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JFK: Chicken dinners and fresh paint

Jonathan MayoI could tell you all sorts of facts about the funeral of president Kennedy, many of which you’d forget straightaway. But if I told you that on the way to the funeral, JFK’s five-year-old daughter Caroline wound down the window of the limousine to hold the hand of Secret Service Agent Bob Foster for the rest of the journey, I bet that you’d remember that heartbreaking detail for a long time. It’s not a grand historical moment, but telling nonetheless.

I was brought up on a diet of kings and queens’ history, but a list of battles and throne changes can kill interest in the past. That changed for me when I joined the class of a history teacher called Mr Corin who loved little historical details and stories. Thirty years on I can still remember the way he told us about Stalin’s demise - how on his deathbed, as his eyes finally closed, Stalin’s aides leapt up and down and shouted "the tyrant’s dead! The tyrant’s dead!" Then Stalin opened an eye and they all fell guiltily silent. When he finally breathed his last, they double-checked that this really was it...

I’ve learned through writing books and TV scripts, some historical details are valuable because they help bring an over-familiar story to life. For example, from the Titanic, Second Class passenger Marion Wright wrote: "Dear Dad, it is lovely on the water all except for the smell of new paint…" Two nights later throughout all the acts of bravery and cowardice, the rush for the lifeboats, the desperate farewells, the smell of paint must have filled the air. That detail never made it into any of the Titanic movies.

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Because of the 50th anniversary of the death of president Kennedy there have been plenty of books on the subject (and now I’m part of that industry). Many of them are obsessed with conspiracy theories - was Lee Harvey Oswald funded by Castro? Was Jack Ruby sponsored by the Mob? Looking at the small details of a person’s life can give you some answers.

The day before Ruby shot Oswald, he stuck his head through the open window of a TV truck parked outside the Dallas police department. He watched the director and the monitors for a while, then stole a chicken dinner intended for one of the crew and walked off. Numerous books have been written trying to prove that Ruby was a hired killer. But is that little-known fast food theft really the behaviour of a man entrusted with the task of killing the man who killed the President of the United States? I think not. Thus a conspiracy theory is squashed by an illegal takeaway.

Why write about the details when the world is focused on the fate of presidents and ocean liners? Because understanding history and bringing it to life doesn’t have to mean looking at the big picture - sometimes it can be more rewarding looking at chicken dinners and smelling the paint.

The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo is published by Short Books, priced £14.99. We have two copies to give away to people who post on the thread. Find out more about Jonathan Mayo here.