Friday, April 25, 2014

60s Kaleidoscope: Robert F. Kennedy in Manila


(An excerpt from the author’s memoir.) 

Two months after the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in 1963, a defining moment happened to his younger brother Robert in a school called the Philippine Women's University along Taft Avenue in Manila.

Robert F. Kennedy
RFK visited the girls' school to fulfill a promise made by the late president.  The girls sang a song they had composed for his slain brother.  RFK was visibly moved by the gesture.

It is impossible to chart precisely when a person makes up his mind to run for president of the United States.  Robert Kennedy would not declare for the presidency until March of 1968, but it was likely that it was in the girls' school on Taft Avenue that the idea first crossed his mind.

RFK challenged Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination.  His campaign captured the imagination of the youth.  He fought against poverty, injustice and the war in Vietnam, After a stunning victory in the California primary, he was felled by an assassin's bullets as he traversed a hotel basement after delivering his victory speech.  

Then history took over. The anti-war movement gained momentum and the student revolution engulfed the nation, forcing Johnson eventually to withdraw from seeking reelection.  The rest is history.

Historic changes come to us in many ways.  Some come as tidal waves.  Others creep up slowly.  But whatever their form, they begin as defining moments. 

La Dolce Vita

At around the time that President Kennedy’s Camelot magic was sweeping America in the early 60s, two other events were beginning to take shape that together would converge into a confluence of change that would sweep us to the future.

As with most other events of historical impact, these forces congealed almost by accident – and it would take men of considerable skill and talent first to notice them, and then to turn them into social forces that would change our lives forever.

The first of these revolutionary ideas began to take shape in the mind of Federico Fellini in 1958.  It was then that the Italian filmmaker started developing the concept for a film that would change the trajectory of modern cinema, “La Dolce Vita.”

The film, shot in black and white when color was the preferred medium, ran two minutes short of three hours.  But length was not its most endearing feature.

“La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life)” had Marcelo Mastroianni play a young reporter writing about the escapades of decadent nobility, an emerging class of nouveau riche, a bevy of ambitious starlets, and other interesting life forms that populated the sidewalk cafes along Rome's trendy Via Veneto.  Through seven loosely connected episodes, we follow the journalist Marcello as he watches the girls go by even as he struggles to find meaning in his aimless  life.

Midnight dip at the fountain

Seeking to spice up her bored life, a rich woman played by Anouk Aimee picks up Marcello in her Cadillac and takes him to a run-down house of a prostitute where she thought it would be more exciting to make love.  In another scene that shocked audiences at the time, Sylvia, a statuesque blonde bombshell played by Anita Ekberg, takes Marcello on a midnight dip in the Fontana Trevi, immortalized in yet another movie, “Three Coins in the Fountain.”

The film foreshadowed the breaking down of traditional conventions in the 60s and rewrote our vocabulary as well.  The phrase dolce vita easily became part of the world's lingua franca and would evolve decades later into Ricky Martin's “Livin' la Vida Loca,” or living the crazy life.

In the film, Marcello was supported in his journalistic pursuits by a sidekick photographer named Paparazzo, whose surname in its plural form in Italian would later become emblematic of the hordes of photo journalists who make a living out of selling images of not-so-rich-and-famous celebrities on the rise or on the wane.

The film foretold the cult of celebrity that grips society today.  It was shot in 1959 and premiered in 1960, one year ahead of another film that would show another facet of the revolutionary movements of the decade.

Breakfast at Tiffany's

In 1961, Hollywood screened its romanticized version of Truman Capote's novella which was part of his 1958 “Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories.”  Capote had wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role of Holly Golightly, a Texas runaway who makes it big in New York living a freewheeling lifestyle, a sort of La Dolce Vita, American style.

Audrey Hepburn
Instead, in one of those flights of fancy that worked remarkably well at the box office, the Hollywood moguls picked Audrey Hepburn to play the part that made it fashionable to wear a tiara while dressed in pearls and a black Givenchy gown, having coffee and a Danish at Tiffany's along New York's fashionable Fifth Avenue after a night out in the city that never sleeps.

The movie glossed over the stark reality of Capote's story, a single woman who feeds off her sugar dads to live la vida loca of the great American dream. Henry Mancini's Oscar-winning rendition of the movie's theme, “Moonriver,” contributed to the film's popularity, but that is not its greatest achievement.  Rather, like Fellini's masterpiece, Capote's “Tiffany's” elevated celebrity to a whole new level of consciousness.

Idealized composite

Capote's Holly Golightly was an idealized composite of his favorite stylish women – not the lovely creatures of Via Veneto – but the cream of American CafĂ© Society, like the celebrity heiress, Gloria Vanderbilt.  “Tiffany's” success also added a glittering layer to Capote's personal lifestyle; suddenly, he was the toast of Manhattan literati, hobnobbing with the rich and famous.

To add more clamor to his growing glamor, Capote threw, in 1966, a masked ball in New York City's famed Plaza Hotel in honor of Washington Post owner and publishes Katherine Graham.  The guests included the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, Frank Sinatra and wife Mia Farrow, and another literary lion, Norman Mailer.

Literati mingled with celebrity to give birth to a new species – glitterati.

The two films that introduced the socially transforming decade of the 60s had begun as concepts in an earlier decade.  They reflected a gathering social upheaval that would transform our culture as well as our politics forever.

American Camelot

It was also in 1958 that a young senator from Massachusetts, having completed his first term, won reelection in a landslide victory that would spark bigger dreams.  That year, John F. Kennedy started working on running for the American presidency in 1960.  On January 20, 1961, he was sworn in as the first Catholic president of the United States, breaking political and religious conventions.

Jackie and John F. Krennedy
Federico Fellini's “La Dolce Vita” had shocked the world; movie fans of Truman Capote's “Breakfast at Tiffany's” were singing “Moonriver;” and John F. Kennedy was less than a month old in the White House.  But the social revolutions the three visionaries spawned would soon converge into the decade of our discontent.

Social ferment

The 60s were a decade of seething social ferment.  The American Deep South was still segregated.  Buses had separated sections for black and white. Restaurants were separate, even toilets.  

Martin Luther King Jr. was still to deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the historic Civil Rights March in Washington D.C.   And America was still to land its first man on the moon.

But the campuses were already beginning to brew an anti-war sentiment that would inhibit Lyndon B. Johnson from seeking a second term as President.  

The great social themes of Fellini and Capote – Cafe Society, paparazzi and its soul mates, celebrity, literati and it present twin, glitterati – came to full bloom in Jack and Jackie Kennedy's American Camelot.  John F. Kennedy himself had first come to national attention as a freshman senator who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage. He pulled together literati and glitterati with an easy grace. 

In the heady days of his American Camelot, no one could have seen the gut-wrenching decade of change that was to come with the turbulent 70s.

Photo credits: RFK,; Hepburn,; Kennedys,