s days as profession general, Burke Marshall and John Seigenthaler. Joining them were aged Kennedy friends such as Andy Williams, Rosey Grier and Rafer Johnson. Also on palm was nonetheless another chairman overwhelmed by assassination: Charles Evers, whose hermit Medgar, an NAACP central in Mississippi, had been gunned down 5 months before John F. Kennedy. Supervised by a maestro representative named Darwin Horn, a five-man organisation from a Secret Service, Paul Sweeney among them, was also present, safeguarding someone already past protecting.

When Robert Kennedy was shot in a cupboard of a Ambassador Hotel usually after midnight on Jun 5, 1968, Jacqueline Kennedy was in London and Coretta King was in Washington. But both now knew where they wanted, and needed, to be. “When we walked in, Mrs. King was sitting before a radio set, tears copiously,” Stanley Levison, a pivotal confidant to Martin Luther King who’d seen her a few hours after Bobby Kennedy had been shot, remembered. “She said, ‘You know, we have roughly never been means to cry about Martin given we couldn’t assent myself to . . . yet now, we don’t have to curb myself, and we can’t control my feelings.’ ”

Robert Kennedy had played a essential purpose following a genocide of her husband: He had organised to have Coretta flown from Atlanta to Memphis to collect King’s body, and afterwards been a celebrated and comforting participation during his funeral. She and Ethel Kennedy had even gotten together in a interim, for a “Poor People’s March” in Washington. She wanted to reciprocate. “It was a unequivocally easy preference for me to make,” she after said.

Jacqueline Kennedy, meanwhile, flew from London to New York. From there, a private jet of IBM arch Thomas Watson carried her to California. The FBI, that had tracked genocide threats opposite King (and, to a many obtuse yet still poignant degree, opposite Bobby Kennedy) for years, now monitored and transmitted a singly American reunion to ensue.

“PIERRE SALINGER suggested that Mrs. JOHN F. KENNEDY is to arrive Los Angeles International Airport by private craft 5:30 PM today,” went a memo to a Los Angeles bureau on Jun 5. “Los Angeles Police Department is to accommodate Mrs. KENNEDY and pierce her to Good Samaritan Hospital.” The same memo reported that, also according to Salinger, Coretta King would arrive a half-hour progressing from Washington, to be met by one of Kennedy’s black aides, Earl Graves. “Further skeleton of Mrs. King unknown,” it stated.


Football actor Rosey Grier stands circuitously military outward of a sanatorium after Kennedy’s assassination. (Bill Eppridge/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

King’s widow reached a sanatorium first. “ ‘Mrs. King!’ several women in a throng said, yet not that many in amazement, for small these days amazes,” a New York Post reported. An hour and a half later, a former initial lady arrived — “wearing dim brown, or black — no one could tell for certain given she rushed by so quickly.”

Slowly yet inexorably, Robert Kennedy’s life receded. As his condition altered from “critical” to “extremely critical” to “extremely vicious as to life,” there was small to do yet wait. Ethel Kennedy stayed by his bedside. Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta King, along with Pierre Salinger’s wife, Nicole, remained in a room nearby. She watched a dual widows inverse and, noticing their singular bond, left them alone. What struck her many that night was how dim and wordless a room was: For all a dual widows shared, what was there, really, for them to say? At one point, all 3 were summoned for a final demeanour during Robert Kennedy. “I don’t consider he was totally passed yet, yet not far,” she recalled.


Kennedy’s physique is installed after his genocide on Jun 6, 1968. The 70-odd passengers who trafficked with his physique enclosed family members, longtime aides and friends. (Bill Eppridge/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

At 1:44 on a morning of Jun 6, Kennedy died. Fifteen mins after Mankiewicz, still wearing a Kennedy pin on his lapel, announced it to a world. He did not rubbish words, adding usually that Robert Kennedy was 42 years old. Standing outward a hospital, Roger Mudd of CBS News speculated that a wake would be reason in Washington, and that to get there, a Kennedys competence preference a smaller, private plane, a improved to keep off reporters clamoring for places on Robert Kennedy’s final journey. But by Ethel Kennedy’s decree, a wake would in fact be in New York, where his electorate and bishopric church — a Church of a Holy Family on East 47th Street — were.

