When Robert Kennedy died, Hugh McDonald's struggle began
The Jackson Citizen Patriot
May 31, 1998
By Craig Colgan
Hidden away in a box on a shelf in Nancy Howard's Jackson home are the shoes Robert Kennedy wore on June 5, 1968, when he was fatally shot in a Los Angeles hotel.
"I don't tell anyone I have these," Nancy says quietly, opening the box and revealing the pair of black, cap-toed lace-ups, size 8-1/2 with corrective inserts, the right shoe sporting a replacement heel.
Nancy's late former husband Hugh McDonald, a Jackson native, worked for Kennedy as an assistant press secretary. Hugh kept the shoes after they were removed from Kennedy's feet as Kennedy lay dying on the Ambassador Hotel's concrete kitchen floor, just after Kennedy's victory speech in the 1968 California presidential primary. Hugh arrived just after Kennedy was hit three times at close range with .22-caliber bullets, once in the head. Kennedy would die a day later.
For Nancy, her daughter Debbie of Jackson, son Joseph who lives in Lansing, and Hugh's mother, brothers and sisters, the shoes mean more than the 30th anniversary of Kennedy's short presidential campaign and Hugh's connection to the man he idolized. They are symbols of Hugh's anguished descent from rising star with big Washington career potential to a troubled man who could not hold a job in the following years and who nearly died twice after sleeping pill overdoses.
Nancy and the McDonalds, as well as several top journalists and former Kennedy staff members, believe that Kennedy's death so traumatized Hugh that it plunged him into a despair that cost him his marriage and several jobs. And possibly his life.
Hugh was found dead on the floor of the Los Angeles rooming house he called home in March 1978, a few days after his 40th birthday, after what some of those who loved him believe was another overdose. It was 10 years to the month after he stood in the caucus room of the Old Senate Office Building in Washington and watched Kennedy announce his presidential candidacy in a press conference Hugh helped arrange.
Hugh and Nancy's daughter Debbie, 38, a children's foster care worker, is for the first time seriously exploring her father's history, seeking answers to what was it about the trauma of Kennedy's murder that so disabled her father in the years that followed.
She says at the 30th anniversary of the event that whatever may have sent her father over the edge, the time is right.
"I think about what it would be like to know him as an adult," Debbie said. "I am just about the age he was when he died. I wish that he was here, and talking about him brings him closer. If only for a short time."
Debbie is also just now sorting through a briefcase full of papers, memos, and other documents her father left behind. Included are letters of recommendation written for Hugh by Bill Moyers, at the time the publisher of Newsday, Hugh Sidey of Time magazine, Tom Wicker of the New York Times, and by Senator Edward Kennedy, as well as speeches Hugh wrote for Lee Iacocca during a short stint at Ford Motor Co. in the 1970s.
Names of doctors and other scraps of paper are but tantalizing clues to her father's final days.
"He had the world by the tail," said Hugh's brother P.J. McDonald, who lives in Jackson and owns P.J.'s Bar on Mechanic Street in downtown Jackson. "If only it weren't for those damn pills."
Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy's press secretary and Hugh's boss during the Kennedy campaign, and someone Hugh looked up to, Nancy said, is certain of the reason for Hugh's downfall.
"Hugh was definitely a casualty of that assassination," Mankiewicz says simply.
CONNECTING WITH THE KENNEDYS
In the year before he began work in the Kennedy office, Hugh worked as a reporter for Newsday, the Long Island, N.Y. daily. His duties went from small-town to big-time overnight.
"(Last year) I was covering town meetings in Smithtown, Long Island," Hugh told Newsweek in an August 1968 story about the fellowship program that brought him to Washington. "This year the experts were calling me to ask what I thought the senator's next move would be."
"Hugh was about as nice a guy as ever lived," said Hays Gorey, who covered the Kennedy campaign for Time magazine. "He was totally obsessed with Robert Kennedy. He thought it was a great privilege to be working in the Kennedy camp."
Hugh was born on Feb. 28, 1938 and grew up in Jackson in a very busy house on High Street, one of 16 children of Patrick and Marion McDonald. Hugh drove a delivery truck for Vernor's Ginger Ale, worked at Markowski's and Polly's grocery stores, and graduated from St. Mary's High School.
"We all had jobs early," says Hugh's brother P.J. "I would help him deliver for Vernor's. It was hard work, hauling those wooden cases."
Hugh never met a stranger, and Hugh loved to laugh, P.J. said. Like his heroes the Kennedys, going to mass was a part of life in the Irish-Catholic McDonald household, though sometimes Hugh's mischievous personality led him astray. Hugh and P.J. would occasionally sneak off to popular 1950s hangouts such as Pat's Hamburgers, or especially New York Lunch, a diner on E. Michigan Ave.
