The following is an excerpt from Seven Seconds: Memories of the JFK Assassination, the Tragedy that Changed America by Holly Millea [Byliner, $1.99].
Where were you when you heard the news that JFK had been shot?
For years, journalist Holly Millea has concluded interviews with that question. In her decades-long career as a profile writer for magazines, Millea has interviewed dozens of prominent artists, entertainers, and leaders who’ve shared vivid memories of what they were doing on November 22, 1963. Nora Ephron, Jeff Bridges, Barbra Streisand, Charlie Rose, James L. Brooks, Jimmy Carter, Gay Talese, Dick Cavett, Peter Fonda, Carl Reiner, James Patterson, Chuck Close, Debbie Reynolds, Donna Karan, Liza Minnelli, and Judy Collins are among the many cultural icons Millea has spoken with about that fateful day when, in just seven seconds, a series of gunshots in Dallas changed the country forever.
Robert Redford, actor, age 27 on November 22, 1963
I was in New York, and I had been taken to a restaurant by two guys, William Morris agents. They were giving me the hot box at the Four Seasons restaurant, trying to get me to join. I was uncomfortable, because it was such bullshit and they were leaning on me. They were giving me a ride home in a cab, one on either side of me. I was in Barefoot in the Park on Broadway, and the cabdriver was listening to the radio and he turned it up and they were saying the president had been shot. And the juxtaposition was too much, with what these guys were doing to me. I had the cabdriver pull over and let me out. I remember walking around Central Park, trying to make sense of it.
And then to go and have to perform a comedy that night, with this going on, and trying to think of every line before I said it. I had to double-think every line the whole performance. There was a particular line in the play where I come home from dinner and I walk into the apartment and I say, “I’ve been cut down in the prime of life by black bean soup.” That night, I couldn’t say it. And there was a line my costar [Elizabeth Ashley] had: “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.” She had to mumble her way through that one.
Meryl Streep, actress, 14
I was a sophomore in French class and some kid said, “Should we duck under the desk?” That’s something I vaguely remember. That’s what we did in New Jersey. We’d practiced all that with the bomb. And then I remember going to my friend’s house—they were the only people who had a color TV—and we watched the funeral.
Lauren Bacall, actress, 38
I don’t remember where I was. I just remember that it was—it still is—I mean, it will never go away. You never can forget it. You can’t pretend it never happened. It never seems to end, the terrible things the family went through—the whole family. It was so awful. I feel very fortunate to have had them as friends. I met John after he won the inauguration. I wasn’t part of the entertainment group—that was all handled by Sinatra at the time. But I was always for JFK. I didn’t get to know him personally, really, really well. I’d gotten to know Bobby much better. It was the timing. I was in view if anyone needed me to show support for JFK, and Bobby, and for Teddy, too.
Gayle King, television news anchor, 8
I was living in Ankara, Turkey. And back then, people didn’t have TV in Ankara, Turkey. My memory is gathering around the radio from the States—I think it might even have been a ham radio; it didn’t look like a regular radio, it was a big, clunky thing. We had it so my dad could get stuff from the States. He was an electronic engineer who worked for the government, so he had all sorts of equipment in the house.
So we were gathered around the radio and it was the first time I had ever seen my father cry, and that was so jarring and traumatic to me. I said, “Why are you crying?” And he said, “The president of the United States has been shot—John F. Kennedy.”
I didn’t really even know that name, to be honest with you. Eight years old and living in Turkey, I have no concept of politics, American politics, nothing. My life is going to school and playing with friends.
So it was very traumatic because I had never seen... never seen him cry before. He just sat there listening, with tears running down his face.
Then the next big traumatic thing was the bombing of the little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, because he was from Birmingham.
It’s only when you get older that you have an appreciation for these things. We moved back to the States in 1966, and I went to school in California. I was in high school from ’72 to ’76, so I didn’t feel this great racial pressure, I have to say. Or maybe I was just naive, because I talked to a friend of mine who was white from my high school and she said, “Don’t you remember how bad race was then?” And I said, “It was?” Because I was so used to doing everything that I wanted to do ... I lived in white communities my entire life, where I was either one or two of the only black kids in the class and so never felt that I was a different kind of kid. I just felt, Okay, I’m like everybody else. It’s only when you get older that you go, Oh, boy, that was some experience that I had!
Diane Keaton, actress, 17
I remember that we lived on Wright Street in Santa Ana, California, in a tract home—very typical late-fifties, early-sixties kind of thing. And my mom had the television on; that’s how we heard. That’s it. It was just a simple scene of a typical Southern California family. In fact, the tract development that we lived in, when we first moved in, was surrounded by orange trees. By the time I graduated from high school and left, the trees were gone—they all became houses. So you know, that whole Orange County and Southern California and the rapid growth during those years. And his death, which was just a transforming moment. He was early enough in [his presidency] to still be a romantic figure. It’s evil what we do to presidents, so brutal. I look at Obama and I just think, Oh, my God.
This piece was excerpted from Holly Millea's Seven Seconds. The new ebook is available for $1.99 as a Kindle Single at Amazon, a Quick Read at Apple’s iBookstore, a Nook Snap at BarnesAndNoble.com, and a Short Read at Kobo. The story is free to Byliner subscribers at Byliner.com.