The Campaign Volunteer Whose Brilliance Haunted Robert F. Kennedy

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Other journalists had searched for her already, but I’d looked harder. I’d called people in her home town and at the local high schools, public and private. I’d consulted the yearbooks of the colleges she’d supposedly attended, and their alumni offices. I’d canvassed aging former volunteers for the Presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy, for whom she was volunteering that night, fifty-one years ago, when she challenged Robert F. Kennedy in a sleepy airport diner in Indianapolis.

From their two-hour conversation, an eighteen-year-old undergraduate named Pat Sylvester came to embody, for Bobby Kennedy, a whole generation of idealistic young Americans, the ones who, he hoped, would help make him President. And, ever since, people have tried tracking her down. But, as my own quest to find her fizzled, I came to doubt that she’d ever actually existed. Then, suddenly, not long ago, she materialized.

It began in the wee hours of May 8, 1968. Kennedy, then a junior senator from New York, had just survived a crucial challenge to his fledging, fragile candidacy, beating back a determined McCarthy, along with Indiana’s governor, who was a stand-in for Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, in the Indiana Presidential primary. Now he could go on to fight in Oregon and California.

But, amid all the excitement that evening, Kennedy had forgotten to eat, and finding food at that hour wasn’t easy. “The only place in Indianapolis where you can get even a glass of water after 1 a.m. is the airport,” the New York Post writer Jimmy Breslin, who was there covering the campaign, groused. So out to the airport they all went: the candidate, a few aides, and some intrepid reporters who’d learned in Dallas never to leave a Kennedy unattended.

That’s where they found Sylvester, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Breslin later wrote. With her was a second McCarthy volunteer, whom she’d met just minutes earlier, a twenty-one-year-old senior at the University of North Carolina named Taylor Branch. Years later, he’d win a Pulitzer Prize for the first of three books he wrote on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sylvester was wearing a straw hat with a McCarthy ribbon wrapped around it, and Branch sported two McCarthy pins on his tan jacket. They’d missed their respective flights out that night, to Providence by way of Pittsburgh for her, to Atlanta for him. Both sat, exhausted and dejected, by their suitcases.

Kennedy had won the primary that night, but something still gnawed at him: he considered McCarthy’s volunteers superior to his own. Just the night before, at a local restaurant called Sam’s Attic, when someone had told Kennedy that McCarthy’s kids were “brighter, more radical, more committed” than his, Kennedy had shaken “his drooping head affirmatively,” according to Jack Newfield, of the Village Voice. “I wish I had some of them,” Kennedy lamented.

Mary McGrory, of the Washington Star, who had studied the Kennedys for twenty years, spotted that same envy. “He does not need them, but he wants them,” she wrote. “They would bring luster and spontaneity to what is a dazzling but mechanical effort.” But those very kids hated him, Kennedy knew. They considered him a coward for equivocating on Vietnam and an opportunist both for bigfooting their candidate and for jumping into the race belatedly.

Now, making his way through the empty terminal, Kennedy spotted Sylvester and Branch, walked over to them, smiling, and invited them to join him for a bite to eat. “All right,” Sylvester replied, before trying to place her McCarthy hat on Kennedy’s head. They seated themselves in a booth across from Kennedy, while a knot of reporters hovered nearby. Kennedy was smaller than Branch had imagined, but something else about him made a bigger impression: his intense blue eyes.

Then, for the next couple of hours, Kennedy probed and proselytized, trying to understand why the two preferred McCarthy to him and seeing if he could change their minds. Breslin got at least some of it down and, alone among the reporters, wrote it up. The others were, as reporters like to say, just “gathering string.”

Though Bobby Kennedy was one of the most famous men in the world, Sylvester wasn’t cowed. Instead, she let him have it, criticizing his inconsistent stance on Vietnam, lambasting his ineffectual campaign workers, and complaining about the unfair advantage Kennedy enjoyed simply by dint of his famous name. When Kennedy asked the two what they now planned to do following their candidate’s setback in this most recent primary, she didn’t mince words. “We’re going to stay,” she answered. “Most of them will. The ones who like McCarthy don’t want you.”

The more Kennedy pressed, depicting McCarthy as a racially insensitive dilettante who didn’t really want to be President, a man who was taking advantage of his volunteers, the more Sylvester and Branch dug in. And the deeper they dug in, the more Kennedy admired, and coveted, them. “I remember him complaining that McCarthy got the A students and he got the gentlemen’s-C frat boys,” Branch told me. Meanwhile, according to Breslin, two female Kennedy campaign workers sitting at the table squirmed. “What I wouldn’t give for that girl,” one told the other.

“He had won in Indiana, but he couldn’t win over those kids, and they really got to him,” a key Kennedy aide, Fred Dutton, later recalled. “For days afterward, he talked about that boy and girl in the airport coffee shop—how great they were, in their idealism and determination.” Kennedy never forgot the pair; it’s pretty fair to say, though, that that understates the impact they’d had on him, for he was to live only four more weeks.

