Today, the image would have gone viral in an instant: The president of the United States, dripping wet in swim trunks before a throng of excited beachgoers, trading a look and a laugh with an attractive woman in a polka-dot bikini.
But well before the Internet’s relentless rationing of spontaneous fame, the 1962 photo of President John F. Kennedy at the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., made quite a splash. For a Los Angeles woman named Eva Ban, its effect lasted a lifetime.
Ban was the woman in the two-piece swimsuit, which was called a bikini in news accounts but was modest by today’s standards. When she took her children to the beach that hot August day, she hadn’t counted on meeting the president — or on appearing in a famous Los Angeles Times photo that spoke to the world of the vigorous Kennedy and his admiring American public.
A few days after the photo ran in newspapers and on TV broadcasts around the world, Ban revealed what she and Kennedy were laughing about.
It was a woman in the crowd clustering around the tanned, bare-chested, 45-year-old president.
“Mabel,” the woman was yelling to her friend, “I touched him!”
Ban, who was raised in Hungary and studied classical dance, died March 8 at a care facility in Oakland, Calif. She was 94 and had Alzheimer’s disease, her daughter Agi Ban said.
For several years, Ban had been in nursing homes and hospitals — and the photo had gone along with her, displayed as prominently in her room as it had been in her home.
“People treated her differently because they knew who she was,” Agi Ban said. “They had conversations with her,” she said, rather than perfunctory, sunny exchanges.
Born Eva Charlotte Boross in Long Branch, N.J., on Nov. 18, 1919, Ban, the daughter of a Hungarian mother and an American father, grew up in Budapest. Fleeing the Nazis, she moved first to London and then the U.S.
She appeared as an extra and a dancer in several movies, including a 1945 Cisco Kid movie called “South of the Rio Grande.” Raising her family, she taught at a West Hollywood, Calif., nursery school and was active in youth and neighborhood organizations.
In mid-August 1962, Kennedy was relaxing poolside at the beachside home of his brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford, during a three-day swing through California. It was an open secret that he was there, and hundreds of sunbathers hoped to catch a glimpse of him.
Late in the afternoon, Kennedy strode across the sand, plunged into the surf and swam 100 yards offshore as a band of frustrated Secret Service agents waded in behind. Times photographer Bill Beebe handed his shoes to a reporter, tucked his wallet into his suit coat breast pocket and ran into the waves, his camera held high.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” the 87-year-old Beebe said last week. “Sure, I got my suit wet.”
Back ashore, Ban was looking for her 13-year-old son, Peter, who had jumped into the surf to see if he could shake the president’s hand. The boy didn’t succeed — Kennedy told him he wanted to swim — but his mother wound up in an image that would be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, testament to a buoyant spirit in America 15 months before Kennedy’s assassination.
Kennedy was pleased with his escapade, although, according to Beebe, his press secretary Pierre Salinger asked the Times not to print any photos of it.
The Times ran its celebrated photo on the front page, with a story that was over-the-top enthusiastic:
“ ‘Here he comes!’ the crowd of 300 gasped. ‘It’s him! Look how handsome! Hurrah, Jack!’ ”
As the Secret Service held back the surging crowd, Kennedy “returned to the lounge chair beside the pool, picked up his sunglasses and his book and said contentedly, ‘That was the best swim I’ve had in months,’ ” according to “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,” a 1970 book by former JFK aides Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers.
Ban declined offers in the wake of her sudden fame. Her husband, architect Alexander Ban, wasn’t crazy about Dick Cavett’s asking her to appear on his television interview show in her bikini, Agi Ban said.
“Fine: If you are in your bathing suit, then Dick Cavett must be in his,” she recalled her father saying.
Eva and Alexander Ban retired to the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Three Rivers, Calif., in the 1970s. Alexander, whom Eva married after a courtship of just weeks, died in 1998. Her previous marriage had ended in divorce.
In addition to her daughter Agi, Ban’s survivors include another daughter, Andrea Ashley, and her son Peter Nathen Banne.