When I was growing up in the thirties in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there was a lot of antagonism between Yankee and Irish. I knew because my family was Irish immigrant on one side and Empire Loyalist on the other. All my friends were Irish Catholic, and the nuns at my school sometimes called me “spawn of the devil.” I was used to defending myself from all sides.
On Sundays my friends and I would go to museums just to get out of the house, and we always followed the same path; we were very ritualistic eleven-year-olds. First we would visit the art museum, where we would stand in front of each painting and count to a hundred, then the University Museum, the Civil War Memorial, and what we called the Chinese Gate. We’d finish by rolling down an incline by one of the Harvard dorms.
One spring Sunday in 1939 we were standing in front of the Civil War Memorial when one of the other girls decided to get my goat. She was relatively new in the neighborhood and was always trying to knock me down in order to move up in the group. Pointing down the street to a pink brick building, she asked, “Do you know what that is?”
Not wanting to admit our ignorance, the rest of us didn’t say anything.
“That,” she said, “is the German Museum. And do you know what they have in there? Naked statues!”
“No!” we cried.
“That’s right. Naked statues.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” I said.
“Well, you know,” my dear friend Dorothy said, “they are Protestants, and Protestants will do anything.”
Dorothy saw the look on my face and started to apologize, but something in me snapped. “That is precisely why there are no naked statues,” I said. “Because this is Harvard, and Harvard is Yankee, and Yankees are Puritans, and Puritans don’t keep naked statues. So there!” I spun around and walked away.
Normally Dolores, our leader, walked first, but this time I led. Dolores was fuming, and by the time I stopped at the top of the incline she kept walking, and the other girls followed.
“Hey,” I said, “aren’t we going to roll down the hill?”
“Oh, no,” Dolores said. “We’re getting too old for that.”
“Well, I’m rolling down the hill.” Down the hill I went, so furious I was rigid. When I got up, I must have looked like a grasshopper. I rolled down the hill a second time. I was miserable, but I was determined to show them. I got up and decided to roll down the hill once more, just to keep them all waiting.
I started up the incline when I heard someone above me yell out, “Hey, kid, your drawers are showing.” My skirt was hiked up over the ugly pink bloomers I had inherited from my grandmother.
This was more than I could bear. I turned around and saw a student looking out one of the windows of the dorm. I ran up to him jumping up and down and shaking my fist at him, and shouted, “You, you damn Yankee, you—”
One of the other girls said, “Dorothy O’Toole, you’re swearing.”
“No, I’m not,” I said, “My grandmother always says ‘damn Yankee,’ and she never swears.”
Then the fellow said, “Well, what makes you think I’m a Yankee? I’m as Irish as you are.”
I knew this was stupid, because if he were Irish, he’d be at Boston College, not Harvard, so I said, “Well, if you’re so Irish, what are you doing in there? What’s your name?”
“John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
“Oh,” I said, “one of those—the ones who go to see the Pope every summer. Well, a fat lot of good it’ll do you.”
I was still so mad I was jumping up and down; he was just laughing. So I said, “From now on you will be known as Long John Kennedy.”
With that I turned on my heel and walked off, pink bloomers and all, with all the little dignity I could muster.