By William Tusher
(Thanks to Els for sharing this article)
Leonard Nimoy was a 15-year-old student at Boston Englisch High School when he first heard the name John Fitzgerald Kennedy. JFK was unknown then - even in politics. And Leonard heard the name in the least likely of classes. “It was a German class,” Leonard relates. “The teacher had attended a local Democratic party function the night before. He came to class the next day raving about a young fellow named John Kennedy. I distinctly remember the teacher saying, ‘This is a guy who’s going to be heard from.’ He was obviously impressed.”
Not too long afterwards Leonard got the chance to see for himself. A 20-minute meeting with the then junior Senator from Massachusetts has left an indelible impression on his life.
“I had just gotten out of the army,” Leonard relates. “My wife Sandy and I came to Hollywood from the army base in Atlanta and set up an apartment on La Cienega Boulevard. I figured it might take a little while to get started working again as an actor and I knew I was going to need a steady income. Our daughter Julie was born while we were in Atlanta and Sandy was expecting our second child. I decided I might as well drive a cab.”
When I asked why, Len simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “The hours were good - I could drive at night and be available for interviews in the daytime. Also, if I got an acting job and had to quit on short notice they wouldn’t miss me. You’re easily replaced.”
And then a wry smile lit up the sober face of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock as he said, “Also, I thought it would be interesting. You get to meet a lot of people.”
Just how interesting Leonard was soon to find out. Leonard’s territory was Beverly Hills and Westwood. He soon realized that it paid to keep posted on the events going on at the various hotels. “For example, I learned there was a political dinner at the Beverly Hilton. It was during the primaries and Adlai Stevenson was campaigning for his second Presidential nomination.
“They had those cab stands where a phone rings; if you’re next in line to take the call,” he pointed out, “and they tell you where to pick up the fare. Well, there was a call and I answered it. I was instructed to pick up a Mr. Kennedy at the Bel Air Hotel.
“When I pulled up at the driveway,” Leonard continued, “I asked the doorman if it was the Senator from Massachusetts. He just shrugged and said, ‘I don’t know.’”
After a 10-minute wait, a tall, slender young man with a shock of unruly chestnut hair came through the door; Leonard recognized him immediately. The doorman, obviously taken aback by the Senator’s youthful appearance, asked in disbelief, “Is he a Senator?” Leonard simply grinned and nodded. As Senator Kennedy settled back in his seat, Leonard asked how things were back home.
“Well,” recalls Leonard, “he lit up like a bulb and asked, ‘Are you from Massachusetts?’ I told him I was. He asked me what neighborhood I was from and I told him the street - Chambers Street. He knew the street. It was in an area called West End, which had since been torn down and redeveloped with high-rise apartment buildings.
“That particular neighborhood was right in front of Beacon Hill. And on the Hill was the state capital. Kennedy had an office on the Hill. So it turned out I had lived within two or three blocks of his office. But we only talked about the neighborhood for a little while.
“He asked what I did and then wanted to know, ‘Is it hard to find work as an actor?’ And I told him, ‘Yeah.’ Then he said, ‘What do your parents do?’
“He seemed very interested in my parents. I said my father was a barber. ‘Has he always been a barber?’ he asked. When I answered, ‘Yeah’ he asked, ‘Where did he come from?’ I told him Russia. Well, he was fascinated with that. He asked, ‘When did he come over here?’ I said, ‘In the twenties.’ He asked, ‘Did he have other family here, or was he the first to come from Europe?’ ‘He was the first to come.’ And I told how he hid in a bale of hay to escape Russia.
‘He wanted to know where my father worked. I told him he had a shop in West End and that he’d been barbering in Boston for 25 or 30 years. There is a sense of permanence about people like my father that he appreciated. You see, it’s quite different from what we’re used to today. When you meet a man today, the first thing you say is, ‘Are you still in the insurance business?’
“Kennedy seemed to understand that this was one of the peculiarities of that area - that these were people who had immigrated from various countries in Europe. He wanted to know which category my father fell into: Did he do barbering in Europe? How old was he when he came to this country? He seemed to be very interested in that.
“He never seemed to run out of questions - never seemed to lose interest. He wanted to know if I had any brothers or sisters. I told him I had a brother who was a chemical engineer. ‘Where did he go to school?’ Kennedy asked. I said, ‘M.I.T.’ ‘Oh, good,’ was his reaction. He just kept popping questions at me throughout the whole trip.
“He seemed particularly fascinated with the social aspect of people’s backgrounds - like where they came from and why they came to the United States and what they did once they got here. What were their sons and daughters doing that might be different from what they had done? He was fascinated with the idea that my father was a barber and I was an actor and my brother was a chemical engineer.
