The story of how Idlewild Airport was renamed for John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was memorialized in dozens of ways following his assassination on November 22, 1963. None of these are more vital to the daily lives of New Yorkers than John F. Kennedy International Airport — or Kennedy Airport or simply JFK — the busiest airport in the Northeast.

You may not realize how quickly it was renamed for the fallen president. On November 15, 1963, President Kennedy left Idlewild Airport (the airport’s former name) after a short stay in the city. Six weeks later, that airport would be named after him.

New York joined the nation in mourning following the televised funeral of President Kennedy on November 25, 1963. Thousands watched the ceremony from a large television screen hanging in Grand Central Terminal. Traffic stopped in Times Square and Boy Scout buglers played taps from atop the old Hotel Astor. All airport traffic at Idlewild stopped at noon.

New York Like A Vast Church ran the headline in the New York Times.

Calls immediately rose to memorialize the president in the city. On December 4, less than two weeks after Kennedy’s death, Mayor Robert Wagner announced that he would submit a bill to the city council to honor Kennedy with a name change to Idlewild.

Unfortunately, these ultimately successful calls to rename New York’s largest airport came at the cost of obliterating the memory of another notable American.

Wired New York

Idlewild was the popular name for the airport which opened on July 1, 1948, because it was built upon a former golf course and luxury accommodation of that name. According to the Times, “The name Idlewild is believed to have been inspired by the fact that the site at that time was wild and that the hotel and park constituted a recreational facility for the idle rich.”

But its full, official name was New York International Airport, Anderson Field, named for Major General Alexander E. Anderson, a decorated World War I veteran and Queens businessman. Unfortunately Anderson had few proponents fighting to keep his name on the airport by 1963.

The following week, “[i]n an action marked by solemnity and silent prayer, the City Council voted unanimously yesterday to change the name of New York International Airport at Idlewild, Queens, to the John F. Kennedy International Airport.” [source]

It was revealed then that city officials wished to name the airport after Kennedy even more quickly than that. Indeed, the idea had been unofficially suggested hours after Kennedy’s assassination but it had taken the extra time to get the official approval from his widow (and future New York City resident) Jackie Kennedy.

Photographer Meyer Liebowitz/The New York Times

By Wednesday, December 18, the name change had been formally approved and workmen busily rushed to change all the signs at the airport.  Idlewild officially became John F. Kennedy Airport in a ceremony held on Christmas Eve 1963.

The president’s younger brother Edward Kennedy was in attendance, helping to unveil a 242-foot-long sign emblazoned with the new name. Their brother Robert F. Kennedy was scheduled to attend but canceled.

You would think such a name change to be relatively uncontroversial but this was not the case.

In an editorial which ran a few days after the ceremony, the New York Times remarked: “The speedy change of name — whether it be of an airport or a bridge or a park or a cape — reflects the love that millions of people all over the world had for Present Kennedy; but, as we have previously stated, it is only debasing the subject of our grief to attach his name so hastily to a miscellaneous collection of public works, almost as if we were afraid that without these tangible reminders he would be soon forgotten. “

Meyer Liebowitz/The New York Times

And President Kennedy almost got his name upon a newly built bridge in the New York City area, too.

That same month, a Staten Island politician filed a bill to the New York state legislature to name a new bridge being built in the Narrows after Kennedy. “Assemblyman Edward J. Amann Jr … profiled at Albany for introduction into the Legislature in January a bill calling for changing the name of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the John. F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge.” [source]

By the time it officially opened the following year, the Verrazano had kept its tribute name to the 16th century European explorer. But New York does have a bridge named for a Kennedy — the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (the former Triborough Bridge).

Below: A month after the dedication, Robert did stop by the airport named after his brother. 

JFK International Airport Chamber of Commerce
  • Mister Sterling

    A costly, hasty error, in my opinion. If any city should have renamed their airport to JFK it should have been Boston. Can you imagine an alternate universe in which the big New York airport is named after someone who actually lived or died in New York? How about Joey Ramone or David Bowie (who lived his last 22 years in New York)? Or maybe even Jane Jacobs, who saved SOHO?

    • Dixon Diaz

      Even worse, even more ridiculous, was New York City re-naming the Triboro Bridge for Robert F. Kennedy in 2009, more than 40 years after his assassination.

      • Mister Sterling

        Agreed! And he didn’t complete his Senate term (for two obvious reasons), And yet, we still call his seat the RFK seat. Clinton had it. Now Gillenbrand has it.

        • Dixon Diaz

          Might as well call it the “Democratic Carpetbagger Seat.”

  • stephen714

    There is no other name I can think of in these very troubled times that would better suit the New York City airport. All day, every day, those who see
    those letters “JFK” all over the world have a moment to learn that America was a place of dignity, righteousness and strength. The other names would be ok, but JFK is a powerful reminder that America was great once and that, underneath the current election mess and lack of leadership or a moral compass, the American people are great! We need to remind ourselves and the world that those masquerading as leaders of our country are a temporary mistake and America is and will always be the land of the free.