The requiem Mass would be reason during St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The force behind that choice, Vanocur speculated to his NBC colleagues, was Stephen Smith, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, income male and protector. “He felt that Senator Kennedy ought to be a figure in his possess right,” Vanocur explained, commemorated somewhere besides Boston or Washington, as before Kennedys had been. It would also residence an picture problem Bobby Kennedy had never entirely shed. “There was a good understanding of pronounce about Senator Kennedy being a carpetbagger in New York,” Vanocur said. A Manhattan wake competence assistance settle that once and for all.

One of Kennedy’s many stubborn detractors, President Lyndon B. Johnson, furnished a plane. With UNITED STATES OF AMERICA emblazoned on it, it was one of 3 jets designated “Air Force One.” It was a same craft that had been ferrying Dean Rusk, Salinger and others to Japan on Nov. 22, 1963, usually to spin behind over a Pacific once a news from Dallas of John F. Kennedy’s assassination reached it.

“Will Mrs. Martin Luther King be deliberate one of a friends who will transport with a family?” Salinger was asked during a lecture shortly after Kennedy died. He pronounced she would. Coretta King spent prejudiced of that night attempting fortifying thoughts: that a legacies of both Robert Kennedy and her father would be strengthened by their premature, insincere deaths. When day broke, she expelled a statement. “We contingency put an finish to assault or assault will put an finish to us,” she said. “Surely a comfortless and black genocide of this shining and dedicated personality contingency means any one of us to contemplate a clarity of shortcoming in bringing an finish to this kind of insanity.”


Kennedy’s press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, announced Kennedy’s genocide while still wearing a Kennedy debate pin on his lapel. (Bill Eppridge/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Another wait ensued: Superfluous as it seemed, a coroner conducted an autopsy. Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy spoke to Mankiewicz. “She commiserated with me as to what a tough pursuit we had, that is an peculiar thing to say,” Mankiewicz after recalled. “And afterwards she said, ‘Well, now we know about death.’ She said, ‘The Church is a miraculous thing during a time like this. It’s unequivocally during a best usually during a time of death. The rest of a time it’s mostly rather stupid — small group using around in their black suits. But a Catholic Church understands death.’ ”

“I’ll tell we who else understands genocide are a black churches,” she went on, according to Mankiewicz. “I remember during a wake of Martin Luther King we was looking during those faces and we satisfied that they know death. They see it all a time and they’re prepared for it. They’re prepared for it in a approach in that a good Catholic is.” And then, Mankiewicz continued, “She pronounced a thing that usually positively cold me. She said, ‘Well, now we know death, don’t we, we and I? As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for a children, we’d acquire it.’ ”

On television, Mudd supposing a prejudiced list of passengers expelled by a campaign. The autopsy was completed, and a embalmers went to work. Robert Kennedy would be buried in a dim blue fit and white shirt that John Glenn had retrieved from Kennedy’s room during a Ambassador Hotel. But Glenn had not found a necktie, so Andy Williams private his — a one he had been putting on for a post-election celebration when Kennedy had been shot. Kennedy was placed in a box done of African mahogany that Ted Kennedy had selected, that was afterwards lonesome with a maroon cloth.

At 12:37 that afternoon, a blue hearse, with Ethel in a front and Ted behind her, headed down Wilshire Boulevard, accompanied by motorcyclists from a unexpected concerned Los Angeles Police Department. Motorists on a turnpike famous a procession; no sirens were necessary.

Some Kennedy associates, such as speechwriter Milton Gwirtzman and his wife, got to a airfield early. As Lisa Gwirtzman stood on a tarmac, another Kennedy aide, K. Dun Gifford, handed her a vast paper bag to reason until they were airborne. It was filled with money — “walking around money” left over from Election Day. Murray Richtel’s associate allege man, Larry Nagin, arrived with a $50 value of wine John Seigenthaler had dispatched him to buy for a flight.

