ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, IL – On November 22, 1963, Secret Service Agent Ken Giannoules arrived in Austin, TX, scheduled to be part of President John F. Kennedy’s 11PM-7AM security detail that evening. He had guarded the president during those same hours the night before, in Dallas.
And then came the awful news: President Kennedy had just been killed; he wouldn’t be in Austin that night. Instead, his body was flown back to Washington, and that is where Giannoules and his Secret Service coworkers headed. Except they were no longer part of the Kennedy Detail. In an instant, they were now the Johnson Detail. There was no time to grieve – there was a job to be done: to serve and protect the new President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Ken Giannoules repressed the memories of that horrific day for decades. But now, in an exclusive interview with The National Herald – only his second public interview in the entire 51 years since the assassination – the Chicago-born Greek-American discusses not only what has been widely described as “the day America lost its innocence,” but also his experiences protecting Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy, and how he gave then-Vice President Spiro Agnew a quick tutorial in Greek en route to Kalamata.
FROM SOUTH SIDE TO WEST WING
Born Kyriakos in 1936 to Stylianos (Steve) and Eleftheria, natives of Kastri and Achladokampos, respectively, both villages in Greece’s Peloponnese region, Giannoules – raised on the South Side of Chicago – was grateful to go by the more Americanized name Ken. “My birth certificate actually says Kenneth on it,” he told TNH. “It’s bad enough I was the only Cubs fan on the South Side (referring to a baseball team of Chicago’s Northern neighborhood; the rival White Sox are in the South), and the only Greek in an Irish neighborhood – I had to fight my way through there to begin with. If they knew my name was ‘Kyriakos,’ it would’ve been worse,” he laughed.
Few Americans have ever been assigned to protect even one person of such immense power and prominence. That Giannoules protected so many certainly puts him in an elite group. And yet, he tells TNH, this career path was all because “I ran out of money.” After graduating from Michigan State University, Giannoules planned to go to law school. He was accepted at the University of Michigan, but money was tight, and so, “as a lark, I applied to the FBI as a Special Agent, as well as to the Secret Service. I got into both.”
Giannoules chose the Secret Service over the FBI because he considered the work in criminal investigations and protective measures to be more interesting. “At 23, I believe I was the youngest agent ever hired,” he says, “and definitely the first Greek-American.”
“TELL STEVE YOU’RE DOING A GOOD JOB”
Giannoules was assigned to the White House just as Dwight Eisenhower was concluding his second and final term as president, making way for newly-elected Kennedy. “There was nothing ‘buddy-buddy’ about the job,” Giannoules makes clear. “Our job was to protect the president. The Office of the President. We did not have personal relationships with the presidents or their families.” Nonetheless, there were some notable differences in style and personality.
“Eisenhower was a general – in fact, the Allied Forces Supreme Commander. He would come down the stairs from the Mansion [of the White House] and we would walk him to the West Wing. He didn’t acknowledge us,” Giannoules says, “because he was used to having staff around – soldiers, officers – his whole life,” so it was common for him to be surrounded by people with no social conversation or interaction.
Though Giannoules remained in the Secret Service until 1981, his White House detail was only in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson presidencies. Nonetheless, he had experiences protecting Richard Nixon, particularly while the former was vice president, in 1960. “Nixon was all business,” Giannoules says. “And so was his staff. You could set your watch based on his itinerary. He followed it to the minute.”
As for Johnson, “well, if you weren’t from Texas,” Giannoules chuckles, “he didn’t acknowledge you. He only acknowledged Texans.”
But Kennedy was different. “He made a point of knowing our names,” whereas usually, the agents were simply addressed as “agent.”
On the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Kennedy went to Chicago to deliver a speech, and Giannoules’ parents had the chance to meet him. “My dad, in broken English, asked him: ‘my son doing good job?’ Kennedy smiled said ‘oh yes.’” After that, Giannoules said, Kennedy sometimes would say to him, casually, “tell Steve you’re doing a good job.”
THE ENIGMATIC HEAD-TILT
“You know how Greeks shrug their shoulders and tilt their head when they mean to say “malista – of course”? Giannoules asked. “Well, in all my trips to Greece – I was part of the advance team, getting there first – I’d ask about security, and that’s the response I’d always get. Would I receive the support I asked for [from the Greek Interior Ministry and local police]? No details, just a tilt of the head. So, I had no idea what support the Greeks were going to offer!”
But it all worked out well. “Generally speaking, they offered much more than I asked for. In fact, on a few occasions, I told them to calm it down a bit, as it was excessive.”
