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JFK assassination 50 years later: Ex LA Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman recalls happier times

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

July 16, 1960: John F. Kennedy delivers his acceptance speech during the Democratic National Convention, held at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. Howard Ballew/LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, there will be plenty of sad stories (including on Off-Ramp) about the day he was killed and the shock it gave the nation. So we thought we'd go back a few years, to a happier time, when JFK filled so many people with hope for the future.

In 1960, LA City Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman was not yet 30. She'd already helped bring the Dodgers to L.A. and convinced the Kennedy campaign to let JFK give his acceptance speech, as the Democratic nominee for President, at the Los Angeles Coliseum. 

JFK at the 1960 Democratic National Convention

Now, another daunting task: convincing a Republican to let her ruin his back yard for a JFK fundraiser.

I sat with Wyman, now 83, at her home in Bel Air as she told a story that touched on pretty much every aspect of life in L.A.: money, politics, Hollywood, unions ... even parking.

In September of 1960, after Kennedy had been nominated at the Democratic National Convention, Wyman says she and her fellow Democratic leaders were worried that California might still favor Adlai Stevenson.

"We decided that we ought to find out if anybody likes him, and if we could raise some money," she recalls. The answer: Hold a fundraiser. "So I went to my dear friends, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, who were the darlings of Hollywood at that point."

Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, seen here with Mrs. and Mr. Jerry Lewis in 1952, were one of the most glamorous couples in Hollywood. (LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection)

Wyman told Leigh that maybe 150 people would attend, and that they would mostly be confined to the couple's back yard. But soon, Wyman had good news and bad news. The good news was that Kennedy seemed to have a lot of  support in L.A. The bad news was the RSVPs for the fundraiser were pouring in: 100, 200, 300, 400, 500. They'd need more space.

So Wyman met with the actors' next door neighbor, Jo Van Runkle, and asked if they could use his yard. "I told him what the event was, it was for John Kennedy's campaign, and he said, 'Are you kidding? I'm a Republican!' ... And I said, 'I'll overlook that.'" 

Van Runkle agreed on the condition he got to meet his neighbors, a get-together at which, Wyman says, the Leigh-Curtises charmed Van Runkle.

RELATEDJFK assassination: City archives reveal how L.A. coped on that day 50 years ago

Kennedy's popularity (and maybe the fact that Frank Sinatra was going to sing?) brought fresh trouble. The RSVPs grew to 1,500. So, Wyman says, she got some flowers and some candy and made one more visit to Mr. Van Runkle. Listen to our interview to find out what she asked, where Sinatra perched when he crooned to the crowd, and how the bricklayers union was involved.

After wrapping up her story, Wyman, sitting on a low chair in the living room/screening room of her home,  inevitably fast-forwards a thousand days or so to Nov. 22, 1963. This is the house in which Sen. Hubert Humphrey chose to stay. The house in which photos of Wyman and a "Who's Who" of American politics cover the walls.

"You wonder, " she says quietly. "If he'd lived, what would be? What would he have done? Would we be on a different parade these many years? You just wonder."

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