9 things you might not know about the Kennedys

9 things you might not know about the Kennedys

Barbara Perry -- expert on all things Kennedy -- reveals lesser-known facts about the famous family

[Read the article in UVA Today]

Political historian Barbara Perry can recall facts and stories about the Kennedy family with the ease of an old friend.

Sitting in her office at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, Perry – the center’s director of presidential studies – leafs through books, photos and even an original letter written in Jacqueline Kennedy’s sloping hand as she talks about Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s nine children and their profound impact on American politics.

Perry can trace her firsthand knowledge of the family back to the tender age of 4, when she attended a 1960 campaign rally for future president John F. Kennedy with her mother and two brothers. Now, she is among the nation’s foremost experts on the American presidency in general and the Kennedy family in particular. Among the many books she has written are biographies of family matriarch Rose Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Most recently, Perry joined a handful of other experts featured on a new CNN documentary, American Dynasties: The Kennedys. The six-part series airs on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. and is now on its third episode. It includes commentary from experts like Perry and from a new generation of Kennedys, analyzing how their famous family members and their relationships changed the world as we know it today.

As the documentary airs, we asked Perry to share a few lesser-known facts about a family that has fascinated generations of Americans.

Life in ‘Camelot’

1. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent Jaqueline Kennedy puppies

When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, the young first family and active Kennedy clan ushered in a new age of glamour in Washington, DC, despite an ongoing Cold War. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy even charmed the grim Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, during a 1961 summit in Vienna, her husband’s first meeting with his Cold War foe.

The Washington Post wrote that he looked like a Russian schoolboy on the banks of the Volga when the snow melts in the springtime,” Perry said. “He was very taken with her.”

Khrushchev was seated next to Jackie at dinner and she asked him about the dogs the Soviet Union had recently launched into space to study the effects of a zero-gravity environment.

A few weeks later, a crate of puppies arrived at the White House, much to the delight of the president’s two children, Caroline and John Jr. The puppies, the offspring of a dog that returned safely from space, joined the Kennedy family’s large tribe of pets.

2. JFK loved to play word games with Caroline and John Jr.

The president frequently played word games with Caroline, who was 3 when the family moved into the White House, and John Jr., who was an infant.

In the recording below, the children—Caroline, age 6, and John Jr., age 2—interrupt Kennedy as he is dictating a memo about Vietnam. You can hear them chattering to the president as he asks questions about the seasons, their trip to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and Caroline’s toy horses.

“It’s a very cute moment, and it is reminiscent of his mother, who used to ask questions and play word games with JFK and his siblings at the dinner table,” Perry said.

The timing, Perry points out, is very poignant. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas just a few weeks after the recording.

[Read Perry's other 6 picks]