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

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