Tuesday, November 5, 2013

J.F.K. Slept Here? Guest post by Keith Raffel

Today I welcome thriller writer Keith Raffel on the launch day of his amazing new novel A Fine and Dangerous Season.
 

Keith Raffel:
J.F.K. Slept Here?

I grew up in Palo Alto, California, home of Stanford University, and have lived here for 40 years. Nevertheless, I was gobsmacked when I learned that Jack Kennedy -- yes, JFK, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, America’s 43rd president, Jackie’s first husband – spent the fall quarter of 1940 at Stanford. It’s almost as if that fact has been classified top secret. Robert Dallek’s biography of JFK runs 711 pages and sneaks a mention of that time into one paragraph.

Because JFK only audited classes but never enrolled, Stanford cannot claim him as an alumnus. What was he doing here anyway? He’d graduated from Harvard the previous spring. The college roommate of his older brother was at law school here and convinced to him to come by expounding on the virtues of a university which, unlike Harvard, boasted both great weather and co-eds.

I knew there was a thriller in these facts. “What if?” is the key question for any thriller writer. “What if Jack made a good friend while at Stanford, and he told the story of their relationship?” I asked myself. And thus was born Nate Michaels, in many respects the mirror image of Jack: San Franciscan versus Bostonian, eldest son of a left-wing father versus scion of a plutocrat, Jew versus Catholic. And what if they have a huge rupture in their relationship? Well, I was spelling all this out to my old college pal Rick Wolff as the germ of an idea for my next thriller when he asked his own “what if:” What if JFK then needs Nate’s help during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962?
624 Mayfield today/Keith Raffel

Poof! A writer’s magic moment. Athena sprang full-grown from Zeus’s brow. And an outline of A Fine and Dangerous Season was fully formed in my mind seconds after the words left Rick’s lips. The action would switch back and forth between the same days of October, twenty-two years apart. (The original title of the book was Two Octobers but then I found a quote from the theologian Thomas Merton who wrote, “October is a fine and dangerous season in America.”) The rupture of 1940 would be there and so would the race to keep the world from blowing up in 1962.

Still, there was work to do. My first two books were set amidst the hurly-burly of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, a world where I’d spent over 20 years slaving away. Almost no research required. My next book was set amidst the intrigues of Capitol Hill and the CIA. I’d lived and worked there, too. The research for Drop By Drop consisted of trying to remember the gestalt of D.C. Researching A Fine and Dangerous Season was going to be different.

Looking through archives in the Palo Alto Library, I discovered JFK paid $60 a month to live in a cottage in back of Miss Gertrude Gardiner’s house at 624 Mayfield on the Stanford campus.  The address still exists but neither the house nor the cottage does. On eBay I picked up a 1941 Stanford yearbook. (A varsity letter “S” fell out when I opened it.) I combed through the files of the Stanford Daily, the still extant student newspaper. I learned JFK hung out at L’Omelette, a French restaurant and bar (see photo) that seemed the epitome of sophistication when my parents took me there when I was a boy. Actor Robert Stack’s memoir recalls stalking Hollywood starlets with JFK on weekends. I went back to the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston to look through file after file. I came across letters from JFK’s old girlfriends and more. I’d seen the glint of gold when I learned JFK was at Stanford. A little research give me the pickaxe I needed to open up a rich vein.

Everything is connected. One of my favorite professors as an undergraduate was Ernest May. It turns out he had co-edited transcripts of the deliberations held during the Cuban Missile Crisis. So in A Fine and Dangerous Season I use the actual words JFK, his brother Bobby, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and others did as the world teetered over the chasm of nuclear war.

My favorite quote on writing comes from E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” What else can you call it, as I sat in a neighborhood café, sipping green tea, and found myself transported to the Palo Alto of October, 1940 or the Washington of October 1962? People from that time and place spoke and I wrote down what they said. My gut clutched and heart raced as I realized how close we were to nuclear war. Supposedly rational men sat in the White House and told the president he should go to war with the Soviet Union rather than disappoint NATO allies by removing obsolete missiles from Turkey. The Air Force Chief of Staff seized on the events of October 1962 as the perfect opportunity to fight the battle with the USSR he believed was inevitable.

What more could one want? The fate of the world was at stake. And I tried my best to make it a story of people, too. One was JFK. And the other was his old Stanford friend Nathan Michaels.

Doctorow’s diagnosis was spot on. I do get confused as to what year it is. When I pass the corner where L’Omelette stood in old Palo Alto, I see JFK and Nate shaking hands amidst the noisy hubbub of frat boys and coeds. When driving along Swann Street N.W. in Washington, D.C on a recent trip, I watched Nate sprint across the rooftops as gunmen pursue.

 I only hope readers will enjoy the voyage back to those fine and dangerous seasons as much as I did.

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