JACKIE IN GREECE
“In 1961, Mrs. Kennedy wanted to take a trip to Greece,” Giannoules began, “and a wealthy Greek shipowner made his yacht available to her, as well as his villa in Glyfada.” The wealthy shipowner to whom Giannoules referred was neither Aristotle Onassis, whom she would marry in 1968, five years after Kennedy’s death, nor his formidable shipping rival, Stavros Niarchos. Rather, it was Markos Nomikos, a Member of Parliament at the time and friend of then-Greek Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis.
“I went in advance with [Secret Service Agent] Clint Hill to Greece” to plan the details. She left Jack in Paris [Kennedy would then go to Vienna to meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev] and would visit Athens for 10 days, staying in Glyfada, and then onto the yacht for a seven-day tour around the islands.
“I had accompanied JFK on that trip to Europe – his first as president. England, Ireland…you can imagine the reception [Kennedy, of Irish descent] got there.”
Two years later, in September, Jacqueline Kennedy returned to Greece, but for the purposes of healing. The previous month, August 1963, her son Patrick died two days after he was born.
“Few occasions remain in my memory,” quite like what happened at Boston Children’s Hospital, Giannoules said. He had gone there ahead, and “the president came in evening and remained in baby’s room with doctors. Around 11PM, he came out. The doctors looked at us and shook their heads – we knew what had happened. The hallway was very wide with a huge arched window overlooking Boston. The president put his hands in his pockets and stood looking out of that window for about ten minutes or so – it felt much longer.” Though no one spoke to the president – that was protocol, agents would not speak unless spoken to first – all the agents shed tears along with him, Giannoules said.
There were tensions between the Greeks and Turks in the fall of 1963, Giannoules reminded.
“They were really going at it – at one point Greece had jets in the air and so did the Turks, going toward each other. The U.S. Ambassadors to Athens and Istanbul put a stop to it. But Jackie still wanted to go. She lost the baby, she was grieving, and she would go.” No one would tell her otherwise.
“Clint and I did the security advance, and she flew to Greece with [her sister] Lee [Radziwill], her social secretary, and two Secret Service Agents. On a commercial airliner – TWA.” Onassis had invited her – she was on [his luxury yacht] the Christina.”
No one could have known that the Kennedy Family’s late summer 1963 tragedy – the death of baby Patrick – would be eclipsed a dozen or so weeks later, when the president was fatally gunned down by an assassin.
When King Paul of Greece died in 1962, Giannoules accompanied the U.S. delegation there, led by former President Harry Truman – who was still entitled to, and utilized, Secret Service protection – and wife of then-Vice President Johnson, Lady Bird. “Because Truman was only a former president and not a reigning leader,” Giannoules said, “we were about the 30th car in the motorcade.
“American flags were flying everywhere, and the Greeks shouted ‘Mparmpa (Uncle) Truman!’ as we rode by. They loved him – he saved them from communism. Later that night, heading back to the hotel, Giannoules asked whether Truman wanted to see the statue of him the Greeks had erected in his honor. “’Nooo, Agent!’ Truman said in a Missouri drawl,” Giannoules said: “‘I figure if they put it up, they can always knock it down.’ And, in fact, they vandalized it that same night.” But “Mparmpa Truman” loved the Greeks as much as they loved him. He made the Agents work extra hard “because he would see anyone who wanted to see him – and sign everything they gave him to sign.”
After King Paul died, his son Constantine became King of the Hellenes. In 1965, he got married and President Johnson’s oldest daughter, Lynda Bird, attended. Giannoules accompanied her. The Palace Guard insisted that they would provide all the necessary security, and there was no need for Secret Service to be there. “But we knew we had a job to do,” Giannoules said, and so “the ‘no need’ comment didn’t hold very well with us. That evening, I accompanied her to Palace, and though I was recognized by Palace security while walking from car to palace door, I took out a cigarette, held it Greekstyle between thumb and index finger as we were walking in – and said “eimai asfalia – I am security” – and I stayed in close proximity,” to Johnson’s daughter.
TEACHING GREEK TO A GREEK
On his numerous trips to Greece in his capacity as a Secret Service agent, Giannoules accompanied a Greek-American, who happened to be Vice President of the United States at the time – the only Greek-American to hold that distinction – Spiro Agnew. The trip, in 1971, took Agnew to Athens and Thessaloniki, and then he would deliver an address at the square in Kalamata – the Peloponnese region from where his family hailed. “He didn’t know any Greek, so I taught him a few Greek words on the helicopter ride – a few things to include in his speech.”
