Local Author Keith Raffel Pens Another Thrilling Best-Seller
I have lived in Palo Alto since I was eight. Nevertheless, a few years ago I was amazed to learn that Jack Kennedy ¬¬– yes, that Jack Kennedy: JFK, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, America’s 43rd president, Jackie’s first husband – spent the fall quarter of 1940 at Stanford. It’s almost as if his three months in the Bay Area have been classified top secret. Robert Dallek’s biography of JFK runs 711 pages and sneaks a mention of that time into one paragraph.
What was he doing here anyway? Kennedy had graduated from Harvard the previous spring. The college roommate of his older brother was at law school here and convinced to him to come by expounding on the virtues of a university which, unlike his alma mater, boasted both great weather and co-eds.
Looking through archives in the Palo Alto Library, I discovered JFK paid $60 a month to live in a cottage in back of Miss Gertrude Gardiner’s house at 624 Mayfield on the Stanford campus. The address still exists but neither the house nor the cottage does. (See photo.) On eBay I picked up a 1941 Stanford yearbook. (A varsity letter “S” fell out when I opened it.) I combed through the files of the Stanford Daily, the still extant student newspaper. I learned JFK hung out at L’Omelette, a French restaurant and bar (see photo) that seemed the epitome of sophistication when my parents took me there when I was a boy. According to actor Robert Stack’s memoir, JFK would take the train down to Los Angeles on weekends and together the two young celebrities would chase Hollywood starlets. Back at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, I came across a letter from JFK’s Stanford girlfriend chiding him for forgetting her twenty-first birthday.
I knew there was a novel in these facts. “What if?” is the key question for any thriller writer. “What if Jack made a good friend while at Stanford who could narrate the book?” I asked myself. And thus was born Nate Michaels, in many respects the mirror image of Jack: San Franciscan versus Bostonian, eldest son of a left-wing father versus scion of a plutocrat, Jew versus Catholic. And what if Jack and Nate have a huge rupture in their relationship? Well, I was spelling all this out to my old college pal Rick Wolff when he asked his own “what if:” What if JFK then needs Nate’s help during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962?
Poof! A writer’s magic moment. An outline of A Fine and Dangerous Season formed in my mind seconds after the words left Rick’s lips. The book would switch back and forth between the same days of October, twenty-two years apart. The falling-out of 1940 would be there and so would the race to keep the world from blowing up in 1962.
What more could one want? The fate of the world would be at stake in my novel. And I tried my best to make it a story of people, too. One was JFK. And the other was his old Stanford friend Nathan Michaels.
And as for me, when I drive by the corner where L’Omelette stood in old Palo Alto, I can still see the hazy outline of JFK standing at the bar surrounded by a passel of admiring coeds.
About Keith Raffel
Raised in Palo Alto, Keith Raffel has watched over the CIA, supported himself at the racetrack, founded a software company, taught writing to Harvard freshmen, run for Congress, and worked at a DNA sequencing company. A Fine and Dangerous Season is his fourth novel. Bookreporter.com called his Dot Dead “the most impressive mystery debut of the year.” Its 2009 sequel, Smasher, was a national bestseller and has been optioned for film. His 2011 novel, Drop By Drop, was based on his experiences as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee. These days Keith stays busy following the San Francisco Giants and writing his thrillers just around the block from where he grew up.
Dot Dead: A Silicon Valley Mystery (2006)
Smasher: A Silicon Valley Thriller (2009)
Drop By Drop: A Thriller (2011)
A Fine and Dangerous Season (2013)