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Vanity Fair - Published April 2008 - 4/1/2008
Though possessed of youthful exuberance and a winning idealism, Worthington was, for the most part, reticent, even somber. He had a wary, loner’s air, focused yet mercurial, mysterious yet vulnerable. His smiles were clipped, his manner halting.
Ever the deal-maker, the investment banker insisted on several ground rules. He asked for leads to a P.R. firm to assist him if and when the story appeared. Concerned with his family’s safety, he sought advice on security issues. And he thought it best, for the time being, to leave Sharon Bush—the ex-wife of a president’s son—out of the equation. I could only speculate about this last caveat, given the shadowy off-ramps onto which this story was winding.
Worthington, in a subsequent conversation, would make a point of calling Sharon his “very good friend,” acknowledging that they had sometimes attended services together at Lakewood Church, the popular mega-ministry run by Pastor Joel Osteen and his wife, Victoria, in the Houston Rockets’ old arena. Christianity, Jack added, played a part in his search for his real father. “My faith gives me comfort, I suppose, that I can cope with whatever the result may be, or whatever the fallout is. Faith provides strength in times of adversity. In the turbulent seas, you’ve got a rock to hold on to.”
Jack Worthington, having finally agreed to a date for his DNA test, was soon on a plane bound for New York City.
We left the office just before noon on a muggy Friday in July. Vanity Fair’s legal-affairs editor, Robert Walsh, and public-relations executive director, Beth Kseniak, accompanied me on foot. Graydon Carter arrived by car. We rendezvoused at the entrance to the Millennium Broadway Hotel. Jack Worthington was ensconced in a suite upstairs.
Carter gave a “Here goes” nod, and I opened the hotel’s front door. At that instant, a man in a Spider-Man outfit, complete with leotards and mask, exited the building, dragging a wheel-away suitcase behind him. Fazed only for a moment, we headed for the elevators.
Worthington greeted us in the cramped outer room of his suite. We sat down, and Carter sized him up. “Well, you certainly have the whole jawbone thing going,” he said, breaking the ice.
For an hour, we gauged Worthington’s bearing and trepidations, as he gauged ours. Walsh spoke about safeguards we would put in place to maintain confidentiality. Then Kseniak got to the crux of it. “We need your mother,” she said. “She knows what happened. Is she going to be O.K. with this? Her story’s maybe more important than yours. That’s what people are going to want to hear.”
By the end of the session Worthington seemed willing to try to enlist his mother’s cooperation. But he would have to approach her gingerly. She was unaware, he said, that he had begun talking to outsiders.
The meeting soon broke up and then a contact of mine, a forensic specialist, arrived. He took out a kit, put on latex gloves, and handed Jack a sterile swab, the size of a long Q-tip. The man selected for the job was Shiya Ribowsky, offering his services at no fee. In his role with the New York City medical examiner’s office, Ribowsky had been director of World Trade Center identification operations following the September 11 attacks. Along with his colleagues, he had helped coordinate the forensic work required to put names to the remains of many of the 2,749 victims. (Fifty-eight percent of the deceased would eventually be identified, the vast majority through DNA evidence.)
Ribowsky, in turn, had enlisted the research department at Virginia-based Bode Technology Group, the company which did many of the 9/11-related genetic tests, to conduct “blind” comparisons. So as not to bias the results, Ribowsky acted as an intermediary to ensure that the lab did not know that Worthington, Kennedy, or Vanity Fair were in any way involved.
Jack complied, scraping the inside of his cheek with two swabs, which Ribowsky placed in small manila packets before sealing them shut with special tape, sending them promptly to the Virginia lab.
The most direct route to prove his parentage would be to obtain DNA from the couple that raised him, ideally from both his mother and his father, to compile a full genetic picture. (DNA from his sister Nancy alone would not provide sufficient information.) If he were able to get a sample from Jack senior, and that sample matched Jack II’s, the case would be closed. If father and son were a mismatch, it would at least show that Jack’s father was someone else. Should Jack, on the other hand, be unable to get access to Jack senior’s DNA, a sample from Evelyn would still be important to fill in all the genetic puzzle pieces by taking her data in combination with J.F.K.’s or with samples from J.F.K.’s relatives. Evelyn’s DNA would also be essential in addressing another possibility, however improbable—that Jack was related to neither of his legal parents and had simply been raised by them.
