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The Political Insider
When JFK accepted the Democratic nomination in L.A., he had Roz Wyman to thank for the crowd that showed up
Photograph courtesy Roz Wyman
When Rosalind Wyman, a 29-year-old delegate to the 1960 Democratic Convention, heard her nominee speak, she had much to identify with. Granted, she did not have a family fortune, but like John F. Kennedy, she was a trailblazer. Seven years before, fresh out of college, Roz Wyman had been elected to the Los Angeles City Council and was the youngest person to serve on the council, only the second woman, and its first Jewish member in the 20th century. Kennedy was the first Catholic, the youngest candidate, and the first person born in the 20th century who would be elected president. On July 13, 1960, he was nominated at the L.A. Sports Arena. The next day he chose Lyndon B. Johnson to be his running mate, and the following afternoon Kennedy spoke at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum across the way. Why? Because Wyman and others had gambled on a big crowd. They insisted that the candidate who won the nomination deliver his acceptance speech in the larger venue so that everyone who wanted to attend could do so. This was not Wyman’s only Coliseum victory. Just two years before, she had watched the Dodgers play their first L.A. game at the Coliseum. A leading power broker, she was known as the woman who had brought the Dodgers to town. On the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s nomination, Wyman, now 79, talks about JFK, conflict at the convention, and political gumption. Still an influential insider, she is so close to Senator Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she considers them extended family.
Bobby Kennedy was worried. So was everyone. We wanted to move the nominee’s acceptance speech out of the Sports Arena and into the Coliseum, but nobody had ever delivered a convention address in an outdoor stadium. In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech at Soldier Field in Chicago, but FDR was already the president by then, and that was for his reelection campaign. This was different. We wanted to take all of the delegates out of the convention hall and put them in the Coliseum—and attract thousands of people from all over California to come and join them and see and hear the nominee. Could we get an audience big enough? If not, it would be a huge embarrassment. Not only that, but we were making the proposal very soon before the convention was supposed to start. It wasn’t as if we had spent much time planning the details. “In the convention hall we’d be packed solid,” Bobby said. That would look good on TV. The Coliseum is a lot bigger, he said, “and I’m really concerned.”
I was only 29 at the time, but I was pushing hard for it. I’d been a Young Democrat. I knew how difficult it was to get into a convention hall if you didn’t have credentials. I wanted everyone—as many regular people as possible, not just delegates and VIPs—to be able to see and hear the nominee. Others, like J. Leonard Reinsch, the convention director, who had handled the sound for FDR at Soldier Field, thought it was a good idea, but I was among those pushing the hardest. To get a lot of people to come, I said, we could put on some entertainment before the speech. Frank Sinatra would help. He was a Democrat in 1960, and he was strongly supportive. If we did this, of course we’d have to notify the press. On the last day of the convention they’d have to move their stuff over to the Coliseum. TV would scream. They’d have to move their cameras outside, and they were already set up inside. John F. Kennedy was counting on winning the nomination, and Bobby was his campaign manager. Bobby was very nervous. “What if we don’t get enough people?”
We talked to all of the candidates about the idea. It was up to Bobby to say yes or no on behalf of his brother’s campaign. I was on the city council and a member of the Coliseum Commission. During a couple of meetings at the Biltmore Hotel, in suite 8315, which was Kennedy headquarters, I kept telling Bobby, “Open up the acceptance speech and hold it in the Coliseum, and the people will come.” Finally he said OK. “But we’d better get people there.” Then he looked at me and said, “You’re a young woman. You may have a political future. But if you’re wrong on this, it will be the end of your political career.”
I had grown up near Pico and La Brea. My dad stowed away on a boat from Russia and ended up in New York. A friend owned a pharmacy, and my dad swept it out at night and slept in the back. He went to college to be a druggist. When he came out here, he and my mother had a drugstore of their own. She was a precinct captain for Franklin Roosevelt and put a poster of him and his running mate, John Nance Garner, in the middle of the store. My father thought it would drive people away, but my mother kept it there. Roosevelt had an incredible effect on my life. There’s a picture of me standing next to a small billboard of FDR when I was 2 years old. I mean, whose baby book has a picture of FDR in it? I heard every one of his fireside chats. From about 12 to 15, I wrote letters to him. Steve Early, his secretary, knew my letters, and he answered them. When FDR died, I was so upset that I couldn’t stop crying.
