“What is Going On in My Country?” RFK’s Assassination, 50 Years Later

Photo by Christopher Paquette | CC BY 2.0

Barely two months after civil rights leader Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968, the New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedywas gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen on the night of June 5, after having won the California primary. George Carlin, Lauren Bacall, Andy Warhol, Sammy Davis Jr., Patti Smith, Philip Roth and others recall learning the news.

‘Mommy, Kennedy’s been shot’
Lauren Bacall, actor

Robert Kennedy was our Senator. I had known Jean, Eunice, and Pat [Kennedy sisters] for years and liked them more and more, and I had worked for Bobby when he ran for Senator. I found him really extraordinary—I had a gut reaction to him and I knew I was right…I cared greatly about John Kennedy’s election, and worked for him, but I cared more about Bobby. He touched me more. I felt so completely that he was the man we needed…I did what I could, what I was asked to do, for Bobby before leaving for Europe. There was to be a rally at Madison Square Garden on June 17 and I’d be back for that.

…I headed for New York on June 5…I was exhausted on a five-hour time change.

The same change opened my eyes at about six the following morning. I tiptoed into Sam’s room to see if he was awake so I could hug him. He was sitting up with his radio on his lap, his face lighting up at the sight of his mama. He said, ‘Mommy, Kennedy’s been shot.’ I couldn’t imagine what had made him think about John Kennedy that particular morning. I said, ‘I know, darling, but that was a long time ago.’ ‘No, Mommy,’ he insisted, ‘Senator Kennedy’s been shot.’ I turned his radio up, totally disbelieving—heard something about Bobby’s shooting—ran wildly through the house, waking Leslie [daughter], Nanny [mother]—turning on the television in my room, where we all gathered. Then the whole hideous story unfolded.

We sat huddled around that set the entire day. Jason [husband Robards] called from Spain, unbelieving, saying we had to get out of the United States, get the children into sanity. People everywhere who had been sure what America stood for were questioning everything now. As I looked at Sam, aged six—my beautiful, blue-eyed, yellow-haired boy—I realized that he had spent his entire life in awareness of assassination: of John Kennedy, then Martin Luther King, now Bobby; that there had been days of mourning, of funeral corteges on television, of wives left husbandless and children fatherless. Even at six he must have wondered if that was the way life was in our United States. … (New York)

from By Myself and Then Some, by Lauren Bacall (HarperEntertainment, 2005)

*          *          *

Weird,’ but not unexpected
George Carlin, comedian

On June 5, 1968, just after midnight, while I was working at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco with Lana Cantrell, Robert Kennedy was shot dead at the Ambassador Hotel down in L.A. I told them I wasn’t going on for the second show. They—whoever They were, Bimbo I guess—insisted that I go on. No way. In fact I decided as I watched the coverage through the night that I wasn’t going back the next night either. Fuck Bimbo.

Then the Chicago [Democratic national] convention police riot happened in August and that brought people down on one side or the other with more firmness than they might’ve had before. I was no exception.

It’s funny but I never find myself responding very much to events of great magnitude. There’s a part of me that knows that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. I will sometimes marvel at the timing or circumstances or setting or the individuals involved. “Weird” is the word that occurs to me most often. “That’s fucking weird. Weird—but never unexpected.

from Last Words, by George Carlin with Tony Hendra (Free Press, 2009)

*          *          *

I think we can end…the violence…’
Sammy Davis, Jr., entertainer

…our opening night party [for Golden Boy] in London…

I was still floating under about a bottle of vodka when I felt Murphy [Bennet, his dresser] nudging me. “Sammy…wake up…Sammy…it’s important…” I heard him crying. “It was just on television that Bobby Kennedy was shot in L.A., just after he won the primary…”

I sat back in bed dreading the television reports, yet unable not to watch them. “He’s obviously been seriously injured but we haven’t any details yet. The senator had just addressed an assemblage of his campaign workers, acknowledging his California victory, thanking them for their help. He said, ‘I think we can end the division in the United States, the violence…’ and he was shot within five minutes afterward.”