Next, Ribowsky asked Jack if he’d saved any of his mom’s letters. If so, her DNA could be gleaned from the saliva on the stamp or envelope. “We communicate by e-mail,” Worthington said. Ribowsky persisted: had his mother ever sent a birthday card to the grandchildren? Worthington agreed to hunt for one. A week later, when he came up empty, he explained that he kept items in storage facilities in Texas and Virginia, having spent so many years abroad. He began looking into the cost of having boxes shipped to him, in hopes that he might have retained a boyhood letter.
Following Ribowsky’s advice, Worthington contacted Houston Northwest Medical Center, where Jack senior had been a patient, only to discover that no autopsy had been performed and that the hospital had kept neither blood nor tissue samples. Until Worthington could visit his mother in Texas, explain the situation, and come away with DNA traces, he was in the dark.
Meanwhile, I was descending into the trading pits of the online free market, where every wayward chromosome has its price. As luck would have it, eBay was offering up two strands of J.F.K.’s hair, supposedly shorn in July 1963 at the Santa Monica home of the president’s brother-in-law the actor Peter Lawford. Harry Gelbart, a Beverly Hills coiffeur who worked out of Rothschild’s haberdashery, had been known as “the Barber to the Stars.” Gelbart contended he had saved some of Kennedy’s hair that day.
I placed an offer for the strands and, two dozen bids later, won the auction—for $620. When two snippets arrived two weeks later, however, they were barely visible to the naked eye. Set in an elaborate frame containing a plaque and a J.F.K. photo, and shipped with documents supporting the hair’s provenance, the sample, alas, was too minuscule to test.
Other paths unavoidably came to mind, though they gave us misgivings. Bobby Hargis, 76, an ex-cop, had been in the fateful Dallas motorcade and had been splattered with blood. When I tracked him down, by phone, at his home in Cleburne, Texas, Hargis admitted that even though he’d continued to wear the same clothes for a time, as something of a badge of remembrance and honor, “I had a really bad accident in ’65 and that uniform was cut off of me [by paramedics. There’s] no DNA left from my helmet or motorcycle [either].”
It seemed pointless, without approval from the Kennedy family, to approach the Kennedy Library, in Boston, which has J.F.K.’s inauguration gloves, or the Henry Ford Museum, which displays the motorcade limousine, now completely refurbished. As for specimens from the 1963 autopsy, according to a study done in the 1970s by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, Senator Robert Kennedy took possession of the remains in 1965 and in all likelihood “either destroyed these materials or otherwise rendered them inaccessible,” possibly out of concern, as a representative of the Kennedy estate told the committee, that the “materials would be placed on public display in future years.” A direct appeal for relevant DNA data, made to the National Archives, was turned down, and we had serious second thoughts, anyway, about attempting to solicit such data for a purpose like this.
But there was another option. Ribowsky and I drove up to Westport, Connecticut, to a warren of offices run under the auspices of University Archives. There, in a filing room replete with a huge bank safe, collector John Reznikoff presides over what Guinness World Records contends is the planet’s “largest collection of hair from historical figures.” Reznikoff, in the mid-1990s, began procuring prized locks from subjects such as Napoleon, Charles I, Geronimo—even a sample taken from Wellington’s horse—well before DNA matching became commonplace.
He is, without question, a visionary. “I have a unique, non-duplicable card catalogue of the DNA of these great personages,” Reznikoff told me. “There’s this possibility, not in my lifetime, that someday there might be a dinner party with [the clones of] Einstein and Lincoln.”
Sidling over to a nondescript cabinet, near shelves storing Hemingway’s typewriter and Meyer Lansky’s betting slips, Reznikoff opened a folder marked “John F. Kennedy.” There, in a clear plastic snap-top holder, the size of a cigarette case, was a palm-size ball of light brown hair: the original, pristine haircut sample from J.F.K. that barber Harry Gelbart supposedly collected at the Lawford home in 1963. Mixed in with the swirls and clumps were bits of what looked like vegetation—dried leaves, perhaps, or fragments of cigar that may have been swept up when the barber collected the original sample.
For science’s sake, Reznikoff agreed to provide a lock—“this represents thousands of dollars’ worth of hair”—at no charge. (We told him nothing about the Worthington scenario, honoring our confidentiality agreement.) Reznikoff even produced a notarized affidavit, signed by Gelbart, in which he swore “that the hair I have sent you indeed once belonged to the 35th President of the United States.” Though Lawford’s fourth wife, Patricia Lawford-Stewart, reportedly cast doubt in 1999 on the authenticity of the Gelbart cuttings, saying Kennedy was not even in town in July 1963, the barber’s son, comedy writer Larry Gelbart—one of Sid Caesar’s original team and executive producer of the TV hit M*A*S*H—vouched for the hair, insisting he had even helped his father write the affidavit. What’s more, Kennedy did visit California that June.)
