It was the sort of list that a First Lady–or any prominent woman of the time–might write to help plan for an important trip. Among the things on it, she jotted: “Pink + Navy Chanel Suit, Navy Shoes, Navy Bag, White kid gloves.”
Prepared for Jacqueline Kennedy’s personal assistant, Providencia Paredes, this document “detailed Mrs. Kennedy’s hour-by-hour schedule alongside the clothes and accessories to be packed, including the now-iconic pink ensemble she was wearing when her husband was assassinated as well as carefully planned outfits for parts of the trip that never happened,” according to the New York Times.
That pink suit has become one of the most searing images of the 20th century, worn by Jacqueline Kennedy the day that her husband was shot while they rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. She did not take off the suit after the assassination but wore it, blood-spattered, when she stood next to Vice-President Lyndon Johnson as he was sworn in as President that same day.
The preparations list seemed to have disappeared following Dallas, but it resurfaced in 2015, when a caterer named Gil Wells who revered the Kennedy family said it came into his ownership.
According to the New York Times, the discovery came when Wells’ godmother, 79, shared some photographs and papers with him after she moved into his Virginia home. His godmother, Shirley Ann Conover, was suffering from dementia. “One day, she emerged with a plastic sleeve holding two small sheets of White House notepaper.”
No one seems to know how Conover got hold of Mrs. Kennedy’s list. She was a former employee of the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Although one expert said the list was valuable–one recent estimate was put at $75,000–Wells decided, agreeing with his godmother’s wishes, to donate the list to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. But to his disappointment, the list was not displayed by the presidential library. Wells said he was told that Caroline Kennedy did not want it to be seen by anyone.
However, an inquiry by a New York Times reporter this June led to an archivist saying the list could be shared with the public.
The Kennedy library director told the reporter that the document’s origin was causing discussion, that it might have been “improperly removed from the White House by Ms. Paredes, and therefore could be seen as having remained the property of Mrs. Kennedy, rather than being Mr. Wells’s to give.”
As a result the notes have become the subject of something of a tug of war.
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“The confusion around the document reflects complicated questions of ownership and archival ethics, not to mention the tangled politics of presidential libraries, government-run institutions where the mission of preserving and presenting impartial history can collide with the legacy-burnishing agendas of family members, political loyalists and the private foundations that help pay the bills,” wrote Jennifer Schluessler of the New York Times.
The document, of which the clothing list is just a part, is drawing attention now from those who are more than ever before impressed by Mrs. Kennedy’s organizational skills as well as her fashion sense. The Kennedy library’s curator says Mrs. Kennedy was a “meticulous planner” who worked hard on ceremonial events, concentrating on the guest lists, the menus, the seating arrangements, and the flowers, as well as her clothes.
InStyle magazine declared, “The former FLOTUS was acutely aware of the power and influence of her fashion choices.”
To kick off the trip to Dallas, Mrs. Kennedy on November 21 wore head-to-toe Chanel, arriving at Houston in a white skirt suit with a black bow belt, kitten heels, and a black hat, all styled with white gloves and gold and navy bracelets.
The presidential library and museum collection today contains 95 of Mrs. Kennedy’s dresses, including that white Chanel suit and an orange silk Cassini dress from a state visit to India.
“We don’t have everything that she wore as first lady,” James Wagner, the Kennedy museum’s exhibit specialist, said in an interview, “but our understanding is that once she left the White House, as far as we can tell, things that she wore at public events or during official travels, she set those aside and didn’t wear them again after 1963 with the intent that she would deed them to the library for our collection and for potential display in our museum.”
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at ‘Entertainment Weekly,’ ‘Rolling Stone,’ and ‘InStyle,’ has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.