For Branch, too, Sylvester was a revelation. The undergraduate school in Chapel Hill was still nearly all male; there, and in his native Atlanta, he’d met few young women like her, so audacious and politically engaged. “We communed,” he recalled. He told her so, and it stuck with her. “He said that he was surprised to be able to communicate so well with a girl,” Sylvester wrote to a friend, shortly afterward.

Breslin’s account ends on a happy note, with Branch and Sylvester leaving the airport with Kennedy after he offered to get hotel rooms for them. To Breslin’s eye, Kennedy’s wooing was working; it marked his second triumph of the evening. “It was, last night in Indianapolis, a very good night for Robert Kennedy,” he wrote.

In fact, the two had spurned Kennedy’s offer—“we said we’d be fine,” she later wrote—and opted to spend what was left of the night in the deserted terminal. But, rather than trying to catch some sleep, they decided to write Kennedy a letter. Taking turns on a yellow legal pad, they worked on it until dawn, composing what Branch called “a frenzied, sleepy-eyed rehashing” of their discussion, letting him know that, while he hadn’t won them over, he’d impressed them anyway.

As day broke, they walked to a nearby motel where they thought Kennedy was staying and slipped their manifesto—“a treatise, really,” Branch said—under what they believed to be his door. “For all I know, they gave us the wrong room number, or they threw it in the trash,” Branch recalled. Then the two separated, without exchanging phone numbers. After all, Branch had other things on his mind; his draft physical was coming up, he was graduating soon, and getting married after that.

According to Leon Fink, her boyfriend at the time and now a retired history professor from the University of Illinois, Sylvester was “bemused” by Breslin’s article, which appeared the next day. (It was only from reading it that Sylvester’s politically conservative parents, from whom she was largely estranged, learned that Pat had even been in Indiana.) And, for the next half century, Breslin’s account of that evening, and of Pat Sylvester, was all that history had.

But Branch didn’t forget her, and at one point he tried tracking her down—to learn, as he put it, how their shared experience “had settled” with her afterward. He would ask after her whenever he ran into former McCarthy volunteers or women who had gone to Pembroke, a women’s college, later swallowed up by Brown, to which he believed she’d gone. He reached out to Brown as well. No one knew anything. And, unsure whether he and Breslin even had her name right, he’d simply given up.

Tom Shea, a journalist with the Springfield Republican, also looked for her. He had learned of Sylvester in 1973, from reading a biography of Kennedy by Jack Newfield, a Village Voice reporter. He met Newfield sixteen years later and asked him about her. Every year on the anniversary of R.F.K.’s assassination—this Thursday is the fifty-first—Shea wrote a column about Bobby Kennedy, and he had devoted the 2011 edition to her. It marked one last attempt of his to find her—“a message in a bottle,” he said.

A few years ago, determined to track her down for a biography he was writing of Kennedy, Larry Tye turned to Accurint, a search engine connected, it boasts, to more than sixty-five billion public records. No dice. I searched twice, in 2017 and last year, while researching and then publicizing a book I wrote on Kennedy and King. I, too, had grown curious about Pat Sylvester. Who was she? What brought her to Indianapolis that night? And what had become of her since? How well had her idealism served her? Or, more likely, what had been the depth of her disappointment?

I contacted various Sylvesters in Milton, Massachusetts—her home town, Breslin had written. And Milton High School. And Milton Academy. And the University of Massachusetts. And Brown, which was more than ready for me. “We have received this same request a number of times in the past year, so I know the back story and we have an answer already on hand,” Brian Clark, the school’s director of news and editorial development, wrote back. And veterans of the McCarthy campaign in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Indiana, and Washington, D.C., all the way up to Sam Brown, McCarthy’s youth coördinator. And the curator of the Eugene McCarthy papers, at the University of Minnesota, who scoured the roster of campaign volunteers for me.

There was no trace of her anywhere. Nor did a short online piece I wrote for Time produce her or anyone who had known her. In the Google era, it’s pretty hard for anyone to vanish, but, somehow, Pat Sylvester had managed to. One New York newsman mocked my persistence, and naïveté. “You’ve now learned what many of us knew throughout his career: Breslin made stuff up,” he said to me, in an e-mail.

Then, in March of this year, a Milton Academy graduate named Reva Seybolt, now a life coach in Vermont, stumbled upon a note I’d sent her via Facebook in December, 2017. What she wrote me was thrilling, then crushing, then intriguing. “I just saw your message,” she said, adding, “patsy died of breast cancer a long, long time ago. If you still need info, I can get you in touch with her daughter.”

And she did. With breathtaking speed, I was in touch with people who’d known and loved her, and reading the letters she’d written around the time of her meeting with Kennedy. Patsy—she was never Pat to her friends—had died, but now some part of her had come back to life. I wrote to Branch, saying simply that I’d cracked the story. “Is she alive?” he quickly e-mailed back. “If so, might she speak with me?”