Of a tighten relatives, usually Jacqueline Kennedy boarded from a rear, and usually once she had been positive that this wasn’t a jet that had carried her and a physique of her father behind from Dallas. She was initial in line, creation her approach down a red runner strewn with roses and carnations. Linda Deutsch of a Associated Press never forgot a image. “Whether it was a matter about her special position as JFK’s widow or either she was fearful of hydraulic rises we will never know,” she said. “But it was dramatic.”

The other passengers followed. When Coretta King boarded, CBS reminded a assembly how Robert Kennedy had not usually attended Martin Luther King’s wake but, scarcely 8 years earlier, had helped open King from a Georgia jail, a pierce that had electrified black electorate and thereby helped send John F. Kennedy to a White House. Two other black passengers — a Olympic contestant Rafer Johnson and Charles Evers — wept as they boarded. “You are forced to consider . . . of what a weight of tragedy this craft carries, what a weight of genocide and unhappiness and sorrow,” George Herman of CBS declared. Commentators infrequently stumbled over Bobby Kennedy’s title, job him “president” rather than ­“senator.”


Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy and others ready to house a craft with Robert Kennedy’s physique in Los Angeles. (Harold Filan/AP)

Like so many others, Vanocur had not favourite Robert Kennedy when they met. During a Wisconsin primary in 1960, he had even griped to John Kennedy about how repulsive his child hermit was. Nor had he been many tender with his bombastic skills: In fact, Bobby had given a misfortune debate he had ever heard. “It was usually disastrous. He couldn’t pronounce and he was unsatisfactory and sweating and rubbing his palms,” Vanocur after said.

But given Dallas, he, too, had come to see Bobby’s some-more sensitive, contemplative side. “The many exposed male I’ve ever known,” was how Vanocur now described him. He had trafficked with him in Africa, sailed with him off a seashore of Maine, assimilated him for lousy dinners and bad cinema during Hickory Hill. Vanocur remained upstairs in Kennedy’s apartment when Kennedy had been shot. He was after asked given he hadn’t followed a senator to a ballroom. “I didn’t wish to get painful or anything,” he explained. “I didn’t wish to quarrel a mob.”

After climbing a stairs to a jet, Jerry Bruno, a maestro allege male who had been with John Kennedy in Dallas — and, after that, with Robert Kennedy when he had oral in Indianapolis following King’s genocide — surveyed a 2,000 or so people collected behind a fence. “He would have favourite this crowd,” he said. Nearby, Paul Sweeney was checking in a passengers. He had been a last-minute recruit, pulled off a counterfeiting review to cover Robert Kennedy — or “what was left of him” — during a hospital.

At one indicate Sweeney sneaked a peek to his right, and saw a 3 widows. Two of them — Ethel and Jackie, he thinks — were seated, and a third station alongside them. “They were consoling one another, we guess, yet we don’t know that, given it was during a behind of a plane,” he recalled. “I wasn’t concentrating on them.” The doors sealed during 1:20. Edward Kennedy fast reemerged during a front to collect a wreath, afterwards placed it atop his brother’s casket. By 1:38 they were airborne.

“The physique left here currently with a planeload of family, friends, staff, including Mrs. John Kennedy and Mrs. Martin Luther King,” David Brinkley pronounced on “The Hunt­ley-Brinkley Report” that night. “So, in one airplane, 3 widows of 3 American open total murdered by assassins.”


From left, Jacqueline Kennedy, Coretta Scott King and Ethel Kennedy attend a funerals of their particular husbands, John F. Kennedy Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1963 and 1968. (Eddie Adams; AP; Moneta J. Sleet Jr./AP)

Oddly enough, a atmosphere aboard a craft wasn’t generally funereal. “I remember Jack Kennedy revelation me once that he never disturbed about a conditions over that he had positively no control,” Rowland Evans after said. “This is a truth that really, we think, goes to all of them. Bobby was shot. Bobby was dead. Nothing could presumably change that fact, and it immediately became an supposed fact and they dealt with it.”