Using a magnifying device and wearing forensic gloves, Ribowsky gently maneuvered his tweezers into the dead center of the sample so as to extract a tight batch of about 100 previously undisturbed hairs. He examined the lock and placed it in a small envelope, which he sealed. Though unable to find any intact root bulbs—usually a prerequisite for DNA results—he expressed confidence that if any lab could obtain a profile from such a sample it was Bode, using state-of-the-art procedures.
Off went the lock to the lab in Virginia. Once there, the hairs would be cleansed three times in an enzymatic detergent bath to ensure that the tuft had not been contaminated by the barber, by any handlers over the years, or even by Ribowsky himself. The results would be determined in a few weeks.
Worthington’s story would be much more compelling, he admitted, if he could get his mother to open up: How had she met J.F.K.? Had she saved any gifts or photos? Had she ever shared her secret with others? And why had she remained silent down through the decades?
Jack decided to place a phone call to his mother in Texas. Her response, he says, was swift and irrevocable: she felt outraged and betrayed, according to her son, immediately cutting off all communication with him.
“My relationship with my mother,” he confided, refusing to elaborate, was “always rocky anyway Unfortunately, [that] relationship is now probably permanently shot, however, I already made the decision to sacrifice [it] for the benefit of bringing the knowledge of my existence to light.” In the process, however, he’d lost any access he might have had to household items bearing genetic samples from his legal parents.
But there were deeper reasons, he asserted, for his mother’s resistance. She was keenly aware, he said, that tragedy had befallen several Kennedy offspring. More importantly, he surmised, she might also be harboring a fear of retribution from the Johnson circle, which casts a long shadow in Texas. “You could understand anyone’s hesitancy in getting involved in something like this,” he noted, “because harm has come to people in the past. It’s in documented facts Johnson has apparently done things in the past.” Trying to clarify Worthington’s reluctance, Caddy added, “He’s very conflicted. He believes his part of the family—the Johnson part of the family—[may have been] somehow involved in the killing of his father. That was the impression I received from Jack.”
I continued to worry through the options. Was this all a hoax, an inventive attempt to secure, say, a book contract or to launch a new career? Could Worthington, for whatever reason—kicks, delusion, money troubles, issues with his mother—have simply made it all up, without Evelyn Worthington’s knowledge? Was he misreading something she had said or exaggerated?
The more I spoke with Worthington, though, the more sympathetic he seemed: a man adrift, in search of his identity. During one morning of intense questioning, he came across as neither a con artist nor a fantasist but as a son who had taken his mother at her word in a way that had profoundly shifted something inside him.
At one point, when I pressed him to articulate what he would do if he were certified a Kennedy, his answer, a web of homilies, contained the seeds of homespun authenticity. He would set up a foundation, he said, based on “three circles of personal influence: activities that strengthen families, communities, and the country that create [a national example of a] beacon on the hill that can convert enemies into friends.” Weeks later he e-mailed me that he was heading overseas: “I’ve been very busy with my foundation work, which I’m expanding. I’m in London next week supporting [Sharon’s daughter] Lauren Bush in her Feed Bag launch at Harrods—a really great, worthwhile project in coordination with the U.N. World Food Programme.”
At yet another stage, he made a point of defending his decision to go public. He might have kept mum, he admitted, and taken his secret to the grave. Instead, he had summoned the courage to put himself on the line. “I feel like I’m climbing a ladder of a very high diving board, nearing the point of no return,” he confessed. “Unlike a normal celebrity, I’m about to lose … to be quite honest, an idyllic, selfish existence without a care in the world, financial or otherwise. Most people would say, ‘I’ve got it all—hit the jackpot of life.’ Giving this up is the payment required for the potential opportunity to change the world for the better.”
Then the DNA results came in.
Though the hair was almost 50 years old, making it difficult to isolate nucleic genetic material, the lab was able to extract a partial profile. The data revealed eight loci—sections of genetic code—three of which suggested exclusion. “It doesn’t look like the [donor of the] hair could be the father of [the person who gave the sample on] the swab,” insisted Dr. Robert Bever, of Bode labs, who oversaw the tests. One of Bever’s top colleagues agreed. Were he forced to describe the results in an official capacity, he said, he would argue that “this data is supporting non-paternity.” But this was not an official casework comparison, Bever pointed out, insisting that “no definitive conclusion can be stated regarding the genetic relationship between the two donors.”
