Jackie Kennedy - a rare ladyJanuary 13, 2011

Well. Once in a long while something really special happens to guys like me who put themselves out there for everyone to take a plunk at. I think I may hold the world record for ducking.

Anyway, sometime in the early eighties I received a call from Jill Cooper, who was married to Tom Udall, now US senator from New Mexico. She was a friend and asked if we could put Jackie Kennedy up for a few days in the guest house that was attached to our gallery. “Of course,” I said, and was thrilled even at the thought of such a thing. Mrs. Kennedy worked as an editor for Doubleday and was in town to meet with Stuart Udall on a book he was writing.

Although I’m an indelible conservative and a trying-to-recover Republican, Mrs. Kennedy and her husband were certainly like Camelot to me. They brought dignity and an air of respect to the White House that has been mostly lacking in the forty-eight years since their tenure ended. But I won’t go there.

So of course Mrs. Kennedy’s entourage was an hour and a half late arriving at the gallery, which by now should have been long closed, and would have been but for our staffs equivocation and attempts to think of some aberrational oddments to do, not wanting to miss the arrival of such a distinguished guest. I think some of them even cleaned their desks, which may have been a first. The shipping clerk combed his hair and I know that was a first for him.

The next evening I was working late in my office and there was no one else around. Mrs. Kennedy evidently had taken a shower because she donned a white terrycloth robe we kept in the closet, wrapped her hair in a large white towel, walked out of the hot tub room, down the steps, across the library, through the little atrium and into the back door to my office – barefooted – and asked if she could sit down and chat for a minute. For some strange reason it seemed ordinary although I’m sure it wasn’t. She had read the flyleaf of a book I had written that spoke to my having been a fighter pilot in Vietnam. She was curious and wanted to question me about that experience, and reminded me that her husband had been the president to first send troops into that conflict – “advisors they were called,” she said. It was easy to see that she had given that subject some thought.

We spoke of her children and of art and other things for a few minutes. She was expected to attend the opera that evening, but was looking for an excuse to vacate what she saw as an unfortunate circumstance. Finally, when she got up to leave I walked around the desk and said I would like to tell her something. She stopped and looked at me. And I said that I thought she and her husband had brought a sophisticated elegance to the White House that in my mind had not been evident since Thomas Jefferson’s time. I said that they made me especially proud to be an American. I knew that she had heard similar words many times before, but I had to say them again. She looked down and didn’t speak for a few seconds, and was pensive. When she thanked me I wondering if I had been out of line. The next morning she thanked me again and it made me feel better. She was so easy to be with.

Later we were walking out of the side door to the guest house where my car was parked. As we walked along the high adobe wall toward the patio gate we heard voices. She quickly grabbed my arm. “Wait,” she said, and pulled me back. It was so funny. There was a small walking tour of tourists standing, huddled as the guide exponded the merits of the “quaint Santa Fe architecture.” They were totally oblivious of our presence, only five feet or so away. After they departed (the guide’s chatter continued unabated) down the little alley-street, we went on our way. We both had smiles of victory, knowing that we had won a fun battle, and saved some time. Of course it would not have bothered me one iota to blunder out into the midst of that small gathering, but she well understood the consequences of her unannounced appearance. I wondered how many times she had experienced similar episodes.

After a few days Mrs. Kennedy departed our guest house after leaving a long note to our housekeeper, thanking her for some ironing and other things she had done – and she left a $50 bill on the pillow. In all the seventeen years at the gallery, with three guest houses that were constantly being inhabited by movie stars, politicians, and other famous persons abounding, she was the only one that ever left a note of thanks, or a monetary consideration. The housekeeper is still with us today after thirty-eight years, and she prizes her letter.

Several weeks later I received a package from Mrs. Kennedy. It was a limited edition book of drawings by George Catlin, an important, early western painter. It was inscribed, and inside of the front cover was an original letter written by the artist and dated 1838. The book is one of my prized possessions today, along with several of her letters that are safely tucked in along side the one from Mr. Catlin.

Years later, when we sold our gallery and moved out on the Santa Fe Trail, one of the treasures I kept was a half-pint bottle of Korbel Brandy, 80 proof, that had been left on the turquoise counter near the sink. Looking at it now I see my label, “Jackie Kennedy, 6-2-84” A full inch of liquid remains in the bottle.

Lots of good things move in and out of our lives, sometimes only to punctuate a special moment in a singular way. I learned something from Jackie Kennedy that I may have suspected, but didn’t know for sure. That she could move easily and with unlimited grace and poise among royalty at the highest international levels, but she could also take her shoes off and mingle with art dealers and cowboys who wore the trappings of a life she was comfortable being around. I hope history also remembers her that way, and if it does maybe one of my heirs, a hundred years from now, will sip one last goblet of Brandy.

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