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11/06/2013 10:32 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

'Five Thousand Dollars for That!' An Excerpt from The Kennedy Baby: The Loss That Transformed JFK

AP

Jackie had announced her intention of leaving Hyannis Port in late August to deliver her baby by Caesarean section at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. "From the security standpoint," United Press International reported, "the White House prefers that Mrs. Kennedy go to Walter Reed where she would have more privacy in the Presidential Suite on the fourth floor." But her past troubled pregnancies -- and Joan's unexpected misfortune -- set in motion a search for a suitable backup location on Cape Cod, should it be required. Her obstetrician, Dr. John Walsh, had taken up residence on the Cape for the summer to be near his most famous patient. Walsh, a former Army surgeon in World War II, had delivered John-John in 1960. Caught in the media crush that accompanied John-John's arrival, Walsh said he preferred to perform his job rather than sit in the celebrity spotlight. As he told the press after the birth, "I was sure nervous with so many newspapermen, cameras and microphones around. I was far more at ease in the operating room." In the summer of 1963, he was vacationing on Cape Cod but was also on the job. A professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Georgetown University Medical School, he turned over his practice in Washington and suburban Maryland to another physician so he could attend to Jackie, and he showed up at Brambletyde almost daily to check on her. Well-acquainted with Jackie's medical history, he also toured three facilities on the Cape, along with White House physician Janet Travell, in search of an emergency delivery room.

While stressing that Jackie fully expected to give birth at Walter Reed, the doctors agreed that the best secondary site was the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, a 12-minute ride by car from Squaw Island -- and less by helicopter. Jackie's pregnancy was progressing normally so far, and the White House went out of its way to play down the attention given to Otis. The New York Times reported that the project was only "precautionary." White House press secretary Pierre Salinger assured the public that "no special arrangements for the delivery were being made at any hospital but Walter Reed."

That didn't stop the Air Force from sprucing up a wing at the hospital for Jackie's use in an emergency. Building 3703 was a one-story wooden structure connected to the delivery room by a 100-foot breezeway. It had six bedrooms, two lounges, a kitchen and a nursery. Jackie's room was outfitted with a standard hospital bed and chairs, a dresser and color television. There was also a room for the President that had rugs, a bedside table with phone and an adjoining mahogany-paneled sitting room with American southwest-style furniture. Air-conditioning was installed -- making this wing the only one at the hospital with the cooling devices -- and an electric dishwasher and garbage disposal unit added the latest in modern amenities.

But Air Force apparently went too far. On July 25, the President was alarmed to see a press photo of a smiling officer standing next to Jackie's bed in the spruced-up wing. In another shot, the President gazed upon a handsome bureau and lamp on a side table. The wing's upgrade, JFK learned, cost about $5,000 (about $40,000 in today's dollars), and he was livid. The military's profligate expenditures on behalf of the President's wife were a public relations disaster. Kennedy phoned his Assistant Secretary of Defense Arthur Sylvester and railed about out-of-control military spending.

"Five thousand dollars for that!" he cried. "Let's cut their budget another hundred million."
Sylvester explained that he told the Air Force to keep the press out of the hospital -- under no circumstances were reporters or photographers to see the upgrade. But, he informed the President, "They went ahead on their own."

The President was fixated on the captain in charge of the refurbishing and on the furniture in the photograph -- attractive pieces from Jordan Marsh department store in downtown Boston. He wanted to know what the items cost and if the bills had already been paid. "I'd just like to send that goddamn furniture back," he said. "I'd love to send it right back to Jordan Marsh in an Air Force truck this afternoon with that captain on it." His aide laughed and the President joined him: "Now, what about transferring his ass out of here in about a month? ...For incompetence, not for screwing us ...And that silly fellow who had his picture taken next to the bed, have him go up to Alaska."

Next, the President got Air Force General Godfrey McHugh on the phone. "See that fellow's picture by the bed," he began. "Yes, sir," replied the general in a meek tone. Kennedy lacerated him, his sharp voice unrelenting. "And did you see that furniture they bought from Jordan Marsh? What the hell did they let the reporters in there for? Are they crazy up there? Now you know what that's gonna do? Any congressman is going to get up and say, 'Christ, if they can throw $5000 away on this, let's cut 'em another billion dollars.' You just sank the Air Force budget! You're crazy up there! Are they crazy? That silly bastard with his picture next to the bed?"

Almost in a mumble, the general said: "Sir, I'm appalled but..."

"Well, I'm appalled too." Kennedy cut him off. "I mean, he's a silly bastard. I wouldn't have him running a cathouse! ...Christ, they're all incompetents!"

The penitent general tried to explain: "Why, sir, this is obviously..."

"Well, this is obviously a f*ckup!" the President roared, and the conversation was over. The President's press secretary Pierre Salinger was sent out to quell the controversy.

In his morning briefing, he told reporters that the Air Force had not informed the President of its refurbishing plan. "We had never heard about it until we read it in the newspaper," he said. The Washington Post reported that an anonymous Defense Department spokesman had confirmed the $5,000 expenditure but insisted that the money went only toward standard upgrades for the room and did not include any purchases of furniture. But the Post story contained an admission by an anonymous Jordan Marsh spokesman that the store had supplied the furnishings. The store's merchandising manager of home furnishings clarified: "We have definite instructions not to give out any information on any work we have done for that family." And when asked if he meant the First Family, he said, "Yes."

As heated as the President got, his concern turned out to be misplaced. The storm blew over quickly. The press scarcely pursued the story, and the White House and the military sidestepped any fallout.

Excerpt from The Kennedy Baby: The Loss That Transformed JFK (Diversion Books, © 2013 by The Washington Post)