The Great Gatecrasher

With the recent Democratic Convention there was much reminiscence of the nomination forty years ago of John F. Kennedy. A recent television segment showed the inauguration of JFK on January 20, 1961, and brought to mind something I’d heard years ago but was never able to confirm.

As Kennedy is taking the oath of office from Chief Justice Earl Warren, a well-dressed dark-haired man is positioned directly between but slightly behind them at the podium. He is looking from one man to the other as the oath is administered. As soon as the oath is over, the man turns around and walks up into the crowd and out of camera range.

I remember hearing that this fellow had no official role at the inauguration and that indeed he was not even an invited guest. Rather, his Zelig-like appearance at this, and perhaps other, important events caused him to be dubbed “The Great Gatecrasher.”

Does anyone know any more information about this fellow?

[Moderator Hat ON]

I think this’ll get a better response in the General Questions forum. I’m moving it there.

[Moderator Hat OFF]

I finally tracked down an online picture. It’s a little clearer in the photo in the book I have at home. It looks to me like the man is holding the Bible that JFK is swearing the oath on. I thought the first lady usually did that. (Jacqueline can be seen standing behind Warren and beside Eisenhower in the photo).

I agree with bibliophage. He’s holding the Bible. Do you know how hard it would be for somebody not invited to get that close to the prez?

Great picture. That is the guy. One would suppose that if he was holding the bible he would be a Kennedy relative or some close friend. He doesn’t look like anyone I’ve ever seen before, and besides, in the video following the swearing in he walks up the stairs and disappears from view. If he was family or friend I would think that he would be seated near Jackie.

As for Gunslinger’s suggestion of the difficulty of getting near the president, this was 1960. The last presidential assassination was in 1901 when McKinley was shot, so perhaps security was a bit lax.

In any case, it would be interesting to discover who that guy is.

That doesn’t mean there’s weren’t attempts in the meantime. Notably the Puerto Rican Nationalists who tried to off Truman 10 years before.

This question bothered me some years ago. I found the answer watching a rebroadcast of the inauguration. That person was one of the Supreme Court staff - Warren’s chief clerk, I think (I’ve forgotten his name, though). So he was not some random person and was definitely supposed to be there.

I’m not sure, but I believe that the custom of having one’s wife hold the bible only started some time after JFK.

The photograph of the inauguration of President Kennedy that appeared in the NY Times on January 21, 1961 identified this not-so-mysterious man as James Browning, chief clerk of the Supreme Court.

zgystardst was right about this one.

The NY Times also listed several inaugural traditions, but none listed having your spouse hold the Bible open for you as being one of them. I believe Pat Nixon did, but I don’t know if she was first or whether it was Lady Bird Johnson.

Dammit - another cool myth debunked.

Oh, well.


Think about it. You’re about to be sworn in as president. The Chief Justice is there. The outgoing president is there. Would you expect some stranger to come to you with a Bible out of nowhere and say “Hey, I’m here to hold your Bible for you?”

My first response would be “Who the … are you?”

Good detective work, BobT, but let me ask you this - where was this James Browning at 12:30 PM on Friday, 22 November 1963? (imagine Twilight zone theme playing) I think his last name is evocative.

I suggest someone just go and ask Judge Browning now. He stills serves on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. His office is in San Francisco. He is presently 81 years old (His birthday is Oct. 1)

He was appointed to the Federal Bench in 1961.

Probably to keep him quiet.