from Sammy: An Autobiography, by Sammy Davis Jr. with Jane and Burt Boyar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)

*          *          *

What is going on in my country?’
Faye Dunaway, actor

…the radio station broke in with a news bulletin. Robert Kennedy had been killed while he was campaigning in California. We had been filming [The Lover] on one of the slopes [of Cortina, Italy] when we got the news. Vittorio [director De Sica] shut down the set for the rest of the day, and I went back to my room in the hotel to try to deal with the enormity of what had happened—John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and now Bobby. I cried a great deal over Bobby Kennedy’s death, as I had before over President Kennedy’s and Reverend King’s. I loved all of those men…

What was this assassination saying to me about my country? I felt such grief in my heart, in my soul, about the violence. I thought that day, What is going on in my country? And I grieved at the loss of those magical brothers.

The news of Bobby Kennedy’s death just uncorked a lot of those thoughts that day. I thought about what was going on in the sixties, campus unrest, big city riots…

from Looking for Gatsby: My Life, by Faye Dunaway (Simon & Schuster, 1995)

*          *          *

No way to change this country?
Daniel Ellsberg, defense analyst and leaker of Pentagon Papers

I was in Chicago for a conference on Vietnam on Tuesday, June 4, the day of the California primary. I spent the evening with Susan Bellow, a friend. We watched the primary returns together. Kennedy had swept South Dakota and seemed to be winning by a good margin in California, which most people were saying made him the odds-on candidate for the nomination. It had been a long day, and I was tired. I didn’t wait up to hear his victory speech at the Ambassador, which would be after midnight in California. I took a taxi to my hotel.

The next morning there was a knock on my door as I was shaving. It was Susan, who was crying. I asked her what was the matter, and she said, “Don’t you know? Turn on your television. Bobby’s been shot.” I stopped breathing. On the TV we saw the end of Bobby’s speech. Then he was going through a crowd. Then he was lying on the floor of the kitchen, eyes stricken, silhouetted figures hovering over him. A commentator was saying he was in a coma in a hospital and wasn’t expected to recover. I was dizzy. I was saying, “What! What? What is this?” I was pacing back and forth between the beds in the small hotel room. It was the only time I ever wanted to beat by head against a wall. I began to cry, then to sob. I sat on the bed, chest heaving, out of control. Susan watched me and didn’t try to say anything.

I knew now as I wept, though I hadn’t thought about it before, that I loved Bobby. He was the only politician I ever felt that way about. I realized at this moment that all my hopes had been on him. Not just for Vietnam, but for my country. I had a sudden vision that the war wasn’t going to end. I was thinking: Maybe there’s no way, no way, to change this country.

from Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, by Daniel Ellsberg (Viking, 2002)

*          *          *

‘On to Chicago’…then popping noises
Tom Hayden, New Left activist and politician

It was nearly two a.m.in New York when the returns showed Kennedy winning. I watched with a stirring excitement as he introduced and thanked farm workers, along with black and labor activists who had labored to turn out their votes that day. He finished, exclaiming, “On to Chicago!”

…Suddenly there came crackling, almost popping noises over the television, a cry in the confused crowd, a call for a doctor, and I knew it was over.

On yet another haunted night, I stayed up watching the constant reruns: the words On to Chicago, followed by the human wailing and the eerie kitchen scenes. I listened without hope to the periodic hospital reports, and without much credence to the early information on Kennedy’s assassin. Sometime in the night, Jerry Rubin called in hysteria, saying he believed Sirhan did it “because he’s an Arab.” I called a few close friends as if I might never talk to them again. “I love you,” I told one, thinking I might never have the chance to tell her. I was behaving, without quite recognizing it, as one does before one’s own death.

from Reunion: A Memoir, by Tom Hayden (Random House, 1988)