Ribowsky, however, explained how definitive the findings were, given the situation’s constraints; by his reading, the hair could not have sired the swab. “They got an eight-loci hit. You could put someone on death row with that.” Then again, the hair might have merely been tufts from some Santa Monica beach bum, shoved into a Baggie, on a lark, in 1963.
Ribowsky and I broke the news to Worthington, who took it all in stride. But he continued to say he had no items from Jack senior, and now contended he probably hadn’t saved any letters from his mother in any of his old storage boxes. Plus, she was a proper southern “gentlewoman,” as he put it, who never licked stamps or envelopes: she would moisten them with a small desk sponge.
At the same time, he tabled all talk about contacting her further, repeating vague fears of retribution—a prospect he would have considered thoroughly, one might have thought, when he’d decided to go public in the first place. Worthington also deflected the idea of talking to his sister, saying he found it hard to confide in her since he’d “lived overseas for years.”
Ribowsky, a forensic investigator at heart, aired the obvious suspicions. “It smells wrong to me that he’s not moving heaven and earth to get his father’s DNA. Obstacles like this with no logical explanation, or with convoluted reasons not to move forward, always are suspect.”
Then yearbook photos of Jack senior emerged from a library in Texas. Jack II bore an uncanny resemblance to the man in the basketball uniform and in a college-yearbook headshot from 1960—the student named Jack Worthington. Both father and son had similar jaws, noses, eyes. Both had receding hairlines. Both were awash in freckles. Something seemed undeniably amiss.
I arranged to visit Worthington in British Columbia, where he now resided. Sitting on a park bench in Victoria, I showed him the yearbook shot of Jack senior and confronted him with the physical similarities between him and his father. He didn’t dispute them. His dad’s skin, he acknowledged, was a “little bit darker, but he had freckles.” He went on to discuss their differences too.
Even though the story was at an impasse, Worthington agreed to cooperate for a picture session. Photographer Harry Benson flew to Canada for the shoot. He had taken portraits of every president since Eisenhower and had even been the photographer Jackie Onassis handpicked to shoot her daughter Caroline’s wedding, in Hyannis, in 1986. Benson found Worthington eager to pose on a polo pony in what appeared to be spanking-new riding boots. And after a long day’s shoot, Benson urged him to contact his mother, on the magazine’s behalf—and for his own peace of mind. “I will,” Jack agreed, if reluctantly.
The next week, while visiting family in Seattle, I made a side trip to Canada, and followed up with Jack over dinner. “These are old discussions,” he said, bristling when I brought up the idea of having him try to contact his mother again. “I thought that was finished. You want me to reconcile with my mom. Someday, I will. You want her and my dad’s DNA. I told you: I feel I’ve done what I can.”
“What if I were to go and see her?,” I offered.
“You can’t understand why she wouldn’t want to talk to you? And be exposed and bring this kind of attention on her family? The Bibb family? They’re so proud.” He looked anguished. “How much pain do you want to inflict on this lady?” The question came as a surprise; he’d been the one trying to bring the subject into public view.
Without DNA from Worthington’s parents, however, and without a reconciliation between mother and son, all Jack II’s tale amounted to, really, was one man’s cold call to a magazine. I approached a representative of Senator Edward Kennedy’s, with Jack’s permission, about the specifics of Worthington’s situation. “We get this all the time,” said the insider. “Someone stops you on the street and says, ‘I’m J.F.K.’s illegitimate son.’ Don’t you read The National Enquirer?” A lawyer for the family was similarly dismissive and chose not to dignify the overture with a response. Nor would he reveal if any Worthingtons had ever approached the Kennedys in the past with any claims, possibly seeking financial gain.
With Jack less responsive and other avenues blocked, Benson and I decided to go to the source. We flew to Texas. And bright and early on the morning before Halloween 2007, we drove to the home of Evelyn Worthington.
On a quiet, leafy street in a well-to-do Houston suburb, we pulled up to her stately, two-story house with dark-brown trim, the one she had shared with her husband until his death, five months before. We sat in the car a moment. Would she be resistant, as Jack had warned? Invite us in and corroborate everything? Dismiss the entire tale out of hand, confiding that her son had had a history of, well, embellishing? Offer some alternative explanation—adoption, maybe?
