Tomorrow is the 99th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy. VCH would like to commemorate that event and pay a Memorial Day weekend tribute to a certain American combat vet better known to all as simply JFK.
It’s no secret that President John F. Kennedy favored tortoise shell sunglasses that complemented his image as a dashing, sophisticated man of the world. Over time, they became a hallmark of his almost ineffable charisma. The sunglasses were the one element of style that successfully bridged the two worlds of the JFK-style universe.
One world was the professional arena of big-power politics and the other was a more casual, Ivy Style-at-play world: weekends at Cape Cod, Camp David, and the Kennedy Compound in Palm Beach, Florida.
Whether he was wearing a tailored suit or a more casual outfit while sailing or lounging by the pool, the tortoise shell sunglasses were obviously an item Kennedy considered indispensable to both his eyes and his image. They went everywhere he did.
For many years it was assumed the ubiquitous tortoise sunglasses were Ray-Ban Wayfarers. Ray-Ban has certainly played up this association in recent years, and who could blame them? But thanks to more recent research— we now know better.
Before being elected President, Kennedy was a Senator from the Great Commonwealth of Massachusetts—then and now the home of American Optical. JFK is known to have toured the AO plant while a Senator, and evidently he was quite smitten with their tortoise shell sunglasses.
Quite often, the "Wayfarers" you see JFK wearing in those old photos are not Wayfarers at all. They’re actually American Optical Saratoga sunglasses...or other American Optical tortoise-framed shades. (More on that later.)
Senator Kennedy visits Southbridge, Massachusetts (site of the American Optical factory), on September 30, 1958.
In other words, in the absence of a signed, notarized letter from JFK proclaiming his allegiance to a single brand and model of sunglasses, some detective work is called for…
There is a letter posted on an American Optical collector and history website (yes, there is such a thing, God Bless the Internet). It’s from an AO dealer proudly crowing that the first family had just visited and the Kennedy children had been outfitted with little kiddie AO sunglasses. The letter was mailed just a few days before JFK's fateful visit to Texas in November 1963.
The same website shows that JFK purchased multiple pairs of the Executive Bifocal from American Optical. It also mentions the President telling his optician about his visit to AO as a Senator in 1958.
So yes, Wayfarers were indeed to be found in Camelot, but…his favorites? They were almost certainly the American Optical Saratoga from good old Massachusetts. There, we said it. Now you can go crazy with Google and Ebay and Etsy and Craigslist and have a blast, no further instructions required. You’re welcome.
Hyannis Port, August 1963.
The AO Saratoga model looks a great deal like Wayfarers, especially from the front. But the slimmer arms or stems are quite distinctive, as are the diamond-shaped rivets securing the hinges.
Photo and ad copy for the Saratoga from a mid-60s AO Catalogue.
Vintage AO Saratogas today from the VCH collection. Modern polycarbonate True Color lenses were added by American Optical in 2013.
The Kennedy Library has posted some stunning full-color photos on their website of multiples pairs of the AO shades being worn by Kennedy. (Look carefully at the marbled hues of the tortoise —or demi-amber as AO called it in catalogs— coloring in the stems, and you will see unique variations. Kind of like fingerprints, they allow us to identify multiple examples of Saratogas in Camelot.)
Fort Bragg, NC in 1961. AO Saratogas.
In this photo above from 1962, President Kennedy has laid aside a pair of what appear to be Ray-Ban Wayfarers. The stems are not the straight ones seen on the American Optical Saratoga family of sunglasses.
An incredible black and white photo of JFK wearing Saratogas, with Jackie, at the America's Cup, September 1962.
All these wonderful photos are in the public domain, but the Kennedy Library went the extra mile and gave VCH the correct photographer credits—as well as sharing photos not seen on their website—and only asked the courtesy of noting the proper credits.
I have made full use of this windfall and their above-and-beyond cooperation in writing this piece, and plan to use more of their never-before-published photos when we follow up this posting.
Which we definitely plan to do.
But back to business. Lest anyone doubt their lying eyes and still cling to the old Wayfarer-as-favorites unicorn, consider one more thing.
In addition to the wonderful photos, the Kennedy Library still has a pair of the AO tortoise sunglasses in its collection and has them listed on the John F. Kennedy Miscellaneous Information page of their site. Under ‘sunglasses’ we find mention of two pair of tortoise shell sunglasses.
One set, a little bit of a mystery, is marked “Cabana TS 2505” – probably made by a company called Titmus. Another pair is listed as “American Optical True color Polaroid tc74-51,” and about these there can be little doubt.
They are yet another model of American Optical sunglasses, one with thicker stems, that look much like modern Wayfarers. They are AO Gulfstreams. We have a photo of the shades recently provided by the Kennedy Library.
VCH has a set of Gulfstreams (in black, not tortoise) in its collection. We added brown prescription lenses to the old frames, and they are crazy comfortable to wear. Better than the vintage Wayfarers we grew up on. Can't explain it exactly, but they are comfy and they look good. You know it when shades fit your face, and these fit our mug very well.
Many items of Kennedy memorabilia have found their way to the auction block, including his sunglasses. The President was a wealthy man who had multiple examples of his most favored possessions.
(For example, we now know he had no less than 17 copies of his favorite “Kennedy” rocking chair spread over multiple residences, all made in North Carolina by the P&P Chair Company.)
But that is a topic for another day.
Another shot of JFK wearing AO Saratogas at Fort Bragg, NC in 1961.
No doubt about the shades in this great photo of JFK and Caroline Kennedy in the Autumn of 1963. They’re unmistakably American Optical Saratogas. Close examination of the marbling of the demi-amber stems of this pair proves they are not the same shades worn at Fort Bragg in ’61.
Historical photos of JFK courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. Photography credits: Cecil Stoughton and Robert Knudsen; photo credit of Gulfstream "American Optical True Color Polaroid tc74-51" to Joel Benjamin.