Arizona has been a haven for healthseekers since the 1850s, but not many people know that President John F. Kennedy was one of them -- twice!
By Jim Turner
Published in The Capitol Times
From Liz Taylor to Paul McCartney, celebrities seem to have a thing for Arizona -- Aimee Semple McPherson hid out near Douglas, Howard Hughes liked the hamburgers at the Tucson airport, and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard eloped to Kingman. Many came for their health, and lots of rich kids were sent to ranch schools by their parents.
John F. Kennedy is probably the only president to visit Benson, Arizona, and not get too much attention for it. There is a reason for that, of course. He was just a teenager, and no one knew how famous he would become. It all started with another health seeker, John G. F. Speiden. Speiden, a Cornell graduate who also studied in London, gave up career as a Wall Street banker in 1932 to recuperate in Arizona’s healthy climate. He soon got a reputation as a gracious host to such celebrities as Thornton Wilder.
JFK had been studying at the London School of Economics but got sick and had to come home. His parents worried about his health. A journalist friend who knew Speiden suggest to Joe Kennedy that his sons Jack and Joe Jr. could benefit from a working vacation on Speiden’s J-Six Ranch west of Benson, Arizona. Jack planned to join his older brother at Harvard, and hearty ranch life could get them both into shape for the fall athletic season.
During the spring and summer of 1936, the brothers rode fence, herded cattle, and helped put up an adobe office for their host. Speiden liked to call it, “the house that Jack built.” Jack may have had some fireside economics conversations with Speiden, and he must have heard some great wrangler tales from Oklahoma Pete Haverty, the popular one-legged cowboy. The ranch cure must have worked its wonders: there were two Kennedys on the Harvard football roster that fall.
JFK probably remembered that Arizona summer nine years later when someone else suggested that he return to Arizona for his health. A back injury he received at Harvard kept him out of the Army, but he managed to get into the Navy. He reinjured his back when a Japanese destroyer rammed the PT 109 in August 1942.
Castle Hot Springs was closed for the duration of the war until the Army Air Corps leased it. Jack was allowed to recover there with the pilots. Built in 1896, the hot springs was probably the first and foremost health spa in Arizona. Names such as Astor, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt filled the guest book.
The springs or the warm weather worked their wonders, and 28-year-old Jack was soon bored with the remote location. He tried the famous Arizona Baltimore, but found it too proper. Eventually he settled into a little family-owned spot known as the Camelback Inn. He was staying there when he first heard about President Franklin Roosevelt’s death on August 12, 1945.
The next time JFK arrived in Arizona was November 3, 1960. Once again, not many people noticed. He stepped off the plane at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix at three in the morning to say a few words to the small crowd of devoted supporters. It was only a few days before the election. The one-time Arizona cowboy thanked the crowd for coming out, then got back on the plane and flew off to become the 35th president of the United States
Teenage JFK with Pete Havarty on his ranch near Benson, Arizona.