Though the day was sunny and mild, the curtains were drawn on every downstairs window, as if the residents had gone on vacation. I walked up and rang the front bell; no answer. Not a rustle came from inside.
I peered through a pane of rippled glass alongside the front door. The house was still. I rang once, twice more. Not a sound.
“There’s a light on upstairs,” Benson announced. I knocked loudly. In 10 seconds, an elderly brunette in a dress or nightgown of midnight blue slowly cracked the front door the slimmest slit—three inches at most. She peered out, her eyes level with the door chain, which she kept latched. She stared out over the gold chain.
“Who are you?” she asked, accusingly.
“Yes.” She seemed almost terrified. “Who are you?”
“We’re from Vanity Fair,” I said, holding up that month’s issue, which had none other than John F. Kennedy on the cover. “We’re not here selling it, I mean. We’re doing a story—we’d like to give you the courtesy of telling you … “
Her eyes flashed like glints of ice. She slammed the door and left us standing there.
We headed for the car, and Benson saw her peering from a second-story window. To collect our thoughts, we drove to a side street and parked. It almost seemed as if she’d been hunkered down, simmering, waiting for just such a visit. I dialed her number from my cell phone. We had come this far. Perhaps she’d have a change of heart if I made a more persuasive, impassioned pitch.
“Hello?” she answered, her voice lower, steadier.
I started to introduce myself. “If you come here again,” she said, “I’m going to charge you with harassment. I’m going to call security right now.
“Do not call here or come by here again.” The line went dead.
With that emphatic slam of the door, the story seemed to have ended as it may have begun: as an enigmatic exchange in a quiet Houston home. There was no clear way to move forward, or to establish anything like the truth. To upend the life of this woman on the basis of nothing more than an unprovable tale related by her son was beyond contemplating. Jack Worthington was told that he was free to take his story elsewhere.
And so he did, calling news outlets and breaking the story he wanted to tell into the open, with accounts that did not always jibe with one another. And, once his last name became public knowledge, it effectively “outed” his mother, assuring that reporters and video vans would eventually wend their way to her Texas doorstep. A simple Google trawl for “Jack Worthington JFK” the week Jack started talking to the press generated more than 30,000 entries. In the breakneck 24/7 news cycle, news organizations often feel comfortable repeating an unsubstantiated item if it is attributed to a fellow news organization.
Somewhere at the heart of this story, however, is an unsolved mystery. “The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” Oscar Wilde wrote in the play that gave us Jack Worthing. Perhaps one day part of the mystery will be cleared up. Maybe there will be a DNA match at some point. Maybe an old Texas friend will come forward with a tattered snapshot, a letter, some old blue dress tugged from an attic. Maybe others will reveal that they have heard Jack’s J.F.K. stories for years. Maybe Jack’s sister will emerge and talk—or his mother will come down from her window.
For now, though, we are left to wonder: who is the man behind these conflicting assertions and motives and press appearances? And whoever he is, what is it that he wants? At several stages he had talked about starting a foundation, changing the world. Later, when he began making calls, he told the Toronto Globe and Mail that he hoped the possible Kennedy connection would change his quiet life “as little as possible.” And he went on: “I’m really enjoying my life as it is here in B.C.”
After 23 unanswered calls placed by Vanity Fair to members of the immediate Worthington family, in Houston, a family spokesperson phoned back and explained the Worthingtons’ shock and puzzlement about recent news reports in which Jack II claimed he may be J.F.K.’s son. Then, on February 29, we received this:
“This statement is being provided by the immediate family of Jack R. Worthington, Jr. It is our understanding that Jack R. Worthington, Jr. has made the statement that he is the son of John F. Kennedy and that his mother, Mary Evelyn Worthington, was introduced to President Kennedy by Lyndon B. Johnson.
“It is the position of the family that the above statements are unequivocally false and have been fabricated by Jack R. Worthington, Jr. for reasons unknown to his family.
“Mary Evelyn Worthington has never met John F. Kennedy nor any other member of the Kennedy family. Further, Mary Evelyn Worthington has never met Lyndon B. Johnson. Jack R. Worthington, Jr. is the natural born son of Jack R. Worthington, Sr. and Mary Evelyn Worthington. Mary Evelyn Worthington has never had any conversation with Jack R. Worthington, Jr. concerning this subject.”