Witness recalls Jackie Kennedy after the JFK assassination: ‘Without any warning, she begins crying’

David Pearson, a second-level Peace Corps press officer was filling in for out-of-town White House press staffers on November 22, 1963, when he got the news that shocked the entire nation: President John F. Kennedy had been shot in the head while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas with wife Jacqueline Kennedy by his side. By 3 p.m. that day, Pearson was in the thick of things at the White House as arrangements were made for the slain president. His recollections from that historic day—first published in 1983—were recently shared again by The Miami Herald on the 58th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.


“I was there,” Pearson wrote. “I tacked black crepe. I fetched sandwiches. I wrote press releases. I emptied ashtrays. I ran errands. I also watched and I listened. And I remember what has now become history and legend.” He also recalled watching the group of men who were closest to the former president—Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps and a Kennedy in-law; aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy; and other military staffers—translate the first lady’s “wishes into substance, form and effective action.”


President Kennedy’s casket was carried into the East Room of the White House at 4:30 in the morning. As a priest sprinkled holy water and said prayers in Latin and English, the Kennedy family began trickling in, including the first lady, who was still clad in the pink designer suit she had been wearing when her husband was shot. Mrs. Kennedy, Pearson wrote, “appeared out of nowhere, an apparition standing in that characteristic pose of hers that would become so well-known to the world in the ensuing days. Feet apart, the slight lean forward. Stiff and awe-struck. Her lips are parted slightly. Her eyes are as if she had just been surprised, only they stay that way. A wrinkle of disbelief on her brow.”


“I look at her suit and am surprised that she hasn’t changed clothes,” he continued. “The dark stains are all over her skirt and her stockings.” When the priest nodded to the first lady to move to the casket, Pearson recalled, she pressed her forehead against its side and knelt “there like that for what seems a long time, but it must span no more than two or three minutes. There is dead silence. I am almost afraid to breathe. Slowly, she starts to rise. Then, without any warning, Mrs. Kennedy begins crying. Her slender frame is rocked by sobs, and she slumps back down. Her knees give way. Bobby Kennedy moves up quickly, puts one arm around her waist. He stands there with her a moment and just lets her cry.”


Although press coverage in the following days accused Mrs. Kennedy of being stoic—”people would actually wonder whether she could have loved him very much because she didn’t seem to mourn the way people mourn who love deeply”—Pearson wrote that those in the East Room that day saw her emotion firsthand.

Cover Image Source: Jackie Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy attend the arrival ceremony October 10, 1962, of the King of Morocco in Washington D.C. (Photo Courtesy of Kennedy Library Archives/Newsmakers)