*          *          *

Hero in death
Jill Johnston, journalist and dance critic

…The Kennedy brothers were heroes in death for me, not in life. I had voted for Jack because he was so handsome and stylish; what he stood for or planned or promised to do and then actually did were very vague to me. Similarly, I was transfixed by Bobby, whom I watched hawkishly on television. Behind his campaign statements I detected a big sadness and resignation, a detachment thoroughly atypical of politicians. I felt he had already joined his brother, though I would not have said or thought so until after he was shot. I had begun to think that people like assassins were really agents of the assassinated. Or at least that assassins reflected forces much larger than their own interests. Results seem to bear this out. I was one of the stunned millions watching the replays on television over and over again: Bobby Kennedy lying unconscious on the hotel kitchen floor in Los Angeles, echoing that frame of his brother in ’63 lurching forward and reaching for his head in the car in Dallas. …

from Paper Daughter: Autobiography in Search of a Father, Volume II, by Jill Johnston (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985)

*          *          *

‘Oh no, not again.’
Phil Lesch, rock musician (Grateful Dead)

…My girlfriend, Rosie, found a house for us in Fairfax, a small town on the edge of wild-and-woolly West Marin (today the last bastion of hippiedom in the Bay Area, for those who can afford it). I moved into my new house the morning after the ’68 California primary election. After unloading my stuff, I turned on the TV, and as soon as I saw Walter Cronkite’s face, even before the sound came up, I knew. Oh no, not again. Yep. Again. Walter’s voice faded in, saying, “And if you’ve just joined us, Senator Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel…” The Martin Luther King and RFK assassinations seemed to tip the whole precarious top-heavy scaffolding of society over a cliff; the resulting chaos in the streets and at the conventions made it feel as if there might be a revolution going on.

from Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead, by Phil Lesch (Little, Brown, 2005)

*          *          *

Screams and meaningless words
George Leonard, magazine writer

… Look’s art director, Will Hopkins, came out for a West Coast visit…

On Tuesday, June 4, I cast my vote in the primary, then took off for Los Angeles…We had dinner at a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard…The election was close, but by the time dinner was over, it appeared Kennedy was winning…Will and I decided to go back to our hotel and watch the celebration on television.

We drove to Bel Air and went to our separate rooms. I turned on the television set. Propped up my pillows, and lay back on the bed. There was Bob Kennedy at the microphone, accepting the ovation of his supporters, thanking people, looking a little tired, I thought, and acting a little silly. But that didn’t matter to me. Kennedy’s last words as he left the stage were “On to Chicago.”

A few minutes later, something strange happened on the screen. All order and meaning drained away. The camera wandered aimlessly over the crowd. There were screams. Someone was saying meaningless words over the sound system. There was a knock on my door. Will Hopkins didn’t want to be alone. We stayed there, barely speaking, as the horror of that night unfolded.

from Walking on the Edge of the World: A Memoir of the Sixties and Beyond, by George Leonard (Houghton Mifflin, 1988)

*          *          *

Why? Why? Why?’ 
John Lewis, civil rights leader and Congressman

The room broke into a little cheer when the screen showed Bobby stepping up to speak. He made a joke about Don Drysdale pitching a shutout that day for the Dodgers and how he hoped he’d do as well from here on out. He thanked Ethel, and Cesar Chavez and others for their support. Then he wound it up.

“My thanks to all of you,” he said, “and on to Chicago, and let’s win there.”

On to Chicago, to the Democratic convention.

And from there to the White House.

We were all just soaking it in, waiting for Bobby to come back upstairs. The TV was still on, in the background now as most of the room had moved away, over to the bar or off into groups to laugh and talk.

And then…

“Oh my God!” came a woman’s voice.

I turned and looked at the television, and there, in black and white, was a grim-faced commentator saying the senator had just been shot. The voice went on, while the screen showed film of Kennedy moving through a crowd with lights and people all around him, then a burst of movement, and Kennedy falling to the floor.

I dropped to my knees, to the carpet. I was crying, sobbing, heaving as if something had been busted open inside. All around me the room was filled with groans and shock. The television was still on, replaying Kennedy’s victory speech.

I sat on the floor, dazed, rocking back and forth as if I were autistic, saying one word out loud, over and over again.