Patsy had attended Milton Academy, but only through the ninth grade. She’d then moved to the Westtown School, a Quaker institution in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she became politically active and, in June, 1966, was elected co-president of the student body. A picture on the front page of the school paper, Brown and White, showing her with a pixie haircut and pearls, captured her free spirit, though not her uncertainties or her flaming red hair. She graduated in June, 1967, shortly after taking a bus to New York to march in the Spring Mobilization against the Vietnam war.

She had indeed been at the University of Massachusetts in 1968, just as Breslin claimed. But, even before Indianapolis, she’d shown a penchant for fateful airport encounters, the by-product of a probing, improvisational life style. It was in a second such rendezvous that she’d met Leon Fink (she’d been reading Sartre when he struck up a conversation), and it was during another chance encounter that a Harvard boy had invited her to campaign for McCarthy in Indiana.

And, as far away as Indiana then seemed, she up and went. As her letters make clear, she was at loose ends at the time, quoting Rod McKuen and W. H. Auden, subsisting on cigarettes and coffee, careening between nihilism, activism, and radicalism. (Two nights before the balloting in Indiana, she’d experimented with pot and Scotch, and her stomach had gone haywire.) With his detached and cynical mien—he didn’t seem to take either himself or politics too seriously—McCarthy appealed to her; Kennedy was all gung ho in a way she found off-putting.

“This is so damn exciting,” she wrote to her Westtown roommate, Margy Frysinger. “I’m a politician at heart when I became involved, and I am involved. Right to the roots of my hair. We all live, breathe, eat McCarthy.” Naturally, she said, she was “anti-Kennedy, but not anti his workers. They’re just misguided.” To her, by contrast, McCarthy’s volunteers were unbelievably dedicated, putting their grades and even their lives (the men had jeopardized their draft exemptions by dropping out to work for him)—on the line.“We are mentally prepared for defeat—but won’t accept it easily,” she wrote on the eve of the vote. “For McCarthy we pray.”

Kennedy may have “neutralized” Branch that night, as he later put it, impressing him in particular with his sensitivity to racial issues, but he didn’t have the same effect on Sylvester. “In the airport at 1:00 a.m., a guy and I were sitting with our McCarthy stuff in the middle of the hall,” she wrote. “We were discussing our anti-Kennedy feelings, when, lo, along comes a group of Kennedyophiles. In the second wave of them, the Senator walked toward us. He smiled, shook our hands (and put his arm on my shoulder) and invited us for breakfast.

“For an hour + 45 mins we talked with him directly and openly,” she went on. “We learned a lot of stuff from him. Accordingly we told him a lot of stuff. We were open in our criticism of Kennedy’s workers—how dumb they were and how they couldn’t satisfactorily explain why they were for Kennedy over McCarthy.” To her, even the Republican governor from New York, Nelson Rockefeller, may have been preferable to Kennedy. “We now have some serious thinking to do before we decide for whom we really are,” she wrote. “And it may end up being Rockefeller. One cannot be a-political. I was not involved before, and now I am immeshed in everything that’s going on.”

To her friends, the encounter with Bobby Kennedy—and particularly her attempt to place a McCarthy hat on his head—was not just the product of an anti-authoritarian Quaker education; it was pure, vintage Patsy. “She would do outrageous things every now and then, for someone who would act pretty proper and reserved most of the time,” Frysinger, now a retired administrator in Pennsylvania, said. “She was very feisty,” Nina Brown, a landscape architect in Boston, said. “She had the ability to tell you a difficult truth about yourself and make you laugh.”

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During the despondent summer of 1968, with both Kennedy and King now dead, Sylvester had forsworn waiting tables—“I just cannot push $300 worth of pots + pans in people’s faces when they should use the money for something else”—and worked full time for McCarthy. Branch slowly soured on McCarthy, but the candidate remained “imbedded in my bones,” Sylvester wrote. Unbeknownst to either of them, they both attended the Democratic Convention, in Chicago, that August: he was inside, as a McCarthy volunteer; she was outside, getting tear-gassed.

When she returned to college, it was to McGill; it wasn’t only draft-age men who fled to Canada in those days. After graduating, she remained in Montreal, married briefly, raised a daughter by herself, forsook politics and subsisted (barely) on freelance writing and editing. She died in August, 1990, ten days after turning forty-one.

Her daughter, now Nicole Fournier-Sylvester, an education manager for the Global Centre for Pluralism, in Ottawa, was fourteen at the time. Though she remembers how apoplectic her mother grew upon learning that her parents had voted for Ronald Reagan, she never heard her talk about meeting Bobby Kennedy. She’d learned of that only after happening upon Breslin’s column among her grandmother’s personal effects, and from picking up a Kennedy biography at a book fair in Martha’s Vineyard.

All these years later, she told me, her mother’s life in politics remains elusive to her. But did she recognize the firebrand Breslin described? “One hundred and fifty per cent,” she replied. She recalled her mother chastising her for wearing earrings shaped like peace signs without bothering to learn what they represented. “She had no patience for frivolity and wanted me to understand the importance of taking clear and informed positions,” she said. “For better or worse, she was frank. Some people didn’t experience it in a positive way. But, luckily, Robert Kennedy did.”

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