Lindsay Kefauver was in town last month doing some research at the University of Tennessee’s old Hoskins Library. An experienced art and photograph researcher, she’s working on behalf of an unusual new museum of organized crime in Las Vegas. As it happens, she’s also the oldest daughter of the late senator and two-time presidential contender Estes Kefauver.
She lives in San Francisco’s Mission District, but visited her father’s alma mater to research the Mob. UT’s Special Collections is the repository of the Kefauver Collection, 1,200 boxes of documentation, which includes the nation’s most thorough repository of the senator’s famous investigations into organized crime in the early 1950s. The museum in Las Vegas takes place in the same courthouse where Kefauver conducted his Nevada hearings, and a film shown there will offer highlights.
Now in her mid-60s, Lindsay Kefauver is a thin, energetic woman who talks quickly and with conviction. She has little time for lunch, but makes a few minutes for it at the nearby Falafel Hut, where she instantly finds herself in a conversation with the Egyptian-born cashier on the subject of Egypt, one of several subjects she seems to know well.
“Knoxville seems a lot jazzier than it used to,” she remarks at the table. She grew up mostly in Washington, but visited occasionally. She was disappointed to miss a Knoxville institution, Harold’s Deli, the Gay Street kosher deli; she had heard proprietor Harold Shersky, a great fan of her father’s, kept a Kefauver poster prominently on display behind the counter. Harold’s closed about three years ago.
Her father attended UT, played tackle for the 1922-23 Vols, and at one time intended to make a career in Knoxville lawyering. The ascension of the independent-minded attorney to the U.S. Senate marked the end of machine politics in Tennessee. His native fearlessness put him at odds with the national Democratic Party, which blocked his popular candidacy in the 1952 convention—based on delegates going in, he would seem to have earned the nomination that went to Adlai Stevenson (Kefauver was Stevenson’s running mate in ’56). He didn’t much get along with the Dixiecrats, either, opposing some near-unanimous votes favoring segregation. He did what he thought was right, and Lindsay acknowledges that he didn’t have many friends. Kefauver’s televised grilling of Mob bosses like Frank Costello, at the height of the Mafia’s power in the early ’50s, resulted in arrests, deportations, and embarrassment for law-enforcement authorities who had not been taking the problem seriously. Kefauver apparently got acquainted with threats to his life and property.
Lindsay was originally known as Eleanor, but the strong-willed little girl disliked the relative she was named for, and demanded that she be called Linda. As a young woman in New York, inspired by her hero at the time, New York Mayor John Lindsay, she changed her name one last time.
She didn’t like the political life. When her father first ran for president, “I remember being very against it,” she says. “It took him away from our family. If he didn’t run for public office, we thought, he’d just go back to Tennessee, be a country lawyer, and that would be paradise.”
When Edward R. Murrow brought the CBS camera crew to their house, Lindsay attempted to disconnect the television cords. (This according to columnist Jack Anderson; her own memories of the incident are vague.) “I think it’s a very selfish thing to do to a family,” she says. “But they’ve just got the bug, and feel that they’ve been called.”
The day before our lunch, she unexpectedly met former Sen. Howard Baker, who’d heard she was in town. He’s keen on his new Baker Center being a bipartisan repository; the Kefauver Papers, when they’re removed from the crumbling Kefauver Wing of Hoskins, will be housed in the Baker Center. It wasn’t part of the original plan, but became a matter of urgency when the poorly founded Kefauver wing of Hoskins Library began to sink. Parts of it are considered too dangerous for the public. Among them are the recreation of Kefauver’s fascinatingly cluttered Washington office as he left it the day in 1963 when he collapsed with a fatal heart attack on the Senate floor. Maybe Knoxville’s most unusual exhibit, it was the result of a Senate-UT effort after Kefauver’s sudden death; preserving an office is a rare form of homage. Lindsay thinks it may have been Hubert Humphrey’s idea.
She’s grateful the papers will have a place to go when the Kefauver wing is torn down for rebuilding, but they haven’t been able to accommodate the Kefauver office there, a fact she regrets. Its fate is unclear.
When she met Baker, the two put on hardhats and toured the new Baker Center on Cumberland. “I always liked him,” she says. Her Democratic family has always been on good terms with the Republican Baker; some Kefauvers have happily supported Baker’s candidacies over the years. But it sounds like Baker nearly got an earful. “I just wanted to ask him what the hell happened to the Republican Party—and why did you let this man ruin the country.”
Instead they talked mainly about family. Her father and Baker’s father had shared a warm across-the-aisle friendship.
She suspects her father would have had a favorite in this year’s Democratic race. “He would have been thrilled about Barack Obama,” she says. Like her father, she says, Obama was an outsider in the party who faced better-funded front-runners.
She and her two sisters are committed Democrats; one sister, Diane Kefauver, who also lives in San Francisco, is a special assistant to Nancy Pelosi. However, she describes her brother, a veterinarian who long ago moved back to Madisonville, as a conservative Republican.
She seems agog at the extent of the Kefauver papers at UT. One box is full of Kefauver for President buttons. “I could have used an extra day,” she says. “I had no idea what was there.”