“Why? Why? Why?”

from Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by John Lewis (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1998)

*          *          *

Liberal patriotic vision pierced
Shirley MacLaine, actor

I became a Robert Kennedy delegate from California. That meant I often passed the weekends with him and the Kennedy clan when they came to Palm Springs, where they had a home…

When a journalist friend called me in New York at 2:30 a.m., woke me up, and gave me the news that Bobby had been shot, I couldn’t believe it. Another Kennedy? What was going on? Where could I or anyone else who desired change put our trust, our efforts, our hopes for the future? Was there an international conspiracy? Had we really become the Wild West?

The assassination of both Kennedys and Martin Luther King pierced the liberal patriotic vision that I had grown up with. Who was there now? Whom could I believe in?

from My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir, by Shirley MacLaine (Bantam Books, 1995)

*          *          *

Asingle, frightening, animalistic roar
Michael Medved, movie critic and radio broadcaster

He flashed a V-for-victory sign (which also counted as a peace sign in 1968) and walked away behind the podium, taking a short cut through the kitchen to go upstairs for a TV press conference before joining the private parties later on that night.

With that destination in mind, I echoed the candidate, flashing a V-for-victory sign to my companions. “Now it’s on to the Factory,” I said, “and let’s win there!” We began pushing through the jammed ballroom to get to the parking lot so we could reach the nightclub ahead of the crowds. But then I heard some balloons popping behind the podium—several quick pops, right in a row—and then there was a woman’s piercing scream and other voices crying, “Oh, no, no, no!” and “Not again! Not again!” Suddenly, everyone in the ballroom was moaning or screaming or gasping, with the sound joining into a single, frightening, animalistic roar—a wall that spread in a rising wave from the front of the crowd to the back, then echoing back again. Everyone knew, without being told. JFK had died less than five years before. An aura of danger and destiny, of risk and edge, had attached itself to Bobby’s campaign from the beginning, simultaneously firing and frightening his crowds.

from Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life, by Michael Medved (Crown Forum/Random House, 2004)

*          *          *

Joey Bishop chokes
Michael Moore, filmmaker and activist

…I followed all of this [President Johnson’s March 1968 announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election] and pinned my hopes on either Eugene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy to win the Democratic nomination. What was unacceptable to me was the accession of the vice president, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, to the White House. He had loyally backed Johnson in the war, and so for me that was that, done and done, Humphrey was out.

I was up late watching The Joey Bishop Showwhen Joey was handed a note that made him choke. He announced that Robert F. Kennedy, who the night before had been shot after winning the California presidential primary, had just died. I screamed, and my parents, who were already in bed, came out in the living room..

“What are you doing up watching TV?” my mother asked.

“Bobby is dead!”

“No!” my mother said, clutching her chest and sitting down. “Oh, God. Oh, God.” (Flint, Mich.)

from Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, by Michael Moore (Grand Central Publishing, 2011)

*          *          *

Sound of the twice wounded
Jack Newfield, journalist and biographer of RFK

I started to watch Kennedy’s speech on the television with a happy group of about twenty supporters in room 516 [of the Ambassador Hotel]…Carol Welch, Kennedy’s campaign secretary…tapped me on the shoulder. “Jack, the senator is going to leave for The Factory [a disco] right from his press conference. You ought to go down so that you don’t miss him.”

[Fellow journalist] Bob Scheer and I went down in the elevator together and reached the main ballroom just as Kennedy was finishing his remarks. Suddenly we saw some agitation near the podium. Something was happening. Then I heard an awful sound spread across the packed, celebrating ballroom. It sounded like a collective moan. Some horrible news was being passed along.

People started running and screaming. A girl in a red party dress, sobbing uncontrollably, rushed by, screaming “No, God, no! It’s happened again!” That sound I thought was a moan became a wail of grief. The ballroom sounded like a hospital that had been bombed. It was the sound of the twice wounded.

