Obituary: Roswell Gilpatric

Godfrey Hodgson
Thursday 21 March 1996 00:02 GMT

Roswell Gilpatric's great moment came in the tensest moments of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In private, he was widely believed to have been the lover of Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Gilpatric was a member of "Ex Comm", the top-level working group President John F. Kennedy had entrusted with managing the US response to Nikita Khrushchev's decision to deploy Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. The President's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, had put forward the case for bombing the Soviet missile sites in Cuba, from which Soviet missiles with nuclear warheads could reach much of the United States. Gilpatric's boss, the defence secretary Robert S. McNamara, argued against bombing, saying no one could tell how the Russians would respond. As Ken-nedy hesitated, Gilpatric, the Wall Street lawyer, intervened.

"Essentially, Mr President," he said, "this is a choice between limited action and unlimited action, and most of us think it is better to start with limited action."

On other occasions, however, Gilpatric took a hard line. A staunch Cold Warrior, he had served as Under-Secretary of the Air Force in the Eisenhower Administration. He was the head of a secret task force of which General Edward Lansdale, the original of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, was a member. Its brief was "to prevent Communist domination of Vietnam", and Gilpatric consistently argued for US commitment.

He also signed off on the overthrow, though not explicitly on the murder, of General Diem, the leader of the pro-American government of South Vietnam. (Diem was removed from power by a military coup with American approval, given on McNamara's behalf by Gilpatric, so far as the Pentagon was concerned. The balance of evidence suggests that Washington officials were not aware that the Diem family were to be killed.)

Gilpatric was, too, a member of the "special group" which planned Operation Mongoose, the CIA' s dirty tricks campaign against Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Gilpatric's cautious advice against bombing Cuba was characteristic of the calm Wall Street lawyer. A lifelong Republican, Ros Gilpatric was a partner from 1940 to 1977 in Cravath, Swain and Moore, one of the two or three most prestigious of the "white shoe" Wall Street law firms. His clients included major banks and industrial corporations and especially defence and aerospace companies.

Gilpatric was the epitome of the "dollar-a-year men" of what had been called the "American Establishment" who came down from Wall Street to serve in government before returning to "the private practice of law". He was a protege of one of the most celebrated of them, Robert Lovett.

He came from an upper-class New York background and was educated at the Hotchkiss School, a famous private boarding school, and at Yale. He was a childhood friend of Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

President Kennedy used to question him closely about Rockefeller's plans, his character and his girlfriends. "He has lots," said Gilpatric. "How does he get away with it?" asked the President, who was getting away with "it" himself at the time on an epic scale.

By a twist of history, it is widely believed that Gilpatric himself became the lover of the President's widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, after his death and before she married Aristotle Onassis.

A brother Wall Street lawyer offered for sale letters written to Gilpatric by Mrs Kennedy over a five-year period, beginning before his assassination. The letters were subpoenaed by the third Mrs Roswell Gilpatric, who was then seeking a legal separation.

The letters are intimate but inconclusive as to the nature of his friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy. One of them, written just after her marriage to Onassis, said, "I hope you know all you were and are and will ever be to me." It was signed, "With my love, J". But Gilpatric denied that he and Mrs Kennedy Onassis had ever been anything but the best of friends.

From 1972 to 1975 Gilpatric served as chairman of Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He was also a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum and of the New York Public Library.

Godfrey Hodgson

Roswell Leavitt Gilpatric, lawyer and administrator: born 4 November 1906; married five times (one son, two daughters); died New York 15 March 1996.

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