“We talked along those lines for a while. Of course I felt an affinity for him because we came from the same neighborhood. He too was the son of an immigrant who lived in Boston. Boston had a very large Irish community, and there was a time when they were a small and outcast minority. Certain areas of Boston were not open to them and Kennedy had a special kind of feeling about this. And I think because of it he was very interested in people who were not American-born or who were first-generation Americans. As soon as I opened up, as soon as I made the first comment, his curiosity was insatiable. He drew me out, getting all the information he possibly could. He was really vitally interested.”
Leonard slowly became aware of a subtle but dramatic shift in their roles. When JFK entered his cab it was he who was the object of Leonard’s curiosity. But it wasn’t long before JFK established that the most interesting person in that cab, certainly from his point of view, was Leonard Nimoy.
But Leonard had some curiosity of his own, especially about the political situation. He had enormous admiration for Adlai Stevenson, and he was anxious to get Kennedy’s views on what the future held for Stevenson.
“Are you going to the Stevenson dinner?” Leonard asked.
“Yes,” Kennedy smiled. “I’m going to speak for Stevenson.”
“What do you think his chances are of getting the nomination again?” Leonard asked.
Kennedy leaned forward and turned the question around. “You talk to a lot of people,” he said. “What do you think?”
Kennedy’s easy maneuver was not lost on Leonard. “I was shocked,” he says softly. “He really wanted to know. He was really serious. He wanted to know what people were saying. Well, at that particular time Ested Kefauver had made a pretty strong showing in the Wisconsin primary. I mentioned that. I said there seemed to be some new interest in Kefauver because of that primary. And Kennedy said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s going to amount to anything.’
“Well,” Leonard wanted to know, “what do you think will happen to Stevenson if he gets the nomination again and loses again?”
“He’ll be finished politically,” JFK said.
Leonard remembers how impressed he was with JFK’s lack of equivocation. “He said it flat,” Leonard reflects. “It was just a flat statement.”
There had been no sense of passing time. The episode had been far too absorbing for Leonard. Before he realized it, he was depositing his passenger at the Beverly Hilton.
“When we got to the hotel,” Leonard smiles, “another interesting thing happened. He owed me $1.25. He stepped out of the cab and started to walk away without paying. By this time he’d been distracted. Somebody had come up to him and asked. ‘Are you the Senator from Massachusetts?’ He said he was and the man told him someone was waiting for him inside. Kennedy thanked him and started to walk away.”
There still was the small matter of an unpaid fare.
“And I was just kind of tagging along behind him,” Leonard grins. “I want my $1.25,” Leonard finally said. “Follow me,” the future President replied.
“I followed him into the lobby of the hotel,” Leonard recalls. “He reached into his pockets and discovered he had no money. Then he found somebody he knew and he said, ‘Let me have some money.’ The guy asked how much, and Kennedy said he needed $3. He took the $3 and handed it to me. ‘Thank you very much.’ He smiled and added, ‘Good luck.’
“And he was gone. That was the end of it.”
Leonard Nimoy doesn’t dramatize. All he knows is that this was one of his most memorable experiences, and the memory became all the richer as JFK raced toward his destiny and his tragic fate. Leonard Nimoy is convinced that for some 20 minutes that day he knew the real JFK. The qualities he then felt so intimately were later recognizable to him as hallmarks of JFK’s greatness. Each time the memory returns Leonard is reminded of Kipling’s line, ‘To walk with kings, yet nos lose the common touch.’
Leonard glances into space, a nawed expression filling his hazel eyes. “So that was it,” he says. “I felt this sense of having touched him somewhere along the line.”
After that day Nimoy experienced a growing sense of identity with JFK. He watched on television as JFK became an important figure in the 1956 Democratic convention. “Look,” he called out to Sandy as JFK cam on the screen, “there’s my passenger. There’s my political conversation guy.”
“Kennedy became nationally known at that convention,” Leonard says, “and I felt a great sense of being in touch with destiny then. It seemed that the man just had to go where he was going.” It is possible to know some people a lifetime and to feel no impact. And a single contact with another person might turn you in a direction you might otherwise never have taken.
Leonard Nimoy acknowledges that John F. Kennedy is the most unforgettable man he has ever met. Leonard has not been able to get over the way JFK shifted roles with him during that taxi ride and conveyed that he, Leonard, was as much an authority as his passenger; that his opinion carried as much weight as a United States Senator’s.
“He turned the whole thing right around. He obviously knew far more than I did, but he wasn’t interested in impressing me with his knowledge. He was far more interested in finding out if perhaps he could pick up something from me that he hadn’t heard elsewhere.
“And he made me feel much more worthwhile - more meaningful and important to myself; that a man in his position would ask me for my opinion - ask me sincerely, and really want to know.”
A warm, remembering smile sits on Leonard’s angular face. “Very often,” he reveals, “I find myself doing exactly what he did. I don’t know if there’s any lesson I ever learned that has been more important. Sometimes lessons are more general, but this one I’ve been able to put to use.
“If somebody asks me a question I may have an answer, but often I will say, ‘But what do you think?” And I will learn a lot more that way than I will simply by delivering the answer myself.
“Thank you Mr. Kennedy.”