Kenneth O'Donnell

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Kenny O'Donnell
Kenny O'Donnell.jpg
White House Appointments Secretary
In office
January 20, 1961 – November 22, 1963
President John F. Kennedy
Preceded by Thomas Stephens
(Appointments Secretary)
Wilton Persons (Chief of Staff)
Succeeded by W. Marvin Watson
Personal details
Born Kenneth Patrick O'Donnell
(1924-03-04)March 4, 1924
Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died September 9, 1977(1977-09-09) (aged 53)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Resting place Holyhood Cemetery
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Helen Sullivan (1947–1977)
Asta Steinfatt (1977)
Relations Cleo O'Donnell (father)
Children 3 sons, 2 daughters
Education Harvard University (BA)
Boston College (LLB)
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch US Army Air Corps Hap Arnold Wings.svg U.S. Army Air Forces
Years of service 1942–1945
Battles/wars World War II

Kenneth Patrick "Kenny" O'Donnell[1] (March 4, 1924 – September 9, 1977) was an American political consultant who served as the special assistant and appointments secretary to President John F. Kennedy from 1961 until President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. O'Donnell was a close friend of President Kennedy and his younger brother, politician Robert F. Kennedy, and was part of the group of Kennedy's close advisors called the "Irish Mafia."

O'Donnell served as President Lyndon B. Johnson's aide from 1963 to 1965, and was a key campaign advisor for Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign.

Early life[edit]

Kenneth Patrick O'Donnell was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and raised in Boston. Both of his parents were Catholics of Irish descent.[2] His father, Cleo O'Donnell, was the football coach at the College of the Holy Cross Crusaders for two decades and later athletics director for all sports activities. O'Donnell's older brother, also named Cleo, was a football star at Harvard during the 1940s.[3]

During World War II, O'Donnell graduated from high school and then served in the U.S. Army Air Forces (1942–1945). He studied at Harvard College (1946–1949), and met Robert F. Kennedy, where they were roommates[4] as well as teammates on the Harvard football team; O'Donnell became team captain in 1948. The two remained close friends until Kennedy's assassination in 1968.[5]

Following graduation from Harvard, O'Donnell attended law school at Boston College from 1950–51. He later worked as a salesman for the Hollingsworth & Vose Paper Company and then the Whitney Corporation, both in Boston, from 1951 to 1952. O'Donnell later worked in public relations from 1952 to 1957.[4]


O'Donnell's friendship with Robert Kennedy led to his involvement with the Kennedy family's political career. In 1946, Robert Kennedy enlisted O'Donnell to work on his elder brother's, John F. Kennedy, first congressional campaign.[4] In 1952, O'Donnell and Robert Kennedy campaigned together to get John Kennedy elected to the U.S. Senate.[5] O'Donnell then went on to serve as John Kennedy's unpaid political observer in Massachusetts,[4] until he in 1957 was employed as assistant counsel of the 1957–59 Senate Labor Rackets Committee by Robert Kennedy, who had been appointed chief counsel of the committee.[5]

In 1958, O'Donnell became a member of Senator John Kennedy's staff, and became the organizer and director of Kennedy's presidential campaign schedule in 1960.[4] The following year, he became President Kennedy's special assistant and Appointments Secretary.

O'Donnell advised President Kennedy during the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion as well as during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.[4]

He later arranged President Kennedy's trip to Dallas in November 1963, and was in a car just behind the president's limousine when Kennedy was assassinated. President Kennedy's death was an enormous blow to O'Donnell, who long blamed himself for the assassination.[5] O'Donnell told the Warren Commission that the shooting had come from the rear. He later told his friend Tip O'Neill that he had been under pressure from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to say this. In fact, he believed that the gunfire had come from in front of the motorcade. O'Donnell commented: "I told the FBI what I had heard, but they said it couldn't have happened that way and that I must have been imagining things. So I testified the way they wanted me to. I just didn't want to stir up any more pain and trouble for the family."

After having served as a presidential aide to Lyndon Johnson until early 1965,[4][6] O'Donnell tried to win the Democratic nomination for the election for Governor of Massachusetts in 1966, losing by only 64,000 votes to Edward McCormack, which was much less than the polls had predicted.[5] In 1968, he served as campaign manager for Robert Kennedy, when Kennedy challenged President Johnson for renomination.[5]

Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, was a more devastating blow to O'Donnell than the assassination of President Kennedy five years earlier.[5] He soon joined, as did many others in Kennedy's campaign, Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign, serving as campaign manager.[4]

In 1970, he made another attempt to win the Democratic nomination for governor, but finished fourth in a primary field of four Democrats, with just nine percent of the vote.[5]