“There was grief to start with,” a author George Plimpton, another newcomer on a flight, recalled. “I remember looking behind down a aisle usually after a craft had left a Los Angeles airport. One of a Kennedy aides in behind of us was crying.” But as a craft banked over a Pacific and rose above a clouds, something else seemed to lift. “I consider as a earth fell away, so in a clarity did that cloaking clarity of basin and gloom,” Plimpton said. “After we got 10 or 15 mins adult in a air, a healthy esprit of those people who approximate Ethel and a senator began to break out.”

Jacqueline Kennedy, Vanocur reported, had spent many of a moody articulate with Prince Radziwill and Burke Marshall. But “for a prolonged while,” he said, she spoke to Coretta King as well. Jackie and Ethel also talked, for a half-hour or so. “And then, after that was over, Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy walked down a aisle, interlude with several people along a way,” Vanocur said. “I used a word ‘joking’ with them, given that’s what she did. She was in remarkably good spirits. we consider she’s been underneath sedation for a final 24 or 25 hours. we consider everybody was perplexing to keep her mind off what had happened.”


Joan Bennett Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and Sargent Shriver are shown following a assassination of Robert Kennedy. (Bill Eppridge/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

“It wasn’t that [she was joking],” he after elaborated. “She was perplexing to make people feel better. She was a one who was perplexing to psych people out of their gloom.” Plimpton beheld a same thing. “Everyone saw that she was perplexing to put a face on all of this, and it gave them a release, we think, and they were means to start functioning,” he said. Good cheer, or during slightest stoicism, was a thing. “Listen,” a Kennedy crony snapped during someone great by Kennedy’s casket. “If a family can take it and a kids can take it, afterwards we figure up!”

Coretta King remembered going adult to Ethel Kennedy and afterwards how, after a time, Ethel had come behind to revisit her. “She seemed unequivocally clever and unequivocally temperament adult unequivocally well, we thought,” she recalled. The two, she said, spoke “woman to woman.” “There are a lot of things we can’t put into words; we arrange of communicate,” she said. “I wish that we was means to give, in part, some strength to her given we was distant adequate private from my possess conditions that we felt that we could be, in that situation, stronger.”

But for her, there was no removing around a all-pervasive gloom. “You know, everybody was . . . well, vexed — a same kind of feeling that people around my father had during a time of his death, a kind of feeling of, ‘What do we do now? We’ve mislaid a leader.’ ” But during no time during a flight, during slightest from a varied reports available, did a 3 widows ever regroup.

Under such circumstances, something petrify — such as formulation Kennedy’s wake — supposing a sanctified distraction. Ethel wanted to use a word from Aeschylus that her father had quoted in Indianapolis on a Mass card, yet wasn’t certain where it could be found; Jacqueline Kennedy told Mankiewicz she competence have it somewhere in her library in New York. Dave Hackett walked adult and down a aisle with a yellow pad, seeking passengers to advise those people tighten adequate to Kennedy to mount burial by a box in a cathedral.


On a moody to pierce a physique of Robert Kennedy, graphic above before his asssassination, to New York, his hermit Edward Kennedy stayed by his side. (Frank Carroll/NBCU Photo Bank/NBC/Getty Images)

Edward Kennedy remained by his hermit via a flight. Vanocur watched him teeter between grief and anger. “I competence as good contend it: He’s mad,” he said. “He’s insane during what happens in this country. He does not know either this is a act of a singular chairman or if this is a act of a conspiracy. . . . But from him, from others in a plane, one got a sense — it’s no some-more than that — that there’s kind of a settlement . . . faceless group — that’s a word we heard.”

“And we consider if we were a Kennedy or a Kennedy worker or if we were a Kennedy believer we would wonder, too,” he went on. “It’s this faceless thing. I’m not perplexing to advise something some-more than exists yet I’m revelation we as steadily as we can kind of a feeling aboard that plane.”

Talk of conspiracies kept popping adult in a radio commentaries. On CBS, Daniel Schorr and Dan Rather discussed how black leaders insincere King had been a plant of one, yet zero upheld that claim. For all a grave oneness of a dual Kennedy assassinations, there was this distinction: John’s was greeted with unhappiness and shock; Bobby’s, with sadness, resignation, doubt and fury.