I was at L.A. High when Helen Gahagan Douglas ran for Congress and won. When I went to USC, she was running for the Senate, and I campaigned for her. Richard Nixon ran against her. He smeared her as a Communist sympathizer. It wasn’t true. He called her the “Pink Lady”—“pink right down to her underwear”—and she lost. She was wonderful. She had a tremendous influence on me because she believed in America. She carried a copy of the Constitution in her purse, and she fought for the underdog and for civil rights. At USC I majored in public administration and minored in political science. My mother and father always said public service was honorable. It influenced me, and I developed a passion for politics. In grade school and high school I ran for class offices, and in college I joined the Young Democrats. The year I graduated, I ran for the L.A. City Council. I walked six hours a day knocking on doors. I wore out 13 pairs of shoes. There was a picture of those shoes in Life magazine. I had little cards, like business cards, and wrapped bars of soap with the slogan “Let’s Clean Up City Hall.” It was all I could afford; I was living with my parents, and we had no money for a campaign. On the cards I made little check marks next to my goals. One was “Bring Major League Baseball to Los Angeles.” The biggest TV show at the time was I Love Lucy, and it was on Monday nights. I knew people would be home, so I tried to knock on their doors either right after Lucy or before. The election came, and I won. It was 1953, and I was 22—the youngest person ever elected to the council and the second woman.
Long before I met Bobby Kennedy, I had learned about political pressure. The city council chamber had no women’s restroom. There was a fight over who would be council president, and the new members held the key votes. To keep us from being seated, the rest of the council disappeared for two weeks. Meanwhile, in return for my vote, the incumbent president said I could have his office, which had a private bathroom. The other side said, “Roz, no matter what, just say no.” The story came out: “Roz Wyman has no place to go to the bathroom in City Hall.” I was on a radio show, and I said, “I’ll go where the secretaries go. Besides, I have great kidneys.” I was so aggravated because I wanted to talk about parks, paving the streets, and other important city issues. The Times or the Mirror, I can’t remember which, ran a cartoon of an outhouse with “RW” on it. Then there was the Jonathan Club, where sometimes the council met unofficially. In those days the club did not allow women members—no Jews, no blacks, no whatever. I’m Jewish, and I’m a woman. They called my secretary and said, “Does she really want to come? She’s the only woman, and we don’t want her to be uncomfortable. Does she want to bring you along, or her mother?” I said, “What? That’s outrageous! Tell them I’m coming. Alone.” A man stopped me at the door and said, “You can’t come in here this way. Ladies go in a side door.” I didn’t like that. He said, “That’s the only way to go up.” So I went up in the women’s elevator. When the meeting was over, I stood and said, “I’m going to leave. I appreciate the hospitality of this group, but I am not real comfortable here. I have to go down a separate elevator to get out, and I will never return.” Everybody was stunned. I did not go back until they allowed women and opened the club to all races. Now I enjoy going there.
Eventually I was elected council president pro tem and became the first woman to be acting mayor. One of the most important things I did was to lead the drive that brought the Dodgers to Los Angeles. I wanted L.A. to be major league in everything—the arts, music, and sports. I put in a resolution saying we should try to bring in a big- league team. I wrote to Walter O’Malley and asked to see him. He refused; he thought I was using him for politics. But he was trying to get a new stadium in Brooklyn, and Robert Moses, one of the most powerful figures in New York, was treating him shabbily. So I kept after him, and when he came out to L.A. he looked at places where he could build a stadium. There was a huge battle on the council over what kind of contract we could give him for land in Chávez Ravine, which a court had cleared for public housing years before—and then public housing had been defeated in a citywide vote. I was pregnant with my daughter and had morning sickness, and some people were threatening my life because of the fight, so I had police protection. The council was ready to vote on the Dodger contract, but we did not have a firm commitment from O’Malley. Votes were wavering like mad. I needed ten. Norris Poulson, the mayor, kept saying, “My neck is sticking out. How do you know O’Malley will come?” I said, “We’ve negotiated a deal with his people. He’ll honor it.” But Norrie kept saying, “How do you know?” He sent his policeman, who said I had to come to the mayor’s office and call O’Malley and ask him personally if he would move the team to L.A. I said, “Go back and tell Norrie I won’t do it.” Then who shows up but the mayor himself. “You’ve got to call,” he said. I said, “Norrie, it’s a dumb phone call.” He dragged me almost bodily to his office, and his secretary dialed, and he handed me the phone. I told Norrie, “Why don’t you get on the phone?” He said, “You’re going to make the phone call!” O’Malley thanked me for everything I had done. In the background Norrie kept saying, “Ask him. Ask him.” Finally Walter offered—I didn’t ask, he offered—“You know, Mrs. Wyman, we’re New Yorkers, and I believe in New York. I don’t know if Major League Baseball will succeed in Los Angeles. I’m a New Yorker, and if I could get my deal in New York, I would stay.” That was the worst thing I could have heard. I thought I was going to have the baby right then. I said, “Well, Mr. O’Malley, there’s something I can guarantee. Out here you won’t have very many rainout dates.” There have been only 17 rainouts at Dodger Stadium.