In 1972, O'Donnell and David Powers co-authored a book about President Kennedy,"Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye": Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.[7]

Marriages and children[edit]

While at Harvard, O'Donnell married Helen Sullivan in 1947.[3][8] They had five children: Kenneth, Jr., twins Kathleen and Kevin, Mark and Helen.[9]

In January 1977, O'Donnell's wife Helen died of the effects of alcoholism.[5][10] He remarried shortly thereafter to Asta Hanna Helga Steinfatt, a native of Germany.[9][11] They remained married until O'Donnell's death a few months later.[11]


In the years following the assassinations of President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, O'Donnell grew increasingly depressed and began drinking heavily. His depression and alcoholism were furthered by the failure of his own political career.[5]

On August 11, 1977, O'Donnell was admitted to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston for a gastrointestinal ailment brought on from the effects of alcoholism.[5][10] His condition grew progressively worse and, on September 9, O'Donnell died at the age of 53.[10] At the request of O'Donnell's family, a cause of death was not publicly announced.[12] O'Donnell's youngest daughter Helen later attributed her father's death to alcoholism.[13]

On September 12, a funeral mass was held at the Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in Jamaica Plain. Among the attendees were former mayor of Boston John F. Collins, Speaker of the House John William McCormack, and several members of the Kennedy family including President Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.[14] O'Donnell is buried at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline.[10]



In his biography With Kennedy (1966), Pierre Salinger writes:


In his autobiography Counselor, Ted Sorensen, who served as special counsel to President Kennedy, claims that O'Donnell polarized the JFK staff into the professional "politicians" and the academicians (such as Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger). Sorensen also claims that O'Donnell's antipathy towards him ran so deep that in 1976/77 he worked to derail Sorensen's nomination as Director of Central Intelligence for Jimmy Carter.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

In 1998, William Morrow & Co. published A Common Good: The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O'Donnell. The memoir was written by O’Donnell's daughter, freelance writer Helen O’Donnell, and chronicles her father's close friendship with Robert Kennedy.[5]

Dramatic representations[edit]



  1. ^ "Kenneth Patrick O'Donnell." Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 10: 1976–1980. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1995. 
  2. ^ Siracusa, Joseph M. (2012). Encyclopedia of the Kennedys: The People and Events That Shaped America. ABC-CLIO. p. 616. ISBN 1-598-84539-X. 
  3. ^ a b "O'Donnell Leads '48 Football Team-Varsity Chooses Brother of Cleo". The Harvard Crimson. November 26, 1947. Retrieved October 19, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "Kenneth P. O'Donnell biography". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. Retrieved October 19, 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Washington Post: Political Junkie, January 26, 2001 Retrieved 2010-02-26
  6. ^ "Kennedy aides resign White House positions". Spokane Daily Chronicle. (Washington). Associated Press. January 16, 1965. p. 2. 
  7. ^ "Ken O'Donnell, Aid to JFK, Dies at 53". The Hour. (Norwalk, Connecticut). UPI. September 9, 1977. p. 6. 
  8. ^ "Kenneth O'Donnell Named As White House Assistant". Toledo Blade. (Ohio). November 11, 1960. p. 2. 
  9. ^ a b "Kenneth O'Donnell, JFK Political Confidant, Dies". The Times-News. (Hendersonville, North Carolina). Associated Press. September 9, 1977. p. 13. 
  10. ^ a b c d "Death Takes JFK aide O'Donnell". Chicago Tribune. Associated Press. September 10, 1977. p. 11, sec. 2. 
  11. ^ a b The New York Times Biographical Service. 8. New York Times & Arno Press. 1977. p. 1300. 
  12. ^ "Ken O'Donnell dies; Aide, Close Pal of JFK". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Associated Press. September 10, 1977. p. 14. 
  13. ^ Bedell Smith, Sally (2006). Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House. Random House Publishing Group. p. 531. ISBN 0-345-48497-5. 
  14. ^ "JFK Death Is Mentioned At Service". Observer-Reporter. Washington, Pennsylvania. September 13, 1977. p. D-2. Retrieved September 16, 2015. 
  15. ^ This portrayal of O'Donnell as a major figure in the Cuban Missile Crisis has been disputed by several surviving Kennedy administration members and historians; see: Nelson, Michael, Political Science Professor, Rhodes College (February 2, 2001). "Thirteen Days' Doesn't Add Up". The Chronicle Review. Chronicle of Higher Education: B15. Retrieved April 29, 2010. ; and Thirteen Days. - PBS.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Thomas Stephens
White House Appointments Secretary
Succeeded by
W. Marvin Watson
Preceded by
Wilton Persons
as White House Chief of Staff