Scheer and I started desperately to look for a TV set. We wandered into another ballroom… [ RFK brother-in-law] Steve Smith appeared on the TV screen to ask, very calmly, for a doctor. That’s when it clicked in my numbed brain—Kennedy had been shot leaving the ballroom.

I ran back into the Kennedy ballroom and into complete hysteria. Girls in campaign hats and buttons were on their knees, praying and weeping at the same time. A college kid with an RFK peace button was shouting, “Fuck this country!” again and again. A large black man was punching the wall, screaming out of control, “Why, God, why?”

from Somebody’s Gotta Tell It: The Upbeat Memoir of a Working-Class Journalist, by Jack Newfield (St. Martin’s Press, 2002)

*          *          *

Thought of going straight
Ed Sanders, poet, writer and musician

I didn’t care what the Yippies thought about Robert Kennedy. I was a big fan. His words quoting Aeschylus just after hearing about Martin Luther King’s assassination had kept total despair at bay.

[Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.]

I was on Avenue A where we had watched Robert Kennedy’s triumphant June 5 speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. We still had the television lit when the gun by the ice machine fired in the dark hotel kitchen and Robert Kennedy fell, mortally wounded.

I was devastated. I remembered how just a few days before at The Fugs concert at the Fillmore East, [fellow Fugs band member Ken] Weaver had referred to RFK as an “amphetamine wolverine.” For a few days I thought seriously about changing my life, even going to law school and then putting myself into the service of the Public Good.

from Fug You: an informal history of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and counterculture in the Lower East Side, by Ed Sanders( De Capo Press, 2011)

*          *          *

Summer of Violence and Hatred
John Phillips, rock musician, (Mamas and Papas)

…when Bobby Kennedy was running for the Democratic presidential primary race in California, his people, through my friend Peter Lawford, had asked me to write a Mamas and the Papas song for his campaign in California. I was having trouble creating music for the president of my record label, much less for the most likely candidate for the White House. I never did write one, but we did meet Bobby and rode through L.A. on the back of a flatbed truck, singing songs for his rally that day just before the primary.

“Safe in My Garden” hit the charts the same week Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Bobby Kennedy. Like millions of other Americans, I was watching TV as Bobby made his way toward the podium in L.A. to make his victory speech. Again the country went into shock, then mourning. The two political conventions that summer were shaping up to be violent, chaotic watersheds. The Summer of Love had given way, only a year later, to violence and hatred.

from Papa John: The Autobiography, by John Phillips (Doubleday, 1986)

*          *          *

Rivalrous, talented brother
Philip Roth, novelist

When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated…May [companion Aldridge] and I were up watching the aftermath of the California primary and so learned he’d been shot only seconds after it happened. I had signed ads in behalf of Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination and been to a few meetings and gatherings backing his candidacy, but the previous summer May and I had nonetheless enjoyed enormously a dinner with Kennedy on Martha’s Vineyard at the house of his speechwriter, Dick Goodwin…the night of his assassination and for days afterward, one felt witness to the violent cutting down not of a monumental force for justice and social change like [Martin Luther] King or the powerful embodiment of a people’s massive misfortunes or a titan of religious potency but rather of a rival—of a vital, imperfect, high-strung, egotistical, rivalrous, talented brother, who could be just as nasty as he was decent. … (New York)

from The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, by Philip Roth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988)

*          *          *

Missed the kitchen action
Gail Sheehy, journalist and author

I had to catch the red-eye back to New York [after covering the California primary for the fledgling New York magazine]. My plane was in the air when his victory became certain. At that moment, Kennedy was hurrying through the hotel kitchen on the way to his press conference.

It was after 6 a.m. when I staggered out of the taxi from JFK and upstairs to my apartment. I had a sour premonition that something wasn’t right…The phone rang.

Were you in the kitchen?” It was Clay [editor, and later husband, Felker] in a voice I had not heard before.

“The kitchen?”

“At the Ambassador?”

“Oh God, no, what happened?”

“He was killed by a Palestinian. He’s not officially dead yet, but it’s all over.”

I went numb.

