John F. Kennedy’s Bad Back

The new miniseries “The Kennedys” (available on instant streaming at Netflix) shows President John F. Kennedy struggling with a bad back.

In episode four (10:36 in), he does a classic Alexander Technique exercise — semi supine aka active rest. He lies on the ground with a pillow supporting his head and he rests his feet on a chair.

Here’s more info on this practice: The one Alexander Technique exercise — semi-supine. Part two.

I noticed the president sat up from this exercise with great pain and difficulty. While lying down with his head supported and his feet on a chair undoubtedly freed up his back, by coming straight up, he had to tighten his neck and his torso, undoing most of the unlocking benefit he’d just received. It would’ve been much better if he had rolled to his side and pushed himself up, as Alexander Technique teachers instruct.

I also doubt that the president was thinking his Alexander Technique directions — neck free, head releasing away from his torso, his back lengthening to widen, think about the length from your right hip to your left shoulder and vice versa, and the length from your hips to your knees and from your knees to your feet. Think about the length of your arm from your shoulder to your elbow to your hands. Think about your fingers lengthening.

The purpose of all this bizarre lengthening thinking is to help one get in touch with how one may be unnecessarily compressing and shortening and to let that go. Direction is just finding your interfering patterns of unnecessary tension and letting them go.

I dug the true-life character of Dr. Feelgood in this series. His real name was Max Jacobson:

Max Jacobson (July 3, 1900 – December 1, 1979) was a German-born New York physician who administered dangerous levels of amphetamines and other medications to several high profile clients including American President John F. Kennedy.

After fleeing Berlin in 1936, Jacobson set up an office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where he treated a number of famous names including Marlene Dietrich, Anthony Quinn, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Maya Deren, Eddie Fisher, Mickey Mantle, Cecil B. DeMille, Alan Jay Lerner, Yul Brynner, Nelson Rockefeller, and Zero Mostel.[4][5] Dubbed “Dr. Feelgood”, Jacobson was known for his “miracle tissue regenerator” shots which consisted of amphetamines, vitamins, painkillers, and human placenta.
John F. Kennedy first visited Jacobson in September 1960, shortly before the 1960 presidential election debates. Jacobson was part of the Presidential entourage at the Vienna summit in 1961 where he administered amphetamines to the frail JFK to combat fatigue. Some of the side effects the treatment could have caused at the summit included hyperactivity, impaired judgment, nervousness, and wild mood swings. Kennedy, however, was untroubled by FDA reports on the contents of Jacobson’s injections, proclaiming “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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