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Gathered 50 years ago for President Kennedy’s Fort Worth visit, artworks now retell the story

Posted 6:54am on Wednesday, Jun. 19, 2013

Like in 1963, the story of President Kennedy’s visit 50 years ago begins in Fort Worth.

But this time, that story is being told in Dallas.

A new exhibit opening today in the Dallas Museum of Art reassembles 13 of the 16 masterpieces rounded up to decorate the Kennedys’ Fort Worth hotel suite on the last morning of the president’s life.

But this exhibit has more than a Picasso and a Russell. Three Dallas and Fort Worth museums gathered photos, news film and news pages from that day for the most complete retelling yet of the Kennedys’ happy morning visit to Fort Worth.

“Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy” is centered around the artwork borrowed by the late Ruth Carter Johnson (later Stevenson) and friends for Suite 850 of the hotel, now the Hilton Fort Worth.

Thomas Eakins’ Swimming is here. So is Charles Russell’s Lost in a Snowstorm.

So are color photos of a suite straight out of a Mad Men set.

But perhaps most striking are the larger-than-life, wall-to-ceiling photos of adults and children welcoming Kennedy, both for his speech in front of the hotel where the JFK Tribute now stands and for his motorcade through River Oaks back to then-Carswell Air Force Base and Air Force One.

Former Star-Telegram and Fort Worth Press photographer Gene Gordon’s classic photo of well-wishers surrounding Kennedy with outstretched hands is featured along with Star-Telegram and Press front pages.

(It was part-time Press art critic Owen Day, a Bell Helicopter staff artist, who suggested refurbishing the suite that week after a Press writer made fun of the room’s dated furnishings and view of what was then the Greyhound bus station.)

Fort Worth art collector Sam Cantey is duly credited with starting the art makeover, but Ruth Carter Johnson is the star here, featured in a hilarious photo of her buckling a Pablo Picasso sculpture, Angry Owl, into the front seat of her car for delivery to the hotel.

Carter often told how the Kennedys called her out of the phone book that morning to thank her. Author William Manchester has quoted Jackie Kennedy, who slept beneath a Van Gogh: “They’re going to have a dreadful time getting me out of here with all these wonderful works of art.”

The exhibit is presented in association with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, where it will open Oct. 12, and the Dallas County Historical Foundation-owned Sixth Floor Museum.

Lynda Tanksley, a Plano software engineer, was among the first DMA members to tour the show at a preview Saturday.

“I had no idea anyone did all this,” she said.

“I never imagined people putting together such incredible works of art for just one night.”

With her, Phoebe Alves, 8, said she “liked the sculpture with spikes,” Henry Moore’s Three Points.

Then Tanksley said the words that make us groan.

“I didn’t even remember,” she said, “that Kennedy had gone to Fort Worth.”

We remember.

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538 Twitter: @BudKennedy

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