"We'd never get caught there," P.J. chuckles. Hugh's mother Marion McDonald was a loyal Roosevelt Democrat, and Hugh loved the Kennedys early on. Hugh accompanied his brother Frank down to the Jackson train depot in 1960 to see John Kennedy on a campaign whistle stop tour through Michigan. "We were both really excited," said Frank, who lives in California today. "You couldn't help but like (John) Kennedy then."
"When Bobby Kennedy investigated Jimmy Hoffa, he wrote a college paper on it," P.J. said. "That really got Hugh."
A career in journalism called Hugh, but a two-year stint in the Navy came first. Hugh married Nancy Allen, then graduated first from Jackson Junior College then Michigan State University, where he hooked up with a Booth Newspapers management training program. He was named education editor at the Grand Rapids Press in 1965 and in 1967 was hired by Newsday. By the end of that year, he had won a year-long Congressional fellowship from the American Political Science Association and had moved his family to Alexandria, Va., just outside Washington.
Hugh began work in Kennedy's office on Jan. 1, 1968, the first day of what would become arguably the most tumultuous year of the century. Kennedy's main motivation for running was to oppose President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policies. But Kennedy also reached out to poor people and sought to heal inner cities, scarred from rioting and racial unrest. On April 4, just a couple weeks after Kennedy announced he was entering the presidential race, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, and more cities burned.
The Kennedy campaign was "among the most emotional and exhausting in the annals of presidential elections," said reporter Jules Witcover, now with the Baltimore Sun. Throughout the campaign, Hugh raced across the country, taking good care of the often rowdy, beer-swilling, chain-smoking traveling press contingent.
"He would do things like check manifests to see who was supposed to be on the campaign plane, or he would approach new reporters, making them feel welcome," said Gorey. "He was always pleasant and friendly. He knew everyone by name."
The June California presidential primary was crucial to Kennedy since he had lost the Oregon primary the week before to Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy, an anti-Vietnam war crusader who had entered the race several months before Kennedy. Fifteen minutes after midnight, as the crowd cheered his just completed victory speech, Kennedy stepped off a stage and headed through the Ambassador Hotel's kitchen, his destination another room where he would answer press questions.
Hugh was waiting with his brother Frank and brother-in-law Gary Allen and their wives in another part of the hotel. "We are sitting there just talking, and then we heard a scream and someone said Kennedy has been shot," Allen said. "We heard all these noises and we are not sure what happened. So Hugh jumped up from the table and took off running down the hallway."
CHAOS FOLLOWING THE SHOOTING
Hugh arrived to an otherworldly scene in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen pantry.
Photos Debbie has and film of the scene show Hugh and Kennedy's wife Ethel shooing away reporters and photographers, to gain some air for Kennedy, who had collapsed to the floor. "Get Back! Get Back! Give him some air!" shouted Hugh and Dick Drayne, another press aide. A hotel employee, and Kennedy supporters George Plimpton, Rosey Grier and others had tackled shooter Sirhan Sirhan, and had struggled to wrest free the assassin's eight-shot revolver.
"It was absolute bedlam," said Witcover, in an interview. "People were weeping. There was a sense of unreality in there."
Kennedy's bodyguard William Barry shouted directions for Hugh and others. Witcover, in 85 Days, his book about the campaign, noted that Barry upbraided Hugh, who had become emotional. "Stop crying and do your job," Barry told Hugh. "It was said not in a bitter tone–more as an an attempt to ward off emotionalism," Witcover wrote.
Ambulance attendants arrived and took Kennedy out, Ethel, media members and campaign staff rushing to follow.
"I didn’t really know why he was so distraught," said Bill Eppridge, the Life photographer who made the unforgettable photo of Kennedy on the floor moments after being hit. "It just seemed that of the senator’s staff, he just couldn’t get it together. It was like he was totally mentally discombobulated."
The June 6 Boston Globe's coverage of the story included only one paragraph about Hugh, but nevertheless the piece had this headline on its inside page: "Shocked Aide Clutched Shoes and Wouldn't Give Them Up." The story said Hugh received medical treatment for shock, though none of the people interviewed for this story can confirm that.
Jean Main, an assistant to Kennedy speech writer Adam Walinsky, had been packing Kennedy's briefcase when word came that Kennedy had been shot. Sometime later, Hugh arrived upstairs at the Kennedy suite.
