Roving thoughts and provocations

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

The Last Night in Camelot

Ferd Kaufman/AP Images
The president and first lady, accompanied by Texas governor John Connally, arriving at the Hotel Texas, Fort Worth, November 21, 1963

Among the more poignant observances surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination is a small show at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. “Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy” reassembles the display of a dozen paintings and four sculptures that had been hastily borrowed to improve the rooms the first couple occupied on the last night of the chief executive’s life.

Four days before the President and Mrs. Kennedy arrived in Fort Worth, newspaper photos of Suite 850, the drab rooms at the Hotel Texas that had been designated for them, gave Owen Day, a columnist for the Fort Worth Press, the idea of using original artworks to spruce up the accommodations. (The hotel was subsequently renamed the Hilton Fort Worth, and the suite broken up into smaller spaces during a 1980s remodeling.)

University of Texas at Arlington Library
Ruth Carter Johnson (left), picking up Picasso’s Angry Owl from its owner, Lucile Weiner (right), November, 1963

Since the city’s tiny coterie of serious art collectors all knew each other, this last-minute gesture was fairly easy to realize. The social powerhouse Ruth Carter Johnson—who five years earlier had commissioned Philip Johnson (no relation) to design the Amon Carter Museum, named in memory of her newspaper-publisher father—drove around town to pick up artworks from friends like Perry and Nancy Bass, while museum executive Sam Cantey III quickly secured loans from the Amon Carter and the Fort Worth Art Center.

Despite the startling contrast between JFK’s patrician public manner and his louche private life, there was more than a little snobbery in the Kennedys’ expectations about their political swing through the Lone Star State, intended to shore up his re-election chances for 1964. The president was determined that his wife’s much-publicized fashion sense should show up the imagined vulgarity of what the historian William Manchester snootily termed “the Belle Starrs,” a reference to the Wild West outlaw moll. As Jacqueline Kennedy recalled her husband’s admonition, “There are going to be all these rich Republican women…wearing mink coats and diamond bracelets. Be simple—show these Texans what good taste really is.”

For her part, Jackie—whose wicked wit was as carefully hidden from the public as her spouse’s sexual escapades—cattily dubbed Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, “Colonel Cornpone and his Little Porkchop.” Oblivious to the presidential visitors’ prejudice against plutocratic Texans, Fort Worth’s arts benefactors wanted to demonstrate that theirs was no crude cowtown, but an oasis of cultural refinement.

Amon Carter Museum of American Art
The living area of Suite 850 on November 21, 1963, with Eros Pellini’s Girl from Lombardia, 1958-1959

The Hotel Texas exhibition for the Kennedys is described in Manchester’s authorized history The Death of the President (recently reissued in a paperback edition). As he writes, early on November 22nd Mrs. Kennedy made “an astounding discovery”:

In the fatigue of last night and the haste of this morning neither Kennedy had noticed that they were surrounded by a priceless art exhibition…. A catalogue, which had also been overlooked, disclosed that the exhibit was in their honor. “Isn’t this sweet, Jack?” she said…. “They’ve just stripped their whole museum of all their treasures to brighten up this dingy hotel suite.” He knew it had been done for her, and taking the catalog he said, “Let’s see who did it.” There were several names at the end. The first was Mrs. J. Lee Johnson III. “Why don’t we call her?” he suggested. Thus Johnson…became the surprised recipient of John Kennedy’s last telephone call.

He then handed the phone to his wife, the soul of Farmington graciousness as she thanked Johnson, one of the presumptive Belle Starrs and a registered Republican to boot. “They’re going to have a dreadful time getting me out of here with all these wonderful works of art,” Mrs. Kennedy told the gratified organizer.

Amon Carter Museum of American Art
Thomas Eakins: Swimming, 1885

In truth, the assembled artworks were a rather mixed bag. They represented the sort of conventional Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art then in vogue among rich Americans— an oddly stiff Monet portrait of his granddaughter holding a doll; an atypically pointillist Van Gogh landscape more reminiscent of Pissarro or Sisley; and a lightweight Deauville harbor view by Raoul Dufy. The American works that predominated were on the whole stronger, among them a sun-dappled Prendergast park scene (the Kennedys had given a similar one to the de Gaulles during their state visit to Paris in 1961); a vigorous if somewhat fetishistic Marsden Hartley still life, Sombrero with Gloves (1936); and one indisputable masterpiece, Thomas Eakins’ Swimming (1885), his famous tableau of callipygian male nude bathers, which the community of Forth Worth had acquired in 1925 from Eakins’ widow for $750.

By far the finest of the sculptures was a small Picasso bronze, Angry Owl (1951–1953), placed on a credenza below the Monet, across from the suite’s front door. It was borrowed from the Fort Worth oilman Ted Weiner and his wife Lucile, and lent to the present show by their daughter, Gwendolyn Weiner.

