Photographer Jim Romano has immortalized the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra in his 60-year career, but none of his subjects were as memorable as a young politician from Massachusetts whom he met in the fall of 1959, and whom he now commemorates on the 48th anniversary of his death by sharing their first encounter.
“I went inside a residence on Park Avenue and waited for him to arrive,” says Romano, 83, who went on a routine assignment to Manhattan for the New York Daily News to take campaign pictures of Ralph Diorio, the Democratic congressional candidate from Staten Island, and a little-known senatorial aspirant from Massachusetts named John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
“Kennedy was very attractive and stylish, and made an elegant entrance by lighting up the room when he walked in,” recalls the Staten Islander, who dresses like Columbo, talks like Cagney and takes evocative images that look as if they belong in LIFE magazine.
Romano was struck by the friendly young man.
“He came toward me with a smile and his hand out, and he said, ‘Nice to see you!’ ” he remembers. “He was very tall and he had a soft voice; I said, ‘Hiya, Senator, I want you to meet Ralph Diorio, he’s the candidate for Congress and we are here to photograph you and him.’ ”
“He didn’t know who the hell Diorio was!” chuckles Romano: “But he knew who I was because I was the photographer, and he said, ‘Call me John’ and I said, ‘Call me Jim’.”
Then, Romano — who was profiled by The New York Times in 2009 for his iconic images — set to work.
“I wanted to put him at his ease so I said, ‘John, I’ve been following your career, and you, sir, are a leader of men — and a follower of women!’
“He got a kick out that!” states Romano, who spent an hour photographing the pair.
Kennedy’s friendly self-assurance impressed the hard-boiled newsman.
“He was very alert and very accommodating, and came off as a wonderful, warm person who knew how to handle photographers,” he adds.
The following year, Romano found himself on Kennedy’s trail again — this time covering his presidential race.
“I saw him at the South Ferry in October, 1960, on the way to Staten Island where he was going to make a campaign speech,” says Romano, who snapped Jack as he spoke to the masses on top of a flatbed truck [see inset]. “He had his own way of talking.”
Two years later, on November 22, 1963, Romano was returning home from an assignment when he was stopped at an intersection by a photographer he knew.
“He rolled down his window and said, ‘Your buddy, Kennedy was just shot down in Texas, tune into the radio!’ ”
The news floored the newsman: “I was sad for the country and I felt a great loss because I personally knew the president of the United States; I had been in his company, spoken to him and taken his pictures.”
Nearly half a century later, Romano’s archives burst at the seams with his celebrity photographs, but the one he carries in his wallet is of the engaging, young senator who became the nation’s 35th president, and who Romano says could “charm the birds out of the trees.”