"We asked him questions, but he would not respond," Main said of Hugh. "We were all shocked, but with Hugh, there was no awareness, no emotion. He looked like he had been through a traumatic experience."
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
FBI agents and police interviewed Hugh, and everyone else present at the scene, in the weeks that followed. An investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department seeking whereabouts of Kennedy's shoes tried to track down Hugh in August 1968, but Hugh had taken his family to Oxford University in England. Hugh would study international relations for a year as part of another fellowship. It was there that sleeping problems and nightmares began for Hugh, Nancy said.
Hugh's weight dropped from 180 to 120. When the McDonalds returned to the U.S. a year later, a doctor diagnosed a thyroid problem.
Professionally, Hugh decided to go back to journalism, and was hired by the Detroit News Washington bureau, where he won an award from the Michigan Associated Press for a five-part series on federal integration efforts in Warren housing projects. Hugh worked under Jerry terHorst, who would later become President Gerald Ford's first press secretary.
But despondent over the state of his marriage and his behavior inexplicably more erratic, Hugh checked into a hotel near Detroit Metropolitan Airport and took an overdose of sleeping pills. He called his wife but would not say where he was. His family finally tracked him down by calling airport-area hotels, and he was rescued barely in time. Hugh was in a coma for several days.
terHorst flew to Detroit to visit Hugh in the hospital.
"I regarded him almost as a second son," terHorst said. "He was a very talented writer with a real affinity for the civil rights story. When I made the trip to Michigan to see him in the hospital he was very apologetic, very sorry he put everybody out. Frank (Mankiewicz) and I just decided it was the death of Bobby Kennedy that led to his unraveling."
Hugh lost his job at the News. The pattern repeated itself when Hugh got a job in corporate media relations for Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, was soon transferred to Los Angeles then landed back in the hospital following another overdose. Hugh once again recovered, but lost that job then another.
By 1974, his marriage was over, and his family had returned to Michigan.
Days before he died in 1978, Hugh's brother Larry visited him and remembered that Hugh was in generally goody spirits, and was doing his best to raise money to come home to Michigan and visit his family. He never made it.
A few days after Hugh died, Ethel called Nancy to offer her condolences. Hugh had worked closely handling media for a project with Ethel shortly before Kennedy began his presidential campaign, and Nancy said Hugh was a favorite of Ethel's. "I told her that I had the shoes, and she said to mail them," Nancy said. "But I didn't feel good about just dropping them in the mail."
Nancy said she is exploring how best to return the shoes, but with the 30th anniversary of Kennedy's death approaching, she wants to be certain the matter is handled sensitively with the Kennedy family.
Beyond the trauma of watching his idol dying at his feet, Gorey speculates that Hugh may have blamed himself for allowing in Sirhan. Part of Hugh's duties much of the night were to stand guard at one ballroom entrance with several security guards, admitting only those with proper credentials.
"Of course, Hugh had nothing to do with how Sirhan got in, but Hugh just struck me as the kind of person who might concoct something like that," Gorey said. Investigators have never been able to determine precisely how Sirhan gained entrance to the kitchen pantry, an area that was patrolled by security guards who throughout the night kept out several people who did not have specific clearance to be there.
Hugh saw psychiatrists, who spoke of depression and psychological wounding similar to what was encountered at the time by many Vietnam veterans.
"There were a number of people who were walking wounded after that assassination," said Mankiewicz. "But you have lives to lead. You have to go on."
"There were times I would get so mad at him," Nancy said. "I would say, you just need to go and work on the things the senator believed in. But he just ... his heart was just not in it."
In the weeks following Kennedy's death, Patricia Riley, another Kennedy staff member who is now an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., worked with Hugh in closing up Kennedy's Washington senate office. "Maybe Hugh died of a broken heart," she said.
An autopsy was performed by the Los Angeles County Coroner's office, which had also done an autopsy on Kennedy. The official cause of Hugh's death is "apparent natural," the case report reads, by "occlusive coronary arteriosclerosis."
In other words, a damaged heart.
SPECULATION AND LEGACY
At the time of Hugh's death, terHorst, reporters Witcover and Gorey as well as former Kennedy campaign staff members Mankiewicz and Main and others throughout Washington heard that Hugh had ended his own life. Several had heard the tales of Hugh's overdoses in the early `70s, and just assumed that he had finally gone too far.
Debbie and Nancy believe the autopsy report, that Hugh's death was natural, but they understand that others who knew Hugh may think otherwise. Either way, maybe the people who loved Hugh should remember him more as he lived, instead of searching for psychological diagnoses, said Hugh's brother Frank McDonald.