I felt a little like when Bobby told me that a small crowd would end my career. What if the council asked about the phone call? If I had to report what O’Malley said, it could cost votes. But nobody asked. Everybody assumed that the contract, as negotiated, was it. I got the ten votes. The next day O’Malley committed to coming. Then it went to a referendum. We won that. Finally it went to the state supreme court, and we won that, too. I was invited to spring training in Vero Beach, and I phoned my husband, Gene, and I told him, “I just got a hit off Don Drysdale.” Gene said, “Roz, you don’t drink. You don’t take drugs. You’ve lost it.” I said, “I’ve got a picture.” Gene said, “You’re full of it.” It was one of my great moments with my husband. Don had pitched underhanded, so soft and slow—and I hit it. Gene was very special. He was everything: best father, best husband, chairman of the state Democratic Party, a national committeeman, the best fund-raiser of his time, and the founder of a very successful law firm. I had Dodger tickets in the front row right behind the dugout. Walter O’Malley and I picked out the seats when Dodger Stadium was still dirt. I paid for the tickets every year. We put them in the name of the law firm because Gene would use them for clients. Gene was only 48 when he died, and I was just devastated. No one has ever replaced him in my life. I was so grateful to have my kids. The law firm kept the tickets. But they were my tickets. It took me 18 years, and in the end I went to court against Gene’s old law firm. By this time Bob, my eldest son, and his partner were my attorneys. We got the tickets back.
I was a delegate to the Democratic Convention and in charge of arrangements for the Coliseum Commission. Bobby Kennedy was right: If the nominee was going to speak in the Coliseum, we absolutely had to get a lot of people to come. The Coliseum held just over 100,000. We had presented Bobby with a diagram showing how 50,000 would be a huge crowd and how the plan would work. But it meant we needed many more than just the 3,000 delegates, the 1,500 alternates, and the various hangers-on who are always attracted to conventions. Some of those people were pretty wild. They were outside the Sports Arena, and many were in Pershing Square across from the Biltmore, which was the convention headquarters hotel. There were serious ones demonstrating for disarmament or for civil rights. The Catholic issue was huge—that if Kennedy got elected, Rome would run America. We heard that over and over from people on the street protesting. Other groups wanted Governor Pat Brown impeached and a vegetarian on the ticket. All kinds of people show up at political conventions because of the press coverage. You could get the Toenail Society to come and parade. But even then we wouldn’t have enough people for the Coliseum audience we needed.
Inside the Sports Arena, under blue bunting with white stars and 54 gold-painted eagles, many of the delegates, much like the rest of the country, were concerned. The Russians had launched Sputnik. A U.S. spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower’s trip to Moscow got canceled, and a Paris summit collapsed. In Cuba Fidel Castro held allegiance to the Soviets, and polls showed more than half of America thought we would go to war. At the same time, power was shifting. John Kennedy had changed the atmosphere. Many people were entering politics in 1960 because of him. They were young, and it was the first time they had ever paid any attention to an election. They were saying “What can we do?” John Kennedy attracted young people—maybe not as many as Barack Obama did during the last election—but Kennedy was lighting a new fire across America. He broke the cycle of older politicians. He was young himself. Bobby, his chief of staff, was only 34. Pierre Salinger, his press secretary, was 35. Kenny O’Donnell, his closest aide, was 36. Larry O’Brien, the campaign manager, was an old man: He was 43. It was great. But with everything going on in the world, was Jack Kennedy too young to be president?
The convention opened on Monday, July 11. It would take 761 delegate votes to get the nomination. Kennedy had won a lot of primaries, and he could count on 550 votes. Senator Lyndon Johnson was in second place with 200. Then there was Adlai Stevenson, who had been the Democratic candidate twice and lost both times. One of those times I was on a campaign committee for him, and he could never make a decision. We would say, “Governor, you need to tell us what you want to do.” I was shocked because he was such an intellect—and that may have been the problem. Now he had come to Los Angeles, but he would not say whether he was a candidate. His people asked for credentials and for a parade on the convention floor. We’re not sure to this day whether they dummied up more credentials than we gave them, but they packed the place. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke and told everybody to vote for Stevenson. To Democrats she was a godly figure, and she made a moving speech. The convention just went wild. Kennedy’s people were shaken. “Is she going to stampede the delegates? Is she going to roll the convention?” Senator Eugene McCarthy placed Stevenson in nomination, and the Stevenson people went wild again. It was chaotic. The seats weren’t linked; they were only set up, and it was dangerous. The police and firemen knew I was a city council member and the arrangements chair, and they were looking for me so they could tell me they wanted to close down the convention. So I disappeared; I went off the floor. Others eased their concern, and we kind of forced the Stevenson people out of the hall. You have to be very careful because everybody’s energy is up and the excitement is up. The 1960 convention was very exciting. Nowadays everything is programmed.
