Research Tips From Richard: The Boston Athenaeum and John F. Kennedy

Boston Athenaeum
Boston Athenaeum

Athenaeums nowadays are not ivory towers of refuge for scholars only. That image has long left the Portsmouth Athenaeum, founded in 1817, as well as the Boston Athenaeum, founded in 1807.

Boston Athenaeum, interior
Boston Athenaeum, interior

Both are private institutions that, public relations-wise, have opened their doors for fresh air and to invite the general public for lectures, art exhibits, and various events. True to their original calling, athenaeums in the United States strive to emulate Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom who inspires intellectual activity.

Portsmouth Athenaeum
Portsmouth Athenaeum

I was at first reluctant to join the Boston Athenaeum, as its $290 annual membership fee seemed a little stiff. [To use the reading room you must be a member, but collections are open to qualified guest researchers for short-term scholarly use by application to the Reference Department. You may also sign up for Art and Architecture tours for only $5]. I rationalized that some people think nothing of spending the same amount to attend a single sporting event. I did decide to join this august institution, and have never looked back, wishing I had made that same decision years ago. As a researcher, I grasped a great opportunity.

The great collections of the Boston Athenaeum, along with its art gallery of changing exhibits and its lectures by scholars, rank it as one of the leading libraries of the United States, if not the world. With over 200 years of collecting, this institution has 480,000 circulating books, 100,000 rare books, along with paintings, sculpture, maps, photographs, and current periodicals—-the inventory is endless. All the electronic devices are there for the asking.

Its membership, past and present, amounts to a virtual “Who’s Who” of distinguished people, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and historian Francis Parkman, who summered at Portsmouth’s Wentworth-Coolidge House, to John F. Kennedy and Edward “Ted” Kennedy among the more recent notable members.

The staff is well-trained and most helpful. I consulted with one librarian, and, of course, she originally hailed from New Hampshire. “Where in New Hampshire?” I asked. “New London” she said. “Well, perhaps you have heard of James Cleveland, who served concurrently alongside Jack Kennedy in the U. S. House of Representatives?” I said. “When Cleveland retired to New London, he drove around town with vanity plates on his car reading, ‘EX-CON’.”

Parker House table 40
Parker House, table #40

When Jack Kennedy stepped out of the Athenaeum on Beacon Street, he was a half a block away from the State House. Shrewd as he was, Jack maintained an apartment at 122 Bowdoin Street, across from the State House, for voting residency requirements. For me, above and beyond any research discoveries I might make at the Athenaeum, I always consider it a distinct perk if an outstanding restaurant might be close by for lunch. Long stints of research leave one thirsty and hungry. Once out of the Athenaeum door, I walk a block to the Parker House. Jack and his family were regulars there for years—the food, by the way, is excellent. In the dining room—-and it is a true story—Jack proposed to Jackie Bouvier at a secluded table, table #40.

Recently, while there I was seated near a journalist from Australia. A casual conversation ensued about the various Parker House/Kennedy stories. She immediately excused herself, went over and took a photograph of the historic table, and was very happy to have a ready-made story for her magazine. Also of interest, two one-time employees of the Parker House, and certainly well-known by reputation to Jack, decided to leave the hotel/restaurant to pursue, other careers; Ho Chi Minh was a pastry chef there in 1913 and Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, was a waiter and bus boy there in the l940s.

As an aside, another favorite Kennedy haunt, the fabled Locke-Ober Restaurant, is another short walk from the Athenaeum and his apartment. Frank Locke, one of the founders, was a native of Candia, NH and a Civil War veteran. I could not resist the Jack Kennedy lobster stew, listed on the menu at $15. And if the stew was good enough for Jack, it would good enough for me. But, alas, one cannot enjoy that historic stew anymore. Locke-Ober closed its doors permanently three years ago.

I never saw Jack at Locke-Ober – he was there a few years before my time – but I heard him deliver a campaign speech at UNH’s New Hampshire Hall, during the March 1960 New Hampshire presidential primary. Intellectual and well-read as he was, Kennedy loved to incorporate high-powered quotations from earlier statesmen and world leaders to enhance his speeches. He could quote them verbatim from memory without glancing at notes. His Durham speech, focused on world peace, was no exception.

Now that I think about it, over a half century later, I am convinced that Kennedy, with his exposure to the Athenaeum, along with his Harvard education, was supplied with ample quotations for inclusion in his oratory throughout his career.

But who cares who has been, or is a, current member of the Boston Athenaeum. Researcher that I am, I go there with the same zeal that a religious person heads to a church or a synagogue. The Athenaeum is a treasure. Jack Kennedy knew a winner when he saw one.

To contact the Boston Athenaeum:
Boston Athenaeum
10 1/2 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02108
Tel. 1-(617)-227-0270
For membership: Tel. 1-(617)-720-7604


RichardBlog Research Tips is written by Richard E. Winslow III, Local Historian Emeritus,  who has worked in Special Collections at the Portsmouth Public Library for 30 years. He is a local historian and author on topics such as the Naval Shipyard, the Gundalow, submarines, shipbuilding, privateers, Frank Jones, and more.

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