"'Depression' is an overused term, like ‘codependency,' " said Frank, who lives in California. He should know: After attending Jackson Junior College and Michigan State University with Hugh, Frank became a psychotherapist. "Who among us could have withstood that trauma any differently that he? I think he was a credit to humanity. Let the man be, in peace."
Debbie is asked if part of the reason she majored in psychology at the University of Michigan and got into social work is to work to keep families together, since hers broke apart when she was a teenager.
"I know that's the reason," Debbie says. "As a kid, to make sense of it, you put a lot of energy into thinking about what causes the kind of problems my dad went through. It's all part of what you grow up with. Trying to find out what motivated him, what made up the essence of him, trying to determine what he would want us to take from who he was, that is what my brother and I are trying to do."
Debbie's brother Joseph, 32, works in sales for a cable company in Lansing and possesses at least one of his father's traits: a passion for politics.
"When I see somebody like Mike McCurry taking questions from the media, I can see my dad," said Joe, of President Clinton's embattled but surprisingly calm press spokesman. "My father is still an inspiration to me, regardless of what he went through. I dwell on the positive things that have come through to my life, like my father's love of public service."
Joe, like his father an MSU graduate, has worked for Michigan advocacy groups that have sought reform on issues ranging from consumer protection to environmental concerns.
Hugh is buried in Jackson and Debbie visits her father's grave occasionally. She said at those times she remembers her father telling her he wanted to be a senator himself someday. She says her father's legacy for her begins with his desire to reach out to other people, which were the qualities he saw in Kennedy, whom Hugh and his family always called simply "the senator."
"My dad had a way with people, making them laugh, of really connecting with them," Debbie says. "Plus he really believed in the things that the senator believed in, of working to make great things happen for the world.
"He was on fire with it. I really loved that about him."
Copyright 1998, 2018 Craig Colgan
Originally published under different headline. Some minor additions made to original.
This article is referenced in The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and the 82 Days That Inspired America by Thurston Clark (Henry Holt: 2008), on page 8 (scroll about halfway down) and page 284. Hugh can be seen in the book's (original edition) cover photo on the left in a white shirt. Additional photos of Hugh can be found in the 1993 book by Life photographer Bill Eppridge and Time writer Hays Gorey, Robert Kennedy: The Last Campaign, and in the 2008 book by Eppridge, A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties.
In June 2018, former Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert invited me to write for his blog a short piece sharing some thoughts on my story 20 years after I wrote it. Limpert could have actually switched places with Hugh. Limpert was a APSA fellow in 1968 as well. In a previous Limpert post, Limpert writes: “After an interview with Joe Dolan and Frank Mankiewicz, two of RFK’s aides, I got a call a few days later telling me that another journalist-fellow, Hugh McDonald from Newsday in New York, wanted to work in RFK’s office and they were taking him.” Limpert ended up working in the Capitol Hill office of Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
In addition to the Boston Globe taking note of Hugh that night in Los Angeles, as I pointed out in the piece, Newsweek’s main story from that week also referenced Hugh: “Back in the serving pantry, Rosey Grier slumped on a stool, face in his massive hands, sobbing loudly. Hugh McDonald, a young press aide, sat waxy-faced, hugging Kennedy's shoes to his chest. In the lobby, two girls held Kennedy placards, the words ‘God Bless’ scrawled in above the name.”
Finally, researching this piece in 1997 and 1998, I contacted staff at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, who were very helpful in sharing information. One mention of Hugh in their files that I did not discover until 2009 is a short section from page 5 of an oral history interview done with Frank Mankiewicz from 1969 (PDF).
I interviewed Mankiewicz in 1998, but I believe this interview had not yet been released. I wish I would have had access to this vivid exchange:
MANKIEWICZ: ... Around January we got an APSA [American Political Science Association] fellow. They had a program where they brought newspapermen to Washington and they worked for a senator for a couple of months and then for a congressman for, say, three months. I think it was about six months.
HACKMAN: That was Hugh McDonald?
MANKIEWICZ: That was Hugh McDonald. He came down from Newsday [Garden City, L.I. Newsday] recommended by Bill Moyers and he wanted to work for us. So we took him, and, of course, by the time his three months were up we were into the campaign so he stayed. He didn’t go over to the House. But, except for that, I never had, before the campaign began, I never had any help at all. And I had Hugh finally the last two or three months and he was very good. And then, of course, he was quite good in the campaign. But I can’t help but think it was a terrible accident for Hugh because I think he’s kind of a shattered guy right now, and, in a sense, that was all because of that. I suppose rationally he would say that it was worth it. Maybe it was.