In late November 1963, President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy came to Texas. It was a thrilling moment for Texans, and enormous crowds turned out to see the glamorous couple.
They were on a two-day, five-city tour that began with a formal dinner in Houston. They flew to Fort Worth, arriving late in the evening Nov. 21, where they stayed in Suite 850 of Hotel Texas. It wasn’t the largest or most luxurious suite the hotel had to offer, but it was the safest. Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife were put in the more palatial Will Rogers Suite.
Prior to their visit, the newspapers announced where the Kennedys would be staying, and a group of Fort Worth art collectors decided to enhance the couple’s stay and hopefully gloss the president’s perception of Fort Worth by decorating his hotel room with a carefully chosen group of works. This collection, with 12 of the original 16 pieces, is on exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in “Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy.”
Decorating a hotel suite that is humble by today’s standards was a gracious gesture by people who didn’t necessarily share Kennedy’s politics, and was meant to extend a warm welcome.
The exhibit opens with a wall-size photograph of Kennedy leaving Hotel Texas the next morning. Johnson, wearing a tan raincoat, is standing just behind him, and farther back is Texas Gov. John Connally.
It is Johnson’s light-colored raincoat that cues the memories. It could be no other day — it was the last day. Kennedy’s last day. He was assassinated just hours later in Dallas, and Johnson was still wearing the raincoat as he was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One on the tarmac in Dallas.
While the exhibit focuses on the brief time Kennedy spent in Fort Worth, the events of what happened later in Dallas hang over the room like a pall.
To the right of the entrance is a small gallery that asks visitors to “Watch, Listen, Reflect” — watch JFK’s Final Days, narrated by Bob Schieffer; listen to the recorded oral histories of the day; then add their own memories to a journal on the desktop.
There are copies of the daily newspapers, both morning and evening editions, heralding the Kennedys’ Fort Worth arrival, plus old postcards of the hotel, and tickets to the breakfast held for the president at Hotel Texas. There is a wall of photos of Suite 850. There are no mementos of the next day. The word “assassination” does not appear. There is no foreshadowing of events to come, but there is no way to ignore the impending sense of doom. This exhibit would not exist if it had not been the last day.
Small art, big ideas
The small collection of the objects in the largest of the galleries was not driven by a theme, “just a desire to create visual pleasure,” says Carter curator Shirley Reece-Hughes.
Although they are lovely, they also carry the message that this is not some backwater burg. These are works that were quite forward for the time. So much so that the small sculpture of a sacrificial goat by Jack Zajac may seem incongruous now, but in 1963 he was an art darling.
The pieces are scaled to fit small rooms. They are placed far from each other and given a great deal of breathing space. They need it, as the room emotes such poignancy as to seem airless. It is quite moving to see artworks that would be the pride of any private collection and know that they were taken from their centerpiece locations and carted across town for a one-night stand just to welcome the president and first lady passing through.
The whole let’s-decorate-for-the-president project was begun by Owen Day, art critic for the Fort Worth Press.
“Originally the Kennedys were going to stay in the Will Rogers Suite, which was logical as it was the nicest in the the hotel,” says local art historian Scott Barker. “But the Secret Service advance team leader, Bill Duncan, decided there was a problem. There was an office building across the street. The Secret Service couldn’t secure an entire office building. It was a much smaller unit in those days. Suite 850 had no adjacent building. When it was revealed that the Kennedys would be staying in the second-best suite, and the best one would be given to LBJ, people were riled up.
“One of Owen’s co-workers at the Press wrote an article about Suite 850, and while it wasn’t overtly critical, it wasn’t very flattering. So Owen thought redecorating it with original art was a good idea. He knew Sam Canty was the most likely person to pull that off.”
Samuel Cantey III was a prominent art collector and member of the Fort Worth Art Association. He enlisted Ruth Carter Stevenson (then Johnson), local art collector Ted Weiner and Carter director Mitch Wilder. The small group chose paintings by Claude Monet, Lyonel Feininger and Franz Kline and sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Eros Pellini for the parlor room.
“When Ruth and Sam Canty developed a checklist, they used Mrs. Kennedy’s affinity for French art as a starting point. They didn’t know what the sleeping arrangements would be. They divvied up the suite into galleries,” says Barker.
They placed French works by Maurice Prendergast, Vincent van Gogh and Raoul Dufy in the bedroom they chose for Jacqueline Kennedy and late-19th-century and early-20th-century works for the president’s bedroom. Says Barker, “They knew about Jackie’s affinity for all things French. They had no idea what kind of art the president liked.”
Waking up to art
The Secret Service thwarted their bedroom allocations. “Jack Kennedy had serious back problems and the Secret Service would transport a 5-inch-thick horsehair mattress for him,” says Barker. “They installed it in the larger bedroom. He had no choice where he was going to stay.”
So Jack slept with the French painters and Jacqueline slept under Thomas Eakins’ nude swimmers.
In the morning, Ruth Carter Johnson received a call from LBJ and the president, who both expressed their appreciation for the efforts. Later she admitted to Barker that she was a bit miffed when Kennedy told her they didn’t notice the art until they woke up. That phone call may have been the very last one Kennedy made, Barker says.
The last morning, the last phone call. It all comes to the last moments.
“This exhibit, unlike so many others that focus on what happened next, is trying to express how pleased most Texans were to have the Kennedys here. There was genuine affection for them, and a great outpouring of excitement. That is what this exhibit is trying to re-create,” says Barker who will give a gallery talk about the exhibit Nov. 21 at the Carter. “There will be plenty of other exhibits and programs about what happened next.”