What the demonstrators didn’t know was that Chicago mayor Richard Daley had told Stevenson that in actual delegate votes he couldn’t even carry Illinois, his home state. At the same time, Lyndon Johnson wasn’t gaining much. But Jack Kennedy was. Bobby had put together the best organization I have ever seen. Even before the convention they had card files on people and issues that mattered in every state. I’ve been in politics 60 years, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. With the Internet, Obama had something like that with his volunteers. But Bobby Kennedy’s political organization was absolutely brilliant. And tough. His people at the convention were assigned to each state delegation and ordered not to let up—not even to sleep—until Jack won. On Wednesday I was on the convention floor when the roll call started. I was an early Kennedy supporter. Jesse Unruh, who later became speaker of the state assembly and was a very powerful man, came out early for Kennedy and was cochair of his state campaign. But the California delegation split its vote. Just before 11 p.m., when the roll call got to Wyoming, it was clear that Jack could make it—and Wyoming put him over the top. It was thrilling.
The next afternoon, on Thursday, Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate. I was shocked. Everybody had said it would never happen because Bobby did not want it. Bobby and Lyndon could never get close. John Kennedy was the one who chose Johnson, not Bobby. Animosity between the Kennedy people and the Johnson people ran deep. My dearest friend, the chair of the California party, was a Johnson delegate. She was a mentor who had stood by me when I ran for city council, someone I loved and respected. When I came out for Kennedy, she cornered me in a bathroom and just ripped me up and down. Now she was saying that choosing Johnson was smart. I understood, but I wasn’t real excited about it. I would have preferred Senator Henry M. Jackson from Washington State; he was from the west. Picking Johnson was all about the south, and he probably could deliver Texas. Johnson also had the support of conservative people in the party. And he controlled the Senate. Lyndon Johnson would get up next to you, hold your lapels, and say, “Are you going to vote with me or not?” Choosing him was so smart. Whew! Many people say that John Kennedy would not have been elected without him. My husband and I became very close to Lyndon Johnson.
On Friday was Kennedy’s acceptance speech. Now, I joked, we’d find out if enough people would come to the Coliseum to save my career. Bobby was still worried, and he kept saying so. I never went to bed. I got on the phone with every labor union in California and said, “Bring buses, bring people from San Diego, bring people from everywhere. Bring box lunches.” We even called Northern California to get people to come. We contacted every Democratic club in the state. We opened the Coliseum to the press. “You don’t need convention credentials,” we told them. We offered free tickets to Democrats and Republicans alike—to any group we thought could bring people.
With the stadium seats, the bleachers, and chairs we put on half the field, we provided enough places for 50,000 people. I can’t tell you how serious this was. Before the speech we offered a two-hour program of music and entertainment. Besides Sinatra, we had Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price, Ralph Bellamy, Jan Sterling, Barry Sullivan, Phyllis Kirk, Steve Allen, Mercedes McCambridge, Mort Sahl, and Sammy Davis Jr. The newspapers called it a rally, and people started coming at three in the afternoon. The temperature hit near 90 degrees, and the emergency staff treated about a hundred for heat prostration and other minor ailments. Well, it turned out that we got more than 50,000 people, maybe 52,000. There seemed to be so many that reporters estimated the crowd at 80,000. It was huge, it was breathtaking, and it made history.
Facing west toward the setting sun, John Kennedy spoke to those 50,000 people and to another 35 million watching on television. “Today our concern must be with [the] future,” he said. “For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do…. We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier… ”
It became known as his “New Frontier” speech, and the New Frontier became the keynote of his campaign and his presidency. I was later told that President Kennedy did not feel it was a great speech. But to me, and judging from the crowd’s reaction, it was magnificent.
There was a lot of excitement, but there was—I don’t know how to describe it—I think there was unease. Here was the first Roman Catholic, and he was so young. He was only 43. I was for Kennedy beyond belief, but as we left the speech, with 50,000 people screaming, we couldn’t see into the future—we didn’t know whether he would win, much less what would happen to him.
I remember walking away with Jesse Unruh and both of us saying, “Will our country support this dynamic, inspirational, new-generation candidate? What have we done?”
Richard E. Meyer is the articles editor of Los Angeles magazine.
ALSO: Read Postscript: Roz Wyman