By Forest Riggs
Galveston Island is known for being full of “treasures” and it is no secret that island resident Arthur Kennedy, who recently celebrated his 93rd birthday, is truly a great treasure. To know him is to love him!
Kennedy, who has called Galveston home since 1996, is a well-known and most respected figure in the community. Whether walking his pampered pooch, Beignet, around the East End’s Silk-Stocking District, attending a museum opening or a gala, or just simply out with friends enjoying a glass of wine or dining at one of his favorite restaurants, Kennedy is a magnet for people. The vivacious and eclectic nonagenarian draws attention wherever he goes.
On July 7, 1925, in Williston, South Carolina, Kennedy made his debut in the world. The depression was in full swing and although his father was an attorney, times were tough for the family. Two and half years later, another child — a girl — came along. Kennedy had his “little sister.” Although the family was happy, to have more income for the family and better opportunities, his father contacted Austin Lattimer, Kennedy’s uncle and Postmaster General in Arlington, Virginia, who encouraged the family to move.
At age six, Kennedy and his family relocated to Arlington and it was there that he realized there was indeed a big world beyond Williston — one full of opportunities. Relishing the small-town feel of Arlington but at the same time taking advantage of the arts and entertainment offered, Kennedy was thrilled at venturing out and seeing the town, meeting people, and learning from every encounter.
The family struggled and ongoing depression took its toll when he was 12, Kennedy’s parents divorced.
Aside from the stress of the divorce, growing up in Arlington still afforded many new things for the bright and inquisitive young man. Kennedy graduated high school and prepared for college at the University of Tennessee. After college, he took a train to New York City and began working for IT&T in the field of technical data processing and sales. New York was a new adventure and there he began to feel free. “There was so much to see and do in the city, it was like a new world opened for me,” he says.
In 1951, Uncle Sam stepped in and Kennedy was drafted into the army. The Korean War was playing out and he felt sure he would be sent to the bloody battle. Realizing his keen ability and strength in business matters, salesmanship, and record record-keeping my instead sent young Kennedy to Linz, Austria to work in a finance office.
From 1951 until 1953, Kennedy absorbed all that Austria offered. While in Linz, he would take the Orient Express to visit other countries and cities (Munich being one of his favorites), all the while making new acquaintances and delving into new experiences. “During this time I felt alive and free, there was so much to see and do and I wanted it all! The nightlife and the bar scene were wonderful,” he says. Later in life, Kennedy would continue to take many cruises, several cross-Atlantic voyages, and even venture to India. He collected pieces of art on each of the excursions.
After his stint in the military, a wiser and more worldly Kennedy returned to New York and took a position selling data for a high-tech company. The work involved transferring data to various purchased platforms and the loading and supporting of the transferred data. It was during this time that Kennedy met his first romantic interest, a young man who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. The two enjoyed New York, the museums, the food, and, of course, the nightlife.
In 1979, the company sent Kennedy to its Singapore office where he would continue to work with data, mostly scientific at this time. He loved Singapore with its regimented society, the food, and, of course, the art. Already collecting pieces along the way, Kennedy viewed Singapore as an opportunity to collect art of various mediums. The little shops and bazaars were filled with eye-catching treasures that he could not resist. The time spent in Singapore was very productive and would enable him to begin his next adventure.
Living in Houston during the 1980s was a great time for a gay man. Montrose, at the time, was the hub of gay activity and, as the city offered plenty of arts and entertainment venues, Kennedy felt at home and developed a large circle of friends. On New Year’s Day in 1986, while in a bar enjoying a cocktail, Kennedy met strikingly handsome Jesse Flores and the two became an item. With both having interests in the arts and architecture, it was a perfect union that continues today.
While vacationing in San Francisco, the two observed many same-sex couples getting married at City Hall. Several of the couples were from Texas. Watching the happy couples exchange their vows and secure their future, Kennedy and Flores decided it would be a good plan to get married. Aside from the “romance” involved in getting married, Kennedy felt a couple needed the financial and legal protections that come with being legally married. Times and laws changed and now it was legal! Since that time,
across the causeway the two have enjoyed a long and loyal marriage filled with travel, pets, friends, family, and love.
‘Uncle Auntie Mame’
In 1996, Kennedy bought his beautiful home along Galveston’s prestigious, tree-lined Avenue O in the Silk-Stocking district. The home is not Victorian but rather a Georgian Square style structure (built-in 1915) with large rooms that are equal in size and scope on both the upper and lower floors. Being a gallerist at heart, Kennedy filled the house with his priceless collection.
To walk through the rooms is like visiting a museum in any cosmopolitan city. The walls are filled with original paintings, delicate antique prints, and historical documents, all perfectly aligned and expertly placed. A screened porch on the back of the house was converted to a sunroom when air conditioning was installed, and is now a gallery filled with many pieces of African art and tribal artifacts that Kennedy and Flores have collected over the years. The house is spacious; its meticulously appointed rooms flow gracefully one into the other, each adorned with antiques, art, and period furniture. Some of the furniture belonged to Kennedy’s mother while one wall showcases oil paintings of ships and seascapes painted by his father.
“Each piece is a reminder of some trip, someone, or a special time,” Kennedy says. “One must have these things around to be reminded of the love and happiness that has been in the mix of your life.” A mix, it is — one that has taken decades to collect and properly display.
On getting older, the spry Kennedy says with twinkling eyes: “I didn’t know I’d get this old. I was a born salesman who realized it and made good with it.”
When asked about regrets, Kennedy grins. “Oh, I made a few mistakes along the way, but somehow, they got covered up!” he says.
His outlook on life remains youthful and simple. “Don’t dwell on the negative. Life and people are to be enjoyed,” he says. “Possessions are good only if they have meaning and purpose, (and are) reminders. Remember, new people can always add to your life, and, I’m still meeting and cultivating new friends.”
One thing Kennedy has always had is pets. From John, his beloved King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, to his current cat, Simba (a shelter rescue), and his best pal, Beignet, Kennedy believes pets are a must-have and his help keeps him young.
“Getting older is no piece of cake but you can’t just sit and do nothing,” he says.
Kennedy adds that he has seen a lot of things during his years — some good, some bad. “I guess my big break in life was being taken out of South Carolina at age six and placed into a big city,” he says. Little did he know then, just how far he would go and for how long.
At a young 93 and going strong, Galveston’s Arthur Kennedy remains vibrant, active, and ever-ready to meet and greet. His nephew, Steve, an editor for The New York Times, refers to the effervescent Galvestonian as his “Uncle Auntie Mame.” Indeed, he is that: a man full of life, and adventure, and one that refuses to allow growing older to get in his way of being happy and making others happy. He’s a Galveston treasure, for sure! ¶
A resident of Galveston where he can be found wasting bait and searching for the meaning of life, Forest Riggs recently completed a collection of short stories about his beloved island and is working on a novel.