“How soon can you get me the story?”

I turned on the TV. Watching recaps. Kennedy responding to a reporter, turning his face, looking for Ethel. I didn’t see the assassin raise his arm over the senator’s aides. I didn’t hear the shots fired from a snub-nosed revolver inches from Kennedy’s head. I didn’t see Kennedy stagger and fall. I didn’t hear the chaos, the yelling. “My God! He’s been shot. Get a doctor! Get the gun! Kill the bastard! No, don’t kill this one! Oh my God, they’ve shot Kennedy!”

from Daring: My Passages, by Gail Sheehy (WilliamMorrow/HarperCollins, 2014)

*          *          *

Worlds unraveling
Patti Smith, poet, artist and rock musician

…one of my customers [at Scribner’s Bookstore, Fifth Avenue, New York] and I fell into a discussion about our political responsibilities. It was an election year and he represented Robert Kennedy. The California primary was pending and we agreed to meet again afterward. I was excited about the prospect of working for someone with the ideals I cherished and who promised to end the war in Vietnam. I saw Kennedy’s candidacy as a way in which idealism could be converted into meaningful political action, that something might be achieved to truly help those in need.

…I went home [to Deptford, N.J.] to see my father. He was a wise and fair man and I wanted his opinion about Robert Kennedy. We sat together on the couch watching the primary returns. I was filled with pride as RFK delivered his victory speech. We watched him leave the podium, and my father winked at me, talking pleasure in the promise of our young candidate and my own enthusiasm. For a few innocent moments, I truly believed that everything would be all right. We watched him file through the jubilant crowd, shaking hands and emanating hope with that classic Kennedy smile. Then he fell. We saw his wife kneeling by his side.

Senator Kennedy was dead.

“Daddy, Daddy,” I sobbed, burying my face in his shoulder.

My father put his arm around me. He didn’t say a thing. I guess he had already seen it all. But it seemed to me that the world outside was unraveling, and increasingly, my own world as well.

from Just Kids, by Patti Smith (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2010)

*          *          *

Whacked in the American manner 
Robert Stone, novelist

During the four years of our expatriation in England, news came to us through the distanced lens of foreign media. History seemed America-driven, occurring—exploding—across the Atlantic or in reaction to some scheme hatched there.

…in north Wales a few months later [after the assassination of Martin Luther King], a boy ran into our parlor from the rolling, sheep-razed meadow outside, shouting and waving the morning’s newspaper: “Robert Kennedy is dead, look!”

Shot, of course, whacked in the American manner. We could not be helpful. Sorry. Guns are pretty easy to get in the U.S.; if you really want one you can get it. So if you want to shoot someone and take no thought for the morrow, you can figure out a way to do it.

from Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, by Robert Stone (HarperCollins, 2007)

*          *          *

JFK assassination rerun?
Andy Warhol, pop artist

I was in surgery for about five hours [after being shot by deranged feminist Valerie Solanas] with Dr. Giuseppe Rossi and four other great doctors working on me. They brought me back from the dead. …

As I was coming down from my operation, I heard a television going somewhere and the words “Kennedy” and “assassin” and “shot” over and over again. Robert Kennedy had been shot, but what was so weird was that I had no understanding that this was a second Kennedy assassination—I just thought that maybe after you die, they rerun things for you, like President Kennedy’s assassination. Some of the nurses were crying, and after a while, I heard things like “the mourners in St. Patrick’s.” It was all so strange to me, this background of another shooting and a funeral—I couldn’t distinguish between life and death yet, anyway, and here was a person being buried on the television right in front of me. (New York)

from POPism: The Warhol ‘60s, by Andy Warhol with Pat Hackett (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1980)

Dana Cook’s collections of literary encounters and big event historical reminiscences have appeared in numerous publications, including Counterpunch: “Encounters with Dick Gregory: From Malcolm X to Howard Zinn” August, 2017 and “Beautiful Revolutionary”: Che Guevara Remembered, October, 2017. Contact: cooks.encounters(at)gmail.com).