Thirty years ago, an unknown nurse in Tennessee wrote to hundreds of celebrities asking them where they were when JFK was shot. They wrote back.
In the late 1970s, 15 years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an emergency-room nurse named Jodie Hansen, a woman with no book contract and no professional writing experience, sent out a simple questionnaire to people she had never met.
“We are publishing a book about the memories people have of an unexpected, dramatic, and tragic event in American history,” the letter read. “The book will be compiled of personal stories submitted by people of all walks of life, people of all nationalities, and of all political party preferences—–telling us where they were, what they were doing, the feelings they had, the reaction of others around them, and how they heard the news of the assassination of the late President John F. Kennedy.”
Hansen didn’t just send it around to family and friends in her small town of Union City, Tenn. (population: 10,000). She sent the questionnaire to world leaders, television personalities, Washington insiders, writers, humorists, chefs, religious figures, history professors, even death row inmates. And they wrote back. By the time Hansen finished five years later in 1983, she had collected 1,000 stories about where people were when JFK was shot.
In the collection, released this month in a book by Hansen and her daughter Laura titled November 22, 1963, Hansen reproduces 250 of the most interesting replies, many written with bygone letterheads, typewriter errors, formal etiquette and common courtesies. Hansen spoke with TIME about her quest, how she unwittingly became a subscriber to Yasser Arafat’s PLO magazine and why she decided not to publish a 6-page response from death row inmate Charles Manson.
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Author: Josh Sanburn