How did Giannoules react to Agnew’s scandal-induced resignation two years later? Did he ever wonder what might have been – that a Greek-American was that close maybe to becoming president one day? “Sure – how could you not?” Giannoules said. When Agnew resigned, “I felt utter disappointment.”
Though Giannoules didn’t have the occasion to spend much time with Agnew – he was not on White House detail following the Johnson Administration (Agnew was Nixon’s vice president), he heard a lot of positive stories about Agnew from his colleagues. “Not everyone follows directions well,” Giannoules elaborated, “but Agnew always did. His wife [Judy] was especially nice. When she died a couple of years ago, many agents attended her funeral.”
NIXON’S DISASTROUS DEBATE
The annals of presidential history are replete with accounts of how Nixon, in the first-ever major party presidential debate, on September 26, 1960, looked terrible on camera. The incumbent Republican vice president, debating against Kennedy, the Democratic challenger, refused to wear makeup and reportedly had a 101 fever that day. While Giannoules was not privy to and did not comment on those particulars, he did notice Nixon’s sweaty upper lip and brow – of which much was made in post-debate analysis. “Then, I glanced over at JFK, and there was a definite difference in appearance,” Giannoules said. Most pundits and debate scholars contend that Kennedy’s superior telegenic appearance in that first debate set the tone for the rest of the campaign, causing him to emerge with an electoral victory that November.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. PRESIDENT
It became evident throughout the interview that, while Giannoules knows how to tell a compelling story, he does no gossip. Accordingly, he relayed in a very matter-of-fact way the famous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” sung by Marilyn Monroe to Kennedy at Madison Square Garden for the president’s 45th birthday celebration on May 19, 1962 (ten days before his actual birthday). Giannoules had a bird’s eye view of the whole event. He was guarding Kennedy that night, standing a few feet from the presidential box. It was “not as most boxes are, a balcony, but on the ground floor, within 100 feet of center stage. I was posted to JFK’s left, others to his right, we agents were in close proximity. Then, Miss Monroe came to the stage and sung ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President.’”
Further evidence that he is not a gossiper, Giannoules clearly steers clear of discussing today’s Secret Service. “How can I?” he asks. “I’ve been retired from there for 33 years. I can only comment on what I saw and I what I know from the years I was there.”
JFK’S FINAL FEW HOURS
Ken Giannoules is one of the last people to see John F. Kennedy alive. The night before Kennedy was killed, “I was on the midnight shift 11PM-7AM. President Kennedy came in from San Antonio on Air Force One into Fort Worth. I was at lobby to assist his day shift bringing him through the lobby. I put him on the elevator. The elevator doors closed, and he went to his suite. We provided security the rest of the night. That was the last time I saw him. There were no words, there was no reason for words. He went into his suite – we had no reason to go in – the suite was already swept. By the time we got off duty at 7:15AM the next morning, he was still asleep.” About five hours later, Kennedy would be dead.
A TNH FAMILY
As a boy growing up in Chicago, the National Herald (the Greek sister-publication of TNH) was a part of Giannoules’ home. “My parents read it – and I read what at the time where two or three pages in English.” Coincidentally, Giannoules also served as Chief of Interpol from the United States from 1969 to 1974, working directly under Gene Rossides, who served as Assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary at the time, and later served as a publisher of the National Herald.
WHY SPEAK NOW?
For 47 years, Giannoules repressed the memories of November 22, 1963, that profoundly painful day in American history. “And then Gerry’s book came out,” Giannoules said, referring to The Kennedy Detail (2010), by his colleague Gerald Blaine. Kennedy’s agents had never discussed what happened – not even among each other. “We’d see each other, in social or professional situations, but didn’t talk about it. Certainly there was no such thing as grief counseling back then. It was unknown – everyone was debriefed, but during that period – but we never talked about it. Most of us I’m sure all of us – including those on the midnight shift and even those not there, wished that we were that maybe we might have seen something – or maybe do something. You never know. There was guilt associated that.” Guilt not attributed to any tangible mistakes, but rather to the perpetual wondering: could they have done something more had they been there, too?
Giannoules gave his first-ever interview on the subject to the Chicago Daily Herald in 2012. This interview is his second. “The reason I’m talking to you,” he said “is – this is history. People need to know about it, and should know about it. There’s no reason to keep it to myself.”
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