The fascinating book accompanying the current exhibition includes an axonometric plan of Suite 850, showing where each piece was temporarily positioned. The gender-specific concept, devised by Mitchell Wilder, then director of the Amon Carter, was that “masculine” pieces, including the Eakins and the Hartley, would be appropriate for JFK’s bedroom, whereas the more “feminine” Van Gogh and Prendergast were gauged more fitting for the first lady’s.

Amon Carter Museum of American Art
The bedroom occupied by Mrs. Kennedy on November 21, 1963

In the event, the chamber earmarked for Mrs. Kennedy, which had no windows, was deemed more secure by the Secret Service and on their advice JFK took it instead. Thus the first thing he likely saw when he opened his eyes for the last time was the Basses’ breezy blue Dufy of bobbing sailboats on the “Parisian Riviera.” The only one of the sixteen borrowed works that could not be tracked down for the current show, it hung directly across from the bed of this avid mariner. At 10:40 AM the presidential motorcade left the Hotel Texas, and less than two hours later Kennedy met his rendezvous with death in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, the 1940 WPA civic set-piece of Stripped Classical peristyles and pergolas that still looks eerily close to the way it did on that unseasonably hot Friday noon, half a century ago.

In art historical terms, the “Hotel Texas” show attempts to reconstruct this final grace note of JFK’s life just as avidly as assassination buffs continue to obsess over bullet trajectories, gunshot echoes, Zapruder film frames, autopsy photos, and other minutiae of the slaying itself, while missing the bigger picture altogether. The Hotel Texas catalog joins the vast outpouring of publications that mark this grim anniversary, yet three older books are all one needs to understand what really happened on that fateful day.

No historian has ever outdone Garry Wills’s The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (1982), with its penetrating insight into the psychological underpinnings of Kennedy’s leadership style. Manchester’s account remains a tour-de-force of reporting, even though the narrative is undermined by his occasionally purplish prose and starry-eyed Kennedy worship.

Yet for a plausible explanation of who masterminded the murder of the president and why, it is worth considering David Kaiser’s The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (2008), which received astonishingly little attention when it was published, by Harvard University Press, of all places. With lawyerly clarity and step-by-step logic, Kaiser, a military historian, demonstrates that this was an unambiguous mob rubout ordered by Mafia bosses—specifically Carlos Marcello of New Orleans, and Santo Trafficante, Jr. of Dallas and Miami. Organized crime’s hidden history with the Kennedy White House included involvement in failed CIA-backed plans to overthrow Fidel Castro, its particular interest being to regain lucrative gambling casinos lost to the Cuban Communists; and the mob bosses were chafing under the aggressive prosecutions of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was targeting their corrupt associate, Teamsters Union chief James R. Hoffa.

Along with other reputable analysts, Kaiser agrees that Lee Harvey Oswald was the solitary shooter who killed Kennedy. But he also convincingly maintains that this skilled US Marine marksman (born in New Orleans, and whose rackety mother had ties to Marcello) was a mere hireling who was deceived about whom he was actually working for—not Cubans seeking payback for Kennedy’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion.

Amon Carter Museum of American Art
Charles M. Russell: Lost in a Snowstorm—We are Friends, 1888

In a less-remembered incident, on the afternoon of the assassination, Oswald made his way to a Dallas movie theater where he was to have been picked up by mobsters; the plan had been to fly him that day to Mexico, where he would have been “eliminated,” in the Mafia tradition of murdering a contract murderer. En route to that holding point, Oswald was stopped by Dallas patrolman J.D. Tippit, whom he shot dead, whereupon his handlers dropped the original exit strategy. Jack Ruby, a local strip-club operator deeply indebted to the mob, was then brought in to silence the clueless hitman.

Fifty years hence, this sordid saga is still too degrading for many to stomach, but, as Kaiser writes,

The murder of John F. Kennedy emerged from two overlapping zones of illegality: American organized crime, which was defending itself against Robert Kennedy’s relentless attack, and the U.S. government-sponsored or tolerated anti-Castro movement. Illegality and secrecy go together, but enough information emerged both before and after the assassination to trace the essence of the organized crime conspiracy….

Where did these men find the audacity to kill a president of the United States?….John Kennedy, because he accepted women as favors through Frank Sinatra (and perhaps in other contexts as well), had lost the immunity from retaliation that truly incorruptible public officials generally enjoyed.

Even so, one of the central players in what is still regarded by many as an impenetrable murder mystery later had second thoughts. Grousing to a private eye about the Attorney General’s probes in 1962, Marcello recited the Sicilian proverb that when you want to kill a dog you cut off its head, not its tail. Years afterward, Trafficante, speaking in Sicilian dialect to the mob lawyer Frank Ragano, disagreed. “Carlos fucked up,” he reflected. “We should not have killed Giovanni [John]. We should have killed Bobby.”


Hotel Texas: An Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy” is showing at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth through January 12.

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

Please note that all comments are read by a moderator prior to approval. Comments posted using real names, rather than pseudonyms, will have a better chance of being approved. Abusive, repetitive, or incoherent comments will be deleted.