The Witness

Of the four people who rode in the presidential limousine on November 22, 1963, only Nellie Connally is still alive—alone with her memories of the day that defined the rest of her life.
Recovering at Parkland.
Courtesy of Nellie Connally

Every November, as she has done for almost forty years, Nellie Connally readies herself for the reporters' calls. She has her hair done in preparation for the cameras, and she buys flowers—yellow roses, typically—to freshen her home, a sun-washed two-bedroom condominium on the twelfth floor of a luxury high-rise, the Four Leaf Towers, in Houston. Because the story is always present in her memory, she doesn't have to brush up for the interviews, and because she is a trouper—she wanted to be an actress, a long, long time ago—she always sounds as if she is speaking on the subject for the first time. The story she is perpetually asked to tell, of course, is the tale of that fateful day, November 22, 1963, when she rode in an open Lincoln convertible with the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy; his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy; and her husband, John Connally, the governor of Texas.

Every Texan of a certain age recalls the events that swept Nellie Connally into history: the fury of Dallas toward Kennedy's liberal politics, the bitter, full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News addressed to the president that essentially accused him of treason ("Why have you scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the 'Spirit of Moscow'?"), the adoring crowds that lined the route of the motorcade. "Mr. President, you certainly can't say that Dallas doesn't love you," Nellie Connally said to Kennedy, turning around in her jump seat to fix him with a broad, proud smile as she uttered what has become the most famous line of her life. And then, three shots rang out within all of six seconds, changing the country forever. Of the survivors in the car, John Connally, seriously wounded, lived until 1993; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died in 1994. So it has come to pass that Nellie Connally is the last living soul to have experienced, firsthand, one of the seminal events of the twentieth century.

Nellie, as she likes to be called—you really can't call her anything else after meeting her—makes an unlikely sage. At 84, she still moves with the hurried step of a happy sorority girl (which she once was); her blue eyes are unclouded and sly, as is her mind. She still wears a variation of the bouffant she wore in the sixties, and she has a closetful of sharp suits from Armani and Yves Saint Laurent, which she wears with aplomb; she enjoys sweets and the occasional cocktail, despite her doctor's orders, and if you get her talking off the record, she will pretend to stick her finger down her throat to describe her feelings about certain former first ladies of the United States. This is a woman who wields the word "jackass" with complete confidence. "I have always been full of fun and full of the joy of living," she explained to me, showing off her dimples. "I just restrained myself when I represented you."

If this is the way Nellie Connally sees herself, others see her as a tragic figure, a witness to America's loss of innocence. As Julian Read, John Connally's longtime public relations adviser, elucidated, "The thing about Nellie you need to know is that she's a survivor." On the day he imparted this information to me, he was seated in Nellie's living room under one of many portraits of the former governor that adorn the apartment. (This one had Connally surrounded by Texas symbols: oil wells, the Capitol, the state flag, Herefords.) Nellie listened attentively to Read's pitch from a comfortable chair across the room, nodding and occasionally supplementing. She knew the Job-like recitation was coming, which in chronological order includes: the suicide in 1958 of her eldest daughter, Kathleen, at age seventeen; the assassination of the president and near death of her husband in 1963; John Connally's failed quest for the presidency, which lasted for the entire decade of the seventies; the collapse of his real estate empire and subsequent bankruptcy in 1987; her battle with breast cancer in the late eighties; and finally, the death of her husband, whom she loved deeply for more than fifty years. "We had everything we ever wanted," she told me simply. "We just lost it all."

Except for her memories, with which she has had a long and ambivalent relationship. They are like the forty-year-old suit shrouded in dry cleaner's plastic in the farthest reaches of her closet, the one she wore on November 22, 1963. It's a jaunty pink tweed, with cheery oversized buttons, and she could still get into it if she wanted to. Nellie can't bring herself to part with the suit, but she can't quite hold on to it either, as time frays the seams and weakens the fabric.

John Connally has suffered a similar fate. For Texans who lived through his governorship, which paralleled almost all of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, it is hard to believe how quickly and harshly time has erased his memory from the public imagination until, like Nellie's suit, all that remains of his role in history is a single day in Dallas. In his day, he was powerful and popular and something of a visionary, who brought state government into the modern era. He was spoken of as a future president. An unauthorized biography of him by James Reston Jr. titled The Lone Star: The Life of John Connally, published in 1989, ran almost seven hundred pages and seemed to herald an enduring legacy. But the latest Encyclopaedia Britannica dispatches Connally as "an ambitious political figure" who helped elect three presidents and was "indelibly identified as the seriously wounded front-seat passenger who was riding in the presidential limousine in Dallas, Texas, when Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963." A seventh-grade history text published earlier this year, Texas and Texans, mentions Connally only once, in a reference to a 1966 meeting with farmworkers who were marching toward Austin to protest working conditions in the fields: "His actions did not satisfy the unhappy workers, and

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