To Vanocur, a stage on a craft had a “feeling of an O’Neill tragedy.” People aboard unexpected realized, he said, that were Ted Kennedy ever to run for president, “he, too, would get killed.” “The feeling was, ‘Enough is enough: We can’t go by this some-more than twice in a lifetime,’ ” he added. “Nobody was in many of a mood to pronounce about a destiny given it didn’t seem like there was any future.”

About an hour out of New York, Edward Kennedy fell defunct beside his brother’s coffin. Ethel came in and followed suit. Jim Whittaker, a mountaineer who’d climbed Mount Kennedy with Bobby, put a sham underneath her, and brought her rosaries.

Once a skirmish began, a protecting cloud cover evaporated. “We were all insulated . . . we meant with a sky outside,” Plimpton recalled. “But afterwards a insulation began to fall as shortly as a craft started down. We went by a clouds and during a initial glance of a lights of New York . . . well, that was a finish of a conversation. It became so still we could hear a craft creak.” The captain asked that Kennedy’s coffin be placed opposite a bulkhead so that it wouldn’t slip brazen as a craft landed during LaGuardia Airport. The continue there was opposite from what it had been in Washington in Nov 1963, erotic rather than cold, yet a scene, of a lamentation Kennedy widow looking on in a dim as her husband’s stays went from craft to raise to hearse, was eerily familiar.

Then a motorcade carrying a 3 widows — all 26 cars of it — headed for Manhattan. Once during St. Patrick’s, Vanocur, with his newsman’s instincts, rushed from a limousine to a NBC counter nearby, where he assimilated John Chancellor and Edwin Newman to report a scene. His fury was no easier to deception than his fatigue. “That’s Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” he pronounced during one point. “She’s seen all this before. Not during this cathedral, yet she brought passed Kennedys behind from a West before.”


The family of Robert Kennedy stands outward of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, a day of his wake on Jun 8, 1968. (Steve Northup/The Washington Post)

He offering additional tidbits from a flight: that a California Democratic kingpin Jesse Unruh had deliberately selected to fly commercial, in an bid for it to be pronounced that no politicians had been on board; that a 3 many roundly disparaged entities on a moody were Mayor Sam Yorty of Los Angeles (with whom RFK had prolonged fought); a ­columnist Drew Pearson (ditto); and a New York Times (ditto: Kennedy was assured it was anti-Catholic).

Once Robert Kennedy was ­installed during St. Pat’s, where he would distortion in state a subsequent day, his environment dispersed. “Sander Vanocur, how prolonged has it been given you’ve had any sleep?” Chancellor asked. “Two nights,” Vanocur pronounced quietly. “I’m going to contend good night.” “Two nights: too long,” Chancellor replied. “I’m blissful we were aboard for us and for a audience, Sander. Get some sleep.” Vanocur departed. “Sander Vanocur, who flew behind with Senator Kennedy’s body, on his approach to bed,” Chancellor remarked as he did. Now 90 years old, with dementia, Vanocur has no some-more recollections to impart.

Vanocur’s dip that night ­evidently came during some cost. ­“Everyone on a craft was there on a basement of friendship,” an depressed Mankiewicz pronounced afterward. “Nobody was there as a reporter. The craft was private.” At slightest one, and presumably two, of a widows were displeased. “The lamentation Kennedy house is pronounced to be unequivocally bitter,” wrote Herb Lyon of a Chicago Tribune. “Vanocur might be persona non grata with a Kennedys from now on.”

But dual nights later, when Robert Kennedy was laid to rest during Arlington National Cemetery, Vanocur struck a opposite and reduction conversational tone. “When they came down to me to narrate, we pronounced nothing,” he recalled. “I consider it’s a longest postulated overpower on radio in television’s history. we identified Mrs. Martin Luther King and Dr. [Ralph] Abernathy and that’s about all we pronounced in a duration of fifteen mins during a grave, ’cause there was zero to say. A lot of people wrote in to contend appreciate we for observant nothing.”

David Margolick is a contributing editor during Vanity Fair and author of “The Promise and a Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.”

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